Author’s note: The following excerpts are drawn from a manuscript tentatively titled Reversi: a group of letters written to Em Bohlka, who died in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire. Reversi engages with Othello as a core text, jumping off from that play to explore its difficult history and the questions it raises around race and gender. As I grieve Em, these letters hold space for our absent conversation.
I’m reading about eviction, throwing stuff into a truck and taking it to a storage that costs $375 the first month and then every month it doubles so people can’t keep paying, the cherrywood armoire goes to the dump and the clothes are stripped for rags.
Obviously the Bay was never going to be for you what it had been for me, a nest, and it was for me what it was because I was grandfathered in, having come at a gentler time. I was answering questions for an interview that many people I know had also done and one of the questions was “What would you change about the Bay” and I certainly knew how to answer that and so did we all, everyone said “The rents, the rents” and not to say “The rents” clearly meant you were an asshole, small ethical lines continue to be drawn.
Othello has something Venice wants, his military skill, and so they will consider him white as long as he doesn’t try to settle down. It is as the “extravagant and wheeling stranger/of here and everywhere” he leads their armies, sword aloft, across the green game board from Venice to Cyprus, even as far as Turkey and to the lands of the Anthropophagi and Amazons.
You come to the Bay for your transition. Imagining something open, a nest, and you and Nat get conned out of your deposit money for a place to live that didn’t even exist and you sell off your shit to raise money for another deposit and work miserable night shifts to pay exorbitant rents and the first time you dress femme to go out someone spits in your face on the train; your neighbors hate you and queer-bait you but because they hate you as a gentrifier, you can’t even straightforwardly hate them back, you are getting divorced, it is all horrible, and told retrospectively, comic. You went to a place thinking it would be other than what it was, and it didn’t think much of you either.
In the momentary eye of the storm we walked around Lake Merritt together, talking about how it was important for your life to have been ruined to make space for the transition. To start again clean. We agreed about this rather solemnly. It helps one function, to tell a legible story.
I recognize how I’m writing this to make myself naive, playing up my ignorance then to give myself knowingness now, because otherwise I can’t stand it. Can’t stand myself naive. I didn’t understand how much they had it in for you. What a Becky I was, I didn’t see it coming.
It’s a critical intelligence, the one that thinks it knows. What’s around the bend, what fits and what doesn’t. Iago, “nothing if not critical,” holds the audience, creates our pleasure, by being the one who knows the most. Who wouldn’t want to be on that side, the knowing one? Now I will be the one who never is taken advantage of.
I read somewhere, re: fascism, that it is when we are first listened to that we are most in danger.
In April 1833, USAmerican-born Ira Aldridge, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor and the first black man known to have played Othello, arrived in England at the height of a controversy over emancipating British-owned slaves in Jamaica. The London Times claimed that Aldridge must be parroting words he could not understand: Shakespeare had intended the role of Othello for a white man.
In 1965 Laurence Olivier played Othello in blackface. Shaped by his era’s ideas of ‘Negro physicality,’ with élan and volupté Olivier developed his special walk. With an exotic accent of his own devising, a deeper voice, he felt himself luxe and predatory as a big cat.
Olivier thought this performance the peak of his originality, but it was popular precisely because it channeled a minstrel show unconscious. Columnist Inez Robb said "I was certainly in tune with the gentleman sitting next to me who kept asking 'When does he sing Mammy?”
A white bear ate too much fog and burst. I lost my bread into the soup, where all its cohesion was gone. We hear of the death of Edmund Kean, the 19th century’s favorite Othello, spitting up blood after his performance and collapsing into Iago’s arms, then dying shortly thereafter.
Hugh Quarshie, the actor who “broke the color line” in the Royal Shakespeare Company, refused to play Othello, saying it was the one role in the canon that should never be played by a black man. But Othello still haunted his career, appearing in the language of reviews, in the way he was costumed and blocked.
Ray Fearon finally played Othello to the same white actress who had played Juliette to his Romeo. There was a collective exhale from white critics at seeing Fearon’s professional destiny fulfilled.
Iagos who are the sons of their Othellos, Iagos and Othellos who are both white, Desdemonas and Othellos who are both male. Othellos (Robeson and Welles) who fall in love with their Desdemonas. Othellos who perform across their own violence (Junius Brutus Booth, who “would have smothered Desdemona in earnest if the other actors had not rushed in and pulled him off”). A German adaptation of Othello in the 1770s caused miscarriages.
To be unhoused is something that strikes us. So it’s in a cynical, maybe even nihilistic, posture of knowingness that I can sigh and say “rents rents rents” from inside my house.
I was biting my tongue because though I wanted to convince you to love the Bay you were moving to New York anyway, and I knew that my Bay didn’t exist anymore, never had for you, and even though I hadn’t gotten to introduce you to the poets I bit my tongue. I would miss you but I was glad for you too, to get away.
That you then died in the Ghost Ship fire — the ultimate Bay Area rent clusterfuck — it was as though to prove your point. What to do when you are not playing with your subject matter but angrily terrified of it? I don’t know. But it does seem like your sense of humor.
The 1792 French adaptation of Othello switched to a happy ending because Desdemona’s death resulted in mass fainting. While the actors were in the midst of strong dramatic action, the audience was riveted on a cat sitting quietly in a chair, following a bit of blowing lint with its eyes.
I was trying to work at the coffee shop but wanted so badly to be back among my new plants that I rushed back home even knowing it would make work hopeless. When I arrived I found the side yard where we planted our container garden the past two days was so bright I couldn’t see to write.
So I’ve been carrying my things in and out, from sun to shade, working a little, idly scanning the “Outdoor Entertaining” sections of e-commerce sites, fantasizing about my friends reveling in flowers in this space I made.
I think of your imaginary Facebook updates project, a year of unpublished posts, dreaming Facebook as a place you could actually share your transition, where your dour Christian relatives and estranged sister and macho ex-friends and grad school cohort would come together to give you nourishment. You would write your way into understanding and wrest what you needed from those who refused it to you.
Knowing this was impossible, that if anything the social media form mitigated against understanding, you still imagined it, off to the side. You saw it as a genre challenge. I sent you the PDF of Cruising Utopia because it seemed to me that you were working on a queer utopian space, seeding it in unpromising terrain.
It’s a gift, I think, the ability to take queer space where you can find it. Yayoi Kusama dotting paint on her friends’ backs and on the surface of a pond; Liedy Churchman dipping a banana in ‘lavender-orchid’ paint and pressing it against a friend’s ass. The moments of high spirits that tide us over. Hail to thee, blithe spirit on your way to the demo, to the show.
On your way to claim common property: the stage will belong to the night’s audience, now held in suspension, waiting for the curtain to lift. Tonight it will be Brabantio’s estate, a boat, and the entrance to Bianca’s house. A protean space, but circulating the same air that’s on the streets, in the manors, the mansions.
As a dramatic work, Othello has a curious problem with its flow of time: there are two separate time schemes going on at once. In the first, (with its own system of evidence, references, notes) it appears that Othello kills Desdemona around a day and a half after their marriage. In the second time scheme, several weeks, if not more, elapse: this second time frame is also backed up by textual evidence and reference.
There’s no critical agreement on why time is doubled in Othello, but it adds to the play’s suffocating feel, the uneasy sense that something doesn’t add up, that events are crammed into a space too small for them. The time problem creates spatial constriction, too: Othello and Desdemona have neither time nor space to be alone, undescribed by third parties.
The play begins with their offstage elopement, but the first thing that appears on the stage itself is Iago shouting vile racist epithets in the night, to rouse Desdemona’s father. And though Othello and Desdemona then leave Venice, the empire, they are traveling on separate vessels, each bound for Cyprus, the colony. Their destination may be the boundary of the West’s known universe, but it’s full of its own poison, exoticized and militarized.
I think of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”—her exposition of how space both physical and cultural must be held for something to happen (in her case that women, implicitly white women, might be able to write). She writes of women’s precarious, dependent position; of the attempt to cultivate an always-already infected space. Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind...and she will write a better book one of these days.
Woolf also covertly invokes queer space, in her quotation of work from an imagined woman writer, Mary Carmichael: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.” She wrote this—both daring and sly—in 1928, the year Radclyffe Hall went on obscenity trial for The Well of Loneliness.
It was worked up as the famous essay later, but had its genesis as a series of lectures given at the women’s colleges of Cambridge University; she arrived for the lecture date in the company of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. With Vita in the audience, she delivered.
I haven’t read much Woolf for a while, but one of her descriptions of Sackville-West has stuck in my mind since I first read it, I found it so beautiful: “Vita shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks...pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung.” Praising her lover, Woolf creates an charged moment of stillness and silence, lit from within. A chamber in which a woman can regard another woman with courtly reverence, love, and sexual awe.
She does so using the conventional Western associations of femininity with pearls and radiance: metaphors for whiteness. Different from, but sharing a lineage with, the language Shakespeare gives to Othello, moments before he strangles Desdemona: “Yet I’ll not shed her blood,/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow/And smooth as monumental alabaster.”
Vita Sackville-West is known mostly now for being Virginia Woolf’s model for Orlando, though she was a writer, too, overtly lesbian from an early age, architect of a famous open marriage and a famous long pastoral poem and a famous garden. She fascinated Woolf not only because she was a true, deep, blue-blooded aristocrat, but certainly partly for that reason: Knole, her estate, was gifted to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth I in 1566 (though the family did not take up residence there until 1603, the year Othello was written).
One of the five largest houses in England, with 365 rooms, Knole employed 60 servants when Vita was born. Vita wrote love letters to, novels and poetry about, her female lovers; she also wrote love letters to, novels and poetry about Knole, and researched the genealogy of her land.
In her book Knole and the Sackvilles, Vita mentions a so-called ‘Blackamoor’ named John Morocco, one of the scullery staff, who appears first in Lady Anne Clifford’s list of Knole’s servants from 1613 to 1624. After he left service, he was replaced by another “Blackamoor” whom the house also named “John Morocco”, and so on and so on. Through the generations, always a black servant, always named John Morocco, at Knole.
“Our central dilemma with Othello is that both the resistance and the faith we need to understand its world are deeply infected.” True of the world in Othello; also true of the world around it, in which the English slave trade began in 1555, four years after the start of trade between England and Morocco; true of the world that crafted the opposition between ‘fair’ and ‘dark’ in the literary language of beauty in the late 1550s: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.”
The world in which, on September 7th, 1665, Samuel Pepys visited another aristocratic residence to view the curiosity cabinet of Sir Robert Viner: “The window-cases, door-cases, and Chimneys of all the house are white Marble. He showed me a black boy that he had that died of a consumption, and being dead, he caused him to be dried in an Oven, and there lies entire in a box.”
The world in which Philando Castile was shot to death in a refracted space: the space of his own car and Facebook Live and viewed infinitely, the world in which Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s brutalized body was hung in a rectangular frame.
We keep holding on in these spaces. Or do I mean to these spaces and will it always be both. I ordered Vita Sackville-West’s biography from “A Better World Books” for $3.65 and I did so thinking about a quote from Frank Wilderson (about his white lover and her comfort in a white world): “They were all family, the dancer, the poet, the cop.”
Jack Smith said “When you have police everything looks queer.” Et in arcadia, cops. When I am feeling at my most frustrated about being a shitty person made of shitty materials who also has shitty materials to work with, but who still wants to make art, I say to myself, “Well, I’m not going to just lie down and die!”
I wonder if at some level the death-in-life Othello arrives at, its shitty, disagreeable refusal of therapeutic and cathartic modes, is not more true. That the chaotic way in which Othello insists on compressing the double vision of utopian realm and hellscape into a single point is also its usefulness. To collapse points of view reveals that they were already illegible. Reduce to the heap of bodies and say “There, make something with that.”
Your Facebook project was trying to force a crack into the world, even if just an immaterial one, to fracture the way we are living into a different form of impossibility. I guess I want to do this too and I suppose so did Vita Sackville-West: writing blandly of John Morocco, draped in her ancestors’ histories and genders, as mutable, headstrong, and irrepressible as Orlando, moving among her 365 rooms.
You didn’t lie down but you died anyway and every time I work on one of these letters (on Fridays, at the coffee shop where you worked, where we met) I think about that and about the heap of bodies on the bed. And I get up from my chair and look at your picture on the wall before I begin.