This city unfolds along a watery spine. Small fishing hooks dip into the water from both sides, and white birds rest among the waves. In a park, a child wearing rubber boots topples into a flock of pigeons. A golden dog closes its eyes. Some buildings here are also Russian dolls: a church inside a mosque inside a museum. Your fingernails might split when you try to peel back the layers. The light here streams through small windows, and splinters into spider threads that breeze against your face. You will try to collect the thread, and it will always disappear by the time you return home, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a baby spider in your pocket. Leave it on your favourite windowsill and watch.
Driving there you will think you’re seeing faces in the rock. Coney caves spiral up in the valley, with smoke pouring from their tops. A woman mourned her lost child here by carving her way into every rock with a spoon. Inside each cave there are endless rooms.
This city was built underground following a small disaster. One day, a woman sat alone outside and a raven landed beside her. After a brief hesitation, she stood up and moved away, but the raven followed her. It hopped and cawed and no matter where she went it followed. She saw a picnic blanket abandoned in the grass and rolled herself in it to avoid the raven’s gaze. But more birds arrived. Their beaks glistened and their throats bobbed. Still more circled overhead until the sky was a thick, dark cloud. The old men had seen a black sky like this before, and began making tunnels in their basements to hide their wives and children in. While the tunnels became rooms, which branched into more tunnels, the ravens flapped around the woman’s head and their claws got caught in her hair. More ravens came and the sun disappeared behind them and things began to crumble as they tore out chunks. The city tunnelled faster. They even had rooms for livestock, baptisms, and making wine.
As she walks the winding road, the traveller pulls threads from her clothes and uses the dust under her fingernails to construct the unknown city in her palm before she gets there. She hides this model from her companion, ashamed of its size. Finally, when she is done with imagining, she might look up and realize that she has arrived at the crossroads between the Twin Cities.
One city lies to the left. It creeps up the sheer face of a mountain and insists on silence from the incoming traffic. The quiet city radiates out from a large square and the people look at you from ledges as you ascend. They carve the day’s history into wood. An elevator glides through the throat of the mountain, swallowing some and coughing up others. If you take the stone steps up, you’ll find a young man smoking outside of an old theatre. You’ve seen each other before, in another city, but won’t acknowledge it, or see each other again. Later, you might come to a cable-car that will take you to visit one of the gods. Please remove your shoes. This city is kind to monkeys and dogs, though the monkeys will not always be kind to you.
The younger twin lies to the right. It tumbles into a valley and nestles among mountains that make it feel small. Some parts of it stretch sleepily along a turquoise river. The people tiptoe over bridges and carve their names into rocks. A waterfall rushes nearby, tempting travellers to take the dangerous path to see it. Later, you will be jostled up a mountain and someone will sell you an umbrella so that you can leap off the sheer face. You will float above the city, your feet swinging wildly until you touch the ground. There are rafts on the glacial river and sometimes the sky is thick with balloons. If you eat at the cinderblock restaurant, the night will unfold like bird wings while a man sits beside you, smoking. You will both look at the passing headlights, those small moons.
Between the twin cities there is the gap, similar to the space that exists between two mirrors when you press them together. You long to slither into that space, to see the mirrors reflect themselves, but your presence changes everything, no matter how inconspicuous you wish you could be.
florence is the kind of city that sells postcards / and plastic david statues near the checkout lanes in the grocery store / the kind of city where every leather shop is named after a great artist / and every hotel has a botticelli ceiling fresco / florence is the kind of city where art looms high above like the duomo’s dome / and grows out of the cobblestoned cracks / the kind of city where you have to blink twice / not because of the jet-lag / but because you have studied these churches these piazze these streets before but only / in books / and here you are touching these pages of history / made solid stone / it feels almost holy / like praying in san miniato and hearing the gregorian chants echo in perfect harmony / like having ghiberti’s gilded gold doors right in front of you / a mere piece of clear glass separating you from the gates to paradise / like standing in front of michelangelo’s last pieta and tracing the curve of jesus’ body / the grief on nicodemusslash-michelangelo’s hooded face like a grand question / what use is art? / asks perhaps the most famous artist in the world / what use is art? / asks the traveler-student who nevertheless / cannot stop herself from delighting in a city brimming with it / florence is the kind of city everyone in the english-speaking humanities world seems to know / the kind you feel a bit self-conscious of when you check into the city on facebook because florence is for those / who can afford to feast their eyes in the galleria dell’academia and the uffizi / for those who can afford vineyards and the stars above them / who can afford to walk wherever they like and keep warm in the winter / florence is for the flourishing / or at least the idea of florence as a kind of european city / the renaissance city / is for the privileged / and you know from studying art history / it is beautiful (whatever that means) / even if there are cities rising from deserts and cities built on islands and cities in tropical rainforests that are just as / beautiful / but florence is the kind of city that makes everyone jealous / where a small secret part of you is compelled to worship what you see / a litany in your head that goes / city of michelangelo / city of da vinci / city of brunelleschi / city of botticelli / city of donatello / city of giotto / city of masaccio / city of vasari / city of ghiberti / city of cimabue / yes / something very like / worship / walking the via ricasoli like the faithful going down the nave of a church for communion / and you know part of this wide-eyed wonder is conditioned / from centuries of european domination / from learning to speak english and not tagalog or hokkien / from being able to distinguish romanesque and gothic architecture but / knowing next to nothing of south east asian art / from visiting the kitsch ‘european’ fantasy area of disneyland as a child / and dreaming of castles on clouds / but part of this wonder comes too from your catholic self / which took on the name scholastica out of her own volition / who can murmur the our father even if it is said here in italian / whose eyes grow wet when she sees a magnificent painting of the virgin mary her mother in christ / you did not realise before how this self could feel so strongly / how much like home a church in a country you have never been to before could seem / and you let this wonder touch you completely without doubting its origins / you walk around florence / both for the first time / and for the thousandth time / you have seen so many pictures of these places / that now these are places of pictures / you are learning how cities could foster art and be art / how cities could create the theater and be the theater / as mumford might say / hearing it daily in the toll of the church bells / like an announcement to the audience-citizens that the show is about to begin / and in the gurgling of the piazza fountain where people of all kinds pass / like water flowing down the arno / florence is the kind of city that makes you feel undeservedly blessed / like hesitantly unwrapping a too-expensive gift / the kind of city that makes you wonder how you ended up here / starting a new year in an apartment blocks away from the real statue of david / when your grandparents have never been to europe / so when you unpack your luggage, sit in the kitchenette and feel the chill night air blowing in / you think this is the kind of city where you will try to write poetry to make sense of it / this city where rich black truffle oil and slabs of tuscan ham line hearty schicchiata bread / where you feel full in so many ways / how does that bible verse go / my cup runneth over / how to reconcile this heaven of art with the hell you read of in dante’s inferno / of corrupt florentines and popes who abused their office / how to see past the peeling paint / to demolished jewish quarters and feuding noblemen and the scorched poor and their burned-down houses / (would it be worse for man if he was not a citizen while he lived on earth?) / how to force yourself to look away from the baptistery and consider the gypsy woman who begs for a few euros / the nigerian men selling flashlights on bridges / is this the height of civilisation / (what use is art?) / florence is the kind of city that inspires you to crave monumental definitions of yourself and the cities you carry with you in your memory / city of singapore / city of manila / city of abu dhabi / city inside you
When La Marie Séraphique arrived in Saint Domingue in 1772, she arrived with 73 Angolan slaves and the city of Nantes in her pocket. Purchased in January 1769 by Nantes dealer Jacque Barthélémy, La Marie was at once christened and propelled into the height of the French Atlantic slave trade. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean the West African coast and the French West Indies, La Marie captured hundreds of African men, women, and children in exchange for goods wrought by plantation slavery. In a matter of months, she would return to Nantes with sugar and other sweet luxuries, leaving the bitter truth of her dealings behind at the docks.
Thanks to the enduring records of her captain, Jean Baptiste Fautrel-Gaugy, La Marie Séraphique would go on to outlive the very trade she dealt in. A cartographer known for his attention to detail, Gaugy was said to have attended to the ship and its cargo with a kind of organizational obsession. Perhaps, this would explain his meticulous descriptions of La Marie. His elaborate drawings of the craft remain as some of the only artistic renderings of a Nantes slave ship. Named as if it were an angelic thing, these illustrations return La Marie Séraphique to the status of a cargo vessel — a beauty inseparable from the grit of labor. Drab and unassuming, the watercolors of her seem to have abandoned all richness. Even the blue seas are muted and industrial. La Marie is but a thing of tans, blacks and greys. Her vitality stowed away in the interest of utility.
Accounting for the ship’s contents, Gaugy makes little distinction between slaves and goods. La Marie’s business is one of storage and inventory. Property is no passenger. The very infrastructure of the ship articulates its strict order. Built into the main deck, an iron barrier bifurcates the vessel. In the drawing, the barricade serves to isolate the European sailors from the enslaved. White men are pictured as languishing in indulgence, feasting amongst themselves on the ship’s stern as Africans look on. An exercise in arranging and exploiting geography, the ship revels in its own might, relishing in its expansive capacity for captivity.
In Gaugy’s outline, entitled, “Plan, Profil, Et Distribution Du Navire La Marie Séraphique,” he dissects each level of the ship and its purpose. The lowest levels store the goods amassed along the journey, products obtained through thievery or transaction, though few knew the difference. On the lower deck, above the inanimate stock, Gaugy depicts the arrangement of La Marie’s human cargo. In between these assortments of the enslaved, additional goods are stored behind dividers. Indivisible from objects, their humanity is disassembled without regard, their bodies growing increasingly unrecognizable. Black and stiff, they are stowed with cruel pragmatism — persons made into product. With their arms and legs fixed on a continuum, the bodies of African people line the entire deck. The bodies are indistinguishable. Constricted and sequestered, soon even one’s flesh begins to reject regulation.
Confinement breeds dysfunction. On the slave ships, it would arrive as dysentery and dehydration, known to decimate the enslaved by 15% upon arrival to the ports. By water and by force, the Atlantic slave trade dislocated humanity from land and limb for centuries. And where the French are concerned, the sheer magnitude of the trade rested on the city of Nantes.
Embracing the Loire River, Nantes sits on the western side of France, lodged in an estuary. Made possible by the Atlantic Ocean’s deliverance, it is a city that has known a coastal existence that it should have been denied. And with all its access, Nantes turned water into wealth. Over the course of three centuries, the trading of slaves kept the city rich and buoyant. From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, France would organize more than 4,220 slave trade expeditions to the coast of West Africa, the majority of which were led by the ships of Nantes. By 1817, when the trade was abolished in the French colonies, Nantes would be responsible for 43% of the entire French Slave Trade. A small port with an intense hunger, Nantes’ insatiable traders would continue selling souls even after the trade’s illegality. In the end, however, the city’s riches would be spoiled only by their growing shame. For decades, the city, once ostentatious, would cower under the weight of history’s gaze. As the times changed, so, too, had their flourishing. The truth and wealth of Nantes became submerged in reputation, family secrecy resisting reparation. Once more, the city sent its sins to sea.
I arrive in Nantes in early July of 2018, and the city avoids eye contact. Yet the land and water vow to tell all of its business. A maze of uneven cobblestones and buildings that willed themselves to stand atop the sand, Nantes asserts itself through its architecture. Near the Loire, the elaborate, immaculately kept homes and offices of slave traders still stand in plain sight. Soiled by time, their stature began to sink into the sand. What remains is their bravado: across the buildings, carvings of stone heads narrate the wealth of their former owners. Busts of African faces protrude with old arrogance, a constant reminder of the city’s source of wealth. Next to this stone grandeur, the present modesty of the city falls into question. Polluting the sea’s blessings, Nantes’ own were once gluttonous in their ventures abroad. For centuries, it was not the truth of their exploits that merchants kept from advancing beyond the docks, but the enslaved themselves. The brutality of transport and the humanity of the enslaved, all but the fruits of their labors, were barricaded from reaching Nantes’ ports. Whether they died on ships like La Marie Séraphique or were sold in the French plantation economy, nearly none would arrive in the city that had financed their misfortune. Though the city ebbed and flowed in accordance with the rhythms of enslavement, few people of African descent would ever touch ground in Nantes prior to 1848, with few exceptions made for the slaves of Nantes’ most extravagant owners. Almost two centuries later, the African presence in Nantes is undeniable, yet proximity has only reinforced the city’s violent instincts.
During the only night I spent in Nantes, another black life was taken. On Tuesday, July 3rd 2018, 22-year-old Aboubakar Fofana, the son of Guinean immigrants, was shot and killed in late-night police visit. A resident of the Nantes Breil public housing estate, a largely immigrant community dislocated by over-policing and gang violence, Abou’s murder sparked three nights of rioting. In the days that followed his death, thousands reportedly marched in the streets in his honor, holding signs that read “Justice et vérité pour Abou.” Police responded with tear gas and arrests. Allegedly, one of those in custody included a 14-year-old boy. According to police accounts, he was found with a petrol can and matches in his hand. The makings of a fire.
Miles from the riotous fires breaking out in the city, I would not see the fires kindled until I was in the wake. While scrolling through Twitter, I would instead stare at the orange flames overtaking the landscape of my screen, and think of the people Nantes has forgotten. The ships it welcomed and worshipped at their expense, and the people today who threaten their barricades against memory. I wonder if there is beauty in resisting this rejection, if there is power in knowing that even a city of water and wealth can burn.
You may ask how I came to know this city, considering the restrictions placed on those allowed to enter it, so I’ll admit that I have never laid eyes on it myself. This recollection was told to me by a young man who had just left, his eyes full of regret and something else – something somber and twinkling. The description he gave to me was so rich that I felt like I had been there myself, a long time ago, or maybe in a dream.
The city of Paidiá is populated entirely by children. Once every nine months, a hole opens up at the base of a great oak tree, and a pair of shaking hands shoves a four-year-old child through the hole. The child blinks and bawls, until he hears the voices above. There are guttural screams, hoots and screeches of laughter that are too irresistible for him to consider staying at the base of the tree. So, the child begins to scramble up the trunk.
When he finally reaches the first layer of the city, the lower branches are hung with hammocks and blankets made from stitched-together clothes. An entire tapestry of ropes, forts and hidey-places connect the swaying forest. The child is stripped of his clothes and painted with colours streaked across his body. Each child becomes naked and genderless, with long hair and a dirty face. It embarks on an ever-upward climb.
Meals are tossed down from the older children above, who receive them in brown packages from angels in the clouds. In Paidiá there are careful rules about sharing, especially in the first few layers of the city. Every month one child falls sick, and the others fawn over it until the entire city is plagued by running noses and chesty coughs. Pebbles, dirt and paint are all experimented with to find The Cure. Bathing is abhorred.
Everyone is a game-maker, and the game-makers come up with city law. The Game is infinitely complicated, with rules too intricate for any adult to comprehend. Rule-breakers are tossed through holes in the tapestry, and must climb for years to be able to return. Some do not make it.
Children are allowed to keep the shoes they entered the city with, to use as ammo in The Wars, but the shoes cannot be worn. Over certain spans of time, sometimes minutes or sometimes months, the city climaxes into A War. Clans are created and food is no longer shared. Weapons also include sharpened sticks, rocks, and taunting jokes, flung from the darkened spaces between branches. Just as quickly, feuds are forgotten, especially when someone gets hurt. The Game changes and shifts during Wars, it is re-shaped and molded during each one.
The young man I met had just left Paidiá, driven out because he could no longer understand The Game, or the chattering language he’d spoken the entire time he’d lived in there. Now that he was A Deaf One, he was forced to seek a new city. He was wearing the stitched-together tunic that had been his goodbye present, and stubbornly refused to accept the pair of shoes I tried to gift him for the wonderful story.