By Dominy Gallo
When I met Mae Butler, CC ’21, then ’22, then ’23, she was embroidering flowers on a denim jacket in the John Jay 11 lounge. She’s one of those unhappy few who’ve known me since I was a first-year—and, worse still, who kept me Residentially Advised. She hammered my bedframe to hip height, told me never to take a lecture class, and never made fun of my Paris wall tapestry, despite her blanket aversion to France. She spent one of her three semesters off bartending and teaching for the Columbia Bartending Agency while working at the Center for Urban Food Policy at CUNY and staffing the Washington Heights farmers market honey stand. The other two semesters she spent living in East Berlin, largely in the tower of a monastery, just beneath the bell.
We met last week as members of the same graduating class. She showed up to Demitasse Coffee & Tea in a pair of light-wash jeans with gloriously vibrant floral patches. “These are from my sister’s pants when she was little,” she said, pointing to a colorful square by her knee. “And this is my old boyfriend’s pocket from when he was little,” sticking her fingers into a dark-wash denim pocket in the middle of her thigh. When, an hour into our 30-minute interview, Demitasse closed, she invited me to her place on 109th. Three hours in, she poured me an iced mezcal in a mug.
When Butler moved to Berlin, in August 2020, she relinquished access to the array of sartorial supplies with which she’d adorned her clothing in New York. From her rented room in the monastery, looking out over an old Soviet alleyway built wide enough for tanks to pass through, Butler made going-out sets from V-Markt totes and skirts out of rigid plastic bags. In her New York apartment, she dove into the closet and brought out the clothes to show me. I marveled at the stitchwork and asked if she’d done it by hand. “I know this is becoming the white Brooklyn male who reads Infinite Jest, but I am very much enthused by the analog,” she said. She told me she’s “anti-machine.”
Next month, she’s releasing an album inspired by her monastic year. Before Germany, Butler also lived in Panama, Nicaragua, Jordan, and Mexico. But Berlin was different. Butler’s family is Jewish; her grandmother lived in Germany until 1940, when she and her sister escaped to Italy in the trunk of a taxi, then to England post–Mussolini’s rise, then to New York, where they settled in Forest Hills. “I felt like I was coming home to a lot of things,” she said, “and also felt angry about not having more literacy around them. And that’s something that I very reasonably could have accessed if my grandmother’s life had been different.”
Butler quickly learned that many of the sentence structures and assorted nouns and verbs she had thought were “family slang” were actually German. Language in her household had always been fluid: She used to make up words for things and her mother would simply start using them. Once, she called a glass a “gack” in the presence of a high school boyfriend and was shocked when he looked at her askance. But in Berlin, it became clear that many of the “made-up” constructions she’d shared with her parents derived from her grandmother’s mother tongue.
Butler felt at once familiar and estranged in Berlin. One of the coldest winters on record gripped the silent city while she was there. It seemed like family history was bearing down on her by the very architecture of the place—the church, the panzer-fitted alleyway, the Jewish cemetery across the street. Prolonged isolation sent her into the frame of mind she associated with “people who intentionally pursue hermit experiences.” She lost her voice from speaking too little. She fell ill with an eating disorder. To make sense of it all, while working part-time translating children’s books and sewing her grocery bag clothes, Butler started experimenting with sound.
She hesitated to call herself a “musician,” though that’s what it sounds like to me. Hoping to release her work of “sound art” in the spring, she’s studying sound theory with Seth Cluett at the Computer Music Center this semester so she can record and mix the project herself. “There’s this presumption which is shared throughout universities that all information is produced or at least encoded and stored in text,” she said when I asked about her choice of medium. “I was looking for ways that I could relate some of the things that I was thinking about to the actual form of study, and one of the things has been sound.”
Another of those things is how people and institutions produce and circulate knowledge. She started at Columbia with a strong interest in education studies, moseyed her way into the comparative literature department, and stayed for the seminars. “We treat knowledge as property in a lot of places,” she said, “and we assume that knowledge should circulate as property.” Butler prefers learning environments that invite students to participate in the production of ideas, not simply to “metabolize” something pre-formed. “Learning through dialogue and being able to bring what you already know to the table and having that influence the way that new knowledge is framed: Fabulous!”
Butler’s vocabularies—invented or otherwise—emerged from immersion. “I don’t speak Duolingo Spanish, I speak Spanish,” she said. “It comes from a place.” She’s learned from a Spanish exchange student her family hosted; from the Panamanian community she lived in for three months at 15; from her gap year in Léon, where she interned with a sexual and reproductive health clinic run by Nicaraguan women; and from a summer fellowship in Mexico City. These modes of learning were available to her, she knows, through privilege, and by way of the generosity of others. Many of the borders she’s crossed do not go both ways.
“When you are trained in a language by a community as opposed to by a teacher at a high school who’s using a textbook,” she said, “you have a place relation and you’re responsible to a community of speakers.” In writing Spanish translations and including snippets of Spanish in her sound art—or reading and writing about Spanish-language literature for her degree—these place relations grow complicated. “How can I do this without making a claim over ownership of the way that this language is being produced and circulated?”
Butler’s linguistic attachment to place reflects a deeper interest in just ways of relating to land. For her, that’s been through urban food policy: empowering people to make choices about what and how they grow and eat. “We put a ton of money through the philanthropy-industrial complex into giving people emergency food,” she said, “just enough to get by, maybe not even—not what they ask for, but what we have extra of as an industrial society.” But there are alternative ways of structuring these efforts—subsidized co-op grocery stores, for example— that offer affordable food options and preserve one’s ability to choose. American agricultural relations, she said, perform the injustice of assuming colonial futures: from “manufactured depletion of resources” via mono-crop culture, to the mass production of corn only suitable to feed livestock, to agrochemical companies patenting spreadable seeds so, when they pop up on small farms, the firms can sue and buy up the land.
Butler’s anticolonial agricultural praxis mirrors her interest in anticolonial knowledge production. Knowing my affection for the textual, she pointed me to a few books—Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and Pollution is Colonialism by Max Liboiron. But Butler’s “fatigued of thinking out of the same square or cubic centimeter in my head, and being asked to produce knowledge from the same place: talking out of my larynx instead of actually breathing through ideas.” So I asked if she’s done with universities. “I am, not to brag, five or six (depending on how you measure) years into a four-year program,” she said. “Clearly, there’s something about it that I am going back to.”