It’s hard to know when you’ll catch nostalgia, like you would a virus or a disease. An Angelfire page, littered with broken image boxes. Floral print wrapped around a chipped enamel mug, the creaking arpeggio of a pop song, or the wafting scent of cigarette smoke mingling with soup on the stove. Less an aesthetic than a mood, nostalgia arises within us as the desire to inhabit a romantic fantasy of our past. But of course, as Svetlana Boym writes in Atlas of Transformation, nostalgia seeks the impossible. It’s a “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” For her, it remains an intangible simultaneity “of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.”
But perhaps it is also in the place where nostalgia’s double image cleaves that we can find something valuable. What happens when we jam our fingers into the space between our flawed, romanticized past and our wishes for the future? What does it mean to hold our impulse toward newness alongside our ambivalence toward modernity; our desire for the familiar alongside the historic forces that bind us? These texts do not resolve these rifts but find, in their articulations of nostalgia, a way to challenge our preconceived notions of history or futurity in favor of the meandering, the speculative, and the more intensely felt—a path without a destination, perhaps, but one that’s clearer-eyed, twisted, and set alight.
The Grave on the Wall—Brandon Shimoda (2019)
In Shimoda’s triumph of textural prose, he embarks upon a pilgrimage to trace the history of his grandfather Midori’s life. He finds himself instead in fluctuating spaces of the past and the present: between Japanese internment camps and pretty graveyards, FBI files and the remains of Hiroshima. In moments of death and destruction, there is no symbolism but instead “a sunset world” where hell is real. Shimoda’s journey through the residue of history, dream, and archive similarly negates metaphor; his writing unspools into a realm where image is rendered purely material and becomes so brittle it crumbles at the touch. With him, we circle the void, chasing facts that have been forever lost and suffering that will never find purpose. The Grave on the Wall is a passage of aching nostalgia and relentless assembly out of which something more important than objective truth is conjured—a ritual frisson, a veracity of spirit. I am grateful to have traveled along.
Dinotopia—James Gurney (1992)
A favorite book from my childhood, Dinotopia depicts a secret colony where dinosaurs and humans live together in harmony, protected from the world by barriers of coral. Lushly illustrated by Gurney’s realist paintings, this book is a paragon of world-building, part encyclopedia and part nineteenth-century travel novel. From details of the daily activities at a dinosaur hatchery to a dual-species alphabet in which each letter is composed of differently grouped dinosaur footprints, Gurney articulates the real workings of an imagined world through which persons of any age can collectively imagine a utopia that’s not an impossibility but a parallel reality. Dinotopia isn’t “a fantasy world to escape to, but rather… a real world to participate in,” Gurney says. It’s an exercise in untethering ourselves from our trash-fire existence in order to imagine, in earnest, the possibilities of a new one.
A self-professed biannual print magazine of gay communism, PINKO is amniotic, but its intentions excite me. Glancing briefly backward (not uncritically) toward activist groups such as the Young Lords and ACT UP, for whom creativity was an integral part of protest and vice versa, and for whom issues of pleasure were not so stubbornly divorced from the political, PINKO views the struggle to abolish gender as integral to the struggle to abolish the capitalist present. As its manifesto proclaims, “What we need most now is not only the defense of older horizons of gender freedom but the courage to imagine new ones.” Nostalgia is not enough. Forging a path between the history of anticapitalist struggle and the urgency of the current global crisis, between sex and proclamation, between the ephemeral and the digital, yet relentlessly committed to finding radical joy in each passing moment, PINKO seeks to build our capacity to collectively survive; I’m willing to work for it.
Zhao Tao dancing in Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000)
In this film, Zhao Tao sensitively plays Ruijuan, a young woman caught in the turmoil of China’s transition out of the Cultural Revolution. She travels around the country with her theater group, debating art and politics and dancing in socialist realist musicals as a “culture worker.” But time passes. The severity of propaganda videos is replaced by consumer capitalism. Black-and-white gives way to bourgeois color. She leaves the troupe for a practical life as a tax collector. In this scene, alone in the office with her work, Yin sways to the music, before unself-consciously breaking into dance. She gives in to the dulcet tones of pop, a modern sentimentality once forbidden by the state. Paradoxically, it evokes in her nostalgia for the rigid, traditional routines she used to perform—the naïveté and rigor of her collective past life. I love this moment for its evocative collision of contradictory ideologies and affect—it’s a potent reminder that sometimes, in the smallness of our lives, feeling exceeds belief, and that that can matter too.
Leila’s Hair Museum, Independence, Missouri
I spent one of the best days of my life at this local museum of international acclaim. Adjacent to a car wash in a suburban strip mall, Leila’s is home to the only collection of hair art in the world. From watch chains to orb-like earrings, anything can be made out of hair, a plentiful material that never rots and that conveniently serves as a sentimental remnant of the dead. I was absorbed by the stories of the people who had left strands of themselves behind. I shivered as I felt spirits hovering loosely along the ceiling. I was stunned by the intricate Victorian hair wreaths, their myriad flowers woven out of hair-wrapped wire. Often containing hair from many generations of a single family, these wreaths functioned as genealogies and were added to with each birth or death by women skilled in the craft. I was moved to be there with the friends who I knew cared most for me. I felt, in acceleration, the thrilling newness, loss, and grief that inevitably come with the prolonged loving of people. We left with four small pendants filled with neat coils of our own hair. Sometimes I forget whose hair is in which. Time will make it worse. Perhaps what matters is that they gather dust together.