Grindelwald’s rhetoric: Trying for metaphor in the age of Brexit and Trump (FBCoG #7)

Seventh blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Yes, the Fantastic Beasts film series is about World War II.  It is significant that Queenie and Tina Goldstein are Jewish, and that will become more apparent in later films.  The final showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald takes place in 1945.  The series locations will continent-hop, with the next installment purportedly set to film in Rio de Janeiro.

It may be that you don’t trust J.K. Rowling and David Yates to write an international story about characters who are Jewish or people of color, with a gay wizard as a central figure.  Considering that there are three known Jewish characters in Potterverse, all named Goldstein; two acknowledged queer characters; and representation of people of color that is often tokenist and sometimes truly hurtful (there is no redeeming the flippant racism of the Ilvermorny backstory on Pottermore)… I would advise viewers to go into these films remembering the demographics of the people who created them.  I would urge anyone who is looking for accurate representation in art to seek out exciting work from artists who create from perspectives that encompass queerness, people of color, Jewish experience, and many other identities that aren’t centered in this series by Rowling and Yates.

Mindful of that context, then, let’s look at some aspects of Crimes of Grindelwald.

Some viewers have wondered if the World War II imagery that Grindelwald uses in his rally means that Grindelwald, and the movie, are saying:  If the characters in this series oppose Grindelwald, they will bring on World War II and the Holocaust.

I don’t think that’s the intended message.  It looks to me like we’re being shown Grindelwald’s rhetorical strategies for whipping up crowds to manipulate them for his own purposes, and one of his tactics is to accuse an enemy of exactly the kind of criminal intention he has himself.

When he and his followers kill a French Muggle family to steal their home for headquarters, Rowling adds another fascist reference to Grindelwald’s character by having him say of the house, “This will be suitable after a thorough cleanse” (emphasis mine).

His follower, Rosier, says with satisfaction, “When we’ve won, they’ll flee cities in the millions.  They’ve had their time.”

Grindelwald shushes her, giving an impromptu lesson in propaganda:  “We don’t say such things out loud. We want only freedom. Freedom to be ourselves.”

Rosier continues, anyway:  “To annihilate non-wizards.”  She’s slow to catch on to this lesson in doublespeak, giving Rowling a chance to underscore what this group has as its goal.

Grindelwald spells out some refinements for her benefit, as well as the benefit of the audience:  “Not all of them. Not all. We’re not merciless. The beast of burden will always be necessary.”

(Excuse me for a moment while I run around in my mind, screaming, “Gross.”  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.)

Grindelwald is shown repeatedly to be a manipulator who tells people whatever they want to hear in order to influence their behavior.  He’s peerless at this skill.  Seraphina Picquery reveals that they removed his tongue as punishment, although it turns out that they didn’t manage this in time to prevent him from talking his body double into receiving the amputation instead; the punishment proves ineffectual as well as barbaric.  His lies do not have internal logic; they do not need to.  He bypasses his listeners’ logic and speaks only to their fears.  He plays on Queenie’s desperation to marry Jacob by claiming that he wants wizards to be free to love, knowing she won’t pause to reflect that his pureblood platform does not support wizard-Muggle marriages.

This parallels, in a direct and blatant fashion, LGBTQ voters who somehow claimed, in 2016, that Trump would prove supportive of LGBTQ rights.  I don’t know what made people think such an argument could be supported and I’m not about to go looking.  Since 2016, between repeated and baseless attacks on trans people’s basic human rights, erasure of LGBTQ people in census categories, appointment of homophobic justices and policymakers, double prejudice against asylum seekers fleeing gaybashing, and on and on, we’ve built up a terrifying mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Absolutely none of it was a surprise.  All of it was telegraphed… and yet, this argument was made at all.

We have known since Deathly Hallows that Grindelwald’s aim was to build an army to subjugate Muggles, who vastly outnumber magical folks.  Dumbledore told Harry, even then, that Grindelwald wanted the Resurrection Stone to create an army of Inferi.  The Dumbledore of Crimes of Grindelwald knows exactly what kinds of tricks Grindelwald will employ.  He tries to warn Travers, “Your policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into his arms.”  When Travers doesn’t listen, Dumbledore warns Theseus, “If Grindelwald calls a rally, don’t try and break it up. Don’t let Travers send you in there.”  Theseus tries to act on this warning, but Travers overrules him.

When Grindelwald inhales from his skull-hookah at his rally, in what seems likely to be a reference to Nazis’ heavy use of drugs, he exhales what he claims to be “my vision of the future that awaits if we do not rise up and take our rightful place in the world.”  This is when the movie shows imagery of World War II.  Based on what we have seen of Grindelwald’s aims and strategies, though, he’s lying.  Contrary to his claim, these images are not anything he’s trying to avert.  He’s simply showing his own fantasies of what he is trying to cause.  All he has to do is play on his listeners’ fears and heighten their emotion, then turn their hostility toward a common enemy.

After inciting his followers, he claims, “That is what we are fighting! That is the enemy—their arrogance, their power lust, their barbarity. How long will it take before they turn their weapons on us?”

He then goads his followers until one of them inevitably loses control and draws her wand on an Auror who responds with violence, playing into Grindelwald’s hands.

The parallels between this scene and mob rallies such as the Make America Great Again crowds could not be plainer.  As many observers have noted, Trump and his people accuse foes, incorrectly, of crimes that they themselves commit; it is one of their primary tactics, and it galvanizes their base whether the accusations are disproved or not.  In this instance, the overwhelming whiteness of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts casts is functional rather than indicative of institutionalized racism:  white people make up almost all of Grindelwald’s crowd, as is true of such rallies in current events.

It turns out to pose a bit of a problem, though, that when this series was first planned, we had not yet entered the Trump and Brexit eras.  The first Fantastic Beasts film premiered the weekend following the 2016 U.S. presidential election; ticketholders attending J.K. Rowling’s promotional event at Carnegie Hall walked past thousands of protesters at Trump Tower.  At that time, the first draft of Crimes of Grindelwald had already been written.  These first two Fantastic Beasts films were plotted out during an era when Godwin’s Law was still in effect, before Godwin himself suspended it.

In other words, when Rowling was writing those scripts, Nazis were still being mentioned rhetorically, as metaphors.

When she originally created Grindelwald, and the formative Dumbledore-Grindelwald clash of 1945, they were meant as metaphors for World War II.

We are in the post-Godwin’s Law era now.  I’m not sure how a writer can strike the right note, or anything approaching it.  Is the barely-coded Nazi Grindelwald too on the nose, or too subtle?  I think Rowling was probably following the usual rules of good storytelling by showing us his persuasiveness without spelling out that we should not believe a single word out of this liar’s mouth, but in the current climate, I would suggest to artists that subtlety is not the best strategy.  I wish the film had given one or two more blatant moments spelling out that Grindelwald doesn’t believe a word he is saying and is only playing on his followers’ emotions in order to exploit them.

This would have helped with Queenie’s storyline.  It feels alarming in the extreme that she has gone to Grindelwald’s side, considering that Rowling has written precisely three Potterverse characters identified as Jewish and she has not earned her audience’s trust that she can portray them well.

It seems that Grindelwald has won over Queenie by a combination of drugging her, lying to her, and simply persuading her as he persuades others, appealing to her fears.  A hallmark of his tactics is that he depends upon his followers to make an active, seemingly unforced choice to join him, as we see in this conversation about Credence.

KRALL

Well, we know where the boy is, don’t we? Why don’t we grab him and leave!

GRINDELWALD

(to KRALL)

He must come to me freely—and he will.

GRINDELWALD returns his gaze to the vision of CREDENCE suspended in the center of the drawing room.

GRINDELWALD

The path has been laid, and he is following it. The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.

What Credence wants most is the truth of who he is.  What Queenie wants most is the freedom to love a Muggle.  (Whether that Muggle reciprocates is an open question after the events of this movie, of course.)  Grindelwald appeals to their desires to obscure their ability to see his true motives.  If he can get people to join with him of their own volition, because of desires that overpower their good judgment, he turns their inner conflict and lack of self-trust to his own advantage, against them.  They might later come to their senses, but they will blame themselves, knowing it was their own weakness that encouraged them to ignore warning signs about Grindelwald.  He gets people to be complicit in their own downfalls, resulting in the kind of profound shame that is written on every line of Dumbledore’s guilty face when he is forced to admit, “I cannot move against Grindelwald.”

Queenie does fall for Grindelwald’s persuasiveness.  We also see Rosier drugging her with tea from an insistent teapot, not introducing this natural Legilimens to Grindelwald until after she’s drunk the tea, not letting Queenie leave without meeting Grindelwald.  When Queenie first sees Grindelwald, she leaps to her feet and draws her wand, snarling at him to stay back:  “I know what you are.”  What, not who.  We don’t know what she means by that “what,” but in a film series that is focused upon the humanization and dehumanization of monsters, any such word choice will prove to be significant.  Grindelwald approaches her and starts his persuasive talk, lying to her that they will not harm her because she’s an “innocent.”  Once he has stepped toward her and even touched her wand, his manipulative powers have overwhelmed the resistance of this naive and desperate witch.

(One wonders why Grindelwald needed to recruit Queenie.  We see him using her in the last scene to tell him what Credence is thinking.  Is there something about Credence that makes it difficult for Grindelwald to read his mind, creating a need for him to rely upon another Legilimens?  After all, he couldn’t see who the Obscurial was in the first movie, although he could see the immense power of the Obscurus.  Does it have to do with the blood bond?  But I digress.)

I can understand the worry that Rowling may be using World War II and Holocaust history in a throwaway manner as an easy plot device for this series.  Based on the scripts and films, I do not think she is doing that.  I think that is her story, and there is no other:  the mechanics of fascism, the dehumanization that results in genocide and unwanted humans and monstrous rage, and the counter-strategy of recognizing the dignity and worth of all beings, including monsters and beasts.

Whether she can earn the trust of viewers in writing the characters of these stories… we shall see.

The writer and director are only two of the people creating these characters.  The actors, and what we know of them outside of their characters, embody them in a way that writing cannot.  The Asian face of Nagini, conspicuously non-white at the rally and whispering to Credence that this crowd will kill their kind for sport, says something without words.  The mixed-race face of Leta Lestrange, ostracized by her white classmates, shows us something.  I know I feel trust in the performance of Claudia Kim, showing what it feels like to be an Asian woman in a white-dominated environment.  I feel trust in Ezra Miller as a queer Jewish actor and Zoe Kravitz as a Jewish woman of color.  I felt trust in Samantha Morton as a survivor of the kind of institutional upbringing that Marylou Barebone enforced.

In an interview with Esther Zuckerman of Thrillist, Ezra Miller gave some perspective on how he understood his character’s reaction to Grindelwald’s lure:

This is like an ISIS recruit or a military recruit, [who] I see as very similar characters in the world. Essentially they both were people who were left [with] a deficit of identity. You know? A deficit of real connective tissue of culture, of family, of education. And so they, in their thirst for purpose and identity, were easily manipulated by people who wish to use them as pawns for their ultimate agenda or objective.

Credence is like this military recruit now, or like this ISIS recruit, anyone who’s ever been recruited to fight in a battle that is not their own. Credence becomes that figure, and what’s been manipulated, it’s his own trauma. And this is what they do. This is how people are systematically turned into murderers, into monsters, into the people who then become an enemy to someone else. They use trauma, they manipulate belief. They will utilize someone’s religious beliefs as a means to create an enemy, sometimes even for their own cause, just to perpetuate war. These are observable historical tactics.

Know that this is how, historically, hegemons get people to be their pawns. So that’s happened in a big way. The film ends with a would-be general putting a gun in a private’s hand, saying, “Here’s who you are now, you’re a soldier of this denomination and this country’s allegiance. And here’s why you’re angry and here’s who is your enemy.” He gives him a gun, a name, and an enemy in one.

I could use some stories about how to combat this kind of manipulation and its consequences.  I’m on board for the next three films.  I’m pretty sure I’ll need them.


Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

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Philadelphia tour stop: Sons of an Illustrious Father

Even by the standards of this crap presidency, mid-June 2018 has been a rough time for news.  As a Korean American, that vulgar “summit” between two dictators was impossible to block out of my mind on June 12; its poison seeped through everything.  As a sentient being, it is impossible to block out what the U.S. government is doing to families with children at the border.  While my friends marched in protest, I went ahead with a planned birthday party, wondering vaguely if it was right to do so, if anything would be served by canceling it on the 14-year-old and her teen guests.

I didn’t go to the protest; I didn’t cancel.  I got my kid a guitar, the one thing she’s been asking for, humbly, for months.  We were lucky:  the salesperson at the guitar shop was a woman, a bassist, who knew to share in my kid’s excitement.  There were other women there, too, murmuring reminiscently, “First guitar,” beaming at my daughter.  Everything feels more political than ever right now.  She played the guitar all the way home and into the night, until the 10-year-old begged her to stop so we could all sleep.  That was wonderful.

On June 13, I went to see Sons of an Illustrious Father play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.  That, too, was wonderful.  The concert reached through all the despair and left me peaceful for a full day afterward, glowing in equal parts because of the band’s political fervor and their virtuosity.  If you have a competence kink, it’s worth it to see this band just for the moments that they rotate instruments, literally playing musical chairs, switching off lead vocal duties and guitar and keyboards and drums because goddammit, if anything is going to save us it’s making sure that we all take turns listening to each other and speaking up so we know how to do things together.

Look at the cover art for their new album, Deus Sex Machina:  Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.  When the band held a Reddit AMA on June 5, I asked them about how they made the cover art and if they could tell us about some of the images they included, especially the vertical image going up the center.

SonsOAIF:  “It’s a collage we made out of various books acquired Powell’s in Portland, a mix of pulpy sci-fi covers, books of sacred geometry, old medical texts, and the Joy of Sex amongst others. The central image is something from a text called Rivers and Streams that traces lineages of belief.”

deus sex machina

Lineages of belief.  This band is a treasure.

The cover art tugged at me because twenty years ago, before I babyproofed by putting away the sharps and the machine and the iron, I used to be a quilter.  From quilting, I recognized the sacred geometry and the trunk of life.  (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see a quilt block program my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994 and a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.)  Most of all, I recognized the collage aesthetic, which reminded me of feminist story quilts like the ones by Faith Ringgold (see Tar Beach 2, below).

tar beach 2 faith ringgold

The AMA also gave me a chance to ask about the heavy chord that strikes 12 times, then 5 times, then once in “When Things Fall Apart,” which I wrote about a month ago.  What does it mean?  The oracle replied!

SonsOAIF:  “We think of it as transition via sorcery”

It takes a lot of repeated labor to effect change, yes?  Keep at it.  As many times as it takes to break through.

But the concert.  How did the concert go?

The first big “yessss!” came right at the start, when Josh Aubin kicked off with “Post-Future,” the one song of the evening from Revol.  Brilliant.  That song foretold our current breakdown:  “But if the lights go out, how can we go on?”  Nine months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still without full power, with thousands dead, by malicious design.  In Revol, there were hard-fought notes of hope; starting the Deus Sex Machina concert with “Post-Future” served to announce that hope isn’t on the playlist for the band this year.  It’s time for other things.

“U.S.Gay” came next, Lilah Larson on vocals.  Live, the song feels more intimate.  The heaviness of the chords reverberated in my chest cavity so strongly that I stopped watching the band and looked around, instead, at my fellow concertgoers, so many of them visibly queer-presenting, all feeling the same music at the same time.

The vibrations from “Extraordinary Rendition” felt different; they came up through the soles of my feet.  Ezra Miller was singing, but from where I was standing, I couldn’t see him at all.  I could see Larson singing harmony, one of my favorite parts of this masterpiece song, and Aubin on keyboards, which I didn’t watch enough at a previous concert, and the rapt faces of some of the young men in the audience.

Aubin again, singing lead on a song I also heard in Brooklyn in March, with a refrain of “desolation.”

Back to Miller on lead with another song I didn’t recognize, drums and then keyboard leading into screamy vocals.  Aubin and Larson seemed to be looking at him and laughing fondly as this song started.

“When Things Fall Apart” started up and two young women audibly gasped, eyes fixed on Larson, and held each other.  The whole audience seemed to go still at that moment, actually.  At some points, Larson seemed to be singing this to and with Miller; they faced each other when counting out the chords for the “transition via sorcery,” and Larson couldn’t help smiling, I saw.  That feeling of making things with a friend you adore, making eye contact:  how can you not smile?

The band moved to stand together, Larson on bass, for a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.”  You should have seen Ezra Miller’s grin on the line “Everyone is gay.”  He seemed to divine, correctly, that this audience would grin along.  He reached for the hand of a handsome middle-aged gentleman in the audience, held his gaze with heat, and deliberately kissed the back of the man’s hand.  It was an arresting performance and instantly conjured a vivid story of the chemistry that could exist between these two people.  What gorgeous sorcery.

Josh Aubin was a revelation for “E.G.,” speeding up into guitar-god mode, Larson on drums, Miller on keyboard.  Miller also improvised a brief dance with some glass beads hanging by the stage, which apparently looked like they were hoping to be part of the performance.

“Crystal Tomes.”  I’ve never heard Lilah Larson holler like this while singing.  Good backup.  I love Aubin’s guitar playing on this.  I think Miller was crying.  If you can make out the lyrics to this song, or get your hands on the lyric book to this album that Larson designed, you will understand why.  It’s too late for hope.  It’s not over, but it’s too late.  Why would we make so much brokenness of a world as beautiful as this one?  Why did we?

And yeah we are past the point now of the dawn I fear the day has broken

I’m so glad to be here with you still now my darling/ With the breaking of this world like a heart/ So it can grow

So it can grow.  All the grimness we’ve seen in the past couple of years and hearts will still grow, people will still forgive, if it’s in our nature, even if we’re broken, even if we’d like to stop, even if it would be better to stop.  If we can’t stop loving, we should grieve.  Grief will help ground us more than hope right now.  The band’s merchandise table featured temporary tattoos drawn by Larson, including one that was too raw for me to accept on first or second sight, a skull and a tombstone to mark the passing of the world as we knew it.  I didn’t want to give up the hope model; I didn’t want to look around me with clear eyes.  I should make myself look again at this art when I see the band perform in Los Angeles on June 23.  I don’t have to buy it.  I can just look.

Ohhh, now I am imagining an entire tarot deck drawn by this band, a post-prophetic deck for a loving, post-apocalyptic, queer, antipatriarchal world.

Not all of the band’s merchandise is available at this Hello Merch link — perhaps later — but you can order the lyric book for all the songs before Deus Ex Machina.

They closed the show with a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Larson still on drums, Miller on keyboards, Aubin on guitar.  Miller’s defenses were gone, his anguish manifesting in explosive twitches as he sang.

Encore.  “Very Few Dancers.”  No more after that; it was impressive enough that they had the energy even for one encore.

After the show, I was glad to be able to find Rubee and thank him for being a protector.  What a thing to do in the world right now.  Thank you for the hug, Rubee.  Thank you to the artists for coming to my hometown of Philadelphia to sing for us.

They had been in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, too, actually, to sing and talk politics on the June 1, 2018 episode of Jon Lovett’s touring podcast, Lovett or Leave It.  To my astonishment, they appeared alongside Larry Krasner, the beloved Philadelphia district attorney who earned my loyalty forever, in the early 1990s, for defending my dearest friends pro bono when the police beat several members of ACT UP during a peaceful, lawful protest.  He donated hours and hours of labor to us, and to so many others — he certainly won Philadelphians’ votes the hard way, one at a time!

I’m still making my way through the Deus Sex Machina lyric book, songs interspersed with collage art.  The lyrics to “Unarmed” stun me.  I found the song affecting enough when I listened the first few times, but together with the lyrics now, it overwhelms me with its beauty.

Grimoire.  That’s what this lyric book feels like to me.  I love this material evidence of what it’s like to live a complete artist life, singing and dancing and writing and making images.  I want to make quilts again.  The girls are old enough now that I can bring out the needles and blades and irons.

I’ll be able to catch the last concert on this tour, the June 23 stop in Los Angeles.  I wonder how different the band will look then.  Exhausted, no doubt, but also, I hope, accomplished.

I glowed for a full day after the Philadelphia concert.  They looked happy, performing.  They looked happy.


Here is the output of the quilt block program that my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994.

higher order perl quilt blocks

Here’s the quilt I gave him as a wedding gift in 1997.

wedding quilt 1

And a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.  The Deus Sex Machina cover art reminded me of it because of the similarity to the trunk structure.

tree of life quilt

 

“But if the lights go out, how can we go on?”  Sons of an Illustrious Father, Revol, and art in 2017

[Note:  Skip down 10 paragraphs if you just want to get to the stuff about this album, Revol by Sons of an Illustrious Father. -Lorrie Kim]


Lin-Manuel Miranda got me through 2016, the year we slipped into the darkest timeline.  When the pointless cruelties toward people of color and queer people made me feel more bitter than I had in years, Hamilton’s cleverness was a respite and a balm.  I could still laugh in startled pleasure at wordplay, glory in the exuberance of Miranda’s fusions.  Genius was in the air, polyglot stars spinning out of his brain into the skies over us all, and it felt so good.

That spring, ten blocks from my house, the university in my neighborhood hosted a near-palpable collision. (Could it really have been only last year?  We have grown so haggard since then, as a nation.) Joe Biden and Trump, then a malevolent racist political candidate, sat under the same tent to witness graduation.  The following day, to roars of relief and welcome, Lin-Manuel Miranda cleansed the space when he gave a commencement address.  At his remarks about the importance of American immigrants, the crowd — including the university president and provost, onstage — leapt pointedly to a standing ovation. 

Of all the horrors of 2016, nothing anguished me like the Pulse nightclub shooting.  Gay clubs have been, for me, sacred spaces to celebrate beauty and the erotic divine; celebrations for people of color at gay clubs, immeasurably more so.  When I watched Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Tonys, delivering the elegiac sonnet he had composed in less than a day, I understood for the first time why civilizations want poets laureate.  This was the poet of my heart and my country.

My book Snape: A Definitive Reading got published the following month — could it really have been only a year ago? — the same month that my city hosted the 2016 Democratic National Convention.  The week after the convention, an exhausted-sounding but lovely reporter from the local paper of record called me for a quick Q&A about my book.  When I wrote the book, I had assumed it would be of extremely limited interest.  But by the time it was published, the Harry Potter stories had gained new relevance in the American popular discourse as dystopian allegory alongside other political books such as 1984, The Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  There was open talk of rounding up religious minorities and people of color; we couldn’t avoid comparisons to Death Eaters, Snatchers, and the Muggle-born Registration Commission.

But I still thought, back then, that we would vote our way out of this timeline.  I was still able, sometimes, to withstand the sound of Christopher Jackson, as George Washington, singing “One Last Time” in the Oval Office to Barack Obama.  My president was still black; reason still counted for something.

The November election dealt a staggering blow to my neighborhood of mosques, immigrant churches and businesses, poets and translators and scientists, parents with strollers, anarchists and queers and trans communities all within blocks of my house.  Every day was a new attack on something beautiful and whole.  The weekend after that hellish election, the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them premiered in New York.  A friend who had a ticket to J.K. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall appearance had to walk past Trump Tower to get there, and reported thousands of protesters.  At the press events, the actors and creators appeared to be in a bit of a daze, as I was:  their movie, which I’d intended to view as an allegory, was suddenly looking more like a documentary.

After that election, it became Rachel Maddow, then, and not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got me through the days.  I still loved Hamilton, although a friend of mine, a woman of color who grew up in Queens, could not listen to that soundtrack anymore after the election.  She felt betrayed by her own hope; it was too painful to have believed, really believed, for a few months, that the kind of people she grew up with could be seen as the face and the brains of the country.  I was arrested by the heart-in-throat spectacle of actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressing vice president-elect Mike Pence from the stage as Pence exited the theater.  It seemed too much to ask of artists alone, to do the heavy lifting every day of my spirits.  I was glad to witness the long-overdue respect for journalism as a profession by the American public, who had grown complacent in demonizing the press while taking for granted the painstaking way that journalists fact-check and pursue the truth.  I was only a full-time journalist for a short while, but I will always be proud of the profession.  The sight of Rachel Maddow bracing herself and plowing through to the truth no matter what, her cleverness tempered by her matter-of-fact resistance to hyperbole, helped me hold on to reality.  The quiet, intense mutual knowledge between her and Dan Rather, the times I saw him guest on her show, as they clasped hands and understood each other:  that is one of the most powerful versions of love I’ve ever seen.  In this ugly war against all that makes sense, they showed me that truth still exists, connection between human minds still exists, and it is worthwhile and good.

The ugliness worsened.  There were days when I couldn’t make myself do much more than absorb the news and cry over the brutishness.  On those days, I would knit.  I wasn’t going to make pussyhats at first; among my loved ones, it doesn’t work to correlate gender and genitalia.  And whatever energy I did have to knit or crochet was going toward the felted octopus toys I was making for my then-tween daughters to sell at craft fairs.  But when I saw how my daughters and the other schoolgirls reacted to the pussyhats, how angry they were and how proud, I reversed my policy.  I made them hats in classic hot pink, and then for their friends, and then more and more, in the colors of rainbow pride and trans pride and ace pride and bi pride and pan pride and nonbinary and genderqueer pride.  

hats and sleeves

When I wasn’t making hats, I was knitting pride-colored coffee sleeves or illusion scarves that looked innocent from one angle but spelled out F U C K   T R U M P from another.  With every completed project, I posted photos with the hashtag #MadameDefarge.  My friends and I raised hundreds of dollars in donations for GLAAD with our rage-knitting.

I had learned the story of Arachne in second grade, but I didn’t understand until decades later why Athena destroyed Arachne’s weaving and turned her into a spider.  I thought it, when I was a child, just another instance of the Greek gods punishing mortals for equaling or bettering them.  Sometimes, though, in 2017, I have thought of Arachne and lifted my spirits by reading the titles of Chuck Tingle’s political satires.  Pounded in the Butt by the Sentient Manifestation of My Own Ignorant Climate Change Denial.  Domald Tromp Pounded in the Butt by His Fabricated Wiretapping Scandal Made Up to Redirect Focus Away from His Seemingly Endless Unethical Connections to Russia.  Pounded in the Butt by Covfefe.  This generous spirit provides his titles for free, as a gift, to lift the spirits of the masses.

I was good with having Rachel Maddow and Chuck Tingle as my sanity savers this year; I have many supports and privileges in my life, and it seemed it would be enough.  But then I stumbled into something extra and unexpected, a windfall, a gift of grace.

Sons of an Illustrious Father

I first read of the band Sons of an Illustrious Father while I was researching a talk about abuse in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I had noted the humility and protectiveness in the character Credence Barebone, who howled through establishment New York like the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, enraged by hypocrisy.  I looked up the actor who played him:  Ezra Miller, who was also, it seemed, a musician in a band.  The article by Bradley Spinelli lamented that “the scary part” of Miller’s acting success is that Sons of an Illustrious Father might become a “casualty” of his filming schedule.

“The” scary part?  What was this band, to inspire such concern?

Curious, I downloaded Revol, their 9-song album from 2016.  I hadn’t listened to new music in ages.

revol soaif

Three or four ethereal bars into the first track, “ppm,” and I was hooked.

Three band members.  Nine songs, sung three apiece.  Three concentric shapes on their album art:  equilateral triangles, circles, squares.  Steadfast harmonies on every song, rotating duties on instruments so that each musician plays several interchangeable roles.  The tripod is a stable structure.  The collective is a dynamic that I trust and love for its ability to ensure that each person’s voice gets heard.

Excuse me; have I slipped into reverie already?  The band’s music has had that effect on me during this painful year.  On morning drives, when I’ve sought solace from the news and switched on Revol, my brain has calmed and and my thoughts have turned associative … happy … restored.  

The band says, in interview, that they begin concerts with a group hug, synchronizing their breathing and thanking each other.  

Just visualizing this brings me some balance.  It reminds me to thank the people who make things with me.

The cerebral harmonies of “ppm” re-set me, let my thoughts breathe again.  I could hear myself think.  My mind could play as I listened, the way Hamilton had allowed my listening self to play.  I could take pleasure in guessing what each of the individual musicians contributed to each song and where their ideas blended.  Revol, the title, is the kind of wordplay they do:  lover backwards, of course, and a revel but more playful with that “o” suggesting “gambol,” and of course revolt as in uprising, and the beginning of revolution, giving space to playfulness and love and sexuality and movement and dance in order to rise against oppressiveness.  Band member Lilah Larson calls their style “genre queer” — you can feel the many times her mind has played in the etymological connection between gender and genre.  Or at least, I like to imagine her enjoying that connection, the same way I’ve often treasured the kinship between textile and text as someone who works in both writing and the fiber arts.

(The cover image for Revol would work beautifully as a quilt block in reverse appliqué.)

ppm

The tranquil, celestial harmonies of these opening bars have soothed me on those nights when I’ve been too frightened to sleep, thinking, Please don’t bomb Korea.  What has Korea ever done but give the world movable type, skincare, and frozen yogurt?  Please don’t bomb my parents.

So, this must be Ezra Miller singing, yes?  What is he singing about?  I…can’t exactly tell, but the people singing with him seem unconcerned, so they must know.  “Your heart will know; your head won’t be sure.”  Ohhh…the richness of the alto is making me swoon.  I check the name again:  Lilah Larson.  She looks pleasantly radical.  Precise.  You want this woman singing backup for you.

Oh, and here’s a surprise.  The music picks up:  tempo change.  Then the song nearly pauses in contemplation.  Done with that thought, it changes tempo again.  What is this song about?  Sea, stars, fuel, miles, minds:  its scope feels light and nearly limitless.  I breathe easier after listening.

06

Driving synth beat, a different masculine voice, wry lyrics:  

He said, “Let’s go for a ride and see what we can be.” 

I said, “I’m not ready to die, so I guess it’s time to leave.”

This must be Josh Aubin, announcing himself with understated humor.  Deadpan, reticent.  Then an assertive peal of guitar, I’m guessing from Lilah Larson.  What is he singing about — who is he singing about?  There’s a “he” and a “she,” talk of running, of leaving.  Is this about romance?  Maybe not; it sounds more like a broken home, like fear and sadness, “waging all my hopes on what I couldn’t believe.”  Unlike “ppm,” there aren’t tempo changes to signal shifts in the wide-ranging emotions.  There’s a stoic sameness to the narration, so I have to listen closely to the lyrics to catch the mood, and the act of drawing closer creates a marked sense of internal monologue, of reserve.  Something happened; the singer remembers and will sing about remembering it, but he will not reveal all of it.  

New verse:  “She said, ‘You must think I’m crazy if you think I can leave.’”  On crazy, a whine of meticulously controlled feedback joins the lyrics, and a new strain of hummingbird-rapid drumming.  This must be Larson and Miller, adding their own witness to the story.  It hits me:  that’s the song.  It is not for me to know the private details, but Aubin’s bandmates know.  He isn’t alone anymore when he remembers.  The song feels stronger here.

The chorus hurts a little:  “This is real, but it’s not what we believe.”  There have been times this year when that line has brought tired tears to my eyes.  All the unprovoked attacks on people we love, on safety, on fairness:  this is happening, but we are better than this.  I don’t think the line was intended to be about the first months of post-Trump America, but that’s where I’ve been when I’ve sung along under my breath.

Because

Everything else falls away.  Spotlight on Lilah Larson and a brooding torch song that is magnificent in its focus.  Her rich voice, the drawling guitar, the restrained lyrics all serve a single goal; the guys recede into steady backup as everything falls into line.  This song feels like a humid summer night, airless whether the windows are open or closed.  This is star quality.

And those three songs complete the first row of the nine-patch quilt block that is Revol, one lead per singer.  I know the band has said that they are moving more toward collaborating on their songs, but part of my joy in being a listener is in trying to hear the individual contributions and how they harmonize.  It looks like the drumming and percussion are primarily Miller, although also from the other two.  Guitar is usually Larson; you can tell by the confidence.  Synth and bass are usually Aubin; keyboards, Aubin or Miller, although I haven’t yet learned to distinguish between their sounds.  Fun.

Tendrils

Sometimes, something is so exactly what you need that it helps you exhale.  The instrumentals in this song are one good decision after another.  The lyrics remind me of the comfort of awe, of humility.

You know how people sometimes say, “Be kind to yourself”?  What can we tell ourselves that is kind?  

These words have helped me get through 2017:

We’re not yet out of time.

No, we’re not yet out of time.

We can still recover.

It is right for all of us to hold ourselves accountable, to be stern — but mercy is good, too.

Oh.  Oh.  That is the genre of this song:  prayer.

One note of this song is my favorite.  Song — that’s the word, song, from the line “Song sung deep in our hearts” — it’s an unexpected sharp semitone, astringent and clean like horseradish.

I love what lyrics I can make out in this song.  I did a search for the rest of them so I could get to know them, too.  That turned out, through no fault of the band’s, to be…a mistake.  I couldn’t find any official lyrics, but I did stumble across some unsettling ravings about one of the band members.  Oh, hello, elephant in the room.  The music itself makes the argument that this band rests equally on the dynamic between all three members, and the power of that give-and-take is exactly why I find their music so welcoming, but how to counter the distraction of imbalanced outside attention toward one of them?

It helps to return to the unhurried preoccupations of this song itself.  I can’t remember the last time I noticed that a song’s lyrics include an aside that is clearly set off by em dashes.  It makes me laugh in geeky delight every time I hear it.

 But if it’s more — and I think it’s more — self-realization in the context of the whole.

At least, that’s what I think the lyrics are saying.  Seriously, dear Sons, is there anything we could do to persuade you to release official lyrics?  Can we…fundraise for causes of your choice?  Send proof of political protest or acts of kindness?  

Here is a live recording of “Tendrils” so you can see the three musicians making quietude together, although do listen to the studio version as well, which has different strengths.

The Opposite of Love

Ooooohhhhh.

Hurty love songs feel different when they’re by or about queer women.  

There’s a genre of women’s lovesong that can make listeners wince, true but painful songs about what we’re willing to give up of ourselves for love.  They can be hard to listen to when the loved ones are men.  But how does it feel to make the conscious offer to diminish the self, to cede the lovers’ quarrel, when both are women?

Among other things, it can feel like this.  Jangly guitar, a thick slow tempo like trying to draw breath during depression, and at one point, a masterful guitar arpeggio that shows exactly how much potency the singer is holding in check.

There’s a video to go with the song.  On probably half a dozen occasions in 2017, after politics delivered another blow to queerness in the U.S., I’ve played myself this video for comfort.

And this song once made me laugh out loud.  Clearly, it’s about a relationship that has had its conflicts, but that line, “I always take you back” — OMG.  Imagine wanting to date someone who was once with Lilah Larson and might not be over her.  Imagine trying not to feel insecure about it!  This thought once led to my kids asking me, “Mommy, what’s so funny?”

Heh.  Anyway.

One of my favorite things about this song is the stealth optimism in the title line.  There is no opposite of love.  There’s beauty in that.

Saudade

Excuse me for a moment.  *googles*

Oh, so it’s not pronounced like French.  Excuse me again.  *googles pronunciation*

Josh Aubin’s voice is strong and rich on the deep notes here.

A great pleasure of getting to know this band’s music:  it lets you luxuriate in thought.  Wherever the music takes you, maybe — I hope — this band would not say you’re overthinking it.  It feels more likely that there would be stories behind the songs.

And those three songs are the interior third of the Revol nine-patch.

Conquest

I got to see three American plays this year.  The touring company of Fun Home came to my town and I dropped everything to sit in the audience and marvel that I have lived to see Alison Bechdel hailed as a genius.  Decades ago, I was the first editor to syndicate Dykes to Watch Out For in a college publication.  I’m still proud of that.  Somewhere, I probably still have the canceled checks with her signature on them.

Last month, I saw Puffs off Broadway.  I’ll say more about that day later.

In between, I took a Bolt Bus day trip to see Indecent on Broadway, three days before it closed in August.  It wasn’t an easy trip to arrange, but I had friends who begged everyone to go to any lengths possible to see it, so I heeded.  It’s exactly the story for this American year:  Indecent chronicles the suppression and censorship of the 1907 Yiddish play God of Vengeance, about the romance between two young women who live under the same patriarchal roof.  Yankl is a pimp; his daughter, Rivkele, lives in the family home upstairs, and she loves Manke, one of the workers in Yankl’s basement brothel.  God of Vengeance was shut down for indecency when it opened on Broadway in 1923.  Indecent tenderly restages the love scenes of God of Vengeance as part of its story.  This revolutionary love finally got to declare itself on Broadway, almost a century later.

If I ever make it to a concert by SOAIF, “Conquest” is the song I hope to see most.  More than once, while watching Indecent, I heard the opening bars in my head:

When the maiden fucked the whore

Took the old crone’s name in vain

Said “Oh my god, what insidious sin

To spread repression and shame

The song is powerful enough on the album, but live, it would undoubtedly be scorching, an all-out three-person rage against the patriarchy.  Sometimes, anger purifies spoken language.  Larson sings that forced sterilization keeps populations “to an amenable minimum” — the scansion in that line is always so satisfying.

The band’s web page features the graphic art version of this song by Larson and Aubin.  

Armageddon

I didn’t like this song at first.  I wasn’t on board with the title pun.  I wasn’t on board for the journey.

I soon learned that this song didn’t care if I liked it or not.  It was going to set its own pace, sometimes trudging, sometimes surging, sweeping me along with everything else before it.  It was no use to resist.  Ah, I did pay attention to the contemplative bridge, like a pause for water and reflection, and when the song got to its feet again to resume the march, I followed.  By the time the voices swelled to the defiant cry, “We won’t give in to fear even as they draw near — and we know they are legion”…  

Okay, okay.  You win, song.  I stopped resisting.  I no longer even wanted to resist.

When Dionysus is captured or denied, things do not go well.  From the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus:

They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet:  and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.

I can’t make out 80% of Ezra Miller’s lyrics.  Is it safe to stop resisting this song if I don’t even understand what it’s about?  Well, it’s too late to be asking such questions, isn’t it?  

And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands.

I don’t know what this song is about.  I do know that when Dionysian ecstasy took hold, maenads ran wild, dancing to flute music, striking the ground with their pinecone-tipped staffs so that water or milk or wine or honey flowed forth.  And that men who tried to resist Dionysus or suppress the maenads ended up wearing women’s clothing and either joined in the ecstasy or were torn to pieces. 

Post-Future

Trust Josh Aubin to find a tangible analog medium to communicate song lyrics digitally.  Check out the words to “Post-Future” as an artist graffities them in immaculate lettering (and, bless, pristine spelling) in this lyric video.

This song is the right bookend to the album.  It starts as a lament, but there’s a lightness to it, matching the lightness in “ppm,” and it ends with a question.  In this year, when every day has been a struggle to find answers — What will it take for me to maintain equilibrium today? — Aubin reminds us that answers aren’t big enough.

But I want to live just to do something beautiful

And I want something to believe

I need something to believe

Revol lifted me out of answers and back to playfulness this year.  I had to pull myself up again several times a week, but that’s okay; albums are meant to be heard on repeat.  Listening to these songs, I could remember how it felt when my president was black and thoughtfulness had a place and I could relax in the world enough to listen to Hamilton and let my mind revel along.  I could swoon over Lilah Larson’s disciplined voice, or laugh to realize that Ezra Miller’s high-frequency vibe reminded me of a fidget spinner in its surprising stability and stamina, or let Josh Aubin remind me that words are tangible things we create. 

Sons of an Illustrious Father kept reopening the portal for me.  That’s some strong magic.

Other arts

I listened to songs other than the ones on Revol, of course.  I love every track on their EP Sons.  I love the rage they hammered into their song and video “U.S.Gay.”  My throat ached with pride at the line “I want fag tattooed in red on my forehead/A revolution in my bed.”  It whisked me into pure time travel, suddenly 1991 again and I was chanting with ACT UP alongside my loved ones, many of whom are still here.  I listened to Lilah Larson’s hoarse-voiced interview with Maia from BTRToday from their 2017 post-inauguration concert tour, three “coastal artist-types” driving all night to sing for “young queer kids” in red-state basements.  Gutsy, and so dear.  I listened to Larson’s solo album Pentimento, which brought me back to the women’s music of my early adulthood, like Ferron and Sweet Honey in the Rock, ordered on cassette from the Ladyslipper catalogue.

Autumn 2017 was busy.  I had writing deadlines, but also, an unconscionable amount of my time went to… well, I had committed to making inventory for my children to sell at a craft fair, and I found myself crocheting and felting 400 woolen octopus toys in under two months. 

(We will not attempt that pace again.)  

~A brief word about octopods.~

octopod soulmate.jpg

The kids had asked to try vending for years, and I had promised someday to develop a product.  I started making octopods as tree ornaments while I was researching and writing the Snape book, and I never stopped.  All my household is mad for octopuses, and long hours reading left my hands free to do craft, and they just kept multiplying, and people kept requesting more.  It turns out that, apparently, the world had a heretofore unidentified need for octopus friends shaped like tomatoes or three-eyed aliens, and I was put on earth to fulfill it.  We had found our product.

lemon and tomato holding hands

~So anyway.~

I met my writing deadlines.  The octopod sale was a wild success.  I decided I would do something only for me, then, and indulge in writing about Revol.  I amused myself by making octopod versions of Sons of an Illustrious Father, too:  who they would be if they entered the octopod mirror universe.  One with hat and embroidered glasses, one in black and red, one with a double-L logo.  I was halfway through this write-up and those octopods when I put them down to take a one-night trip to New York.

soaif octopods front view with book

soaif octopods top view.jpg

In mid-November, the Group That Shall Not Be Named, the vibrant HP meetup group in New York, invited me to deliver a talk.  I spoke about how I used Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to teach literary analysis and empathy to fifth graders, guiding them through brewing and taking their own Polyjuice Potion — lentil soup, in Muggle terms — in order to understand how it feels to be in another person’s skin.  

I figured since I was in New York and doing Potter things, it was a good time to see Puffs.  I laughed the entire time, went for late-night pizza, and headed for the subway with my weekend hosts.

You can decide for yourself if this part really happened.

Then Lilah Larson walked by, with a friend.

The next few seconds in my head went like this.

  • I should leave her alone.  Privacy.
  • I should tell her what her music has done for me this year.  She’s right there.
  • That would be so creepy.  I’m a total stranger.
  • She might like to know.  Would she?  I might, if I were her…?  But…creepy?
  • Do I have anything for her to sign?
  • Oh my god.  I have my Pentimento CD on me.

I dropped to the Manhattan sidewalk, ripped open my suitcase, extracted the CD, begged my hosts, “Watch my stuff,” ran after her, held it up and asked if she would sign it.

She and her friend saw the CD, laughed, and stopped.  

And I told her how this year, when one precious thing after another has been attacked by our government, when grief and fear have been too heavy, I have restored myself by listening to her songs.

And I uttered these words to another human being:  “I have an octopus doll of you at home, partially finished.  I have to sew eyes on it.”

And the other human being didn’t seem fazed by this sentence in the least.

And started singing the praises of octopuses.  “Have you been following the news?  They’re taking over!”  (It’s true.  They are.  They’re amazing.)  She has loved them for ages.

And I didn’t want to keep her and her friend from their evening for too long, but they were funny and kind, and I thanked them and said I would run back to my friends now and explain why I had abandoned them with my suitcase on the sidewalk.

And I did, and they laughed, and they marveled with me that I got to say thank you in person.

[It’s not that I always carry that CD with me.  I must have thrown it into my suitcase the last time I traveled somewhere, and because I am lazy and a slob, I had noticed while packing for this trip that it was still in there, and I didn’t bother to unpack it.  I have never even listened to Pentimento on CD, only downloads.  I bought it in both formats to thank the artist, and because I thought, maybe, someday I would make it to one of her concerts and get it signed.  I didn’t plan this.  If I had, I would have packed a better pen for signing.]

The artists have kept me going.  I am fortunate; I don’t feel alone in my daily life and neighborhood.  But nationally, it has been a bewildering year for those of us who think that individuals matter, that free thought is good, that humans deserve to have art and have joy.

Sons of an Illustrious Father reminded me that we’re not alone.  There are as many of us as there have always been.  As a gift from myself to me, to be kind, I took the time from my work and my family to write down how their music did that for me.

 

Lorrie Kim, Philadelphia, PA

November and December, 2017.