Ideas on Ghosts: Scenarios and the Spectral Metaphor

Did you just ghost me?

I just read Catie Disabato’s U Up?, a strange little mystery novel set in contemporary L.A.

Eve is a researcher for an app called LA By Foot which offers “definitive walking guides to the secret history, hidden paths, pedestrian staircases, and beautiful architecture of Los Angeles”. A historian at UCLA highlights notable locations in the city, then Eve visits them, photographs them, and writes the copy.

“I could do it all myself,” Eve explains, “research the history of Los Angeles by reading any or all of the many books James Danielson has published, but he has something I don’t have: the social power that comes from having a masculine name that starts with a J.”

So Eve walks the city, through hangovers and simmering California heat, all the while keeping another secret: on her iPhone, she texts her friend Miguel, who died by suicide a year before. And Miguel’s ghost texts back.

The novel follows the events around the first anniversary of Miguel’s death, when Ezra, who was Miguel’s friend and Eve’s, goes suddenly missing. As she tries to discover whether Ezra is merely avoiding her or something more sinister has happened, Eve is forced to confront what is going on within and between their circle of friends.

Disabato’s book addresses different kinds of spectrality with delicacy and deftness. In this world, there’s little difference between a supernatural revenant like Miguel’s ghost and a living friend who Eve is messaging, “trapped inside my useless idiotic lump of an iPhone.”

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The collective hero?

In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?

“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”

(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).

Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”

If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience

imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.

This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.

For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.

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“Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 3

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part and second part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about loss, change, her goals as a writer, and the histories of secret writing in her own family.

M: The book is so steeped in grief, and it’s a theme we see elsewhere in your writing; the play Phantasmagoria has this question, for example, “Do the dead truly leave us?”

How did grief come to the forefront in this particular novel?

C: Don’t you think that ageing is a kind of grief? We betray our younger selves, our ideas of who we were or what we wanted, as we move on in time. I’ve lost some dear people who are close to me, people who died suddenly and young, so I have a little more of that shock of grief than some — but I think that in any kind of long-term relationship, what people don’t tell you about marriage is that there is a slow betrayal of whoever you were on your wedding day. I think that if there’s not, you’re doing it wrong! 

You need to become another person when you make this commitment, and you’re very lucky if you can change alongside your partner in a way that you get to rediscover one another. I don’t really know how we manage to promise anyone else anything, except to be clear, and true, and kind.

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“Leap, and the net will appear”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 2

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about her practice as a writer and its connection to her experience as a person who stutters, and reflects on questions of point-of-view, identity, and appropriation raised by The Seep.

M: I was reading about your play Leap and the Net Will Appear. You talk about the play coming to you after a silent retreat. I wondered about what the balance between writing-as-inspiration and writing-as-carpentry was for you?

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“A wonderful way to tell yourself a story” – Interview with Chana Porter, Part 1

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

Trina Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, is the book’s protagonist. An artist who retrains as a doctor after the invasion, she cherishes “the casual overthrow of everything that had felt codified but broken for so long“ — until her partner Deeba decides to use the Seep’s power to be reborn as a baby, moving on to a new life. The book follows Trina along her spiral of grief as she begins a strange quest in a transformed world.

Our conversation touched not just on the novel, but also Porter’s plays and her work as an education activist. She is a founder of the Octavia Project which brings together young women and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary teens to create speculative fictions offering “new futures and greater possibilities for our world”, blending creative writing, art, science, and technology.

Part 1 of the interview is below, or you can read the whole thing right now as a PDF transcript.

I began by asking Chana about her first glimpse of the idea that became The Seep.

C: There’s a secret book that probably no-one will ever see, written from the point of view of a teenager in my hometown. 

I was really intrigued by this concept of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien takeover, without it being a cut-and-dried thing of “This is good, this is bad.” This is also the feeling I have when I watch the 1978 Body Snatchers movie; it feels so brutal because we don’t really understand what these beings are feeling or what they care about, but the more that we understand as a scientific community about how trees communicate with each other, and protist communications, the more we question: what is alive? What is a life? What is social? What is a community?

When you use the lens of a horror film to reflect on these issues, when you consider the destruction we have wrought on the planet, it prompts you to ask: what if it’s not bad? 

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Simon Groth: After the Future of the Book

To consume media today means using the same tools and skills as it takes to produce; the device in your pocket is capable of both and its platforms are built with this in mind. This is a profound shift, even from the assumptions that underlie the web, and it’s a landscape in which, superficially, the book does not seem to have an obvious place.

In the latest edition of his newsletter, marginalia, Australia’s Simon Groth describes the closure of if:book Australia, the Brisbane-based “institute for the future of the book” which explored new forms of literature and the changing relationship between writers and readers in the digital age.

if:book projects included a book written and published in just 24 hours, the live-writing event series Memory Makes Us, the N00bz project which saw writers take up tools and formats which were strange to them, the “remixed memoir” collection Lost in Track Changes, and Hunted Down, another “remix” of short stories by nineteenth-century author Marcus Clarke.

Simon’s elegaic piece recounts his journey with if:book as “one of being swept up by larger shifts in current that made it possible—if only for a brief moment in time—to create interesting experiences and opportunities for a small number of writers and readers to engage with each other”.

The anxieties and excitement around digital literature in the 2010s, back when some thought that “the ebook spelled the end of civilisation as we know it”, created an opportunity for the if:book community to surf for a while on some of the more challenging and remote parts of Australia’s literary coastline. No matter how many people were standing on the shore to bear witness, those surfers know what they achieved. The tricks and techniques they discovered will continue to teach all of us who are interested in the future of the written word, both digital and physical.

Today, Simon notes, if:book Australia has no web presence:

Its various project sites have all vanished, their domains no longer point to active sites. Its social media accounts are deleted. If not for the Internet Archive, there would be almost no online evidence that any of it had happened. Maybe this was how it was meant to be. Memory Makes Us had already anticipated disappearance as the logical end for digital literary projects. Such is the nature of the web and digital media more broadly: the threat of data rot is much more aggressive and immediate than the slow degradation of the page.

[…] Ten years on from its initial flurry of activity, its bold charge to explore and investigate how technology was set to expand our conception of the book, all that’s left of if:book Australia is a collection of printed, bound pages.

See more about Simon Groth’s work, and the projects he ran for if:book Australia, at his website.

Exploring Photography with Wendy Catling, Dr. Natasha Barrett, and Jonathan Bart

Last month, I invited three photographers to discuss how their medium is used for art, research, and storytelling in families, communities, and institutions.

Joining me for the conversation were Australian artist Wendy Catling, Research Librarian Dr. Natasha Barrett of the Alexander Turnbull Library (National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa), and British filmmaker Jonathan Bart.

Do photographs offer a collection of scattered moments or an unbroken connection to the past? From first pictures taken through “memories of memories”, stories of migration and famiy secrets, questions of colonialism, agency, and power, my three guests talk candidly about their personal, professional, and artistic relationships to this unique and powerful medium.

You can listen to the discussion on Soundcloud or YouTube.

Would you like to find out more about my guests?

Wendy Catling’s work appears at her own website and the site for her most recent project Nightshade, discussed in the podcast. (She is currently fundraising for the Nightshade photobook).

Read more about Dr. Natasha Barrett’s research at the University of Leicester website, and you can also find Natasha on Twitter.

Jonathan Bart’s work appears at his own website. You can also find Jonathan on Instagram, Behance, Vimeo, and Flickr.

Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

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A discomfort watch

“What was the question?”

The opening line of Russell Harbaugh’s 2018 film Love After Love lets you know that this movie isn’t going to lead you by the hand. It starts as if you’ve just come back to yourself after drifting away from a conversation. You’ll be left to work out what is going on, who is related to whom and how; even the amount of time that has passed between scenes is left as a matter of conjecture.

Family patriarch Glenn is in the opening scenes, raspy-voiced but hearty at a family gathering; then he is in bed, struggling to breathe, and in the bathroom, with his two adult sons struggling to lower him onto the toilet and his wife tugging his pants down to his ankles; then he is gone and the men from the funeral home are clattering the gurney as they transfer him from the bed in which he has passed away.

His death comes a fifth of the way into this ninety minute film, but it’s the stone, cast in a pond, whose ripples we’ll be watching for the remaining duration. If last week, we talked about Groundhog Day and other fantasies of endless repetition, here Love After Love reminds us that the world doesn’t solely run on hours, days, months, and years. There are other ways to mark life’s pace, and other kinds of endlessness, like the time in which someone close to you is irrevocably gone. You might not be able to say how much of the calendar this movie covers, yet it clearly takes place almost entirely within one season: the season of grief.

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