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November Masthead

Editor-in-Chief | Sona Wink, BC’25

 

Managing Editor | Anouk Jouffret, BC’24

 

Deputy Editor | Victor Omojola, CC’24

 

Publisher | Jazmyn Wang, CC’25

 

Illustrations Editor | Oonagh Mockler, BC’25

 

Co-Layout Editors | Annie Poole, BC’24 & Siri Storstein, CC’26 

 

Literary Editor | Miska Lewis, BC’24

 

Digital Editor  | Jorja Garcia, CC’26

Senior Editors

Andrea Contreras, CC ’24

 

Josh Kazali, CC’25

 

Becky Miller, BC’24

 

Claire Shang, CC’24

 

Muni Suleiman, CC’24

 

Tara Zia, CC’26

 

Anna Patchefsky, CC’25

 

Iris Chen, CC’24

Staff Writers

 

Sagar Castleman, CC’26

Schuyler Daffey, CC’26

Amogh Dimri, CC’24

Jake Goidell, CC’24

Madison Hu, GS’24

Shreya Khullar, CC’26

Molly Leahy, BC’24

Molly Murch, BC’24

Sofia Pirri, CC’24

Dominic Wiharso, CC’25

Eva Spier, BC’27

Lucia Dec-Prat, CC’27

Maya Lerman, CC’27

Michael Onwutalu, CC’27

George Murphy, CC’27

Ava Lozner, CC’27

Chris Brown, CC’26

Eli Baum, CC’26

Owen Terry, CC’26

Vivien Sweet, GS’25

Gracie Moran, CC’25

Em Chmiel, CC’25

Alice Tecotzky, CC’24

Sam Hosmer, CC’24

Staff Illustrators

Emma Chen, CC’26

Cadence Gonzales, BC’26

Hart Hallos, CC’24

Maca Hepp, CC’24

Alexandra Lopez-Carretero, CC’25

Nayeon Park, CC’26

Amelie Scheil, BC’25

Betel Tadesse, CC’25

Phoebe Wagoner, CC’25

Fin Sterner, BC’25

Oliver Rice, CC’25

Emma Finkelstein, BC’27

Selin Ho, CC’27

Kendra Mosenson, BC’24

Justin Chen, CC’26

Isabelle Oh, BC’27

Jacqueline Subkhanberdina, BC’27

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Table of Contents

Cover by Oliver Rice

Blue Notes 

A Time Before Yesterday by Chris Brown 

The Artist’s Playground by Iris Chen 

Parlez-vous Anglais? by George Murphy 

Left in the Dark by Alice Tecotzky

I Woke up in Studio 306 by Molly Murch

Centerfold by Isabelle Oh

 

Campus Characters 

Nyra Wise and Tandile Jackson-Vinson by Andrea Contreras

Kit Malloy by Miska Lewis

Mariame Sissoko by Vivien Sweet

Olivia Treynor by Muni Suleiman

 

Features & Essays 

​​A Shabbat of Our Own by Maya Lerman

Revolt of the Nerds by Eli Baum 

In Search of Lost Pints by Josh Kazali 

He Cut That Cake With a Knife by Eva Spier

Out of the Margins by Tara Zia 

 

Conversations 

Edward Mendelson by Sagar Castleman 

Frances Negrón-Muntaner by Vivien Sweet 

 

ATSL 

“Did you know my secret?” by Dominic Wiharso and Josh Kazali 

 

Measure for Measure 

Going Home by Madison Hu

 

The Shortcut 

Teeth and Zoology by Avery Reed

Postcard by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

Insert Illustrations by Emma Finkelstein

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Letter From The Editor

I have written six of these letters in the past year, and this, my seventh, will be the last. I have often wished that I knew who exactly I was writing to. Sometimes I assume that only my parents read this part of the magazine. (Hey, guys.) Aside from them, all bets are off. 

 

I used to picture a nameless, faceless student reading this letter in a liminal space on campus—a Joe Coffee, or a bench, or a fluorescently lit library. I would proceed to feel a sense of overwhelming uncertainty about what to say to this person: What have I to offer this blurry (yet highly judgmental) student of my imagination? I attempted, at first, to wax poetic about an abstract theme. This went poorly. My attempts at universality were futile: If this magazine has taught me anything, it is that the only way to write about the universal is to flesh out the particular. 

 

In the December issue of The Blue and White, our writers exemplify this maxim by diving headfirst into the rich detail of the place we reside in. Eli Baum explores the unionization effort at Hex & Co., and discovers a deeper rift between the workers and the owners that speaks to the inherent growing pains of a small business. Beginning with this very board game store, Josh Kazali takes us on a historical tour of local bars and meditates on the city’s ephemeral nature. Tara Zia revels in the margins of books, where, she argues, annotations bridge the divide between text and reader. Maya Lerman explains how, despite suspension, Jews advocating for justice in Palestine have opened up their apartments and dorm rooms as places for their diverse voices to congregate.

 

Some of our writers find levity in the particular on campus. Dominic Wiharso and Josh Kazali take us into a subterranean ADP dorm (where they did, in real life, live as sophomores) and engage in a fantastical battle of roommate mind games. Andrea Contreras profiles Nyra Wise and Tandile Jackson-Vinson, who find both humor and liberation in discussing the intricacies of sex and intimacy. In a crackling, enigmatic Conversation, Edward Mendelson refuses to discuss his own life and explains to our staff writer Sagar Castleman why interviews themselves are “tricky.”

 

Having devoted myself to getting this magazine published for a year now, I have learned more than I ever thought possible about very niche pockets of campus life. The more I learn, the more I realize I do not yet know. We are surrounded not by vague, faceless students, but instead distinct, often bizarre people, who do beautifully unexpected things. I am heartened every time I watch that guy in the brightly patterned spandex bodysuit try, and fail, to hurl a plastic water bottle into a garbage can with his feet (why does he do that?); or when I encounter a gravy-sluiced slice of roast beef on the Lerner ramp (who left it there?); or every time I struggle to decipher the theme of the day at John Jay (recently, I’m pretty sure it was game shows, but I cannot be sure). 

 

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to dedicate myself to capturing the particularities of campus in print, and I am thrilled to pass the baton to the incomparable Tara Zia, CC ’26. 

 

Much love,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sona Wink

Editor-in-Chief 

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Bwecommendations

Sona Wink, Editor-in-Chief: Death Cab for Cutie, “Crooked Teeth.” Chicken orzo soup from Milano’s. Constantly wearing long johns, to such an extent that you feel strange without them on.

 

Anouk Jouffret, Managing Editor: Gallipoli (1981). Eddie Vedder, Into The Wild (Music For The Motion Picture). 

 

Victor Omojola, Deputy Editor: Black God, White Devil (1964). May December (2023). All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023). Fallen Leaves (2023). Wilco, Sky Blue Sky. Ali Farka Touré, Talking Timbuktu.

 

Jazmyn Wang, Publisher: Lady Grey tea. Earl Grey tea.

 

Oonagh Mockler, Illustrations Editor: Laurie Anderson, “O Superman.” Todd Rundgren, “Izzat Love?” Nas, “The World Is Yours.”

 

Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Cautious Clay, KARPEH

 

Miska Lewis, Literary Editor: Seasonal ciders at Arts and Crafts. Scarves. The Polar Express (2004).

 

Jorja Garcia, Digital Editor: Jon Klassen, The Skull. Good Morning, “Queen of Comedy.” The Boy and the Heron (2023). 

 

Josh Kazali, Senior Editor: Palace Music, “New Partner.” Blue Iverson, Hotep. John Donne, “The Ecstasy.” Vanilla and almond Special K. 

 

Becky Miller, Senior Editor: Patricia Lockwood, “When I Met the Pope.” 

 

Claire Shang, Senior Editor: Dunkin Donuts apple fritter. Djo, “End of Beginning.”

 

Muni Suleiman, Senior Editor: Tea Troutman, “Forever, I Love(d) Atlanta.” grouptherapy., i was mature for my age, but i was still a child. Eating Fermented Red Rice Donuts from Win Son Bakery on a Busy Brooklyn Street Corner.

 

Anna Patchefsky, Senior Editor: Beirut, Hadsel. Yellow flowers.

 

Schuyler Daffey, Staff Writer: Glenn Miller, “In the Mood”. Lavender matcha lattes from Zelma’s. 2 dollar Santa hats. 

 

Amogh Dimri, Staff Writer: Invincible (Amazon Prime Video). 

 

Madison Hu, Staff Writer: Anne Carson, “The Anthropology of Water”, strawberry matcha lattes

 

Molly Murch, Staff Writer: Olivia Dean, “I Could Be A Florist.” Coconut milk.

  

Maya Lerman, Staff Writer: Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away. Putting buffalo sauce on your fries at JJ’s.

 

George Murphy, Staff Writer: Jantra, Synthesized Sudan: Astro-Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground. Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Count Luna

 

Owen Terry, Staff Writer: Wookiefoot, “Just Visiting.” Grateful Dead, “Ripple.”

 

Dominic Wiharso, Staff Writer: Madonna, Ray of Light. Coffee milk. Delcy Morelos, El abrazo.

  

Alice Tecotzky, Staff Writer: Deerhunter, “Desire Lines.” Yo La Tengo, “You Can Have It All.” 

 

Gracie Moran, Staff Writer: The Nutcracker (NYCB). It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Priscilla (2023). Pitchfork, Best Songs of 2023. Shirley Temples with copious amounts of grenadine. Complimenting strangers. Mixing metals.

  

Sam Hosmer, Staff Writer:  Marathon Man (1976). The Pastels, “Nothing to Be Done.” Diner food.

 

Chris Brown, Staff Writer: Pixies, Doolittle. N.E.R.D, In Search Of…

 

Eli Baum, Staff Writer: Mark Hollmann, Urinetown. Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind. The game “Root.” Also, the game “Agricola.” And “Diplomacy.” 

 

Eva Spier, Staff Writer: Os Tincoãs, “Cordeiro De Nanã.” Sophia Narrett, Seven Circles. Google Books previews. Pomegranates.

Oliver Rice, Staff Illustrator: The Moon. Henny Colada.

 

Selin Ho, Staff Illustrator: Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Bo Burnham: Inside (2021). Spending hours in the book section of a thrift store.

 

Kendra Mosenson, Staff Illustrator: Motorama (1991). Collecting miniature chairs. John Prine, “Saddle in the Rain.”

 

Jacqueline Subkhanberdina, Staff Illustrator: The Boy and the Heron (2023).

 

Maca Hepp, Staff Illustrator: rewatching all of Avatar The Last Airbender.

Blue Note

A Time Before Yesterday

A love letter to Afrofuturism, acknowledgements of the past, and visions of the future.

By Chris Brown

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Illustration by Fin Sterner

Some glad morning,

When this life is over,

I’ll fly away

 

An old hymn runs through my mind as I amble through the Met. In the museum’s heart, is a massive 17th-century iron gate from a Spanish cathedral that nearly every visitor crosses at least once. Nearby, the museum’s American Wing features some of the country’s most famous pieces, like Leutze’s “Washington Crosses the Delaware.” But it was in the small hallway connecting these two cultural behemoths that I stumbled upon an exhibit with a particularly personal resonance. 

 

Displaying the interior of a house, complete with a living room and kitchen, Before Yesterday We Could Fly is, technically, a period room. Period rooms are a museum staple: Typically depictions of high society during a specific moment in time, they feature a combination of architecture, furniture, and art. But while Before Yesterday is, in one way, a portal to a certain period, the idea it represents is, in many ways, antithetical to the past. 

 

My first exposure to Afrofuturism was its most prominent contemporary representation: Ryan Coogler’s 2019 film turned cultural icon, Black Panther (though anyone who watched the Teen Titans cartoon may cite Cyborg as an earlier example). A movement rooted in both aesthetics and culture, it is defined by the meeting of science fiction and the Black diaspora. The curator for Before Yesterday, Hannah Beachler, was the film’s production designer. For her, the power of the movement stems from its “speculation and collapsing of time,” a hard left turn from the traditional purpose of a period room. 

 

Atemporality is the key word for the exhibition. Its title recalls a powerful but indeterminate past where freedom was not a question to be debated but a fact of life. The collapsing of time, the exhibition’s defining ethos, is achieved with a mélange of past, present, and future. 

 

For Beachler and the curators, the past is Seneca Village—a Black community near the Met, seized and leveled by the city to build Central Park. It was largely forgotten until it was brought back to the urban consciousness in the early ’90s. Excavations soon followed, many of them Columbia led. The oldest items in Before Yesterday are proof of life for the inhabitants of the Village: perfumes, medicine bottles, hair picks from the ruins. Now, they are preserved as artifacts, no longer lost beneath one of the city’s main attractions.

 

Flight is another central theme of the exhibit. Its title comes from the myth of the Flying Africans, told and retold in the diaspora as the story of people who escaped their captivity by flight. This myth also inspired Virginia Hamilton’s children’s novel The People Could Fly, a creative source for the exhibit and an item of personal nostalgia. I remember checking the book out myself on one of my biweekly trips to the library with my grandmother. 

 

Flight takes many forms throughout the exhibit. In Henry Taylor’s painting “Andrea Motley Crabtree,” the first Black deep sea diver is depicted on a massive scale in retro diving gear that doubles as a space suit. Space travel, a radical extension of flight, the journey into the abstract, has been a staple of Afrofuturist thought since its inception. With the recent addition of Trayvon Martin’s flight suit to the Smithsonian, flight has been used to commemorate Black subjects in pride and in grief. 

 

Seated in the living room is my favorite piece, “Summer Azure” by Tourmaline, CC ’06. A Black figure clad in all white and a space helmet floats upwards on a bright blue sky. The vibrancy of the blue, the obscuring of the subject’s face, exudes hope, a reimagining of the self. The painting is now my phone’s home screen. Ever since I first laid eyes on it, I imagined myself, my sister, my grandparents, any number of future descendants or past ancestors ascending into its sky. Positioned behind the room’s central TV/“time machine” and next to many older objects, it combines for me the hope of the past, the present, and the future in one image.  

 

The Met is an undoubtable fixture of the Columbia experience. It is difficult to imagine any student who doesn’t make an expedition there. Columbia’s curriculum has been guided by some abstracted sense of canonicity, the careful yet erasing practice of representing an aspect of culture. As one of the greatest sites for determining canonicity, deciding what is “treasured” and worth preserving, the museum offers a different historical memory with its display of Afrofuturism. In this iteration, there is space for a past far removed and a promise for a hopeful future. As I walk out of the exhibit, the hymn plays again in my mind, echoing a plea to dream for this future long for what is promised:

 

To a land where,

Joys will never end,

I’ll fly away

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Blue Note

The Artist’s Playground

Isamu Noguchi’s unrealized vision. 

By Iris Chen

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Illustration by Selin Ho

Last summer I read John Berger’s essay “How to Live with Stones” and it led me to what I still consider to be the quietest corner of New York. It takes an hour to get to the Noguchi Museum from Columbia. Make the trip yourself, and you will encounter caverns of rock and art of prehistoric dimensions engulfed in a silence that does not feel like the absence of sound, but rather, the addition of something quite physical.

 

You will likely have come across Isamu Noguchi before. It is his sunken garden that is carved into the middle of the Financial District, his costumes that Martha Graham wore onto the dance stage. His light still shines through the Akari lamps that are tucked within corners of tasteful celebrity homes, and a recent catalog of Ralph Ellison’s photographs reveals a Noguchi metal statue standing in the middle of his living room. Everywhere, Noguchi has planted gardens and raised totem poles.

 

For this reason, his absence from Columbia University’s vicinity feels like a kind of willful omission. Upon pulling out my Columbia ID my first time at the Noguchi Museum, a staff member exclaimed, with what felt to me then to be an outsized enthusiasm, that “Noguchi went to Columbia too!” Perhaps it was my desire to achieve this kind of familiarity—to speak for an artist as a friend speaks for a friend—that marked the beginning of my own kinship with Noguchi. 

 

During his two brief years at Columbia College from 1922 to 1924, Noguchi began and then abandoned his pre-medical studies. He established himself in Paris alongside Constantin Brançusi as a sculptor and well-traveled artist then returned in 1960 to Morningside Heights. For the next six years, he worked on his design for a Riverside Park playground. 

 

Had it been realized, one could now walk down Riverside Drive and see his pyramids, volcanic domes, and key-shaped outlines scooped out of the hillside. Noguchi was one of those rare artists for whom art and life were inextricable (inside his museum, the man and the art are different only insofar as that art is displayed inside, whereas Noguchi’s ashes lie in the garden soil nearby) and his spirit would therefore be, quite literally, on display: one would be able to climb on it, slide down it, grow up and old around it.

 

The Parks Department seemed to think otherwise: the ostentatious modernism was too playful. “Wonderful! They don’t want it,” Louis Khan, Noguchi’s architectural collaborator, reportedly said after one of the five times their design was rejected. “Now we can start all over again. We can make something better.” 

 

Some haranguing may be in order. One could blame the Parks Department for dragging the process on for so long, the Republican Mayor John Lindsay for making the park the scapegoat of his fiscal responsibility platform, and all involved for a general lack of imagination. But failure is often more interesting for what it can reveal. 

 

After producing twelve models, Noguchi lamented, “The idea of playgrounds as sculptural landscape, natural to children, had never been realized. How sad, I felt, that the possibility of actually building one presented itself when it was past my age of interest.” Noguchi conceived of this park as a work of art, but in line with his Modernist tendencies, “sculpture needs a quality of enduring freshness, as an antidote to impermanence.” Curated landscapes are, however, meant to last. The “freshness” that dignifies art ruins a landscape, for which permanence is achieved not through innovation, but maintenance. By placing a premium on newness, modern art relegates itself behind museum walls, where it can both embrace and live out its claim of ‘art for art’s sake’.

 

In 2019, the Noguchi Museum displayed his park models in an exhibition titled, “In Search of a Contoured Playground.” One could go see it, one could marvel at it, but one was told: Do not touch.

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Blue Note

Parlez-vous Anglais?

Leaps of faith at the Maison Française.

By George Murphy

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Like many Columbia students, I have commitment issues—with languages, that is. When I came to campus in August, I flirted with Turkish, tried out Arabic, and finally committed to Italian. And yet, my heart continued to wander. So when a friend told me about Café Conversation, Columbia’s French conversation club, I decided that the time was ripe to improve my previously unremarkable conversational skills in la langue française. Every time I go, however, I’m faced with a dilemma. Café Conversation has two levels: one for beginners and one for more advanced students. In the beginner level, we struggle to get much further than describing our days with the passé composé and saying merci when the cookies are passed around; in the advanced level, the attendees effortlessly speak beautiful, near-fluent French. After months of struggling to improve my spoken French, I have been left with a simple question: How can I bridge that gap? 

Illustration by Oonagh Mockler

One recent Tuesday, I decided to be courageous and stay for both levels of Café Conversation. I cheerfully strode into the Maison Française, located on the second floor of Buell Hall, and prepared myself to affect the most Gallic accent I could muster. Since it was Halloween, we discussed various spooky subjects: films d’horreur, our Halloween costumes, and the specter of returning midterm grades. However, what really seemed to be haunting attendees was the challenge of expressing themselves in French. We paused, stuttered, frantically scrolled through online dictionaries, and frequently resorted to franglais. In the face of these difficulties, Café Conversation veterans remained unfazed, noting that the club was a unique opportunity to put their French skills to use. As Julian Roa, CC ‘24, put it, “I think it’s sort of difficult day-to-day to find a way to … practice with other people and to force yourself to sustain a conversation.”

 

The point of no return came at 5 p.m. when the beginners left and the advanced students streamed in. I had resigned myself to sounding like a francophone four-year old but as the conversation began, something surprising happened. Little glimmering sparks of meaning emerged  from the conversations swirling around me. At first, I kept trying to latch on to specific words, but they slipped out of my hands like sand in the sea. It was only by letting go and letting myself be swept away by the language that ideas started to come into focus. Finally, when it was my turn to speak, I found that something deep inside me had snapped into place. The fear of embarrassment that had always held back my attempts at speaking French was gone. Immersion was a leap of faith; by putting aside my doubts and letting myself absorb the surrounding conversations , I found that the language had been waiting for me all along, waiting for the right opportunity to be released.

 

After the meeting ended, I described my experience  to Eva Martin, this year’s Maison Française intern, who noted that it  wasn’t unique. Immersion, she said, was the single best way to improve language skills, and her advice to French students at the club was “try to surround yourself with the language.” Of course, almost all language students hear similar advice at some point, but it can be difficult to put it into practice. What Café Conversation taught me is that surrounding yourself with a language is just the first step; only by surrendering yourself to a language can you internalize it. That loss of control is scary, but it really does work.  

 

From Akkadian to Zulu, students at Columbia have access to an astonishing array of language-learning opportunities. In an era in which language programs at many US colleges are falling victim to budget shortfalls, these opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted. And yet, whenever language courses come up on campus, students frequently write them off as a tedious obstacles. Much of this can likely be attributed to the Core Curriculum’s mandate that students take four semesters of a language before graduation—and yet I think a large part of the problem is that many of us are afraid to fully commit and dive into the process of learning a language. Maybe, by following the lead of Café Conversation and venturing into the unknown, we can start to more fully appreciate the linguistic riches that surround us. 

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As November comes to a close and the final stubborn leaves drop off of the trees on College Walk, a layer of twinkle lights is wrapped around the bare branches. What does it take to cover these trees carefully and consistently? What does the process reveal about our relation to—or, really, distance from—the everyday process of maintaining Columbia’s grounds?

 

I naively thought that connecting with the tree wrapping company should be relatively straightforward, yet my interactions with the Facilities and Operations Department were obscure. On my first call, the representative on the other end of the line told me to contact the elusive “Ricky from Grounds” with a phone number that led nowhere. When I emailed again, a department spokesperson said that the University doesn’t think that it’s appropriate for me to contact the vendor, given that they’re doing work “on behalf of the university.” Budgeting information is also kept private. And no, I couldn’t speak with a member of the Facilities team at this time.

 

A few days later, yellow trucks emblazoned with “Bartlett Tree Experts” appeared on College Walk and ended my search. Here it was, the company at the bottom of my Google doom scroll, readily placed for all to see.

 

Andrew Dolkart, a professor of Historic Preservation at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), believes that a gap exists between our experience and knowledge of Columbia’s grounds. Students, he said, are “probably not” attuned to the level and nature of work required to maintain the landscape. Given the mandated degrees of separation between myself and the ironically accessible Bartlett Tree Experts, I wondered whether the University has a vested interest in our distance, or whether it is such distance that enables the picturesque beauty of campus in the first place.

 

College seeks to bridge a different kind of distance, that between childhood and fledgling adulthood; its architecture and landscape coax us along the journey. According to Jorge Otero-Pailos, Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at GSAPP, the University’s original architects purposefully extended College Walk to facilitate our movement from Broadway to campus, from the chaos of New York to a haven for intentional thought. 

 

“That arrival sequence is itself a ritual,” Otero-Pailos said.

 

In December, the trees alight as if by magic and our ritualistic walk transforms, made brighter and more joyous by those who spend weeks attending to the branches. Young children suspend their belief on Christmas morning, trusting in the invisible labor of Santa, and we, too, exult in a spontaneously materialized gift. To know how it works may dull the sparkle, not only of the glowing trees, but of campus’ seemingly natural beauty altogether.

 

Having attended Columbia as a graduate student, Dolkart remembers aspects of the landscaping that were once “abysmal.” Rats, he said, used to circulate around the unkempt courtyard behind Avery.

 

Yet he recalls that in the 80s or 90s, the administration pledged to improve landscaping and hired the famous garden designer Lynden Miller to work her magic. Among other improvements, Miller installed the flower beds south of 116th street and in front of Uris.

 

“They trimmed the trees, they made sure the trees were healthy,” Dolkart said. “Columbia began to be concerned with the green landscape and the living landscape.”

 

As the level of maintenance has soared, Dolkart noted that our indifference to campus’ beauty and ignorance about its effect on our experience may also increase.

 

“We notice when it’s looking shabby, but we don’t necessarily notice when it’s looking good,” Dolkart said. 

 

Many consider Columbia an urban garden of sorts, but both Otero-Pailos and Dolkart said that the campus is a type of illusion, for it is largely one of hardscaping, or artificial structures incorporated into natural vegetation. Our belief in an urban garden is, it seems, evidence of successful architectural trickery.

 

“It makes it feel as if it’s more of a greenery than it really is,” Otero-Pailos said. “There’s a lot of hardscaping around, but if you’re looking down from the steps onto the green fields … the green really registers in your visual a lot more than it really is.”

 

“That’s the idea about landscape: it makes you feel good,” Dolkart said.

 

And in making us “feel good,” the landscaping is meant to reinforce our identity as Columbia Students, as Scholars with a capital S. According to Dolkart, the design and architecture both establish and perpetuate the grandeur of higher education. 

 

The engineers of Columbia’s landscape have created a physical environment consistent with our identity as scholars, as people who, ideally, interrogate and remain curious about the world. Our literal path to that landscape is sparkling and our winters are better for such light. But the path to such beauty itself, such picturesque alignment with the scholarly world as it ought to be, remains overcast.

 

Campus’ architecture may be one of intellectuals, but I wonder how earnestly we can think about our environment when intentionally cut off from the processes and people who make it happen. I am still flailing in the dark. Someone, it seems, has employed clever hardscaping and hidden the light switch.

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Illustration by Kendra Mosenson

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Blue Note

Left in the Dark

Campus is beautiful and we can’t see why.

By Alice Tecotzky

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I Woke up in Studio 306

On improvisation in the ever-eclectic Barnard dance class.

By Molly Murch

Blue Note

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I could have been hypnotized. With a steady drum beat interrupted only by the occasional ring of a gong and the soothing voice of an instructor telling me to fold into a fetal position, I was in a particularly vulnerable mental state. Even with the nine curled-up dancers scattered across the floor around me, I’m certain I could have been hypnotized. 

 

On this early Friday morning, I am sitting in on Vincent McCloskey’s Modern I class. He begins class by pulling closed the floor-to-ceiling black curtain over the mirror. Vincent calls this “democratizing the space,” a move that he believes redirects the dancer’s hyperfixation from their body’s appearance to how it feels to move. 

 

I don’t know these nine dancers. I suspect that four are first-years completing their gym requirement, and two are former dancers returning to a lost passion. Perhaps one is a future dance major. The remainder might be burnt out seniors taking advantage of Barnard’s dance department in an attempt to craft a relaxing final year. And I bet at least one is a Columbia student who wandered across Broadway for a weekly escape from the Core. Despite their varying motivations, they have all found themselves in Studio 306.

 

The dancers share the studio with two musicians: the class’s regular accompanist and a student following along. Both balance a pair of Congas and a mini gong, and they each grip a tambourine between their toes. The class has graciously opened up today’s session to an impromptu audience. Seated on the floor is a teacher of Afro-Cuban dance, a Ballet I student, and—desperately trying not to slip onto the floor into a slow fetal dance—me and my notepad. 

 

I found a similar open-door philosophy in my first two modern dance classes. The department demonstrates its commitment to accessible dance by welcoming both pre-professional dancers and the self-proclaimed poorly-coordinated alike. My Modern II course once even invited a Toddler Center student who had been caught peering curiously through the studio’s open doors inside to observe warmups. 

 

I wasn’t quite a toddler, but I remember my younger self being welcomed into my first Barnard dance class with a similar level of openness. McCloskey infuses his classroom with the same ethos that eased my nerves as a newcomer to the dance world. His patience for imperfection feels quintessentially Barnard: Dance becomes something approachable for someone entering the arena with what might be a restrictively academic disposition. Students who might fear slipping up in any other class accept the prospect that, in this class, they may fall short of immediate mastery. When dancers receive a personal correction, they take the advice in stride. When they sense Vincent in their periphery, glancing at their turnout, they respond with a cheeky giggle: a bit of endearing embarrassment tucked in between the classroom camaraderie.

 

It was our ability to follow directions, our quick mimicry of standards that gave us each the keys to Barnard’s campus. They unlocked both desk-lined classrooms and sunlit studios. And yet, an hour long, one credit introductory dance class can shake our supposed steadiness and leave us weary, on the floor, and questioning ourselves. 

 

Dance improvisation is where my desire to conform is most harshly confronted. And trying to intellectualize the primarily physical exercise never serves me well. My instructors have made me realize that there is no correct approach to something so innately freeform. The task of creating with nothing but the bodies we have inhabited our whole life soon reveals itself as a challenge unique to each body. Even outside a dance studio, the mastery of our movement takes time. After a lifelong rehearsal of our own, specific walk, we might become confident: a lift of the shoulder, an extension of the leg. Transforming such ordinary, everyday maneuvers into synchronized, controlled artistry is where the crossroads between the physical and the cerebral becomes that much more difficult. If it can take a lifetime to master a walk, how long is needed to muster up what we might finally call a dance? 

 

Vincent asks his pupils to improvise in between plié warmups. He prompts them to swim, anticipate, and hit. “How many thought of hitting?” he asks. “How many thought of being hit?” I am reminded of the many devil’s advocates I have encountered in humanities seminars. One dancer responds. She compares the practice to a fight scene. Her words match the image my own imagination had conjured: a superhero battling their archnemesis.

 

The group has morphed away from the disorderly oblong orientation it adopted for improvisation warm ups. They are now arranged in rows. All of their eyes are on McCloskey. I slip away just as they finish a technical exercise that asks them to cut across all planes. By now the dancers, like me, have certainly woken up.

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Centerfold by Isabelle Oh

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Campus Character

Nyra Wise and Tandile Jackson-Vinson

By Andrea Contreras

In the otherwise quiet Milstein Library, Nyra Wise, BC ’24, and Tandile Jackson-Vinson, BC ’24, found themselves bent over cackling into two microphones. 

 

“I can smell Summer’s Eve from a mile away. If I smell it, it’s on sight for anybody,” Nyra promised. Nyra’s six-minute tirade on vaginal wash, punctuated with laughter and concessions from Tandile, served as a bracing introduction for the third episode of their podcast, Take Back Pleasure. As I listened to their banter on Spotify months after the episode was recorded and released, two thoughts looped in my brain. 

 

  1. I need to reach this level of hilarity when speaking about my anatomy.

  2. It’s true—Nothing is worse than the unmistakable floral stench of Summer’s Eve. 

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Take Back Pleasure began releasing episodes sporadically in the Summer of 2022 as a series of phone calls between friends in which they would casually theorize endlessly about sex and sexuality. It became clear early on that their conversations were too stimulating to remain private. And so came the canonical idea between close friends in their early twenties: We should start a podcast.   

 

Nyra and Tandile were adamant that their podcast not be a reiteration of the heteronormative, gender-normative, boy-crazy sex talk that oversaturates the internet. Rather, they intend for Take Back Pleasure to be a community space centered around sexual themes of importance for Black women, femmes, and non-binary people. The podcast’s ethos is rooted in its title—the reclamation of pleasure and the redemption of a full range of erotic expression and imagination. “Joy and pleasure and gratification is something white people get. The history of this country, the sexual assault against Black women and reproductive exploitation, all of that tells us that our bodies aren’t ours, that we don’t have the capacity for joy or pleasure,” Tandile elaborated. “So yeah, we’re talking about sex. But we’re also reclaiming the right to feel good in our sexual lives.” 

 

Arriving at a women’s college like Barnard in New York City marked an exciting shift in the exploration of their sexualities. No longer battling the repression and respectability politics of their hometowns, Nyra and Tandile found a new world of erotic aspiration in college and a new community of friends with whom they could share their experiences. But it also quickly became clear to them that campus conversations about sex lacked the liberatory imagination that they shared, not to mention that casual encounters were not nearly as pleasurable as they had expected. “I feel like people definitely conflate caring about whether someone has a good time with deeply caring about another person,” Nyra explained; It all seemed cyclical, lacking a more critical perspective. In order to feel pleasure, or even to feel “like a human being,” she felt like she had to redefine the casual encounter completely, as well as the way we discuss it. 

 

Tandile expressed similar frustrations, adding that most people with vaginas, especially Black women, have been socialized to believe pleasure is a scarcity. She noticed that “In our age group, the way that we talk about sex, it’s like there’s a script. We talk about sex in very transactional terms, very heteronormative terms. It’s very normalized for pleasure not to be centered.” For them both, reclamation needed to involve analysis and diversified expressions of desire. 

 

Nyra is a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major, and Tandile is an Africana Studies major, therefore the dimensions of racial and gender justice were already inherent to their conversations. Since Nyra first encountered the work of Judith Butler when she was 17 years old, she’s had performativity theory and Audre Lorde’s quotes on the power of the erotic blaring in her head. As a self-identified “Reproductive Justice Girlie,” Tandile’s work upholds several pillars of sexual and reproductive autonomy for women of color. For one, Tandile works in sexual assault prevention with the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. She is also a doula and birth worker trained with Ancient Song Doula Services, which primarily serves Black and Latine communities in Brooklyn. “It’s hard because you’re working against an entire system,” Tandile confided about reproductive health work. 

 

Both Tandile and Nyra see their podcast as a radical and welcome disruption to the education they received growing up.  Nyra is from Coral Springs, where her teachers skirted around any topic deemed “sensitive” by Florida’s standards. Tandile grew up in Williamsburg, right next to the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia. Surrounded by whiteness, her Black Indigenous family always taught her about her roots to her ancestral homeland, to her history. It meant that every time her teachers would try to spew some false colonial history, Tandile was quick to raise her hand with an, “I know that’s bullshit.” She prides herself on having annoyed her teachers to no end. 

 

Nyra and Tandile are quick to disclaim that they are far from experts or sex therapists. Rather, the podcast is a pedagogical tool with which they learn about their bodies, their desire, how they fit into a sexual landscape, how they fit into the politics of desirability, and about role-playing in sex. The process of  figuring it out, and learning as they share, is  definitely part of the appeal. They want to build a sexual community that  lets people know that they have choices, and that they can enjoy their bodies however they like with consent. 

 

And so, the podcast is filled with thoughtful, radical conversations about pleasure, agency, and the racialized sexual body. Take Back Pleasure’s breadth of conversations covers the post-colonial projections of shame to the good/bad binary representations of kink, racialized understanding of desirability, queer awakenings, and intersectionality in queer spaces, porn, domination, submission, and power. 

 

Nyra and Tandile are adding to the expanding conversation on pleasure activism, or pleasure justice, a term created by Black writer and social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown. Pleasure activism asks: “How can we tap into our emotional and erotic desires to organize against oppression?” By tying racial justice to the right to joy and pleasure, finding collective liberation within personal liberation, questioning the politics behind fantasies, and being in conversation with the self, pleasure activism seeks to find an answer.

 

Beyond the intellectualizing, philosophizing, and  theorizing about their bodies, Nyra and Tandile are making space to laugh with each other about the absurdities of sexual life. Hence, the vaginal wash rant, the flavored condoms taste test (banana split was the surprising favorite), kinky “Would You Rather?”, recalling the days of under-the-covers Twilight fanfiction, the trials and tribulations of Hinge, and answering the proverbial Short King Question (How short is too short? Conversely: How tall is too tall?). 

 

It helps, of course, that Nyra and Tandile do not only imagine sex differently, they also imagine community and friendship differently. Throughout our conversation, they reiterated that while their sexual relationships were fascinating to them, friendship is the primary relationship in their lives. At the end of the day, Nyra and Tandile hope to find love within their found families outside of the heterosexual models of partnership: the kind of love they practice with each other as they share literally every thought that goes through their brain and become each other's “emotional safe haven.” In a society that is increasingly nonchalant, numb, and emotionally distant, it becomes difficult to connect with people in ways that don’t feel self-effacing. When sex becomes a transactional language that governs our interactions with others, friendship, love, and community becomes the language of resistance. 

 

Nyra envisions her future home to be somewhere in Brooklyn, maybe Bed-Stuy. She writes; she’s a storyteller. There's a 3-D scan of her vaginal canal that she hung up and her wall as art (because it is!), and 90s rap, her favorite genre, blasts from a speaker system. Not a drop of Summer’s Eve is to be seen. She lives with her friends and has deep relationships with all of them, approaches her relationships with intentionality, and laughs all the time. “It takes work for Black women because we don’t have that outside of our community,” Tandile asserted. “We are all we’ve got.”

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Campus Character

Mariame Sissoko

By Vivien Sweet

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There is an uncanny preference for the acronym at Barnard. Within the CCIS, the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies, a Barnard student can select one of four academic pathways, including ICORE/MORE, the Interdisciplinary Concentration on Race and Ethnicity and the Minor on Race and Ethnicity. (The other three are EHMC, F/ISTS, and NAIS.) Acronyms, evidently, beget acronyms. 

 

I can’t say I was surprised when Mariame Sissoko, BC ’24, asked that we meet at the offices of SLC and SGA, the Student Leadership Collective and the Student Government Association. As President of SGA, they spend most of their days under the office’s bright, fluorescent lights, with muffled strains of Troye Sivan blasting from Liz’s Place. 

Sissoko themself prefers to stay out of the limelight as much as the SGA President of Barnard can. On my way to meet them, I happened across one of their friends, who teasingly calls Sissoko “Madame President” due to their around-the-clock commitment to ensuring that the SGA’s more notable initiatives, such as the Binder Drive, come to fruition. When I mentioned this appellation to Sissoko, they merely blushed. 

Illustration by Selin Ho

Still, their reputation does indeed precede them. Sissoko co-founded projects that I had heard of even before I came to Columbia, like the 116th Initiative, a grassroots mutual aid collective that redistributes wealth to supplement students who are struggling to pay tuition, rent, medical bills, and other living expenses. As an FGLI student, Sissoko quickly assessed that Barnard would not be able to support them financially if they were to get into a car accident, for instance. “You can't preach about having low income students on this campus and then not give them the resources to exist on this campus,” they told me. “Education is, quote unquote, the great equalizer, but not really.” Hence why they co-founded the 116th Initiative: to help remedy the financial inequalities that Barnard inherently perpetuates. 

 

Sissoko has long been critical of Barnard’s misguided attempts to address the systemic inequity that permeates the institution. In their freshman fall, they joined a boycott of the then-mandatory Barnard class “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020,” which flippantly conflated the Black Lives Matter movement, COVID-19, and global warming in ten student-led discussion sessions and a short series of guest lectures. In lieu of the zine that was assigned as the final project, Sissoko and other students submitted a letter to the administration voicing their emphatic dissent against Barnard’s pedagogical approach to addressing racism. “I think I wrote the line in the letter: ‘We are not tools for white students’ education,’” Sissoko recalled.  

 

Sissoko’s subsequent academic pursuits were much more intentional and fruitful. They are no stranger to the abundance of Barnard acronyms: they are a WGSS (Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies) and medical anthropology double major with a minor in F/ISTS (Feminist Intersectional Science and Technology Studies). The lengthy terminology may sound awkward, but it aptly encapsulates the full breadth of their academic disciplines, much of which explores the complex relationships between gender, race, and society. 

 

To Sissoko, Barnard’s claim to be a “women’s college” is simply too truncated. Throughout our conversation, they emphasized Barnard’s need for more nuance and clarity regarding its institutional identity. When I erroneously referred to Barnard as a historically women’s college, they interjected, sighing: “No, it’s just a women’s college.” Barnard’s gender essentialist terminology felt archaic to Sissoko, especially given the portion of the college’s population that identifies as genderqueer or non-female. 

 

“In my perfect world, Barnard would quite literally be ‘Woman and,’” they stated. “I'm sorry if it feels clunky to say trans, genderqueer, [and] non binary … just because the language isn't there yet to describe what it means to be a non-cis man doesn't mean you shouldn't say it.”

 

I carefully observed that being a nonbinary student at a women’s college made Sissoko, in some respects, a walking paradox. 

 

“A walking paradox!” they exclaimed. “I always say I don't know if I would have identified as nonbinary so quickly if I didn't go to Barnard.” Because Barnard is largely devoid of the male gaze—“Obviously, Columbia exists,” they acknowledge—they found that they were able to explore what not being a woman felt like with relative ease, especially compared to the rest of the country’s general hostility to queer youth experimenting with gender. Like many of their peers, Sissoko unceremoniously changed their pronouns in their Instagram bio, and the next day, people were using them correctly. “[Barnard] is not a place where it's actually a big deal,” they remarked. “It's a big deal everywhere else.” 

 

Sissoko’s academic work reflects elements of their own ontological reckoning with Barnard. Their thesis seeks to articulate the fluidity and freedom that nonbinary people experience in contrast to the gender binary, regardless of how one presents physically. As a Mellon Mays scholar, they are also conducting research on the symbiotic relationship between Blackness and transness. “Why is [it that] the worst thing that you can call both a Black woman and a trans woman is a man?” they posited. “Because for cishet Black women, the idea of being masculine is something that is dehumanizing. It's monstrous, and it’s the same thing for trans women.”

 

As we spoke, I marveled at the steadfastness and clarity of their speech. Sissoko seldom repeated themself, save for a penchant for the phrase “laundry list” to describe plenitudes of things, whether that be nonbinary interviewees for their thesis or ontological conflicts with Barnard. And they are well aware of their tendency towards veracity, which is reflected in their approach towards their biweekly meetings with Barnard Dean Leslie Grinage

 

As tensions over Columbia’s involvement in the conflict in Gaza mount on campus, Sissoko has been emphasizing students’ frustration with the Barnard administration to Grinage. Administration needs to hear about the dissonance students are experiencing “a thousand times,” they told me. “Do not, do not take the pressure off in any regard.”

 

Sissoko is nebulously tasked with separating their beliefs from the nonpartisan stance required of them as SGA President, given that they must adequately represent Barnard students from all ideological backgrounds. SGA positions are paid via the Student Activities Fee, so they are “literally compensated by every single student on this campus,” they noted. 

 

That said, Sissoko is not oblique—and they don’t beat around the bush when speaking with Dean Grinage. “I don't mince words with her,” they said. They hasten to add that they are always respectful during conversations with the upper echelons of the Barnard administration. After all, a lot of trust is at stake. “Even when it feels like the things that are being done aren’t trustworthy,” they said resignedly. 

 

What I found still more extraordinary was Sissoko’s seemingly endless stamina. They concurrently conduct ethnographic research for their thesis and Mellon Mays project, help their peers through anxieties in their office, and continue their several projects for SGA. 

 

“I’m so tired all the time,” Sissoko confessed. As of late, the boundaries between being a college president and a therapist seem to blur. Maybe, I suggested to Sissoko, by virtue of feeling disillusioned by the adults at Barnard, students have found solace in them as a happy, neutral medium between the administration and their fellow classmates. Sissoko laughed wryly before remarking, “Which is funny, but I’m still a student.”


As Liz’s Place baristas began to close up shop, our conversation simultaneously wound down. When I asked Sissoko what self-care looks like for them, they told me that they do not have Instagram, TikTok, or Gmail downloaded on their phone—the last of which surprised me the most, as I could only imagine what their inbox must look like. 

 

Seeing that I was incredulous, Sissoko shook their head, “If you don’t have my number, it’s not urgent.” Amid their many commitments, they do truly seem to live in the moment. After going through a handful of flimsy disposable cameras, they invested in an Olympus point-and-shoot film camera to document fleeting moments with their friends in their final year of college. After graduation, they are fairly confident that they will pursue a PhD in typical Mellon Mays fashion—when and where that happens is up in the air. As of now, the goal is to finish their tenure as SGA President during this tumultuous period, and then rest. 

 

“I feel very disillusioned with this institution right now,” Sissoko admitted. “But I always have. I came in being like, ‘Rah rah. Let's do a boycott.’ It’s not like I’ve ever had rose-colored lenses towards where I’m going.”

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Campus Character

Kit Malloy

By Miska Lewis

Earlier this semester, pink flyers popped up across Columbia’s buildings advertising “Mother Tongue’s Inaugural Picnic: Columbia’s first and only literary translation magazine.” Kiley Karlak Malloy (she/they), BC ’24, co-founded the publication in mid-spring 2022 with Madeleine Lerner, BC ’25. At their first meeting on a warm Friday afternoon, the multilingual magazine staff sat cross-legged on Philosophy lawn. My roommates and I attended the picnic, excited to hear about the submission process and meet other students eager to translate a slew of languages. Kiley, reminding us several times that her homemade cookies were peanut-free, invited us to take from the pile of snacks in the center of the circle. Together with her co-founder, the two explained their dreams for the magazine, avidly encouraging us to submit.

“We put out something last night,” Kiley tells me proudly over coffee in the 111th Street Community Garden a couple of weeks later, referencing a collection of poems translated into English from Russian. “It’s from a student who isn’t a native speaker,” she says, “there’s a lot of beauty there.” “Russian is really hard, and she translated them with a lot of grace.” Mother Tongue hopes to release more translated works, compiling them into a finished online product at the end of the semester. 

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Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner

At the age of twenty-one, Kiley is already en route to polyglottal status. Latin, German, and Polish make up three out of the four courses on her class schedule this semester. She’s also been learning French since high school. Growing up in a German-Polish family in Philadelphia, Kiley always knew she wanted to learn her family’s languages. Broaching the study of language in college, she is now the only living member of her family who speaks German. She is working to translate a letter that her grandmother wrote to her great-grandmother in German into English. Kiley hopes to turn her nostalgic curiosities into a larger archival project with her friend Clarissa Meléndez, BC ’24, who is translating family documents from Spanish to English. 

 

Working with German, a language often stereotyped as angry or rough, Kiley finds joy in its simultaneous weirdness and beauty. She finds the language holds a kind of suspense that comes from verbs being placed at the end of sentences. The structure keeps you waiting for action. To push herself further, Kiley journals in German, hoping  to get to a place where she is living in the language, not just translating. “I’m always trying to get there,” she tells me. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

 

While this is her first time working with family letters, Kiley is no stranger to the art of translation. During her sophomore spring at Barnard, she translated Vegan Africa, an African cookbook by French-Ivorian author Marie Kacouchia. Kiley describes that spring as the busiest time in her life: for one month, she balanced translating the entire cookbook, acting in Circus Hamlet, and her schoolwork. When she wasn’t going over Shakespeare lines, Kiley would sit in a corner of the rehearsal room, translating spices from French to English and finding the best words to explain cabbage salad preparation. 

 

When she works on a longer piece, Kiley lives and breathes the text, interacting with each word intimately as she finds the complementary version in English. She describes getting “so close to the small intricacies of the language that you are kind of inside it.” Inhabiting German has made translating her grandmother’s letters bittersweet. On the one hand, there is so much joy in getting to know the years of her grandmother’s before her son, Kiley’s father, was born; on the other, this intimacy is only possible through a written record, since Kiley learned German after her grandmother passed away. While her yearning for a deeper relationship isn’t entirely fulfilled through translation, Kiley can share pieces of her grandmother with the rest of her family, creating relationships between her and newer generations using the written word. Years after the letters were originally postmarked, Kiley transcends linguistic and temporal boundaries, in turn becoming her grandmother’s mouthpiece. . 

 

Polish, the newest language in Kiley’s linguistic repertoire, is particularly sentimental. Having grown up in an area of Philadelphia where pierogies were found on every street corner and with a mother of Slavic heritage, Polish is home. Since she began learning the language, Kiley awaits a new world of literature; she explains that Polish word order is flexible, and thus naturally lends itself to poetry. According to a professor of Kiley’s, poetry is practically woven into Polish DNA, and with each word she reads in Polish, Kiley imagines translating the similes, metaphors, and allusions into English. During her time at Barnard, she has had the opportunity to discover a world of German poetry, and is now excited to do the same with Polish, connecting with her heritage through the form. 

 

I’m amazed at how seamless Kiley makes language learning appear. Despite the tedious hours involved in figuring out where one word ends and the other begins, Kiley speaks of the process with enthusiasm and love. Doubtless, she will soon be translating from Polish, bringing her work to the pages of Mother Tongue. After she graduates in the spring, Kiley hopes to open a chapter of the magazine at her next stop on the long road of graduate studies ahead, which will perhaps begin at Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland. She is drawn to Dublin’s slower pace, the area’s history, and the possibility of working with texts translated from the Irish language. When I asked if she wants to continue translating from French or German in the future, Kiley is eager to elaborate. “I would love to do both,” she confesses, “I mean, I just want to learn as many languages as I can.”

 

It’s a beautiful coincidence that the languages Kiley is most keen on learning are also the ones that are increasingly desired in the world of English translations. With Polish, German, and French under her belt, she is interested in making a space for herself in the over-saturated publishing industry by learning more unique languages, such as Romanian. Kiley is curious what similarities Romanian has with French, she says, as the “romance language that is the furthest East in Europe.” For now, as she enjoys a language-filled final year at Barnard, Kiley is working on translating Live Maria by Julia Kerninon, a story of a young girl moving from Brittany to Berlin who “has to advocate for herself in a language she doesn’t know.” Translating a novel opens Kiley to literary references which are fun “to play around with.” Kiley hopes to finish translating the French book soon and use it to draw publishers in, and say here’s my work, “you just have to edit it...” 

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Campus Character

Olivia Treynor

By Muni Suleiman

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Olivia Treynor, BC ’24, plays a version of Scrabble that transcends the dictionary. “I just think it makes it so much more interesting,” Treynor eagerly justified. “If you can give a definition and a root etymologically? Yeah, that’s a word!” I initially found these rules quite puzzling, but Treynor’s enthusiasm makes it hard not to be compelled.

 

Words, for Treynor, are inextricably tied to the concept of a game, to play. “One of my obligatory undergraduate laptop stickers says ‘Why Google? Let’s speculate,’” she joked. “I just love to play and wonder and not know. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s also a philosophy.” Despite this air of levity, Treynor’s catalog of achievements is quite serious. Her poetry, prose, and essays have appeared in publications like Vogue, Southeast Review, phoebe, and Document Journal. Most recently, she was named winner of The Columbia Review’s Spring 2023 prose award for her short story “I Love You Snakeface.”

 

Treynor’s interest in writing originates from her extensive experience in another medium: film. For seven hours every Sunday, she attended a San Francisco-based film workshop for three years during high school. She wrote and directed shorts such as The Goldfish (2019) and Tell Me Something (2018), and her work has been screened at festivals such as the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, the New Jersey International Film Festival, and the International Independent Film Awards.

 

Despite the success, and though Treynor enjoyed the social collaboration required of directors, she realized that she loved writing film treatments more. Treatments—though ultimately outlines for a script—are not too far from short stories, and they gave Treynor the space to work more directly with crafting the interiority that defines much of her writing.

 

Treynor’s shift from film to literature does not mean that she no longer cherishes the social aspect of art. Academically, she’s merged the social and artistic into a double major in anthropology and English with a concentration in creative writing. Moreover, her thesis is analyzing the “participatory theatre” behind producing publicly consumed stories about who is dangerous and who is safe within a larger analysis of white woman victimhood in the United States. It’s a project inspired by a lifelong enthusiasm for the horror genre, a serendipitous summer trip to Salem, and an epiphany during the city’s infamous Ghost Tours—her site of analysis.

 

“Tourism is really interesting to me: how to be a good visitor and how to show up in a place that you are not from and interact with local cultures,” Treynor noted. “How can you be an outsider, gather stories, and consume culture without it being extractive?” 

 

Her enthusiasm for travel speaks to how Treynor looks to expand the worldview from which she is writing. She doesn’t believe that storytelling must be a solo act: “It’s always an act of trying to reach across,” she said. This is key for Treynor, because—even in writing—it is easy to be misread. Even though language’s inability to entirely encapsulate feeling is “really painful,” she finds it “enticing” to try to get as close as possible. “To speak is to misspeak … I’m still learning how to speak and how to speak with precision and self-awareness,” she explained. “I’m just gonna fail a lot. That’s part of choosing to produce work that is critical and public.”

 

Moreover, Treynor dislikes the distance that can develop between author and audience in published writing, socially and temporally. Published writing can often give the impression that the thoughts of the writer or the questions that they provoke are final. Amongst other things, Treynor craves her work to be the start of a conversation.

 

A conversation of particular interest to her is the relationship of internet culture to writing. Raised in Silicon Valley by a parent who works in tech, Treynor felt the imposed sense of mutual exclusivity between tech and the arts in terms of industries, practices, and people. Driving past the former campus of Theranos daily, for example, granted her “a profound ambivalence” about the “manic promise of Silicon Valley” and the internet as a digital utopia. “I think that there is this idea that the internet is a perfect archive,” Treynor said. “There are gaps, fractures, collisions, and corruptions, and it is not a clean, perfect index of everything that’s ever been posted on it.”

 

Still, Treynor sees all the internet has to offer in today’s cultural landscape. A self-acclaimed aspiring cultural critic, she hopes to consider how the internet acts “as a medium, a mode of memory, and an artistic strategy” while not invisibilizing “the very political, infrastructural practices that make the internet possible.”

 

A personal essay that Treynor is currently working on exemplifies this aim. Inspired by Honor Levy’s Internet Girl, it experiments with hyperlinks to think about “the logic of memory on the internet” compared to her own memories as a child of the digital era. The project is also, in part, inspired by a family website Treynor once had that held numerous family memories. Understanding the false promise of stability that most people our age associate with the internet, Treynor wants to key into that strange feeling of entitlement and confusion we feel when there are known gaps of knowledge in the internet. She jokes about the disorienting experience of finding a previously viewed TikTok replaced with the dreaded “Sorry, this video is unavailable” message.

 

Perhaps then, it is this awareness regarding what is actually known—whether on the internet or on a college campus—that sets Treynor apart from the crowd. Treynor dislikes the emphasis she feels is placed on who you know over what you know (and what you can actually do) within the Barnumbia literary scene. This attitude, to Treynor, gives way to a false definiteness in terms of who or what constitutes a writer. Refreshingly, despite her drive to be one and belief in the need for them, she admitted that she still is not exactly sure what makes a writer a writer. “We’re all doing language all the time and making statements all the time,” she reflected. “Is it the writer’s job to not misspeak, or is it the writer’s job to misspeak and continue to iterate?”

 

One might find the never-ending questions about the role of writers from writers themselves to be fruitless, but within it Treynor finds hope; in fact, writing to her is “a discipline of hope.” Throughout our conversation, she proposed answers, each definitively delivered, at least for that moment: Perhaps, the writer is someone “obsessed with the precision of language” as a means to create stories of identity, nation, and society. Maybe, like the works of Saidiya Hartman or Adam Thirlwell, the writer is someone who salvages destroyed stories by generating new ones. 

 

Inevitably, this speculation gave way to contradiction. This is no new frontier for Treynor, who identifies as “anti-answers and very pro-contradictions.” Art, to her, is similarly anti-answers: “It’s about asking questions that you know will not get answered but that you want to ask anyways,” she stated. “Writing is not about knowing. It’s about asking … what we don’t know, we can probe towards.”

 

As we continued to probe into what being a writer means, I found one answer that Treynor threw into the wind particularly charming: Watching dogs and people interact on a busy Brooklyn street corner (as social scientists valorize doing), she explained, “In my anthro thesis, [E. E.] Evans-Pritchard says, ‘New situations [demand] new magic’ … That is what writing does, it gives us new magic, new explanations, for new moments.”

Feature

A Shabbat of Our Own 

Jewish Voice for Peace offers community for Columbia’s forgotten Jews. 

By Maya Lerman

It’s sunset, a woman announces. She places down bottles of Manischewitz wine as the finishing touches to the Shabbat table before taking a seat with the rest of us. Our conversations dwindle, then are rekindled with laughter as we each, in turn, try and fail to light candles with matches wet from rain. Once the fire is finally lit, a somber silence sets in. We cover our eyes and recite in unison: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam …

 

They are words in a language few of us speak fluently. I for one have regrettably forgotten much of the Hebrew I learned for my bat mitzvah years ago. But some songs—the blessing over the candles, the Kiddush, the Hamotzi—flow from my lips naturally, through rote memory. I know virtually nothing about the strangers sitting beside me, except that they, like me, had sung these songs time and time again, absorbing words, melodies, and traditions that had been passed down through generations. 

 

After Oct. 7, conversations surrounding Jewish identity, Zionism, and antisemitism were suddenly inescapable, my identity and values now the objects of widespread political debate. Perhaps most alienating of all was my utter inability to convey the gravity of my discomfort, the sheer force of my grief, to my non-Jewish friends. I was saddled with the burden of being the spokesperson for anti-Zionist Jews—tasked with educating myself, my peers, and my family—while simultaneously left to parse through an unfamiliar flood of emotions on my own. 

 

Jewish Voice for Peace presented a necessary outlet: a group of Jewish students who shared my values, my culture, and my grief. And so, on that Friday night in mid-October, I found myself seated at a table packed with strangers, adorned with candles and platters of hot food, immediately charmed by the bustling and lively scene of my first JVP Shabbat dinner. 

 

As the prayer ends and I open my eyes, I’m half expecting to see my grandmother smiling from across the room. Instead, I am met with faces I’m unaccustomed to seeing at the Shabbat table. Many are visibly and unabashedly queer, sporting gender non-conforming haircuts and jackets embellished with pride flag pins. More than a few are Jewish people of color—for once, I don’t feel my brown skin stands out. Some are wearing yarmulkes, others are wearing keffiyehs. 

 

My connection to my Jewish identity has always been somewhat tenuous. Judaism is matrilineal, but only my father is Jewish—as the poet Adrienne Rich writes in her seminal essay on Jewish identity, I too am “split at the root.” I don’t keep kosher, and only halfheartedly observe High Holidays. I am pro-Palestine. And, I am exasperatingly familiar with the discomfort of being the only person of color in an all-white synagogue, with the curious stares and probing questions it invites. Seemingly innocent inquiries (Where are you from? How did you find our temple?) take on a new meaning, as I am made to feel more like a tourist than a genuine member of the Jewish community. It is for these reasons that I have avoided Jewish spaces for much of my life, dreading interrogations into my politics, my ethnicity, or my observance. 

 

To my relief, no such inquisitions were made that Friday night. The atmosphere was undoubtedly politically charged, but each and everyone of us seemed to share an understanding that this was not the time to air our frustrations. We had protested, organized, and argued passionately with friends and family for weeks; this day of rest was to be our much needed moment of calm. Instead, we made idle chatter, spoke of food and family and Jewish humor, and enjoyed a rare instance of stillness in each other’s company. 

 

In their candlelit space, JVP provided an opportunity for me to reconnect with my Jewish identity, to find comfort and community in a time of trauma and alienation. A home-cooked meal ended up being the perfect emotional remedy for the stresses of balancing college life with the suffocating weight of politics. In the midst of an ever-isolating campus culture exacerbated by political tension, the community in that room was the closest thing to family I found since arriving at Columbia. 

 

Immediately after Columbia’s suspension of JVP, that sinking feeling of isolation returned. Perhaps I was naive to trust Columbia, the so-called protest Ivy, famous for its culture of civil disobedience and political action. Perhaps I was just experiencing the typical first-year student of color disenchantment prematurely. Regardless, my first semester has now been irrevocably tainted by the hard reality that this institution does not care about me or my identity, that free speech is only acceptable when it echoes the beliefs of those in power. In the flood of discourse surrounding antisemitism, Jews like me have fallen through the cracks. 

 

In the weeks following that Shabbat dinner, I feared seeing my face plastered on a truck reading “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites” as I walked down Broadway. I would whisper on the phone to my Jewish grandparents, afraid of being heard through thin dorm walls as I promised to be careful and keep my head down, assuaging their worries that I’d be suspended or placed on a no-hire list. These things follow you, my grandfather warned. His father lived through McCarthyism, witnessing firsthand how saying the wrong thing can do permanent, life-altering damage. 

 

This reality scares me, but it angers me more. It is endlessly infuriating that I have to fear simply writing an essay mentioning Palestine. I, too, am hurting from the horrific attack on Oct. 7; my family and I know people in Israel, and we worry for their safety. I, too, fear the rising rates of antisemitism, and desire for them to be addressed. But this is where Columbia wants Jewish discourse and healing to begin and end. My Jewish discourse calls for me to fight for social justice: I am compelled by tikkun olam, the Jewish call to “repair the world.” How, then, can I ignore the tens of thousands of Palestinians that have been killed over the past couple months? How can I honor my ancestors who were forced from their homes in Eastern Europe without standing against the displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? How can I passively and silently go about my day while my school and my country fund war crimes in our name? 

 

When Columbia says they are committed to protecting Jewish people against hate, they have a specific type of Jew in mind—the white, politically expedient image of a Jewish student that myself and many JVP members simply are not. Jewish people are not a monolith: We don’t look the same, we don’t all have the same political beliefs, and we hold vastly different personal feelings toward Israel. Those of us who are Black or brown and Jewish—who are all too familiar with racial discrimination as well as antisemitism—know that Columbia’s efforts are not nearly enough. Columbia is not protecting us when they escalate police presence on campus on the days when we organize a peaceful protest or art demonstration. They are not representing us when they create a “Task Force on Antisemitism” without a single professor from Race and Ethnicity Studies, MESAAS, or even Jewish Studies on its leadership. They certainly are not defending us when they suspend the one group on campus that reflects the ethnic and ideological diversity of its Jewish students, especially given that many JVP members feel uncomfortable and unwanted in other Jewish spaces. 

 

Of course, JVP does not need an official affiliation with Columbia to host Shabbat dinner. We can each contribute a dish on our own budgets instead of a home-cooked meal, and find space in the cramped apartments of members or the basements of special interest houses. The conversation, the prayers, and the company will be the same, perhaps even with bolstered spirits as we turn to each other for the support our institution won’t grant us. Yet something will be amiss. Even the symbolic act of recognition holds power; without it, it becomes painfully evident that the Jews of JVP have been left stranded by our school, labeled as mere political agitators and simultaneously rendered invisible, as Jewish people all too often are. 

 

Columbia’s suspension of JVP was a reminder of our position on the fringes, a blatant attempt at sweeping the existence of anti-Zionist Jews under the rug. But while Columbia turned a blind eye, the broader Jewish community mobilized like never before—in the form of Columbia University Jews for Ceasefire. Inspired by similar initiatives at universities across the country, Jews for Ceasefire spared no time taking JVP’s place as the primary organizer of Jewish-led pro-Palestinian actions. The members of Jews for Ceasefire come from a vast variety of political affiliations, in contrast to the explicitly leftist tilt of JVP. Regulars at JVP Shabbat can often be found attending Jews for Ceasefire alongside the whiter, more conventional crowd of Jews more typical of American Jewish spaces. As a result, the students at any given Jews for Ceasefire meeting each approach Zionism differently, hold different views on Jewish identity and observance, and often disagree on long-term solutions in the Middle East. Jews for Ceasefire’s mission is twofold: They are united against violence in the region, and are unyieldingly supportive of the right of anti-Zionist Jews to voice their opposition to Israel. 

 

If there is a silver lining to the suspension, it is the way Jews across the University (and beyond) have rallied behind JVP at Columbia. There are still many Jewish students staunchly against any anti-Zionist organization like JVP; but Jews, like any other people, have never held a consensus on political matters. As more and more Jewish students demand that JVP be reinstated, and call on Columbia and Barnard to recognize that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, the diversity within Jewish identity and belief is made all the more visible. 

 

I am grateful for these political victories, however small. I am moved by the acts of defiance and bravery from my Jewish peers—from the students at Brown University Jews for Ceasefire who were arrested for their sit-in; to members of JVP who shut down the Manhattan Bridge in late November; to every Jewish person who risked hostility from their families or communities for attending protests, joining boycotts, or signing petitions. Still, part of me laments that our identities have become so contentious. In the current social and political climate, Jewish voices hold particular power on university campuses, a power which comes with an oftentimes laborious and unasked-for responsibility. 

 

In the turbulence of a generation-defining moment, of the emotional intensity thrust upon those of us sharing in our Jewish identity, it becomes all the more crucial to create spaces of community and belonging. Feasting on steaming bowls of matzo ball soup and fresh-baked flaky challah, bottles of wine draining as the night goes on, each of us momentarily forgetting our chaotic lives as we are immersed in the pleasures of cozy company. Even after the tables have been cleared and the wax candles have burnt down to their wicks, that sense of solace remains—a light shining bright in darkness. 

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Illustration by Emma Finkelstein

shabbat

Feature

Revolt of the Nerds 

Unionization at Hex & Co. sets off a chain reaction among NYC board game cafes.

By Eli Baum

If you’re a real board-gamer in Morningside Heights, you don’t walk down the block to Hex & Co. to buy Monopoly or Scrabble. No, you come to play: For $10 a head, you can spend the entire day immersed in a seven-player simulation of World War I or an esoteric German game about producing wooden cows and pumpkins. If you’re into Magic the Gathering, there’s a good chance your life revolves around the shop; game nights are hosted three times a week. Staff members transform into Dungeon Masters on Wednesdays, and Dungeons and Dragons fans file in accordingly. The shop offers books such as Call of the Netherdeep and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. If you so desire, you can browse the colorful vat of four-sided, eight-sided, and 20-sided dice.

 

Beneath the coffees and pastries, the birthday parties, and the occasional co-working session, something is stirring.

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Illustration by Oonagh Mockler

On Sept. 26, about a dozen Hex & Co. workers gathered at the front of the store’s Upper East Side location. Employees read one line at a time from scraps of paper. They presented demands, complaints, and personal experiences with the seasoned voices of people who have dealt with drunk adults and hyperactive seven-year-olds alike. And then: “We, a supermajority of Hex Workers, are here to formally request your recognition as the Hex Workers United.” 

 

A tall man with a goatee stepped forward and held out a small stack of papers. Dr. Jon Freeman, one of Hex & Co.’s owners, accepted the employees’ petition, cocked his head, and began flipping through. The workers asked for the owners to respond by email and chanted as they filed out: “The workers, united, will never be divided.” The three customers left in the store watched in confusion. But for the employees at Hex & Co., a battle had begun.

 

Unionization officially begins when workers create a petition or sign union authorization cards and present it to ownership, and not always as theatrically as above. (Really, the process begins long before that: barista Caide Cooley, the originator of the effort at Hex & Co., started pushing for unionization in December 2022, the effort took off in August 2023, and Workers United, the broader union that Hex Workers United organized with, got involved in Sept. 2023.) The owners, in this case Freeman and co-owner Greg May, can voluntarily recognize the union. Otherwise, the workers or the employer can file with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote over whether to unionize. If the union becomes official, the owners have to “bargain in good faith” with a union representative about their demands, drawn out until both parties reach an agreement. (What does “bargain in good faith” mean? Great question. No one knows.) 

 

Freeman and May decided not to voluntarily recognize the union. They sent an email that same day telling their employees that they did not believe the workers got the signatures for the union petition fairly, and that they had not heard both sides of the story. 

 

The employees responded with escalation. They sent out a petition to the community, which garnered over 1,000 signatures. The workers all wore pins to work on “pin day.” They confronted Freeman and May on the sidewalk outside of the store

 

The nerdiness of the staff came in handy. Cooley described the union’s graphic design team as “insanely good for no reason.” The workers’ Discord channel is filled with questions like “how can I equate union action to an anime or [Dungeons and Dragons]?” Cooley, a self-identified nerd, told me that “if you like spreadsheets, you should be a union organizer.” When I asked Cooley if the owners are nerdy too, he said that his distant bosses embody “the bad part of nerd-dom.”

 

Reverberations of unionization began to spread to other board game cafes across New York City. On Nov. 1, The Brooklyn Strategist, a board game shop owned by Freeman, demanded union recognition. On Nov. 4, The Uncommons, owned by May, demanded the same. A month earlier, a number of Hex & Co. employees had taken the train downtown to The Uncommons to suggest that their peers push for unionization in parallel. 

 

As the unionization effort expanded, so did its support. The Workers of Cards Against Humanity union sent the Hex & Co. employees a letter expressing their approval. Tolarian Community College, a Magic the Gathering YouTube channel with over 900,000 subscribers, tweeted out its support for the employees of The Brooklyn Strategist.

 

Looking to reverse the effort’s momentum, Freeman and May began taking individual employees into the basement of their stores and giving them impassioned PowerPoint presentations. Workers describe the subterranean encounters: The owners claim that under a union, employees would be required to wear a uniform and managers wouldn’t be able to let sick employees go home. Employees also describe the owners saying that their own lives, along with their business, will be ruined by unionization. “Which is awkward,” says a Hex & Co. barista. “And intimidating.” 

 

In a Brooklyn Strategist staff meeting that was secretly recorded by an employee and then posted to Twitter, Freeman claims that he is not allowed to give out raises or promotions during the unionization process because “them’s the rules.” “Them’s not the rules,” an employee responds; employers can give out raises during a unionization process as long as they have the union’s consent. Freeman and the worker go back and forth on this stipulation for a considerable period of time. “Your attorney will speak to mine,” Freeman concludes coolly. 

 

 

When the Brooklyn Strategist was created, it wasn’t much more than a small room on Atlantic Avenue, but that was 10 years ago. With five New York locations between the two owners, few employees get to know the owners personally. (Two workers, on separate occasions and in different stores, cracked the same joke to me about the aloof owners thinking that their name is some variation of “Can I have a latte.”) In one meeting, Freeman tried to argue that unions are only necessary for businesses with absentee owners and transition management. Christine Carmack, an employee at the meeting, describes the point having the opposite of its intended effect: “I do think [these] are terms that describe The Brooklyn Strategist.”

 

Almost every employee I talk to mentions “the books.” Cooley gives me a rendition of an imaginary exchange between the workers of Hex & Co. and the owners: “‘We can’t give you more people.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Oh, because of the books.’ ‘Can I see the books?’ ‘No.’” The anti-unionization arguments at Hex & Co. seem to be built upon numbers that only upper management can access. 

 

But beyond the evasiveness of the owners and resulting frustration of the workers lies a deeper conflict. When I asked barista and occasional Dungeon Master Killian Lock why he came to work at Hex & Co. he looked me in the eyes and said: “big-ass nerd.” The fight over unionization is intertwined with a larger philosophical rift between the workers and owners. 

 

For the owners, the entire endeavor is one big strategy game, and they are focused on the board. (See: the game “Acquire.” Highly recommend. But seems to turn people into greedy capitalists.) Yet, a good board game goes beyond the board—it’s also made up of the people around the table, the relationships they develop, and the story that gets told. That’s how the workers see it. Many of them live together in the same few buildings which they call the “Hex Houses,” where they play endless board, card, and roleplaying games. “If you believe in saving the Kingdom in your Dungeons and Dragons game,” says barista Jackie Whittle, “you should believe in saving America and saving blue-collar workers.”

 

Freeman and May “want a mill of employees who come work for a year or two,” says shift supervisor Gabe Chazanov. “But the fact is, given how passionate people are about the hobbies, you do get people who stick around and who would like to make something like a career out of this.”

 

And it’s not only Hex & Co. No one wants to admit that a life that pivots around Magic the Gathering and Marvel movies is a life spent worshiping at the altar of some corporate executive trying to figure out which cards and which superheroes will make the most money.

 

 

My middle school afternoons were spent playing board games at The Brooklyn Strategist. Later on, I worked at the store. Freeman, meanwhile, opened three board game shop locations over the course of a decade. We would meet again years later, over Zoom, on the Friday after the unionization election took place.

 

Freeman went through his journey: running a small board game shop in Brooklyn, co-founding Hex & Co., and growing it into the three bustling locations that exist today. He provided me with various tips about small business ownership. He says to always buy used equipment at auctions, although the degreasing process can take a week. But don’t buy used fridges. “I used to joke [that] my nickname should be Mr. Wolf [from Pulp Fiction] because I’m called on to solve problems,” he remembers.

 

When it comes time to talk about unionization, he asks to go off the record because “every instance of reporting so far has … made Greg and I out to be these ogres.” (This, I think, is one of the nerdiest ways of describing bad press known to man.) He occasionally goes back on the record to make a statement about how “unions have had a very important role in our country’s work-history” and “running a small business in New York City [is] painfully hard.” He’s learned what to say and what not to say.

 

I can imagine workers wavering during his PowerPoint presentations—he’s quite persuasive. As I look at Freeman through the Zoom screen, I think that he might not be an ogre. He’s just a guy who likes numbers a bit too much, and he’s upset that no one is listening to him.

 

He gives me examples of small businesses that have unionized and then failed, business theories he’s read about in journals, and explanations about the math of retail. “How much do you think it costs to open up a business like this?” he asks. “$50,000,” I say, innocently, more to get the conversation rolling than anything else. He laughs.

 

For a moment, I question everything—maybe ownership is right and unionization is wrong and the business is going to fall apart under the ravages of the union.

 

I think back to all the people I’ve spoken to. Whenever I ask about the purpose of Hex & Co. as a business, its employees seem flustered. It’s not quite a cafe, nor a board game retail shop; neither is it simply a place to hold Magic the Gathering tournaments, nor a place to play board games, nor a location for afterschool programs.

 

I remember when I first entered the shop’s Upper East Side location, where all this began, almost a month after the first union confrontation. A millennial was playing Dungeons and Dragons with three elementary-aged children. (“Just punch him,” says one of the kids. “Run at him, and punch him.”) A group of four bought a board game called Root because they liked how the pieces looked; they opened the box to find three rulebooks explaining the game. They switched to Clue instead. Two men sat in a corner playing cards while they drank beer. Hex and Co.’s product, really, is community.

 

What happens, then, when the shop is no longer a mom-and-pop store? What happens when a haven for gamers has to be viewed through the lens of “the books”? What happens when employees, customers, and ownership are all forced to confront the fact that their nerdy community is really a for-profit company?

 

From the moment when the original petition was signed by almost the entire staff, I think that unionization was inevitable at Hex & Co. Beneath the workers’ organized attempt to work toward unionization, there was a deeper frustration. The workers and community members are not a number in some accountant’s books on some imaginary desk somewhere: They’ll confront the owners in the street. Business, it seems, will be played out beyond the game board. 

 

 

The NLRB election for Hex & Co. employees took place on Nov. 14, exactly a week after Election Day. The shop was mostly empty except for two kids with Pokémon cards and a group playing a game involving birds. At 2 p.m., employees trickled in, walked to the back of the store where Freeman sat on his laptop, and descended into the basement. Many employees avoided eye contact with him. One glanced at Freeman for a moment, and the two exchanged a look that seemed loaded with meaning. 

 

After six weeks of presenting petitions and confronting ownership in the street and dealing with basement PowerPoints, the vote was relatively quiet. Some workers stayed for a coffee after voting. I left. The vote went until evening.

 

They counted the ballots an hour after the election. The unionization effort won 50-16, making Hex Workers United an official union.

revlt

Measure for Measure

Going Home

Madison Hu

when the light turns red, he will go home

 

in the meantime,

three friends walk

arm to arm

the baby is on his father’s shoulders

and it is nothing he can’t defeat yet

 

later, he will only recognize digital turns

 

the last time the signs

were this block-red

someone else 

knew what it meant;

he replays sinking 

desperation swirling in the laundry 

spinning out the dirt accumulated from knee scrapes

 

he will rely on his bones instead

 

the face he owns melts 

softer than when he was a baby 

and the woman who fell in love 

too long ago

sometimes forgets sweet things

 

in the end the light will turn red 

 

and the couples upstairs

will housewarm every year 

to ad infinitum 

and the community garden will bloom

in the winter.

 

in the meantime, cracks in the brick of Apartment 4C let in light (and other particles)

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m4m

At Two Swords’ Length

Do You Know My Secret?

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Illustration by Isabelle Oh

Affirmative: 

 

By Dominic Wiharso

 

Word travels fast. If you don’t want something spreading around, it’s in your best interest to lock that shit down. Not a peep. See, I’m only six degrees of separation away from Kamala Harris—it’s no biggie, or whatever—and apparently my Twitter presence is a serious “liability” to her campaign. That is to say, you better be two steps ahead of the skeletons in your closet. Those secrets might bite you on the ass later on.

 

Look, I know. Greed got the best of me and I compromised my morals. I can’t believe who I’ve become. No, Dominic, I tell myself. You did the right thing. Anyone in your shoes would have done the same. Ignore me, let’s get back to the scandalous story at hand. 

 

It’s late November and Riverside is a shadow of its summer self. After I finish my nightly ritual of exchanging witty banter with the raccoon colony—and smoking the mysterious weed left on the ADP pool table by some undergraduate “interdisciplinary artist”—I return to the notorious coed frat, descend the rickety basement stairs, and cozy up under my hand-dyed Etsy duvet. Josh, who by this time is usually sound asleep in his Snoopy PJs, is nowhere to be found. I relish the peace and quiet. You know how Josh likes to talk talk talk. Usually, it’s fine, but God, some nights, he won’t quit yapping about whatever the IFC was showing that week. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t care.

I fall face-first onto my bed, inhaling the lingering musk. Mmm … boysmell. Our room, well yeah, it kinda smells like boy. So what? We’re two virile young men, of course our room smells like something. It would be weird if it was sterile. We wear deodorant for God’s sake, just not to bed. Who even does that? It would be a waste and I don’t know about you, but I’m balling on a budget. Wait, what did you ask? Oh right, the secret! I had to go looking for him—I realized, already in my pre-REM-ASMR-rain-sound stupor, that Josh had forgotten to take his cholesterol medication.

 

Me and his mom have this secret little arrangement. Josh is a busy boy. He has a lot on his mind. Between editing a literary journal and, I don’t even fucking know, raising money to build homes for homeless elephants in Thailand or something, he doesn’t have a lot of free time. He also has pretty bad chronic cholesterol (from his dad’s side, obviously) and has to take his pills before 11:59 p.m. But what makes matters worse is that he hates swallowing pills whole. His mommy used to hide it in his food, but now that he’s moved out, well, it’s up to me. Exactly two weeks and four days before moving in, I got an email with the subject line “URGENT.” Apparently, his mom emails all of his roommates before move-in. In exchange for her peace of mind and the health of Josh’s cardiovascular system, she pays me a royal fuckton. Let’s just say it covers my portion of work-study and then some. Also—and this has to stay between you and me—but she lets me use her timeshare in Turks and Caicos. 

 

There was a lot at stake for me, alright? Don’t give me that damn look! You would have done it too. Anyone would have done it! Have you seen how white and soft that sand is? No one will take that boho-chic seaside villa away from me. Not even a runaway Josh Kazali. So now I was in the business of tracking down a missing person: a 5’10” Wasian with a penchant for meandering. How was I supposed to tamp down the wanderlust of a 20-year-old English major? Put a leash around his neck and walk him to Book Culture?

 

God, I can’t even believe how I found him. It’s embarrassing really. My olfactory senses, if you couldn’t already tell, are quite strong. I’m like a bloodhound. I follow his scent (the aforementioned boysmell) around campus with a glass of water in my right hand and the Duane Reade pill bottle in my left, hoping to God I don’t lose my only source of income. Strangely enough, the aroma trail loops back to our basement dorm which was sold to us as “Timothée Chalamet’s former dorm … see, here’s a picture of him hosting a party in there … lowkey for the size it’s not a bad double.” At this point in the night, I’m fuming. I slam the door open … lo and behold there he is. Smug and without a care in the world. Time to let the cat out of the bag.

 

Negative:

 

By Josh Kazali

 

You think I have time for secrets? No, I have no time for such trivial things. Not when I’m on the dawn of my greatest breakthrough. 

 

Oh yes, I know about my little Dom’s charade with the pills. He thinks they’re for cholesterol, the imbecile. No, no, my dear mother had me taking them since I was a child, because the doctors feared for the multitudinous dangers I posed to society. But mommy isn’t here anymore. I switched them out for sugar pills months ago, and now my mind is sharp as a blade. At last, without those damn pills, I’m free from my intellectual shackles. Without that pill dulling my cognitive processes, I can finally stretch my mental limbs. I can actually feel the gray matter of my massive, muscular brain flexing when I think. Its tendons are taut and supple and eager to work—do you know what that feels like? Of course you don’t. While Dom sleeps in his cheap, flea-ridden twin XL, under his shabby, unwashed duvet, I am awake, unraveling the rich mysteries of the natural world. The philosopher’s stone, the secret to eternal life and death itself—all are within my grasp.

 

Dommy has bought my English major schtick, can you believe that? Those foolish articles for The Blue and White are my playthings, little notes I jot on the toilet between my experiments. I’m almost insulted. He hasn’t seen the plans laid right beneath his nose. 

 

The basement room—you really think I was enticed by that ridiculous story they spun about that little malnourished boy? No, no. The subterranean location, free from greedy little undergraduate eyes, and drowned in the blaring music of ADP jazz night, hides the sound of buzz saws and drills and chemical explosions: It’s the perfect place for my secret lair. Sometimes I can’t help but smile at my own genius, hiding my creation under the smelliest literary fraternity this side of the Hudson. No one has noticed the festering odor rising through the floorboards from my laboratory, deep beneath my room on 114th St.—the byproduct of my experiments. It’s comical, really. He thinks it’s body odor, the poor thing. I almost pity him. Each night, I imagine waking him from his innocent slumber to show him where boysmell really comes from. It would blow his mind.

 

Yet my neurological capacity is reaching its apex—my synapses can no longer handle the speed at which my thoughts move. I have stopped attending my classes entirely, and hardly sleep or eat. My skin grows cold and pale from the harsh lights under which I pore over microscopes; my eyes are bloodshot. You speak to me of news? I haven’t seen the sunlight for weeks, I haven’t felt the soft touch of the breeze since September. Sometimes, I dream of living a regular life above ground: returning to the ranks of my peers, hearing of the trivial, minute dramas of daily life, eating a slice of pizza in the pouring rain. But the work must be done. Soon I will shuffle off this mortal coil, and my mind will rejoin with the heavens, embracing the atomic assemblage from whence it came—but today is not that day.

 

No, today is the day of my greatest achievement. I have made a discovery that will make Robert Oppenheimer look like a toddler playing with wooden blocks. Today will be the day that everyone knows the name of Joshua Kazali—a name which henceforth will strike fear into the hearts of mankind. The calculations are final; the cauldron is ready for its marvelous task. It only needs one thing: a human sacrifice. That, of course, is where my old friend Dom comes in. 

 

In many ways, I’m sad to see him go. He was an old friend of mine, from back when my senses were being dulled by the damned pill. We laughed, cried, and shared stories. He was a good roommate. But science isn’t forged on friendship. It’s forged through sweat and blood. This is what I tell myself as I scale the ladder and return from the laboratory, collapsing on my dusty, unused bed. It’s only a matter of time before Dom returns, and we meet our fate. 

 

Oh look, here he comes now. He slams the door. He’s holding the glass of water, and the pill he thinks will stop me. I can’t help it. I feel my face contort into a cruel smile. Whatever little knowledge he holds in his brain—whatever insignificant scrap of information—nothing can save him now. 

ats;

Essay

Out of the Margins 

Annotation as a transgressive and generative practice.

By Tara Zia

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Illustration by Emma Finkelstein

“This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.” Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

 

It began, as many things in my life do, with an impending deadline and an impulsive purchase. As I strolled down Broadway on a bright September morning, I was reminded of the former (my Contemporary Civilizations reading) when the latter (a weathered copy of Plato’s The Republic) crossed my path. After a pleasant exchange with the sidewalk bookseller, I strutted down the block, $8 lighter but armed with the promise of Platonic wisdom. 

 

It wasn’t until that evening that I realized I had unwittingly purchased a limited edition of the text. The former owner of my book had shared their views through a rather vigorous succession of annotations. Etched into the margins of most pages in navy blue ink were a series of detailed notes: exclamation marks for emphasis, emotive reactions, and an abundance of questions. Standing in this literary arena, my own reading of Socrates’ questioning of his peers was layered with the intermittent shouts of this reader’s questioning of Socrates. I was thrust into a metaphorical family dinner; I had a front row seat to a three-way discourse between the text, the previous reader’s notes, and my own. As I read, I became increasingly invested in the reactions of this anonymous reader, perhaps even more so than in Socrates’ own words. 

In May 2019, Victoria Wohl, author and Classics professor, delivered University College London’s annual Housman lecture, a talk titled “The Sleep of Reason” in which she analyzed the representation of sleep and the philosophical soul in Ancient Greece. Wohl notes that in The Republic, “dreaming/waking—appears frequently to denote Plato’s distinction between the insubstantial world of phenomena and the enduring truth of the Forms.” In Wohl’s terms, Plato calls out how we unknowingly “sleepwalk” through our lives, merely viewing but not processing our surroundings. On sleep, Plato questions, “And he who, having a sense of beautiful things, has no sense of absolute beauty–of such a one I ask, Is he awake or in a dream only?”

 

In my copy of The Republic, the juxtaposition of each line with the surrounding annotations stuck with me. Each annotation, no matter how banal or absurd, was an attempt at interaction. Each mark was a monument to the reader’s physical occupation of the world of the text. As a humanities student, some days I feel that I must be close to reaching my 10,000 hours badge of expertise in close reading. On others, I face an acute numbness when staring at texts into the late hours of the night, aiming to extract meaning and, if unsuccessful, discarding my attempts in the dustbin of my consciousness. I realize in these moments that with each text, I am, in a sense, relearning how to read. 

 

Therefore, inspired by the fervent Plato reader, I wondered why I had disregarded annotation as nothing more than my middle school English teacher’s most prized form of torment. After all, some impulse must compel readers to deface texts, to engage in the silent conversations and confrontations that will never leave the margins of the page. How does this defacement of our physical copies bring us closer to an awakened form of knowledge? 

 

 

While the exact origins of annotation are unknown, the instinct to revise has permeated human history. A digital exhibition entitled “The History of the Book” considers early cases of annotation from the late 1400s to 1870. The scribbles in the exhibit range from editor’s revisions to reader’s remarks post-publication, scrawled onto texts and printed in inserts.

 

Ultimately, the exhibition concludes that the reader’s alterations to the text reflect how “the book as an object is not fixed … its existence is fluid and unstable, allowing adaptations tailored to the reader or publisher’s individual purposes.” Through this lens, the book becomes less of a stable entity and more of a malleable space for the reader to transgress. 

 

Intrigued by this premise, I spoke to Nicholas Dames, Columbia’s Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities, about how annotation transforms the relationship between the reader and the novel. “Annotation is a relationship to the physical fact of the textual object, and the fact that that physical object has a lifespan,” he explained.“That lifespan might very well be longer than yours.” Dames suggests that annotation is not a solitary practice but a living relationship. He continued that the annotated book becomes a “weirdly irreplaceable object,” as the reader has become embedded within it. 

 

A preoccupation with the text’s physical form and the meaning conferred by mark-making drove my exploration. Professor Rachel Adams, a professor of English and American Studies at Columbia, pointed out that I may be better served in my quest to explore the history of marginalia rather than annotation. Marginalia, I soon learned, is annotation’s bolder, more exciting cousin, a term used to describe more personalized forms of annotation. Famously described by Edgar Allan Poe in an 1844 essay, marginalia is an opportunity for the reader to “talk only to ourselves; we, therefore, talk freshly—boldly—originally—with abandonment.” Marginalia allows a level of abandonment, an unrestrained digression from conventional reading, that gives way to rebellion in the margins of the text. 

 

As a senior in high school, I developed a mild obsession with political graffiti. I cannot say what exactly prompted this, but I recall it culminating in my low-budget foray into filmmaking; an iMovie-edited 30-minute documentary about graffiti on the world’s most contentious border walls. Graffiti skulks in a society’s margins; much like marginalia, it physically alters and disobeys the codes of the urban space while simultaneously highlighting the most pressing inequalities within that space. 

 

In the essay “Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book,” Cambridge professor and author Jason Scott Warren explores the enigmatic and unruly nature of early forms of annotation left by early modern “marking readers.”  This framing was initially coined by William H. Sherman, who argues that many notes left in the early modern books “do not qualify as annotation … [and] might better be described as graffiti.” Akin to spray paint on a wall, some scribbles revel in their rebellious quality, which seemingly “trespasses” onto the body of text. Such records span different types of marginalia, from “fragments of verse” to “sassy records of ownership” to “enigmatic phrases.” For instance, the essay references a 17th century woman’s marginalia on a copy of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In verse, she wrote: “Elizabeth Rotton, Her Lot is to be neat”. Alongside Juliet’s rebellion against her parent’s wishes, this “woman in the margins appears to be telling the story of her own conformity.” Rather than fading into obscurity, the text housing Rotton’s reflection is considered a seminal piece of ‘Shakespeareana’ and is housed at Yale University

 

Warren located similar examples in Bibles owned by Native Americans of Massachusetts Bay in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For instance, the line “I Nannahdinnoo this is my book. I own this forever. I bought it with my money” was found inscribed in the Algonquin Massachusett language into an English Bible written in 1685. This annotator’s preoccupation with ownership was likely embedded in the historical threat of its removal, and broader erasure of the annotator’s identity. Warren argues that such an inscription suggests how “property, propriety, and literacy are mutually reinforcing.” The annotation is a psychological and cultural artifact, not just a literary one. 

 

Ultimately, the essay describes graffiti in today’s society as a “celebration of self.” It is a project to make one’s mark (often repeatedly) across the urban space. In a way, annotations are precisely that: a marking of one’s presence at that moment, saying, “I was here.” Just as modern graffiti artists imprint themselves upon a space through tagging, so do annotators make a statement about the interaction of the form with their identity.

 

But if marginalia has the potential to be a transgressive, even radical, practice, how is it able to do so? Across my conversations, I identified two leading qualities that have historically transformed annotation from a solely comprehensive practice to a creative one. The first is privacy. The comfort of knowing that no one will see your comments (or attribute them to an author) allows them to be creative. The second is a necessary treatment of the book as a disposable object. Professor Dames explains that once a text is treated as such, “only then you can add your graffiti to it. You would not annotate a statue or a medieval painting at the Met because the object is simply too valuable.” In academic environments, we often lack both criteria for rebellious annotations: annotation assignments require explicit quotas of comprehensive annotation, and students often sell books back at the end of the year. Our lack of privacy and inability to view the book as a disposable object often inhibit us from annotating with the “abandonment” that Poe advocates for. Therefore, in our academic consciousness, annotation does not offer an obviously radical or creative mode of engaging with a text. This is a loss. In the words of Professor Dames, annotation poses “a route out of pure passivity. And it may be the best route out of that.”

 

In the modern age, as the physical book has dematerialized, annotation has become an increasingly collective and digitized practice. Within my research, I came across the practice of social annotation, a collaborative marking-up of texts in the digital space. Digital platforms such as Genius have enabled users to comment on the margins of all contemporary cultural artifacts, from songs to poems to political speeches. In the 2016 election, the Washington Post partnered with Genius to digitally mark up presidential debate transcripts. 

 

Digital annotation has mixed reviews. Professor Rachel Adams explains that on one hand, it has a democratizing effect: “If you end up writing something that ends up published, there are many people who made that possible. And we have this post-Romantic idea of authorship where … we give one person credit for something, so I love the idea of building that collaboration into the form itself.” On the other hand, critics decry the unreliability of digital annotation sources and argue that it compromises the privacy which safeguards creativity. Adams muses that “people get very concerned with online labor,” so compensation may become more complicated in texts that use “many, many people’s labor for one author’s text.”

 

Ultimately, we do not have to choose which of annotation’s benefits to reap. Annotation does not fit under a catch-all. It encompasses intensely personal notes and the radical marginalia, but also the diffusely collaborative practice that allows strangers to peer edit a novel or fact-check a Presidential debate. Our power as students lies in our ability to unify these practices: the personal, the transgressive, and the collaborative. To annotate our books with the same intensity as the earliest readers, but also, when possible, take advantage of the diverse viewpoints made accessible to us by the digital age. 

 

 

We are culturally conditioned to skim. To glance, perhaps even to “sleepwalk” through the content we consume. Professor Dames explains that technological innovations dating back to the Industrial Revolution have “wanted us to encounter particularly textual objects, but a whole series of objects, in a much faster and more frictionless way.” Faced with AI, which can generate analyses within seconds and the infinite scroll of social media, we have more to look at than ever before. Yet we have forgotten how to notice. This is what makes annotation so counterintuitive; it breaks up and slows down a process that could be faster and more efficient. Annotation offers a way to counteract the pervasive numbness of media consumption in the digital age. 

 

I began this essay with a quote from the text Reading Lolita in Tehran, which details the story of a group of women engaged in a secret book club of banned texts. Nafisi writes, “The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.” In this line, she presents the dual promise of good literature: the escape from reality and the newfound understanding of it. Depending on the context, this, as with Nannahdinnoo and his Bible, can be a groundbreaking act. 

 

In academic contexts like Columbia, possession and access to knowledge are not radical, but our comprehension of it can be. Studying annotation reminds me to confront the imaginary wall constructed between me, my coursework, and the world I occupy. When reading a text about justice in Contemporary Civilization, we need to think about not just its pure abstracted form, but also how it has and has not manifested on our campus and world. Annotation allows us to enter into that conversation at the most fundamental level by awakening us to our presence—not just the “I was here” but also the “I am here.” By entering the margins and physically occupying that space, we can create a sense of accountability between the self and the novel, and between the novel’s ideas and the spaces we occupy. 

mrgns

Feature

He Cut That Cake With a Knife

What happened to Columbia’s linguistics department?

By Eva Spier

The Columbia University linguistics major is a transplanted organ of sorts, currently embedded within the Department of Slavic Languages. This detail, its position within another department, is indicative of a period of absence. The last time it stood independently was in 1981, and its lively assembly produced the Columbia School of Linguistics, a renegade linguistic theory founded by the late William Diver. The department was small, as linguistics departments often are, but its students were eager and professors fervent. However, this all changed in 1981 when Columbia’s administration abruptly decided to suspend the department. During my attempt to understand the current iteration of linguistics at Columbia, I discovered that its predecessor was much like a snow globe: internally oriented, enchanting, and—unfortunately—very delicate. 

The former department was organized by three senior faculty members: William Diver, GSAS ’53, Robert Austerlitz, GSAS ’55, and Marvin Herzog, GSAS ’64. Students were divided into separate streams to be advised by one of the three. They all antedated and consequently clashed with Chomsky’s revolution, the swift mainstream trajectory of generative linguistics, but their similarities ended there. Diver was concerned with language as a form of human behavior, Austerlitz dealt with Uralic and Altaic languages, and Herzog with Yiddish language mapping. These diverse interests pushed the scholarly norms of their time. In the late 1950s, Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was the shiny new toy that every linguist wanted to play with. His school of thought was quickly adopted by universities around the U.S. and soon became the predominant method of studying language. Chomsky proposed that language was the expression of innate grammatical structure in the human mind and that when language expresses irregularity, it is mere deviation from a true framework. For many linguists, the prospect of language exhibiting some kind of universal subconscious was a giddying one. 

“If you were a graduate student, Chomsky’s way of doing linguistics was pretty much the only respectable thing to do,” reflected Joseph Davis, GSAS ’92, a linguistics professor at City College of New York and William Diver’s last student. Davis warmly agreed to detail the department’s waning days. “In 1982, Chomsky’s monopoly on linguistics was so great that I was literally warned against studying with Diver at other places,” Davis remarked in a small office overlooking the campus’s blazing trees and stone towers. He paused, amused: “They said, ‘Oh we’ve heard of him. Watch out!’” 

Diver, a seasoned linguist at that point in his career, was not convinced by Chomsky’s newfound popularity. “In fact,” Davis smiled, “Diver was editor of the journal Word at the time [...] he actually rejected some papers by Chomsky, because he found that they didn’t make any sense.”

 

Whereas Chomsky believed that language could be categorized by appealing to syntax, the structure of sentences, Diver was far more interested in semantics, how sentences express meaning. This might seem natural today, but at the time it was considered to be a controversial stance. Take the sentence: “He cut the cake with his wife.” Now, consider: “He cut the cake with a knife.” The meaning of the word “with” has shifted from conveying cooperation to conveying an instrument. Finally, consider: “He cut the cake with a smile.” The word has shifted once more to signify accompaniment. Alan Huffman, GSAS ’85, another one of Diver’s students insisted, “It is the shift from ‘knife’ to ‘bride’, not the putative polysemy of with that effects the change in message.” In other words, communicative intent shapes the speech pattern, not a coexistence of meanings in the word with. Diver found inconsistencies in syntactic categorisations of language like this one, and condemned their dismissal as fluctuations of the language. These aren’t quirks in the language, they are the language. 

Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner

The department’s intellectual independence drew in students who were disillusioned with their former education in linguistics. Anthropological linguist Ellen Contini-Morava, GSAS ’83, completed her doctorate under Diver’s advisory. She explained to me that Chomsky’s “idea of creativity was ‘I can create an infinitely long sentence by adding more and more parts.’ That didn’t seem like creativity to me.” When she took Columbia’s field methods course, the class learned the structure of Cambodian just by conversing with a native speaker. “That was so exciting to me. It was just so interesting to think about language that way,” she said. Davis echoed a similar excitement. He discovered linguistics in his final year of college, but only began to resonate with the discipline during his search for a graduate program, when he found himself talking to Diver for two hours despite not formally being his student. My conversations with Diver’s students led me to believe that these absorbing moments were the most remarkable part of the department. 

 

Davis spoke of Diver favorably, telling me that there were often long pauses in his lessons. Diver conducted himself seriously and thoughtfully, letting his students sit quietly for long minutes if his lesson so provoked it. This contemplation proved fruitful as students’ curiosity flourished beyond class time within Diver’s informal evening seminars. Diver worked on his theory privately, so it took one of his students, Flora Klein, GSAS ’72, to propose the idea. According to Davis, she stopped him in the hall in 1968 and asked, “Professor Diver, I hear you’re doing some really interesting stuff. Would you tell us students about it? Can we talk about it?” The meetings originated as a way for Diver to communicate his work to the students, but soon students began presenting their own research to the group. These seminars often ran over three hours long, after which the students would relocate to a pizza place on Broadway and animatedly continue their discussions late into the night. 

 

Students were invited to these Thursday evening seminars by Argentinian Assistant Professor Erica García, GSAS ’64, the catalyst of the department’s shift. García was fiery, charismatic, and outspoken—a legend. What made the most resounding impression on everyone I spoke with was her sheer intelligence. Davis recalls declarations from his peers: “‘She had a mind like a steel trap!’” In a similarly favorable manner, Contini-Morava remembers being intrigued by García’s teaching, “She went through all of these theories and trashed them all. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what does she believe in?’” Finally, towards the end of the semester, García mentioned, “‘Well, if you want to know what I really think, then come to this seminar!’”

 

In a series of recorded lectures García gave at the University of San Juan in 1994, her charisma is palpable through the screen. Donning a white button down, grinning slyly at her students, she introduces herself by recalling a Russian myth of a fox and a hedgehog. The fox knows how to do many things, whereas the hedgehog only knows how to do one, but well. “I think, over the years, I am a hedgehog,” she says. “This is a way of, let’s say, glorifying ineptitude. I am a very limited person, I have very limited interests and ideas, and I try to sell them as if I were a hedgehog.”

 

The next logical step for García was to apply for tenure, and so she did. But, of the three senior faculty, only Diver supported her incorporation. She was not hired for the position, a decision which students protested furiously. Davis remembered hearing that García’s rejection “was damning.” Contini-Morava and other graduate students became angry. “Our feeling was that the reason they didn’t accept her was that she was a woman who spoke her mind.” She continued thoughtfully: “She was abrasive, and they didn’t want to have her as a permanent colleague. And I think her abrasiveness might have been excused if she was a man.”  This marked the first fissure in the blossoming department.

 

When García was denied tenure, it signaled to the administration that the department wasn’t hiring any new professors. In what followed, this stagnance added onto two other problems. First, the department wasn’t drawing in as many students as they would have liked, and second, the Columbia School of Linguistics sharply conflicted with schools of thought across the rest of the country. For the administration, the department seemed to be at a dead end. In a student interview from 1989, Diver expressed frustration at the idea of the University eliminating a department it didn’t fully understand: “People outside the field are not in a position to judge us.” The Executive Committee admitted two months later that they had “not consulted any outside linguistics experts for an objective evaluation of Columbia’s department.” With the information they had in 1981, the administration decided to suspend the department, leading García, as well as most of the senior faculty, to relocate to other universities. Students remember the department’s closing days as tense, but cordial. The administration continued to meet with the shrinking division, while its professors and students found safe passage to neighboring linguistics programs. 

 

Professors are denied tenure all the time, and departments remain intact. The fact that García’s rejection had the impact it did reveals that there were already underlying tensions within the department. Gillian Lindt, GSAS ’65, then Dean of GSAS, contended in 1989 that the professors’ specializations fragmented the linguistics department into separate streams, but Diver contested that specialization in small departments appears as fragmentation more than it would in a department with more professors. Departments may be formalized by blackboard-fronted lecture halls and neat curricula, but professors are the heart of every department. And professors cannot be standardized, not their lectures nor their characters. The linguistics department was run by real people, and therefore susceptible to personal disputes and differences in opinion. These aspects are characteristic of any healthy department, yet this one was penalized due to lack of relevant protocol.

 

The University’s decision exhibits its astounding capacity to function as a business rather than as a place of higher education. Had a disagreement of the same nature occurred in the physics or political science departments, the administration would likely not have disbanded them so hastily. Fiscally, it tracks that when budgets shrink, the departments making the least amount of money should be cut. But is Columbia not first an organization endowed with the responsibility of preserving the liberal arts before it is a fiscal enterprise? The fate of the linguistics department foreshadows the attitude, persistent today, that anything other than a pre-professional subject is a mere embellishment in the world. According to this attitude, theoretical subjects, at their worst, distract from pre-professional ones, and at their best, supplement them. If this sentiment continues to take root, universities risk abandoning academia altogether while manufacturing employability with the efficiency of a fast food restaurant.

 

But worthwhile causes have a funny way of resurfacing. The Columbia School of Linguistics lives on, as if the department branched off and continued independently, including the seminars where members regularly present their work. Students continue to show interest in the field; today’s “Introduction to Linguistics” taught by John McWhorter exposes nearly 300 students to the subject annually. He confesses his love for the subject in The Language Hoax, where he writes: “If you want to learn about how humans differ, study cultures. However, if you want insight as to what makes all humans worldwide the same, beyond genetics, there are few better places to start than how language works.” 

 

Diver’s school of linguistics calls out instances where the natural order of language looks disrupted, refusing to simply dismiss it as clutter. It is similarly important that we call attention to and carefully examine the disruptive history of the linguistics department at Columbia lest we dismiss it as clutter. 

 

García told her students in a University of San Juan lecture, “Don’t ever forget, the text never makes a mistake, the text is always right.” The suspension of the linguistics department in 1981 is not simply a deviation in human behavior we can dismiss, it is an important indicator of how departments live and die. Garcia finished, “and when [the text] gives us bad results, then it is us who didn’t know how to interrogate.” 

knife

The Shortcut

Teeth and Zoology: A Fable

By Avery Reed

sorcut

Auburn, New York, 2022

It’s Sunday afternoon and you’re knitting again. The oxygen machine whirs and you swat the air as a fly passes. You remember how to knit but you don’t remember much else these days. Your fingers know the stitches but when I ask you to hold my hand you look confused, as if this steps out of bounds somehow, or you can’t remember the significance of this gesture.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m reading a book about another, more complete, love story. 

 

New York City, 1963

When you found me, I was called Rayan, but ever since, I’ve been Ray. It must have been nearly one in the morning in a dark club in downtown Manhattan. I lay there on the floor covered in thick wet dance, when your stiletto pinched my finger between the concrete and my eyes stung for a second until they met yours. You smiled your apology. I saw your teeth and knew I would need a new name, as if my old identity was perhaps too lazy to entertain such extraordinary company.

The Rabbit & The Swan

 

The rabbit meets the swan on the edge of the pond. They are both late, but elegant nonetheless. They exchange niceties as old friends and embrace with the ferocity of lovers. They fly together—the rabbit perched lightly on the swan’s left wing. One long leap into the ether where they’re ensnared in a swamp of stars, as if trespassing on their own love story.

 

Moral: Love looks better in the moonlight. 

New York City, 1963

I didn’t see you again until two weeks later on the night shift at the zoo. You worked the Birds of Prey and I cleaned the cages in the Himalayan Highlands. That night, my foxes were sick so I asked the walkie talkies if anyone had extra pine or cedar shavings. You said your birds had some to spare. Then you picked me up. 

 

“No way! Ray, right?” 

 

We walked the length of the zoo, up through World of Reptiles, down Tiger Mountain, up and over Congo Gorilla Forest, and back to the Himalayan Highlands. The animals paced, their tongues lashing. 

 

We lay down in the cedar shavings and laughed until morning. 

The Parrot & The Eagle

 

A parrot and an eagle walk into a bar with first date nerves. They chat for hours. He mimics other lovers and she makes jokes. He can only respond off topic (the man next to him is a contractor of sorts and is conversing about wood and other physical materials). She thinks this is hilarious and takes him to bed. In the morning, it is just the two of them. There is no conversation to copy. He is silent. She plucks her feathers absentmindedly and asks him, politely, to leave. 

 

Moral: Love is funny when you’re drunk but very serious in the morning. 

Auburn, New York, 2022

You let me hold your hand tonight on the way to dinner. I tell you about the time we took our lunch break to kiss in front of the tropical birds. You laugh. You say you wish you’d been there to see it. You were there, Vera. 

The Shrew & Her Shell

 

A shrew dreams of life at the bottom of the ocean. She dreams so hard that her fur turns to scales so she can swim in tandem with the fish. The shrew finds love there and wants to stay forever in the dense silence. Eventually, she wakes up. Of course, no one believes her about the colorful fish or the silence. When they laugh at her ocean story, she opens her paw to show them the sand and shells gathered there. 

 

Moral: If you are waiting for someone to tell you the moral, read the story again. 

New York City, 1967

In November you told me I was “forceful.” Or, more accurately, that I “forced you to get the canaries.” 

 

Looking back, I agree it was not a good decision, but in the heat of a very dull moment in our relationship, I had no idea the canaries would escape, or that you would cheat, or that I would be left standing in the living room with an empty cage and nothing to say.

 

Yes, of course I would stay with you.

No, I did not want to know the details. 

Yes, I knew who Tori was. 

No, I did not care that she was “an artist.” 

 

I’ve kept a meticulous record of our arguments. My lines are always the same, but yours keep getting faster and more complex.

The Tortoise & The Peregrine Falcon

 

 

 

and yet, 

 

 

Moral: If you listen to them slowly, they sound similar.

Screenshot (1).png
Screenshot (1).png

Auburn, New York, 2022

We walk the same path every morning. Some of the other couples have walkers, some have large rubber bands tying them together at the wrists so they don’t get lost. You and I walk just far enough apart from each other that our hands don't brush. We never get lost. 

 

But today, you were gone. 

 

After hours of searching, I found you in the field, alone, surrounded by a flock of small yellow birds. From a distance, it looks like you are frantically beating the air, threatening to snatch their wings. Your legs are bent but your face is turned upwards. You’re screaming. As I get closer, I realize you aren’t screaming, but singing. You’re reaching for the birds as if begging them to stay. I stare until you hold my face and point to the birds. 

 

“I told them you were coming. I found them, Ray.” I don’t know how you remember my name. 

 

When the birds are gone, you let my hand drop. Our bodies are limp and far enough apart to tell me the moment is no longer happening.

 

There is, very rarely, a moral to this story.

Illustration by Betel Tadesse

Essay

In Search of Lost Pints

A bar crawl through Columbia’s history.

By Josh Kazali

As happens to so many of us in our short Morningside stint, some friends and I decided that the best use of a sleepy October evening would be a few rounds of board games at Hex and Co., the Upper West Side’s favorite (read: only) board game café. Yet, instead of concentrating on the massacre of my troops in Risk, I found myself distracted by the walls surrounding me, searching for the remains of the old West End bar.

 

The West End Café existed in many iterations between 1911 and 2006. It was “where Columbia had its first beer,” where Kerouac and Ginsberg stayed till closing, where Dizzy Gillespie soloed, and where the student dissent of 1968 was first murmured. It was the breeding ground of counterculture and poetry, powered, of course, by plenty of booze (I’ve heard rumors of long-gone dollar-beer Senior Nights). Now, as I coughed up eight bucks for a table, I desperately sought any lingering relics from the old joint: an old photograph, a battered chair, some scrap of a bohemian past. 

 

When living in a city predicated on newness, it can feel like no beloved campus spot is sacred. That night, I felt robbed of a wonderland of cheap beer and conversation, with Settlers of Catan feeling more like insult to injury than consolation. The diagnosis: Columbia’s campus bar problem. In the deep sea of New York’s bars, speakeasies, and clubs, how can any single watering hole carve out a unifying space? In an ever-Newer York with ever higher rent, how can a “classic Columbia institution” endure? And, more importantly, where the hell am I supposed to grab a drink in all this mess? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A quick consultation of the Columbia Daily Spectator archives reveals that my frustration is nothing new. In fact, it seems like lamenting the loss of the West End is as much a part of Columbia tradition as the bar itself ever was, inducting me into a long lineage of bitter bar-hoppers. 

 

In 2006, the West End was bought by Cuban restaurant Havana Central. The move prompted Brian Wagner, CC ’06, to write a satirical Spectator essay titled “The West End Falls to Communism,” describing the massive blow to campus culture: “While you may feel inclined to gnash your teeth, rend your hair, and scream like a banshee, none of those will help. We are losing ‘the bar.’” Amid the histrionics, there’s a real sense of loss. In a New York Times article published that April, CaraMia Hart, BC ’87, says the West End was the backdrop for her life milestones, where she celebrated her graduation, her marriage, and even when she closed on a condominium. “‘Anybody who attended Columbia, anybody who attended Barnard, is going to mourn,’” she told the Times. “‘It was an intrinsic part of any Columbia University experience.’”

 

Yet Havana Central was not the mighty establishment that slayed the campus bar. By many accounts, it was already dead. In December 1989, Joshua Botkin, CC ’92, proclaimed “The End of the West End” in the Spectator as the bar changed hands, reopening as the more upscale West End Gate. The article charts the bar’s struggle throughout the ’80s in the face of changing times and an unfriendly Columbia administration. The Board of Trustees, which still owns the building, had long awaited “one of the higher-class establishments they apparently felt appropriate for Morningside Heights,” and when the bar’s lease expired in 1988, jumped at the opportunity to put a fresh coat of paint on the West End. A photograph shows a somber gathering of regulars, downing their glasses in the ultimate Last Call that one patron said “seems like death.” Out with the dim lighting and cheap drinks, in with high ceilings and $10 cover charges. By the time of the Cuban revolution of 2006, the only thing that remained of the Beats’ West End was the tile floors.

 

My quest for Columbia’s sacred bar amounted to little more than a dead end, a ghost of a ghost of a bygone era. Like the ship of Theseus, the vibe that once proliferated had been swapped, sold, and shifted until all that was left was the name. Then that changed, too.

 

 

In the beginning, there were students. The students studied very hard and built up a whole lot of steam, and so the students said, “Let there be booze.” The students drank the booze and saw that it was good. Thus, the campus bar was born. 

 

The Morningside Heights student bar problem dates to the turn of the 20th century, before Allen Ginsberg was even a twinkle in Mrs. Ginsberg’s eye. When campus migrated from Midtown to Morningside in the 1890s, students found themselves severed from their beloved institutions, most notably the billiards room of The Buckingham Hotel on 49th St. Surveying the beerless expanse of the upper 120s, Mike Coleman, a waiter at the Buckingham, saw an opportunity; it was at Mike’s Tavern, not the West End, where Columbia (as we know it) had its first beer.

 

Mike’s Tavern, initially known only as “the College Tavern,” lived where Union Theological Seminary stands now. Mike himself said, “There was no cafe where members of the university could meet,” according to a 1938 article in Columbia Alumni News. “That’s what the tavern is here for now, and it’s here to stay.” In March 1898, when Grant was still fresh in his tomb, the tavern was constructed out of discarded building scraps and began serving a thirsty population of Lions. Beloved by students for its mint juleps and sherry cobbler and hated by local temperance papers for its revelry (“Damn the faculty” was the refrain of the tavern’s most popular song), the tavern had a brief and bright life, closing in April 1902 due to a fire.

 

Perhaps that fire cursed the Morningside barscape with 150 years of tragedy. By the 1930s, alumni of the ’90s (1890s, mind you) were already bemoaning the good ol’ days when beer was cheap and cold. In 1932, when the West End was garnering popularity, Spec published a piece written by a Columbia alum who recalled the beloved tavern: “Here in the barrenness of the first days of Morningside, the drabness of classes was pleasantly broken by frequent visits to the coziness of Mike’s Tavern, where they were assured a royal welcome.”

 

This anonymous nostalgic voices a bitterness that I found startlingly familiar, writing that “the college drinkers of today are a bunch of sophomoric softies” compared to “the discriminate palates of Columbia men of the nineties.” Trade three-piece suits for baggy denim and windbreakers, and “Columbia men of the nineties'' could just as easily be from the 1990s. Clearly, our campus bar problem is nothing new; with the constant stream of trends, spots, and fashions, maybe it’s just a part of being a student here to feel out of step with the Broadway pace. Perhaps the solution might lie even closer to home. 

 

Maybe you’ve heard the whispers over late night milkshakes and fries or seen the faded black-and-white photographs of men in suits, but it’s semi-secret knowledge that JJ’s Place used to be the John Jay Pub, also known as King’s Pub. The brainchild of Livingston Hall (now Wallach) floor counselor Geoffrey Cummings, CC ’75, the Pub dispensed alcoholic beverages, accompanied with a proto-JJ’s cheeseburger. Though Cummings received some University backing and sourcing for employees, the bar was run by and for students. “We’re running at cost,” he told Ray Patient, CC ’76, for Spectator. “Any profit will be reinvested.” 

 

On the night of its opening on Jan. 26, 1976, Patient reported that “the economy and convenience of the pub make it a welcome alternative to the local bars, which, as Cummings remarked, ‘are getting out of hand in a lot of ways.’” With $2.50 pitchers of Heineken and a proximity that couldn’t be beat, the excitement of the student body was palpable. “Its potential for bringing together the derisive groups, long needed at the university, grant King’s Pub the prospect of becoming the hottest place on campus,” Patient wrote.

 

The Pub exceeded Patient’s expectations, slowing the taps of neighboring Morningside bars (including the withering West End) and prompting some unhappy bar owners to call the Pub’s privileged position and slim profit margins “unfair.” The demand quickly led to a need to expand beyond the bar’s 180-person capacity, and by the Pub’s reopening after renovations in 1981, the joint was packed with over 400 students writhing on a raucous dance floor and imbibing plenty to boot. “The place was drunken and energetic and filled with smoke and the smell of stale beer,” wrote the editorial staff at Spectator.

 

Yet, as you should probably expect by now, nothing gold can stay. In this case, it was the 1985 legislation that raised the drinking age from 19 to 21 that would doom the John Jay Pub. “Another Columbia tradition has died,” mourned John Oswald, CC ’88, in Spec. Columbia College Dean of Student Life Roger Lehecka, CC ’67, TC ’74, even spoke on the matter, stating that closing was inevitable: “We can’t violate the law.”

 

Though its spirit lives on in impromptu revelry on Low Steps or the elusive Lerner Pub which graces the senior class once a semester, the John Jay Pub was lost to the annals of history, the halls of which are growing awfully crowded. 

 

 

When someone says, “History is doomed to repeat itself,” I tend to think of the big picture: wars, dictators, bell-bottoms. But after poring over sepia-toned web pages for hours on end, I recognized the mechanism of history at its most mundane. I started predicting the ebb and flow of campus bars, from those rosy early days of free-flowing liquor, all the way down to shamelessly nostalgic alumni op-eds. Are we any different? How long until we’re those alumni, sighing about the things the new guard will never understand? Lagers at Arts and Crafts, a frozen marg at The Heights, bottomless mimosas at Amity—sooner or later, all these will become meaningless to Columbia students of the future, just as the Buckingham Hotel is to us. 

 

When you find yourself having an existential crisis trying to decide where to buy an overpriced gin and tonic, maybe it’s time to take a step back. If history reveals anything, it’s that the inevitable demise of a campus hangout hasn’t stopped people from having a good time. Geoffrey Cummings and the John Jay Pub, Mike and his tavern, even the bohemians of the West End—these respites of excitement and energy were never inherited, but forged and fostered by engaged communities of drunken Lions. Our relationship with this campus is effortful, and what we reap is what we sow. 

 

Instead of eyeing the glass we’ve been given and debating whether it’s half full or half empty, we should all take a swig before closing time. If that task is Sisyphean, so be it. I’d certainly rather drink a beer than roll a boulder. 

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Illustration by Hart Hallos

lost pints

The Conversation

Edward Mendelson

Don’t cross the intersection. 

By Sagar Castleman

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Illustration by Hart Halllos

Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of W. H. Auden’s estate, the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities, and a contributor to The New York Review of Books. He’s been a heavyweight of the Columbia English department for over forty years, and those who have taken a class with him are familiar with both his passion for literature and his idiosyncrasies. Every Mendelson syllabus ends with a lengthy list of items forbidden in his classroom, including baseball caps, televisions, passive-aggressive questions, and “internet-connected eyewear.” In the Review, Mendelson writes mainly about Auden and Virginia Woolf, his two favorite writers. But since 1988 Mendelson has also been an editor at PC Magazine, where he writes technology articles like “Function Over Flash: The Top 10 New Features of MacOS Sonoma.” 

Mendelson probably won’t like the previous paragraph very much: He agreed to talk to me on the condition that I not ask him “anything at all about myself—nothing about my career, nothing about how I came to be interested in this or that, nothing about anything that focuses on myself.” I tried my best to comply. Instead of his life, we talked about why John Williams’s Stoner is an evil novel, what it means to treat a book like a person, the problem with interviews, and whether a good professor needs to be a little bit of a clown.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

The Blue and White: I wanted to start with something that's been getting a lot of attention in the press recently, which is this idea of the death of the humanities. Just a few days ago there was an article in The New York Times that said, “For years economists and more than a few worried parents have argued over whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate now seems to be over, and the answer is no.” One commonly cited statistic is that from 2011 to 2021, the number of English majors in the country dropped by a third. Why do you think this is happening? And is it something you are worried about?

 

Edward Mendelson: I'm not worried about it because it seems to me that people taking courses doesn't mean anything. It's persons teaching other persons that means something. I continue teaching my courses and students seem to be moderately interested in them. One can't rule one's life by statistics. You can't change anything that you do because a statistic says it's not popular anymore. 

 

B&W: That makes sense. But wouldn’t it be possible for you to continue teaching what you're teaching and still be concerned?

 

EM: If I were worried about it, I couldn't do it. Teaching is an intense one-to-one activity, even if there are 80 people in the room. The fact that 10 million people are not doing it makes no difference to the one-to-one activity in the room. Should mathematicians be really worried that there are only six people who can do advanced mathematics in the entire world? I don't think so. They're just going to go ahead and continue doing their math. 

 

B&W: You've been at Columbia for a long time. Have you observed a change in how the humanities are taught?

 

EM: I think everybody gets nostalgic about the past and thinks that everything was better and made sense then. That's always false. Academic emptiness, tedium, status seeking, have remained constant forever. And the fact that no one remembers what it was like in the 1970s doesn't mean that it was better in the 1970s. To the extent that there is a change, some of it is caused—and I'm not saying anything of the slightest interest—by the economy. When people have to worry about whether they're going to be able to feed themselves and their children, they're probably going to think twice before going into a field that they won't get paid for pursuing. Everyone knows that.

 

B&W: But that in itself is a recent change, because it implies that there was a time when people could go into the field confident in their prospects and now they no longer can. 

 

EM: Right. That's certainly the case. Forty or fifty years ago, no one who went into graduate school worried about getting a job.

 

B&W: What would you say to someone who’s passionate about the subject and is considering going into it, but is unsure about the prospects?

 

EM: The more passionate you are, the more of a chance you have to get a job.  One of my colleagues in the department said, “When I was teaching at some other university, we interviewed a candidate who was so passionate about his dissertation topic—the poet he was writing about—that he recited one of that poet’s poems by heart in the interview.” And someone said, “What did you do?” And he said, “What could we do? We hired him.” 

 

B&W: Do you think that's still true? 

 

EM: I think it's extremely true. It's one reason I think medievalists have an easier time getting a job. Because you would not become a medievalist if you were not passionate about it. No one ever thought, “I’m going to become a medievalist and get rich or have power in the university.” 

 

B&W: So do you think that as we get closer to the literature of the present, the chance that people are pursuing less out of passion and more out of some other reason becomes more likely?

 

EM: It's possible. Certainly the people who study the fields where they're never going to be asked to write a column online about the subject matter or give a TED Talk, they're more likely to be passionate about the subject.

 

B&W: That reminds me of one of the most moving portraits of a professor that I’ve read. I'm sure you’ve read Stoner, and it seems like—

 

EM: It's an evil book.

 

B&W: Oh, you don't like it? 

 

EM: I think it’s an evil book. 

 

B&W: Why?

 

EM: Everybody thinks it’s such a wonderful book. But it’s a book that encourages the reader to identify with Stoner and say, “All I do is love Renaissance poetry, but everybody hates me and everybody is out to get me. And I am being defeated by this, that, or the other person, and everything that goes wrong in my life is somebody else's fault.” Stoner is entirely passive in that book. He does no wrong. He’s a perfect human being, but he's got evil enemies. And I think the invitation is for everyone, every failed academic or everyone who feels they're not appreciated, to say, “Yes, I am like him. I just love the truth. And look at all those evil people getting in my way and destroying me.” I realize I'm the only person who has this reaction to Stoner. But I think it is a temptation to narcissism and wounded vanity.

 

B&W: If it brings people comfort, is that such a bad thing?

 

EM: It's a bad thing to think that what goes wrong with you is somebody else’s fault. By the way, successful academics love it too, because what they want is world domination and they’re not getting world domination. I’m being extravagant. But I think giving comfort can be pernicious. Say, for example, you broke your arm and you went to the doctor and he said, “Let me give you a painkiller. You’re fine now. Go away.” Stoner is a painkiller. And Williams’s other novels have the same quality. A passive victim of evil people. And I realize that it's a book that is universally loved, which I think is a sign of how deep people's sense of “Nobody understands me” is.

Also, Stoner likes literature for the beauty of it, which is basically the same as saying about other human beings, “I love you for your looks” and not caring about all kinds of other moral and ethical issues.

 

B&W: But isn’t that what Wilde and Pater thought? Isn't there a whole school of thought that says—

 

EM: Yes, there is, but I think in Wilde it's much more interesting because he connects it to things like social movements and socialism, the equality of human beings. If you look at Wilde's political writings, you see that he takes [literature] extremely seriously as a means of personal liberation and social justice rather than admiring beauty. He’s not simply sitting there and saying, “I'm above all those terrible, messy things and am just interested in beauty.” He’s saying, “I’m interested in making what I delight in, which is self-making, available to everyone in the world.”

 

B&W: And what is self-making for him? 

 

EM: It’s the ability to make connections with other human beings. Wilde is very much interested in human relations. Auden has a line somewhere saying, “It’s always the gourmet or the art collector of the detective novel who is the murderer.” And there's a moral point there. The person who simply loves beauty is indifferent to the reality of other human beings. All great artists despise aesthetes by the way, because all great artists know that art is not enough, that there's much more going on than art in the world. The aesthete says, “I just care about the beauty of the thing.” And what that means is that their response is so deeply limited, but they persuade themselves that it is superior to anyone else’s.

 

B&W: Do you think—

 

EM: The questions that say “do you think” are always a trap. Because if I agree, then I’m always agreeing to something that somebody else wants. I advise young faculty that if someone says, “Would you agree that…” the answer is always no, because the question is a trap. If I agree to this then I’m going to have to agree to something else.

 

B&W: I’ll rephrase. It seems like the way that you're proposing we look at literature—connecting it to human relationships and to social relationships and even political relationships—is the beginning of the path to the politicization of—

 

EM: Every time you walk down the street, there are beginnings of paths going in different directions. It doesn't mean you have to follow them.

 

B&W: Right.

 

EM: Acknowledging that human beings have psychology and inner lives doesn't mean that you're turning into an obsessive Freudian. Acknowledging that a work of literature can talk about social subjects doesn’t mean that you’re about to suddenly start talking about how the only reality is political.

 

B&W: Yeah. And is there a spectrum that goes from—

 

EM: No, there’s no such thing as a spectrum. Just individual persons doing different things.

 

B&W: Would you say that they’re opposites? Sorry, is “would you say—”

 

EM: [Laughs] No. To any question that you say, “would I say,” the answer is no.

 

B&W: Okay. Let’s switch gears. I wanted to ask you about technology. You’re very anti-technology in the classroom. And I don't want to get too biographical, but I know that you're an editor at PC Magazine, where you write reviews and how-tos. What do you think the role of technology should be in the classroom? 

 

EM: I’ll talk about this in another way. I know someone who was dating, and said that when his date over dinner took a photograph of the main dish and posted it on Instagram, that was a deal breaker. Personal relations do not use technology. Simple as that. And the classroom is a personal relation.

 

B&W: In what context do you think technology is valuable?

 

EM: I think it’s wonderful for research. If I want to find out how many times George Eliot uses the word “should,” I can find it out in seconds and learn things that would take years of research otherwise. For research, what could be better? There's a kind of literary study that uses technology in extremely interesting ways. Franco Moretti's Distant Reading, on shapes of novels over the course of the centuries, used the Google Books archive to figure out what's going on. This seems to be really fascinating. But he's also someone who can read in detail a single author and write the best thing anyone's ever written about that author. In other words, the way in which he knows what to do when he uses large statistical data sets is informed by his knowledge of how to actually read books, rather than the sense that one thing is superior to another.

 

B&W: Adjacent to the story of the death of humanities from lack of interest or enrollment, there's another one about the death of humanities from AI. As someone who’s both in the humanities and in technology, are you worried about AI?

 

EM: No. I was working out my syllabus for the course I'm teaching next term, and I wrote “Any paper that in my judgment sounds as if it had been written by ChatGPT will receive a grade of D-, even if you wrote every word yourself.” I have a subscription to ChatGPT 4.0, and you can just see how unbelievably awful the writing is. It would get an A in high school. If the teacher wants a high school paper, you might as well give them ChatGPT because they're not asking you to be engaged personally. It's like using a calculator to solve a difficult problem. But if you actually want to write like a human being, then you're going to sound very, very different. 

 

B&W: Do you think in the future ChatGPT might sound like a human being?

 

EM: Anybody who starts saying what might be possible in the future always ends up looking like a fool. Artificial intelligence was always what was going to happen next year. Look up people you know on ChapGPT and see how much they invent and make up. I’ve asked ChatGPT about myself. Apparently I was born on three different days in the same year, I attended colleges I never attended, and graduated in years I never graduated.

 

B&W: But these are all knots that can be ironed out, right? 

 

EM: Yes, it may be. I'm not going to try to predict the future.

 

B&W: You seem to really dislike the intersection of multiple disciplines.

 

EM: What I dislike is people being interested in the status of what they do rather than the content of what they do. Like saying, “I do innovative work. I work at the intersection of so-and-so.” Well, so what? Tell me some subject matter. What I'm talking about is the status declaration. Saying, “I want to work in an intersection,” rather than “I'm really interested in the semicolon in 18th century pamphlets.”

 

B&W: Could someone who works at an intersection produce content at that intersection?

 

EM: I have no idea what working in an intersection means. Every time you write, you bring in all human knowledge. When you talk to your friends, do you say, “Let's talk at the intersection of so-and-so?” No. It's very useful to say, “How would this sound if I were talking about my relation with other human beings?” “I want you to meet my friend So-and-so.” “Well, what method are you going to use? Whose theory are you going to use in figuring out So-and-so?”

 

B&W: It sounds like you’re comparing how you approach literature to how you approach relationships.

 

EM: The most intelligent way to think about a book is to think about it as if it were a human being, with the same rights that a human being has, with the same knowledge, self-knowledge and lack of self-knowledge that a human being has, and with the same resistance to being treated merely as a member of a category. Do you want to be loved for yourself, or do you want to be valued as a member of a category? When you read a book, you are simultaneously aware of what it has in common with other books and at the same time you're aware of what makes it uniquely worth reading in itself, which is the way you approach other human beings. You look at someone and they're this age or this hair color. And then you gradually move into figuring out who they are as a person.

 

B&W: You made that point about romantic relationships as well. That in some ways they satisfy something that anyone can satisfy, but in some ways it's completely unique.

 

EM: To me it just seems clear.

 

B&W: During your first lecture, you mentioned a passage of the Iliad that you said moves you to tears when you read it. And since then, you've come back to this idea of being moved by literature again and again.

 

EM: If you're not moved by it, you’re not reading it.

 

B&W: I think this is something that resonates with a lot of English majors because it's often why we chose to study the subject. But it’s not something that gets talked about a lot. Why do you think that is?

 

EM: I don't know. I can't possibly talk about what goes on in other people’s classrooms. 

 

B&W: Okay.

 

EM: This is why interviews are tricky. They always involve prompting the other person to say something and the other person might not want to say that thing.

 

B&W: Is that what makes it different from a conversation? 

 

EM: I think so. Also, it's unequal. You're interviewing me for a publication. I'm not going to publish what you say. 

 

B&W: Woolf and Auden are the writers who you talk most about, and it sometimes feels like you view the world through them. What's it like to know a writer so well that they have an impact on how you understand everything?

 

EM: What I know about persons comes largely from Virginia Woolf and from Auden. But also from Samuel Beckett, from Cervantes, from the Odyssey, from the Gospels, from all kinds of sources of people thinking about people, and that clearly is what interests me, partly because literature is written by persons, not by machines. There’s always a cultural element, but there are persons involved, and personal freedom. You don't see the world through other people's lenses, but they provide language for thinking about things. So I open up this thought, but somebody asks me a difficult question. I stumble around trying to find an answer, and then I hear a little click and a hidden microphone. I hear the voice of Virginia Woolf saying, “Don't be stupid, the answer to this question is A, B, and C.” And I say, “Oh, the answer to your question is A, B, and C.” And the person thinks you're really smart. 

 

Montaigne says, “I quote in order to make my meaning clear.” You put together your own personality by looking at other human beings and saying, “I'm gonna take a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a bit of that and a bit of that.” This is essentially what I think everyone does, and I'm just doing that fairly clearly, the way Montaigne does it. I quote in order to say more clearly what I mean than I could say in my own words.

 

And that's different from saying what you see in applications for graduate school: “Using the methods of Professor X, I will interrogate so and so.” I see that and I just toss it out the window because one, I don't want people to be interrogating books that I like. I want them to be reading them. And if I wanted to hear what Professor X thought about, I would ask Professor X. I want to hear what you think about it.

 

B&W: And the difference is that you're not using any system, you’re just using particular insights.

 

EM: Of course you use methods, but you don't use a single method for everything. You see what the subject matter is interested in. You look at a book and you say, “What are you interested in?” Well, different books are interested in different things. 

 

B&W: Are there any novels that you find yourself returning to again and again?

 

EM: I did a piece for the New York Review blog about The Crying of Lot 49, when I was rereading it for maybe the 20th or 30th time. The first day I read it, I read it twice. And I realized that its plot is basically the same as the other book that I've read 20 or 30 times, Mrs. Dalloway. These are books I keep going back to. If you turn it into a summary, you falsify it, but they both show someone going deeper and deeper into themselves to see what matters both to them and to the world that they have avoided confronting, because it would involve making difficult, painful choices. That kind of book really interests me very much.

 

B&W: You said in class that a professor always needs to be a bit of a clown, otherwise he'll be confused with his content. Could you talk more about this?

 

EM: To the extent that you can categorize, there are two kinds of teachers. There's one who pulls a rabbit out of the hat and the students are amazed: “I could never do that.” And the other kind of teacher is the one that says, “Now here's how you hide a rabbit in the bottom of a hat. You open this little flap down here and you hide it in here. You can do it too.” And that teacher is not the narcissistic performer of special status. I think there's a kind of clowning going on here in performing. But clowning does not mean that the subject matter is not serious. The class is divided between people who think you're an utter idiot and they have to sit there and listen to what you have to say, and people who are tempted, as I remember being as an undergraduate, by the authority figure standing in front of me. 

 

B&W: How do you think the clowning fits into the dichotomy of the people who are uninterested and the people who revere you?

 

EM: Maybe at least I'll entertain the ones who are uninterested. It never occurred to me to put those two together until you asked the question. There are many serious subjects that the only way to talk about intelligently is through jokes. And I'm not quite sure I can spell out why that’s the case, but it does seem to be true.

 

B&W: Like what sorts of subjects?

 

EM: I think intensely moral and ethical subjects often require jokes. There's a wonderful line by G. K. Chesterton: “The test of a religion is whether you can tell a joke about it.” There's always somebody inside you who is skeptical, who is cynical. I quoted the passage in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “At the outskirts of every tragedy is someone clever who points.” That is a psychological reality. 

 

B&W: So when you talk about serious things in the classroom, you try not to take yourself too seriously.

 

EM: Yeah. Basically. The subject matter is serious, but you thinking about it may not be serious. It doesn’t matter how you solemnly talk about some great subject matter, what matters is how you live your life.

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Illustration by Maca Hepp

 

FNM: At some point about seven years ago, I tried to implement this decision that when I took a project like this one, that it would have different components. “Valor y Cambio,” when the film is out and the book is out, [is] going to become a multimedia project. In the book, there’s going to be almost a manual part of it, so if you want to do this, these are some things to consider. In that way, it can sprout other ones.

 

People sometimes ask, “How do you choose your project?” I don’t choose projects. I’ve had conversations with people and they say, “Oh, I don’t know what to do next. I want to think of ideas.” My problem is that I have ideas till I’m 105.

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It was the night before Thanksgiving, and there were pies to bake and turkeys to baste. But as the clock neared 10 p.m., Negrón-Muntaner was explaining to me how to turn a 400-pound ATM rightside up to wheel it around the streets of Puerto Rico and later New York. Over four successive 40-minute Zoom sessions, we spoke about the evolving legacy of West Side Story, decolonial joy in Puerto Rico, and the neverending plight to become legible. 

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

. . .

The Blue and White: You’re currently writing an intellectual biography on Arturo Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican activist. You wrote an article in 2016 that was titled “Why Do Americans Find Cuba So Sexy—but not Puerto Rico?” in which you expressed frustration at an editor who refused to consider publishing a biography of Julia de Burgos because it wouldn’t sell. He said, “I’d publish a biography of Cuban poet José Martí because he comes from a sexy country.” Did you experience similar pushback when you were trying to pitch this intellectual biography of Schomburg to editors?

 

Frances Negrón-Muntaner: If I was going to write that now, it would be the reverse. I would say up to Trump’s presidency, U.S. culture—popular culture and even scholarly spaces—were much more interested in Cuba. Cuba was the largest island, the closest to the U.S., one that had always been an object of desire for American elites of different kinds, whereas Puerto Rico has always been considered small, backward, not containing as much wealth. Trump’s presidency really broke from that tradition of Cuba as an object of desire. Trump was totally uninterested in Latin America in general. I mean, he was also the one that called Haiti “a shit country,” right? 

 

When disaster struck Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria, he also showed tremendous callousness towards the people of Puerto Rico. While Trump was disparaging Puerto Ricans during this time, the press was very interested in covering Puerto Rico. There is definitely a before and after this moment for perceptions of Puerto Ricans. Before this, there were still a majority of Americans who did not know that Puerto Ricans were born U.S. citizens. Interestingly, also, the popular culture scene exploded into the global sphere. For a couple of years now, Bad Bunny has been the most downloaded artist in the world. Whereas before, in 2016 … we were still in the era where Cuba was the “sexy” country object of desire and Puerto Rico was an afterthought: something that we have, but we don’t really care about. Now, I would say that Cuba has receded. There’s very little public debate about Cuba, there’s very little promotion about its artists. So the question then becomes, how did Puerto Rico become sexy? 

 

B&W: You’ve written extensively about the cultural phenomenon of Puerto Rico in the U.S. You’ve written about West Side Story and In The Heights. What would you consider more adequate or holistic representations of Puerto Rico in the U.S.? 

 

FNM: I wrote quite a lot about and spoke during the release of Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. Although I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and I think in some ways, I see things from some of those perspectives, I’ve been living in the U.S. a lot longer. I contextualize West Side Story as not having that much to tell us about the present in its shape and in its structure and its logic. In the remake, the question of turf or neighborhood is central. Some of the changes that they made was to put more attention that the real enemy of both the white gang and the Puerto Rican gang was gentrification. What’s fascinating about that in this current context is how American millionaires and real estate corporations and other economic agents are moving to Puerto Rico and distorting the housing market to an extreme degree that is making it impossible for Puerto Ricans to live in Puerto Rico. So if I were going to make a movie about Puerto Ricans right now, I wouldn’t put this question of gentrification in the far past. 

 

In this period in the ’40s, and ’50s, most of the Puerto Rican migrants were of working class or peasant origin that had been displaced to the city. Some scholars have called that the exportation of a class of people, whereas one of the characteristics of the current migration is that it’s more or less proportional by class structure. That means that the current Puerto Rican experience will still have people that are working class, or people that are living in neighborhoods that are deprived of resources, or suffer gentrification, or have racial tensions with other groups. But that would be, now more than ever, one of multiple different experiences that Puerto Ricans are having as migrants. 

 

B&W: There’s a multiplicity of representations in media that are not solely, say, West Side Story that have expanded the image of the Puerto Rican diaspora and Puerto Rican culture in the current American popular imagination. I was wondering about your relationship to these so-called subcultures of Puerto Rican culture.

 

FNM: Like what?

 

B&W: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, for instance.

 

FNM: I’m both too old and too young. Too young to have been part of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or the Nuyorican movement—I migrated to the U.S. in the mid 1980s as a teenager, but in my late teens. And I’m also too old to be part of subcultures.

 

I want to back up with the notion of subculture because I wouldn’t call Nuyorican cultural institutions or productions subculture. I think they were part of a movement. Before that movement, Puerto Rican communities were not only impoverished, they were also considered politically and culturally dispensable. But the Nuyorican movement changed that by producing works: in literature, in arts and film, in everything. It did it by having very robust social movements that changed everything from how to treat drug addiction and other health issues to access to college and higher education for people of color in the city. You can see it by the legacies that they had in existing institutions and issues that affect all New Yorkers.

 

For instance, El Museo del Barrio is one institution produced by the Nuyorican movement. It’s an iconic museum, but one of the important things about it is that it was a museum that began by conversations between parents and teachers about the importance of having education in the arts. 

 

That the museum has a relationship to the people that live in the neighborhood—[those] were not ideas that were commonly held by museums in the U.S. Institutions like El Museo del Barrio not only serve the community but really represent another model of what's possible. And the same could be said in the Lower East Side about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe began in the apartment of Miguel Algarín, according to him, because he wanted to get all these noisy poets out of his house so he could sleep, because he was the only one with a job—he was a professor of English at Rutgers. But whatever the origin story that we believe, they created an institution that provided a stage and a space for working class brown and Black and other poets to be able to share their work and cultivate an audience. 

 

B&W: One of your ongoing projects is “Art in Catastrophe.” Tell me more.

 

FNM: I started it as an essay, and what I was interested in understanding was the world of art in the disaster. In the case of Puerto Rico, the two big disasters I was talking about were the imposition of austerity as a policy and the effects of Hurricane Maria, not only as a “national phenomenon” but as a political phenomenon. Because what happened—nearly 5,000 people died—did not have to happen.

 

B&W: Could you elaborate on that?

 

FNM: I mean, there’s many reasons that I don’t think natural disasters are necessarily natural. Certainly a Category 4 hurricane is formidable anywhere. However, there are many circumstances that make that force be met with equal force or not. Puerto Rico infrastructure had deteriorated significantly because of its lack of investment, and that lack of investment is related to the U.S.’s extractive relationship to Puerto Rico. Look at the significant rates of poverty; almost half of the population lives under the poverty line. The U.S. administration failed to provide assistance in a timely manner and denied that there was anything serious happening for weeks. In fact, in this case, it was very striking and stunning that civilians, doctors, nurses, members of [the] community, even entertainers, organized to move supplies on personnel to Puerto Rico and arrived and were working weeks before the government did.

 

And people were without access to electricity [on] most of the island for nearly a year. These things are not natural. What is the infrastructure? What interest does it serve? Why is it in that state? I mean, these are all questions that we need to ask.

 

B&W: I know you wrote, nearly 25 years ago, “The Radical Statehood Manifesto.” How have perceptions of sovereignty in the Caribbean changed since you wrote that?

 

FNM: It was never a manifesto. People called it that, but it wasn’t really a manifesto. It was a document that a group of intellectuals and artists drafted as a way to call attention to what we saw at the time, which was that those countries in the Caribbean that were independent fared worse in many ways than those that were in more open relation—even of subordination—with their metropolitan states. In some ways, it was an anarchist document that was trying to suggest the ways that struggles of labor, of women, of Afro descendant, of LGBTQ+ communities that perhaps had more terrain to advance under a relationship that was more openly incorporated than covertly colonial. 

 

Puerto Rico today in some ways is worse off than in earlier periods. In “Emptying Island,” which is a piece about how to understand this mass migration politically and otherwise, one of the things that I argue there is that Puerto Rico has been subjected to three colonial projects. The first colonial project was agricultural, the second colonial project was industrial, and the third colonial project, which is the present, is neoliberal. 

 

I would say that the current colonial project might be the most dangerous to the future of Puerto Rico, because what they’re trying to create is a society where a lot of U.S. millionaires live, not paying most taxes. You have real estate interests coming in, luxury markets exploding. There was a house that was sold for $35 million years ago that broke a record—there had never been something so expensive for a private home. The entire logic of the economy is to sustain and serve these millionaires, which means that all goods and services are extraordinarily expensive. And that it serves very dangerous experiments like cryptocurrency. There were a number of people involved in the cryptocurrency industry that have moved to Puerto Rico to avoid taxes.

 

There’s a lot of groups in Puerto Rico addressing a range of things that are affecting the population. And I feel [that] people at this moment in time, given the neglect and abuse that the island has received, have more faith in some of those efforts. 

 

B&W: Speaking of alternative forms of government and local forms of knowledge, I wanted to talk about your project “Valor y Cambio,” which you started in 2019. I just think it’s absolutely ingenious. It’s this combination of art and digital storytelling, and enacts what you have called a “just economy.” Using an ATM, you circulated a community currency with bills featuring six prominent Puerto Ricans to be used directly at local businesses and organizations in Puerto Rico.

 

FNM: It struck me that Puerto Rico has never had a currency or any say over monetary policy because it’s been a colony for its entire modern history. I had learned about community currencies and how they tend to emerge during economic crises, and how artists almost always have a role in that process. In a debt crisis … you don’t have enough resources and you have to decide what’s most important. Well, in the Puerto Rico case, education was suffering, pensions, healthcare. The money was really going into hedge funds and banks. So I wanted to create an environment where people who had never been consulted about what you value and where you think resources should go would have the opportunity to think about it and share. The second [goal] was introducing this idea of community currency. In Puerto Rico that would be a useful idea because we have high levels of education and high levels of unemployment, which means that a good number of people have knowledge and skills that are not incorporated into the mainstream economy. The third thing I wanted people to experience [was] what it would feel like to be in an economy that was not colonial. So we came up with six bills. The bills told stories of people that met these values or that their lives and their work embody one of these values.

 

We got 42 vendors and organizations to accept this money. If you came a few times [to the ATM] you could have a hundred dollars in your hand. What happened was that yes, many people came—hundreds and hundreds of people. But next to no bills were used. And the other thing was that I started noticing that people sometimes cried when they got the bills—of joy. 

 

When I put those two things together, I first thought we had failed because I thought, “Okay, we were trying to change the economy a little bit. But if people are not entering into exchanges, if that’s not what was happening, we’re failing.” But then I started asking people, “Why are you crying? Why are you so happy? Why are you not using [the bills]?” That opened up this whole other level where I learned so much. We chose this old-fashioned way of money, which is bills. But having that object in their hands made them feel like another world was possible. Interacting with the machine, which asked you some questions and asked you to tell a story, clarified people. Many people told me, “I had never thought of that question.” The first question the machine asks you is, “What do you value?” And I was also surprised that people would say that is such an intimate question, such a personal question. I never thought about that as such a personal question.

 

Eventually at the end of the project, it became a repository of all these stories. Like a walking book and also an ethnographic bin, you know? 

 

B&W: I think it’s so interesting that in your attempts to make this decolonial project, you made an even more decolonial form of monetary exchange in which nothing is exchanged because people really valued the physicality of the currency—seeing, as you said, this other world that is not possible without having this bill. 

 

FNM: I didn’t know that then, but I learned that the ATM was actually invented in a way to break down labor in banks in England. The idea was that the banks wanted people to work more hours without paying them extra. The response was the ATM, which now would allow the bank to function for 24 hours. 

 

So one of the contradictions, or one of the complex genealogies, of the project is that this machine that we rescued was given to us, but it was old and it had nothing in it. We had to re-outfit it.

 

B&W: Oh, I thought you created an ATM from scratch.

 

FNM: We thought about it, but it was going to cost us $25,000. I mean, $25,000 is more than the per-capita income of Puerto Rico. So we were absolutely not going to do that. We started calling around and we found a donor to give us the ATM machine. It was very mysterious. He didn’t want to give us his name, and he told us to meet in an abandoned lot in an abandoned Walgreens in another town. And I thought we were going to die, but after a two-hour wait—and it was night—two guys in a van came and they gave it to us. 

 

We programmed the computer so after you answered the questions, you would get a bill dispensed. And that would begin this exchange chain, which was you gave us a story, we give you a story [through the bills].

 

Then I wrote a piece called “Decolonial Joy,” which tried to describe what I was witnessing, which is this happiness, right? Well, it’s not happiness. In the essay I do acknowledge that there’s a lot of work by Sara Ahmed, for instance, about the happiness industry and the problems with that. I gravitated more to the notion of joy, which is collective, which is political. When I asked people, “What are you so joyous about?” what they answered was decolonial. They said, “It makes us feel like a world without racism is possible, a world where we’re not a colony is possible.”

 

B&W: I was wondering if you would consider picking up this project again. I feel like one of the beautiful things about it is how tied it is to local communities, local folks. 

 

FNM: After this Puerto Rico run, we came to New York and we were here for several months. That was quite eye-opening. In Puerto Rico, when I described to someone what a just economy could be like and how a community currency could be part of that, people understood in seconds. But when I tried to have the same conversation with people in New York, it sometimes took me 45 minutes. It was hard for people to wrap their head around a currency that wasn’t the dollar. Why would you want to have money that you couldn’t accumulate or profit from? Our hardest day of this whole project was when we took the machine to Wall Street, and it was completely ignored. When we tried to recruit people to tell their stories, people got aggressive with us. It was not a pleasant experience.

 

The question of the future of this project has actually given me a lot to think about. Once you’ve planted these seeds, does it ever really end? This conversation itself is an example of how, in a way, it never ends. 

 

B&W: What would a community currency in New York look like?

 

FNM: The whole process of coming up with an idea for a community currency is a very clarifying process because you have to identify needs, you have to connect to each other, [and] you have to develop some joint policies. For some communities, if you have a lot of talents that are not being tapped, and there’s a way to recognize, identify, and organize them, and figure out how people can exchange what they can offer, you can save hundreds of dollars a month. In New York, it might mean the difference between your child getting guitar lessons or other needs that you might consider a luxury. 

 

B&W: Something I gathered from “Valor y Cambio” is that one of the reasons why it was so touching to people was because it presented a vision of a society that unfortunately—maybe I’m just a pessimist—is still decades away.

 

FNM: Well, it depends on the scale we think about it. If we think about people’s responses, then it’s already here. 

 

B&W: You’ve mentioned five or six projects that you seem to be working on concurrently, and you also teach Video as Inquiry and have taught other CSER courses in the past. I was wondering how you balance being both a professor and a documentarian, but also an artist. Maybe they’re all the same thing.

 

FNM: All my work really is asking similar questions in different forms. The reason that I find it important to ask these questions in different forms is that if my main interest is dismantling coloniality, that coloniality is manifested in media. It’s manifested in visual culture, in the knowledge in institutions, in what we teach, in how we teach. 

 

In each of these spaces that I inhabit, I never really bring all my selves to it. When I am more [in] the film world, I bring some of my selves there—similarly at Columbia, given my appointment. Maybe one of the things to create better conditions in the future is whether there’s a place where I can bring all of those together. Sometimes it can be exhausting, and sometimes you can feel that you don’t quite belong anywhere.

 

B&W: It’s a sacrifice, right?

 

FNM: It’s a sacrifice. You’re kind of illegible in some ways, and maybe you don’t get the same kinds of support sometimes that other people get—or recognition. For instance, you asked earlier about the future of “Valor y Cambio”; I accept that I never was able to raise any money for “Valor y Cambio.” The art sources would tell me it was “artivism,” not really art. And the activists would say it’s more art, it’s not activism, or it’s not scholarship. It really found no funder. 

 

At one point, the museum [in Puerto Rico] said, “Well, maybe we can expand the project,” and the one funder they proposed was a bank. 

 

B&W: Oh, no!

 

FNM: I said, I’m sorry to say, but I cannot accept that. It’s going to turn this into promotion for their bank—I know it. It would have been very complicated.

 

B&W: Do you think that putting together the “Valor y Cambio” film helped consolidate the emotional impetus behind why you were doing the project?

The Conversation

Frances Negrón-Muntaner

What do you value?

By Vivien Sweet

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It is perhaps a given that an English professor contains multitudes. But Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities,, wears more hats than the average academic. Beyond the classroom, she is a documentarian, poet, author, curator, and sometimes actor. Yet her artistic practices indubitably permeate the classrooms she inhabits. During her seven year tenure as director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, she founded the Gallery at the Center, adorning the walls of Hamilton 420 with skateboards designed by Apache artist Douglas Miles and Ethan Hawke, and film photographs of New York in the ’70s. The posterity of Latino media is of paramount importance to her, and accordingly, she curates the Latino Art and Activism Archive at the Rare Book Manuscript Library. 

 

During our conversation, Negrón-Muntaner admitted that at times she worried that focusing on a single practice would have allowed her to “do more.” I suggested a quip from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that often brings me solace: “My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” We both laughed. Maybe, she mused, she would have produced 12 films if she were only a filmmaker, or she would have written seven books if she were solely an author—though it is worth noting that she has, so far, directed seven films and written and edited four books, as well as a litany of articles for outlets like the New Yorker and the Washington Post. The artistic and scholarly selves of her imagination are not entirely at odds with Negrón-Muntaner as she is.

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Postcard by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

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