Was this episode our destiny? In episode 16, Jess Row and Meghan O’Rourke talk fate and fortune with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. Jess Row speaks first about race and fate, his novel Your Face in Mine, and his upcoming essay collection, White Flights. Then Meghan O’Rourke talks about how she saw her poem “My Life as a Subject” back when she wrote it, and how she understands it now, as well as her writing about the #MeToo movement and about illness. What are we responsible for, and what can we change?
From the Episode, Part 1 Jess Row on “White Dreamtime”
Whitney Terrell: There’s a phrase that I remembered that you talk about—something called “white dreamtime.” Can you talk about that concept?
Jess Row: Yeah, so this is something that I use in Your Face in Mine as a way of talking about my own experience. Really, when I say “white dreamtime,” I’m talking about the ability to distance oneself from a feeling that you’re in any kind of personal danger, or even that political or social forces affect you directly.
I grew up—in high school, I was living in Baltimore and Baltimore is a majority black city. And I was heavily involved in social movements and in food pantry and listening to a lot of hiphop music, and that was what Baltimore was as a place. And then I went to Yale, and it wasn’t just that Yale was overwhelmingly white, though it was. It was the way in which the politics and the aesthetics of the city (hip hop, graffiti, all those kinds of things that were going on in the early nineties) were just not part of the world of Yale. And I felt sort of ridiculous bringing them with me, and so I sort of dropped them. Because that’s something that white people can do: pick up an aesthetic and then drop it if it doesn’t feel right, or if it doesn’t feel convenient, or if it doesn’t feel quote unquote “authentic.”
And you know, I went back into what I would call kind of a “white dreamtime,” which is essentially kind of a state of wishful thinking. And it had a real hold on me. And it wasn’t until in my mid-twenties when I was going to graduate school in Creative Writing that I started reading and listening to James Baldwin, who talks about white dreamtime very directly—he calls it “the sunlit prison” (that’s his phrase) of the white American experience—that I realized sort of what had happened to me.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s so interesting. I think one of the reasons that—I mean, one way that this is happening now, or happened with the election of Donald Trump is that when he was voted into White House, is a lot of very educated, very literate people, particularly people in the media (which is of course dominated by people of privilege and white Americans), a lot of those people felt for the first time that they were no longer in control of their world. And I think—I was also surprised (I think I wasn’t as surprised as some other folks), but I heard sort of repeatedly this narrative, you know, these folks have done everything right, they’ve gone to the right schools, bought the right furniture, lived in the right neighborhoods, read the right books, and yet suddenly they were no longer masters of their own fate—you cannot be guaranteed good test results, or good results, and so here are the tarot cards. And of course I know people who turn to those cards for other reasons, but there do also seem to be people who are surfacing talk of fate as a way to deal with their own responsibility, or lack thereof.
JR: Yeah, I mean, I was surrounded by that feeling, too. And I think it’s instructive to go back and look at the Saturday Night Live skit with Dave Chapelle that aired that weekend after the election, where Dave Chapelle is a guest in a house full of white liberals at a party that’s supposed to celebrating Hillary Clinton’s election. We watch as the crisis unfolds and Dave Chapelle the whole time is sort of sitting back with this very sardonic look on his face, basically saying, “You know, the Klan guy is gonna get elected.” Like if you put a Klan guy on the ballot—I forget exactly what phrase he uses, but if you put a white supremacist on the ballot, he’s gonna win.
So I would say that a sense of political and racial—for lack of a better word—a sense of an emergency began in August of 2014 with Michael Brown’s death, with Michael Brown’s murder, and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. And what was striking to me at that time (this was also the exact same moment when my novel was published)—what was striking for me at that time was that when Trayvon Martin was murdered, when there were other police killings, it had been in the news for maybe a week or two, and then the news cycle had moved beyond it. And what happened in August of 2014 was that the news cycle never moved beyond it. You know, there was Eric Garner, there was another case and another case, and then there was the Black Lives Matter movement, which became a mass movement. And there was this sense in which a feeling of national emergency—you know, that feels like an awkward phrase, but to me it’s the phrase that sums it up in the sense of crises. What I’m really talking about is crisis.
WT: And the connection that I feel is a little bit like—when you start talking about Black Lives Matter, and Trayvon Martin, and police killings, right—and I think Sugi’s question’s trying to get at this, also—You and I, Jess, went to really nice—and so did Sugi, for that matter; she probably went to a better school than we did—we all went to really nice schools, right? But there’s a sense and a belief that—and I think this is especially true for white Americans like me—but that your individual choices give you agency. And when you are a minority population in America, you don’t feel that way. And police killings are an expression of white authority saying “you don’t have agency; you’re subject to our power,” in a very bleak and direct way.
And then when Trump gets elected, when we’re talking about the media and people, he starts to attack media, he starts to attack white, wealthy, educated elites in a way that white, wealthy, educated elites have not been attacked before. And they start to feel, “Hey, we’re not in charge.” Do you understand what I’m saying? That’s the connection that I think is part of what’s happening here. Does that make sense to you?
JR: It does.
From the Episode, Part 2 Meghan O’Rourke on a Cultural Understanding of Illness
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You write, of course, about bodies and health, and I’m curious about how you think about individual and collective power and free will broadly in your work, in addition to the language of talking about genetics, which has become really popular. To test one’s own family history etc., etc., has become really popular in recent years. People often talk about genetics as though genetics are our fate, and this is a theme of
Sun in Days.
Meghan O’Rourke: In Sun in Days and in this non-fiction book about illness that I’m working on now, I’m really trying to dig up and complicate some of the buckets of thinking we have about the mind and the body and fate and genetics.
If every era has its own governing, poorly understood scientific idea, which measures everything, heredity and genetics were probably late 19th century and then in different ways, in more sophisticated ways, the 20th century. And I actually think now we are seeing it’s not just genetics but also what scientists call epigenetics that matter. I think we are moving into an era in science and medicine where we understand that Lamarck was more right than we thought he was, that how life comes at us and affects us, some of which is characterological and some of which is like a virus or a bacterial infection or a war—how that all hits sort of changes the expression of our genes in a way that can last for generations.
To me, this is very rich for the writer. And it kind of corresponds to what I feel is true as a writer, which is that there are givens, but there is some way in which we can negotiate around givens, but it’s such a natural desire to be like, “Just do it,” right? To just will yourself through the moment, and a lot of Sun in Days is about trying to reckon with the fact that there are experiences we can’t will ourselves out of. We don’t like to talk about that, and illness is one of them. It resonates in so many directions in terms of thinking about privilege and class and race and the body.
Until I got sick, other people’s illnesses were very obscure to me. Other people’s disabilities were sort of there, but I took them as fated in some way that made me think that the person who was experiencing it . . . that was just their life. And when I got sick it was such an awakening for me to realize, oh no: any person in any subjectivity is always struggling with that subjectivity, that subject position. So, I was really trying to write poems and lyric essays in that book that really explored what is coherent about us, what does remain when under duress. Or with a bacterial infection that invades your nervous system and your brain, which is what happened to me. I have Lyme disease that became very seriously neurological and completely changed who I was. And yet there was some kind of low pilot flame that kept saying, “No, no, no. This is not who you are. This is some other you,” which did suggest some kind of coherent “I.”
Whitney Terrell: I love that image of a low pilot flame. That’s really great. It’s so interesting, that sense of exterior events. I guess my closest thing, since I have not been ill in that way, but what you’re talking about reminded me of sitting in a Humvee waiting to go outside of the gates of a base in 2006, when I knew that it was really, really dangerous. People could get blown up and killed very easily, and that might happen to me, and feeling how stupid it was that I was doing that. How could I be participating in this? This isn’t me; how could I be doing this? There’s some part of me that says I can’t actually, really be doing this. It was a very strange dissonance.
VVG: And I think one way we sometimes find ways around that is by having a witness. Meghan, I remember the year that we were living in very close proximity, like a floor apart from each other. I was inexplicably sick a couple times and you sort of said, very generously, “Do you want me to come to the doctor with you?” And eventually, it resolved pretty smoothly, but it was also this feeling of, Meghan would see me. If a doctor didn’t see me, Meghan would be my witness so that I could believe my own story about who I am and whether that is changing in some moment.
MO: And that’s, I think, why we read. I mean really, that is what books become for us, and I did read a ton of illness memoirs during this period, and they were really comforting to me, not on just a pure kind of therapeutic level but on a deeply existential, almost metaphysical level, right? We have this act of trying to put very confusing and complicated experiences into language. It’s really one of the profound acts of witness we have. And it really is meaningful in times like these.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FNF. Transcriptions by Amanda Minoff and Erin Saxon.