19 ilana masad, boredom snacking, telugu literature, the TV teen bedroom, the influencer union

I’ve barely left the house recently except to run errands but already it seems that I’ve returned to a different city. Galleries are disappointing, but everything else in the art scene is looking up. Dubai constantly resurfaces itself of course, but in the past that has meant new roads, new skyscrapers unfurling in a scant few months. Now, it feels like the timbre of the city itself has changed—more on this next week in my own culture diary, which goes out to paid subscribers.

This week’s diary comes from author and critic Ilana Masad. The images are decorative endpapers from the British Library’s collection.

spiky bois

Inside the worst-hit county in the worst-hit state in the worst-hit country. The vaccine had to be used. He used it. he was fired. They asked for PPE and got body bags instead—she turned them into a healing dress. Much of America’s seafood comes through this city. Here’s how it controlled Covid-19. Witnessing a Florida execution changed the course of one reporter’s life. Rhode Island kept its schools open. Here’s what happened. Stories of slavery, from those who survived it. What “baby bust”? New and soon-to-be parents on choosing to have kids in dark times. Bigotry at home: how Delhi, Mumbai keep Muslim residents out. Doctor Do-little. Inside Nigeria’s illegal backstreet abortion clinics. How Covid-19 became a chronic condition. Who is Disha Ravi, the climate activist arrested by Delhi police? Dying of Covid in a ‘seperate and unequal’ LA hospital. Once upon a time in central Florida. The pandemic-induced popularity of Google Street View.

glouglou & snackchat

Saaya and the rituals of Tamil Muslim milk tea. Comfort me with chopsticks. The limits of the lunchbox moment. Powder. Keeping Hakka culture alive, part 2: New Year traditions and cuisine. The crunchy Armenian walnut pastries that tell a story. Bicolano cuisine in the Philippines. What is it about the vegan Caesar? How a monster-repelling cake became a Lunar New year staple. On the hunt for Myanmar’s elusive toddy palm wine. Nigeria’s battle to bottle palm wine. Boredom snacking. A new luxury sandwich sweeps Instagram into a frenzy of banality. Solar panels capture more sunlight with capsaicin. The long history of the espresso machine. Tapi Tapi ice cream is a sweet education on African liberation. The savor of memory. An Indian abroad must be in want of spice.

language & literature

Hiding in plain sight. Swearing like sailors: what the profanities of lascars can teach a divided world. How to bring a language to the future. How a secret European languages “made a rabbit” and survived. The rise and fall of the Oxford school of fantasy literature. Young Swahili speakers and the Zanzibar diaspora. Palestinian children’s literature. How India’s artisanal fountain pens are making their mark. The secret life of H.G. Carrillo. The Higginbothams story. A slice of South India in Balochistan. 🔊Struggle and revolution in Telugu literature.You’ve seen Kris Sowerby’s work everywhere. You just don’t know it. How getting cancelled on social media can derail a book deal. He wants to save classics from whiteness. Can the field survive? Reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. Bathroom reading.
Decorative Paper from page 85 of The rambling Justice, or the jealous husbands with the humours of Sir John Twiford (1678).…

living well

Cottagecore was just the beginning. Sneaking into Pantone HQ. The best 70€ I ever spent: an old German sideboard. Good vibrations. I watched a full day of HGTV. Making house: notes on domesticity. From Oscars tickets to Harry Potter-themed videos, homebuyers are spicing up their offers. Inside the world of British brickophiles. Burning the furniture: my life as a consumer. You can’t go home again. Repetitive stress. Four beginners on how homesteading became their form of escapism in 2020. Writing toward home. Why we’re obsessed with the TV teen bedroom. The perfection of the paper clip. Almost home. On Wimmin’s land.

☞\( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)☞ yeehaw

Brazilian butt lift: behind the world’s most dangerous cosmetic surgery. The nightmare share. The lion, the polygamist and the biofuel scam. Snatched from a beach to train North Korea’s spies. SAG-AFTRA approves new influencer union. Durex condoms: how their teenage immigrant inventor was forgotten by history. The capitalist case for overhauling Twitter. Snopes changed the world. Then the world changed. From Archies to Pink Chaddis: how V-Day became a desi tyohar. I miss my Mom: Children of QAnon believers are desperately trying to deradicalise their own parents. Undetected. Binders full of men.

culture diary: ilana masad

thursday

I've known I was going to start writing this for a few days now, and the day after the inauguration—which I did not watch or listen to, because I had a deadline and spent the day writing about a book that tore my insides up—seemed like a fitting beginning. 

My latest bad habit, which I don't think I'm alone in, has been checking my phone while I'm still in bed, before I get up. For a while I managed to avoid this. As a result, though, my first brush with culture today was even more Bernie Sanders memes on Twitter, and the hot take already up at Mel about Sanders’ memeableness. 

After I made coffee, I read the latest newsletter from chipmnk, whose first name is Alvin, I think. I signed up for it a while ago, although I don't know him, but I know (from Twitter) he's friends with internet people I like, and his newsletter is a lovely bit of vulnerability that makes me feel less alone for writing a similar kind. I’ve had “write newsletter” on my own to-do list for approximately two weeks, and for some reason was inspired to actually write it this morning when I should have been working on my novel. Is producing writing a form of cultural consumption as well? I don’t know the answer to that.

In the evening, my partner and I watched the last episode of season 3 of Angel which was extremely weird and included a very pointed visual motif in which one of the characters, wearing all white, ascends to, erm, “the higher realms” to do good, while another character, wearing all black, was literally nailed into a coffin and pushed into the ocean (he’s a vampire and doesn’t need to breathe so he won’t die down there, he’ll just be super bored). It was very ~symbolic~ and felt silly. 

I’m also slowly making my way through The Twilight Zone (the original) and last night I watched “Mirror Image” in which one of my favorite TZ tropes appeared: the replication of a phenomenon previously dismissed. That is, one character was deemed insane for what she was talking about and was hauled off by police to be institutionalized, and the character who called the cops on her ends the episode by experiencing the exact same phenomenon that she had, proving that she was right ALLLL along. 

friday

I started my morning reading some more of Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin, which I started a couple days ago. I’m interviewing him on Tuesday. So far, I’m enthralled with the book, with the way he explores contradictory spaces and the complex nature of otherized communities. What does it mean to be among people like us? Who is “like us”? Are you more that category of identity inside the space reserved for you or somehow less of that identity, or both? He’s specifically speaking to gay (so far, particularly gay cis male) experience, but this question intrigues me. I’m teaching an intro class on queer lit starting Monday and these are questions I’m going to want to bring in, I think.

I’m also currently rereading Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, and she’s a writer who refuses and abhors categorization by identity. One of my assignments for my students (after we read and talk about Passing by Nella Larsen and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin) is reading the 2015 introduction Brown wrote for the reissue of her classic book. In that intro, she writes that categorizations make victims of us, that we should and must only see ourselves as people and not as categories of identity. I don’t know that I agree, precisely, or rather, I think that it’s more complicated, and my general sense of these things is that this too isn’t binary: belonging to a category of identity, claiming it as one’s own, does not negate a personhood-first approach. In short: why not both? 

I read too many newsletters this morning again, including brad + rachel’s “This is Newsletter”, Roxane Gay’s end-of-the-week roundup for The Audacity, and Daisy Alioto and Kyle Chyaka’s Dirt (which is now expanding, apparently, to include writers who are not them). Clearly, cultural consumption can be and often is procrastination from work. This is maybe especially obvious right now, in the 21st century, but I think it’s always been the case. The whole sea shanty moment on TikTok, for instance, is a direct callback to a genre of music used explicitly to alleviate boredom and help with long hours of work. I think often about how people who work particular kinds of jobs today aren’t allowed to use things like music or podcasts or even conversation to alleviate their boredom, and how this is such an explicitly cruel aspect of capitalism. (I tweeted about this because I apparently cannot have a particular brand of thought without sharing it with the world anymore. Isn’t that weird? I think it’s weird.)

I read some more of Gay Bar in the afternoon between other work-related shit like edits, and then I hung out with cats at The Cat House, which sounds like a brothel but is actually just a very literal name because it’s a no-kill cat shelter. Do cats count as culture? THEY SURE DO ON THE INTERNET. And one thing that this pandemic is showing me (among many others) is just how ~extremely online~ being able to only interact with people meaningfully online can make my life feel. I have been staring at this screen for most of the hours of today.

Cyberpunk 2077 is next for me and then some more Angel. Maybe tomorrow night my partner and I will have the energy to commit to a movie. We’ll see. 

saturday

Didn’t actually end up playing Cyberpunk 2077 last night because there was a big patch updating. I have only tangentially kept up with the total drama that was the release of this game. What it most reinforced for me though was how utterly out of touch I am with the world of gaming, because I was furious whenever my partner told me about all the complaints going around. Maybe this is because I was born in 1990 and have played my way through every pixelated graphic imaginable before landing in the gorgeously wrought era of contemporary Prestige Games, but it seemed to me like Cyberpunk was gloriously bug-free for the kind of humungous game it is. Also, as a PC gamer, bugs have always been a thing. Maybe this is part of why I’ve always been somewhat weirded out by console gaming once it got so sleek: it’s so… closed box. There’s nothing running in the background. Consoles aren’t going to crash because you’re also torrenting something in the background or surprise you with a familiar BINK when your mom sends you a message on g-chat because you left Chrome running. Is this one of those getting older things where you appreciate the weird flaws of the things that are familiar to you? Or is it one of those getting older things where you get annoyed at younger people complaining about things you never had? Or—maybe I’m just kidding myself—do I enjoy imperfections because perfection tends to be boring?

Anyway. This morning my partner and I cleaned, which we’re trying to do every two weeks. While I did my portion, I listened to the Magnolia episode of Why Are Dads, a podcast I am smitten as a kitten with because I really like both the cohosts. They bring on great guests and also it is a cultural criticism via way of feelings kind of space, which is basically my happiest happy place. Emma Copley Eisenberg was the guest for this episode, and she talked about soft masculinity and soft men and doughy-ness and bread-baking as queer and I had the revelation that this is precisely why I have always loved the Raymond Carver short story “A Small, Good Thing." If you’ve never read it before, give yourself a treat.  Then I started listening to this week’s On the Media while I showered but got distracted by the smell of breakfast from the other room and remember nothing that I heard (I’ll listen to the rest at some point).

I think I have a couple cavities. This sucks because I haven’t had any since I was a little kid. I also have like five appointments coming up this week, and I’m just so tired of doctors’ offices, IRL or virtual. 

More to the point, I read a bunch more of Gay Bar and I’m about to get started on Kink, a short fiction anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R. O. Kwon and I can’t wait. I love it when all my reading intersects so beautifully by accident. I can draw lines between Rubyfruit Jungle, Gay Bar ,and some of what I’m expecting to find in Kink, and see how the characters in an autofictional novel, the theory and narrative in the memoir/cultural history, and the attitude and theory and identities and practice in the anthology will intertwine and talk to each other. It’s like a medley of ideas in my head. 

We watched some more Angel, and are getting angrier at the show’s narrative decision-making. I mean, on the one hand, it’s true that Cordelia is only 22 at the most and so it’s not unreasonable that she would decide to be with the (18ish?) son of her boss, but on the other hand Cordelia does not look like she’s 22 and the show has been leaning into her being a grown-up and mommish person for a while so just fucking with her again? Not nice. Really not nice.

sunday

Sundays are strange days. I spent the morning reading introduction slides written by my students (I start teaching tomorrow). Only after spitting into a vial for a rapid Covid-19 test required by my university (I'm glad they're testing; also I think the way they're testing is stupid and limited and will not prevent the spread of the virus all over the goddamn place with students moving back to campus again but whatever, I have been ranting about this for six months already) and going to the grocery store (where there were many noses poking out of masks which I continue to not understand as a phenomenon) was I able to return to Gay Bar, which I'm still enjoying so much. 

Something that I'm especially taken by in this book is Lin's clear-eyed view of himself at different stages of his life paired with the way that queer history includes so much that is problematic, exclusionary, Capitalistic. In other words, it's imperfect, just like any history of any group of people is not perfect, just like Lin is imperfect. No one is perfect. Deifying queer history or particular figures in it can be just as dangerous as erasing it (and it's been erased plenty and continues to be so). Every time I hear someone trying to say that X, Y, or Z figure threw the first brick at Stonewall, I want to scream. That wasn't the point, I want to tell them—it wasn't a night about leaders, it was a riot sprung from deep frustration and exhaustion and anger with the way a group of people were being treated. On any other night, all the people who were there surely had their own issues with one another as well, but they came together in pretty remarkably spontaneous solidarity that one night, all having experienced the humiliation of police raids and shakedowns one too many times. It's the collectivity of that night that's inspirational, in my opinion. 

But we love to have leaders, I guess. We love to deify, to put people on pedestals. We love it as much as we love the self-righteous feeling of tearing them down. This is not a criticism of the takedown, but I wonder what a cultural space or historical memory would look like if they refused to make symbols out of human beings, if they acknowledged the flawedness of us all.

I had a long talk with my best friend in New York City after reading Lin's book for a few hours. I'll probably watch more Angel with my partner tonight. Where did the day go? Sundays are strange.

monday

It snowed today. All freaking day long. It was supposed to be the first day of teaching, but instead the university called a snow day, which included most online classes. However, because I’m a grad student, I still had a job placement class to attend. Reading material about how to apply to academic jobs is not quite as harrowing as applying to jobs but it’s also not a far cry, really. 

I had a conversation with a student about my class (I held office hours even though class was canceled, just in case) and that was interesting. This student was concerned about how much we’d be talking about queer suffering in the course as opposed to queer joy. I have complex feelings about this, and about how these concepts are interpreted. I understood where the question was coming from—in this case a very particular experience in another course that looked at many historical texts written by straight people about queer people—but I also feel like these things tend to be fluid. I suppose I also just have a more comfortable relationship with books about suffering, with the concept of it. Not in a “makes you stronger” kind of a way, but more in a James Baldwin suffering-is-universal kind of a way. 

I read Gay Bar most of the day (and finished it late at night) and took a brain break to watch The Bachelor when it aired. This week’s episode was absolutely rife with horror, and a few bright spots. Individually, many of the contestants seem like truly wonderful and fascinating people, even some of the ones who are getting iffy edits. But there is a white woman named Victoria at the center of a lot of the mean girl drama, and this week another white woman, Anna, was added to the mix. New contestants arrived during this episode, and there’s now a whole drama about how Anna was told to watch out for one of them, Brittany, because she’s rumored to be an escort. The show lists her job title as “model.”

Anna’s evidence for Brittany being an escort is that she hangs out with “all the big spenders” in Chicago. My understanding is that modeling is a pretty difficult gig and I presume that knowing “big spenders” is sort of part of the goddamn job? Because, ya know, networking? Anyway, I’m also just angry that sex work is one of those things that so many people are apparently able to look down on, and which is still somehow fair game as an insult for these women to wield as a weapon against each other. The fact is, all the women coming on the show also have a transactional relationship to the Bachelor, Matt James, because they have a transactional relationship with ABC, the network. But sex work is beyond the pale? Please.

Victoria—who is apparently a Trump supporter, which is not surprising because her persecution complex is so monumentally huge, despite being given SO much slack in the house (everyone seems to be scared of her and just glad that she’s turning her attention to someone that isn’t them)—had another totally horrible moment, when she, a self-proclaimed queen, literally removed a tiara from the head of Catalina Morales Gómez, Miss Universe Puerto Rico, and put it on her own head. If that isn’t a metaphor come to life, I don’t know what is.

Why do I watch this show? Well. That’s a good question but the short answer is: because I know I live in a bubble and while this show isn’t demonstrative of actual mainstream America, it does feel like an interesting yardstick for where a big chunk of people are at and what ABC thinks they can handle without leaving the fandom. I don’t think that ABC is the arbiter either, obviously, of mainstream America, and it’s probably impossible to disentangle how media both reflects and affects a populace and is reflected back and affected by said populace, but still—it’s interesting. Also, it’s fun to analyze. Also also, it’s fun to get angry at things that maybe reflect dynamics of the real world but have zero consequence on my life or the lives of those I love, for once. 

We watched the latest episode of WandaVision tonight as well. It’s… interesting. I like shows that don’t tell you too much about what’s going on, and I’m intrigued, but this episode is confirming for me something that I was expecting: that deep familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe will likely make this show more relevant and enjoyable, which I resent. I don’t really want to need to know that much in order to enjoy an ostensible standalone show. I have a lot of rage surrounding the amount of space MCU takes up in popular culture, but most of that rage is probably about resentment and exhaustion and loneliness re the things that I enjoy, and the feeling of both wanting to join in and deeply resisting joining in. 

tuesday

Didn’t sleep much last night. Spent the sleepless hours imagining TikToks and having the courage and/or patience to post thirst traps. Thought about longing as a key concept in queerness and queer experience, as Jeremy Atherton Lin writes about it in Gay Bar, and how peculiarly precise and correct that feels to me. I interviewed him this morning, which was a lovely experience, more of a back and forth than I’m used to in interviews, since Lin occasionally ended his responses with “…but I don’t know, what do you think?” I enjoy interviews that become conversations, although I suppose that’s not very journalistic. I don’t know what journalism is, I only know what criticism is, and even that—who knows what I know. Who knows what anyone knows. 

I revisited Te-Ping Chen’s Land of Big Numbers because I was editing the interview I’d done with her via email and had to write the intro. I also started Kink and read the first three stories already. Maybe this isn’t true of everyone, but I certainly get turned on by reading about sex scenes, and it’s an odd juxtaposition, reading a book that’s full of pretty hot kink (at least, so far), that’s smutty and literary at the same time, and needing to think about it critically. It’s always a little harder to think critically when turned on, and it’s also hard to assess sex scenes critically when so few books outside of erotica include this kind of depth and breadth of description. It’s an interesting exercise.

The episode of Angel we watched tonight was ridiculous—everyone lost their memory! And then there was some evil demon thing that maybe woke up at the same time as Cordelia did? Anyway. My partner already spoiled for me (per my request—I knew he knew something and didn’t want to wait to find out) that she apparently turns evil or something and is basically fridged for ages because she was pregnant and Joss Whedon wasn’t into that. Learning that too many of the creators of beloved shows are dicks is a great lesson in learning not to idolize individuals, especially when a show’s success has to do with so many more people than just its creator). I’m pretty sure we’re going to only get more annoyed at the show from now on. 

wednesday

To be honest, I can barely remember what I did this morning. I know I had every intention of reading and writing, but I think instead I stared at social media and thought about how it’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day and then “had to” make a couple informative TikToks about all the other victims of that genocide who weren’t Jews (I’m Jewish, and I care a lot about how the narrative that has arisen from Nazi Germany flattens all the other ways in which it was terrible in addition to killing lots and lots of Jews).

I read more of Kink today as well—I’m about halfway through—and I’m fascinated by the range of approaches the authors have taken to whatever the original prompt they were given was. One story in particular, Cal Angus’s, includes one mostly off-page sex scene, but there is something kinky about how it elides sex and focuses instead on environmental disaster as… well, as change. And because it’s change, it’s made sexy. It’s not a story with a moral—it’s a story about celebrating change and survival, as painful as that survival might be. 

I taught my first class today as well. When I asked students what LGBTQ media they’d encountered, one of my students messaged me privately on Zoom to ask whether the Rocky Horror Picture Show counted. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. Of course it counted, I told them, and when they shared their love for it with the class, they used so many hedging terms, and it made me so sad. No history is perfect, no movement is perfect, no person is perfect. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the way that we felt when exposed to a piece of art that made us ecstatic, and it doesn’t mean we must erase all our histories. It’s not about erasure—or it shouldn’t be, I think. Erasure has happened aplenty and continues to happen. It’s about expansion: bringing forth the voices and the people and the histories that have always been there, and letting them breathe with as much openness and generosity as the voices and people and histories that have always dominated have gotten to. 

featured creature: man-faced stinkbug

Sometimes they look a bit moustachioed:


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