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A Beautiful New Book Reveals How Memory Makes Us Who We Are

Culture

“I didn’t know what I would discover”

The wail of distant sirens punctuate my conversation with Dani Shapiro; we're speaking over the phone, me in New York and she in Italy, about her latest book, Hourglass, a slim, profound meditation on the topics of marriage, memory, and, of course, time.

It's an appropriate, if muted, soundtrack. First, because Shapiro is in Italy for the Sirenland Writer's Conference, which she co-founded more than a decade ago. And then, also, because the urgency inherent to a siren's wail speaks not just to the trauma at hand, whatever that may be, but also to a larger emergency; the reality that we are all doomed, that life is ephemeral, but that finding value in that which is ultimately transitory, is still a worthwhile, even necessary, goal. A siren speaks to the idea that time is running out. It demands that we assess where we are at the moment, where we've been, and where we're going. A siren speaks to mortality, yes, but also to the conditions of life—and the conditions on life—and thus it also evokes more than just a specter of death, but rather one of time and the passing of seconds and hours and days and months and years, and all the living that goes on within them.

In Hourglass, Shapiro dives deep into themes of time, yes, but also love, both marital and filial, and loss. It's a profoundly personal book (of course; it is a memoir), not merely because it reveals details of Shapiro's life, but rather because it's so clear that the stories which Shapiro recounts are not among those that are always easy to tell. This book feels born of the ideas that plague you when you're up late at night, unable to sleep. Shapiro tells me, "Hourglass is my ninth book. I've come to understand when the thought of digging into something terrifies me, that's a sign that it's exactly where I need to go."

Specifically what made Shapiro wary was writing about her marriage, which she does in great detail in Hourglass. She tells me about writing an essay about going on the Virtual Dementia Tour, an experience which she relates in Hourglass and in which people can experience what it is to suffer from dementia, to lose all sense of where and who they are in the world. But by the time she finished that piece, which was centered around "time, memory, and what we inherit," Shapiro realized that it was actually a book. "It was about marriage," she tells me. "I had been tiptoeing around what it is to go through life alongside another human being, and having no escape hatch. My mind was inquiring into what it is to form ourselves alongside each other, both in harmony and friction."

While it might seem terrifying to most people to either be the writer or the subject of a memoir centered around marriage, Shapiro's husband not only happens to also be a writer but also, as Shapiro tells me, has always known that "at some point, I would write about him." And, in fact, as Shapiro wrote the book and gave pages of it to her husband, his comments included, "You're not being hard enough on me." Shapiro says, "The permission he gave me, by saying that, was tremendous. The endeavor of me writing this is something he had a lot of respect for... He cared about what was true."

One of the most striking things about Hourglass, in fact, is just how true it rings. This is not to say that it feels like some complete, capital "T" truth (what even is that, anyway?), or a total read on Shapiro or her marriage; rather, it offers an honesty and an intimacy that's rare, even in a memoir, because of how quiet these thoughts are, soft as the slipping of sand through your hands. Memoir—particularly when centered around topics as broad as marriage or motherhood or mortality—tend to get loud; there's lots of "aha"s. This can be fine, of course. Who doesn't want to shout sometimes? But the delicacy with which Shapiro slices through all the noise surrounding these topics is stunning; the deftness with which she details her thoughts on commitment and love is astonishing—and very welcome. Shapiro lays bare the silence at the center of the stormiest of thoughts, making reading this book feel akin to taking a deep breath of air after spending too long under water; like the words are feeding your mind, allowing you to make connections to your own life, and your own thoughts on love and partnership and what it all means.

Shapiro tells me that when she started writing the book, "I didn't know what I would discover. [It] was very deliberately plotless." She wondered, "Where's the jeopardy?" But as she continued, she realized that it was "about the jeopardy of staying in a relationship," and not allowing there to be "escape hatches everywhere." It is, therefore, a testimony to the beauty of committing to another person, and of committing to life itself, and doing that not because it will be a smooth experience or because you know there will be some sort of stereotypically happy ending, but because, as Shapiro tells me, "the beauty of [it], part of it is its fragility, and how it's weathered by time." 

These are these moments of seemingly ineffable beauty that Shapiro captures so well in Hourglass; she likens putting down these memories to "pinching the middle of the hourglass and not knowing where the middle is." This is the opposite of nostalgia; it is instead a recognition that our past, present, and future selves are all the same being, and that we can best respect them—respect ourselves—on this journey we're all on together, by paying close attention to the small beauties and truths around us, by choosing to give ourselves to the people and things that matter to us, and by acknowledging that, even with the sound of sirens in the distance, there is still a space to find silence within us and think about what it means to live a life of care.

Before we hang up, Shapiro tells me that even though she has written extensively about herself before, she does "not walk around in any way feeling exposed... this book feels a little different." And while I know exactly what she means, the truth is that reading it made me feel more exposed, too, in that I wanted to dwell in the dark thoughts that had been troubling me, and try and figure out a way to bring them to light. "Exposed," as it turns out, is just another way of being open. 

Hourglass is available for purchase now.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.