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‘Passing For Human’ Is The Arresting Creation Myth Of An Atypical Artist

Culture
Photo by Jorge Colombo

Talking with Liana Finck about her graphic memoir

For about five minutes after we sat down in the NYLON office, in a tiny conference room, furnished only with a couple of wall shelves stacked with books, a tufted steel gray couch, and a bi-level circular marble end table that functions as a coffee table, Liana Finck and I puzzled over whether a potted succulent sitting on the table in front of us was real or fake; was it a plant or just passing for a plant? Maybe it should have been easier to tell; we ran our fingers over its edges, pretty sure that it had to be fake. But where was the hard-edged plastic seam? Why did the tips of its dark green blades look so convincingly withered? Why, if it weren't real and didn't need to be, was it planted in real soil? And then my fingernail caught on a tiny plastic bump, and any residual doubt about the plant vanished.

Still, though, its splayed shape stayed a visual focal point for Finck as we stopped talking about the conference room's decor and started talking about her new graphic memoir, Passing for Human, which—after a prologue offering the following insight into Finck's views on her art: "A draw-er doesn't draw because she loves to draw. She doesn't draw because she draws well. She draws because once she lost something. And by drawing—she will find it again"—begins again even before Finck's own beginning, with Chapter 1 telling the story of her parents' meeting and eventual courtship. And then it begins again and again, a series of new Chapter 1s; even its epilogue is another beginning, a subversive creation myth of sorts.

Finck's work, which can be seen regularly in The New Yorker, as well as on her popular Instagram page, is instantly recognizable as much for its spare, tremulous lines, as it is for its sublime strangeness, and the way it clearly conveys her ability to pinpoint with lightning strike-accuracy what it is to feel alienated, annoyed, embraced, caffeinated, overwhelmed, homesick, obsessed, in love, bored; what it is to feel like an artist, like a woman, like a human. The paradox of Finck's ability to capture so many facets of humanity within such a small amount of quavering lines, is not lost on her; but she thinks that it's working in this style that is precisely what allows her to best capture a person: "I think that's why I'm a cartoonist and not an artist. Like, a drawing of a person is deep down more of a real person than a real person is, because it's simpler. It's more vivid. A person has so many faces, and a drawing just has one face."

Of course, Finck doesn't need to be looking into someone's face to find humanity. In fact, she explained, it's easier not to sometimes: "It's connected to being very shy. I think, in some ways, I see less humanity in people than most people do. Like, I don't like to look at faces, I find strangers scary a lot of the time. And because of that, I miss out on the humanity of the strangers, and I kind of have to force myself. But it's extra-easy for me to see humanity in a rock, and when I was a little kid, I really loved rocks, and if I had a rock and I lost it, I'd be devastated, like I was losing a friend or something."

This difficulty with looking at people's faces is present in our conversation: Finck spends most of it looking at that faux-succulent. But that doesn't mean she isn't completely engaged with what's happening—she is. But her engagement with the world around her, the things and people in it, is just different.

It's a difference she probes in Passing for Human, not only through instances of her own childhood during which she felt set apart from everyone around her (in her nun-run Montessori school, she was admonished that "boys will be boys" after trying to tell a group of them to stop tearing the wings off a butterfly), but also through a chapter on her father, with whom Finck feels a strong neurological relation. But, that connection, she told me, was a particularly difficult one to explore in the book: "I felt really divided writing about my dad. The dad chapter is kind of about neurodiversity and feeling like there's something different about my brain wiring, and that comes from my dad. I feel so conflicted about that, I think my brain wiring is specific, but so are many people's. I think my dad has some similarities to me in that, I don't think he thinks so; I think he might be right... My dad doesn't like to be in stories. I think he feels like his soul is being stolen. And so I kind of regret framing that chapter in my dad. I think he feels a little confused that I think about him as a weird guy."

Feelings of disorientation are not uncommon in people who are depicted in memoirs, but perhaps they're even more likely for anyone who sees themselves in the pages of Passing for Human, not only because of its surrealistic structure and its inclusion of Biblical retellings but also because Finck changed the names of the people in it. (Liana becomes Leola, etc.; there's a note at the beginning of the book explaining that "names were changed" and "facts were tampered with.") Finck explained why she changed people's names, saying, "I had a boyfriend a year ago, who I'm not dating anymore, who really didn't like me writing about our relationship and my feelings on love and stuff. [But] that's such a big part of my life that I didn't know how I could not write about. And I realized that if I just changed his name, he would be totally fine with it—which is so bizarre to me, but I guess it works on people sometimes... That must just be why people write fiction—I'd never understood. It's about law. It's about law meeting creativity."

Imposing order on that which is fundamentally chaotic could be as easily said to be the answer to the question "what is art" as it could be the answer to "why is there religion," and Biblical ideas and iconography are pervasive throughout the book and include a retelling of Adam and Eve's story. Finck, who was raised observant and Jewish, said to me that when she first thought of incorporating the Genesis story, she thought, "It feels so right to me, I can't just let it go; I need to keep going with it." It was, she said, "like a lightning bolt."

Finck talks about lightning bolts a lot in her artistic process, and the act of discovering what it is she really wants to do—this doesn't make the beauty of her work feel accidental in any way, but rather fated. Fate, though, is a tricky concept, one that attracts a certain type of magical thinking to which Finck both does and doesn't ascribe. We talked about how fate comes into play, sometimes in retrospect, in love. She said, "I think if you care about fate, you'll end up in a relationship that feels like fate... At the moment, the person I'm dating is a fate person. I think I care about fate, but it's really burned me in the past, so I don't know what'll happen. I'm a mixture."

I love that idea, though, that if you care about fate, you can find something that feels fated.

"Yeah, I think it can really keep a relationship alive, and that's such a hard thing to do."

Keeping a relationship alive?

"Yeah," Finck paused for a moment, looked hard at the plant. "But, on the other hand, I don't know if you should keep a relationship alive. I don't know."

Finck's willingness and ability to get beyond the superficial appeal of something—like the inherent value in keeping a relationship alive—in order to present its murky bottom, where real complexities lie, and where there are no easy truths, is what is so brilliant about her work, what gives it that lightning bolt sensibility. She explores uncomfortable places, offers different perspectives, thrashes about in her nostalgia, and for that reason, it feels like those trembly lines of hers are like wires in which it is possible to get tangled up in, yes, but also to use as guidelines, a means to trace your way out of the maze that is her mind, that is yours, that is every human's. Passing for Human is, in some ways, an exploration of how Finck has always felt separate from a world of which she is definitely a part, and yet, despite how distinct she feels (and is), she still makes connections with other people, who see themselves in her sensibility.

Finck knows this, though. She knows that those links are being made, she said to me, "Maybe when I'm feeling low, I'm just prone to think I'm different, and maybe I'm not even that different at all."

Passing for Human is available for purchase here.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.

Illustration by Vivie Behrens

Liberation can come from completion, but then, we are always becoming something new

They say the full moon is about completion. About looking back at the intentions you crowned the new moon with and seeing where those intentions led you. The new moon in Gemini was the pebble that began this cycle, and the full moon in Sagittarius is her echo, the ring getting larger in the water. The new moon in Gemini asked us what we wanted to change about our habits, what we wanted to do with our hands, and our hunger for newness. The new moon in Gemini was interested in the way shifting ideas can give us the freedom to think differently and, in thinking differently, become new people. The full moon in Sagittarius reminds us that we are never not becoming new.

Both Gemini and Sagittarius are mutable signs, they exist in relation to the other and they know how to speak each other's language. But, while Gemini relishes the endless capacity of air (of thought), Sagittarius uses the energy of fire to transform thought into action. Everything Sagittarius touches can't help but change. How can this be completion? The wheel is always spinning, reader. Sagittarius marks the completion of the fire trine. Here, fire is generous and social. It means to gather and teach, to illuminate. Sagittarius lives in the sector of the zodiac chart related to education, philosophy, and the awareness of others—their beliefs and their right to freedom. Because of this, our June Sagittarius full moon is both a completion moon and a moon that reminds us that all endings create space for beginning. The more you leave behind, the more you find. There is no dead end in the universe.

If you are a seeker like me (perhaps you have lots of planets in Sagittarius in your natal chart), you have already come across Jessica Dore's Twitter account. Every day, Dore posts a tarot card and her interpretation of it. It is a gift to many of her readers. Yesterday, she shared The World with us, reminding her readers: "the moments of beauty, belonging & elation that you've experienced up to this point in your life… would still only amount to the tiniest sliver of what this world has to offer in terms of sweetness & pleasure."

I thought about this card and her words all day. The World is, numerically, the last card in the Major Arcana journey—the last card if you don't think about the Fool, who is numbered at 0 and so is the beginning and the end. The World is, therefore, a completion card too, a big echo of a full moon.

This morning, holding the sweet and expansive nature of The World, thinking on Sagittarius people and their love of travel, of reckoning with the edge of an atlas and questioning the map-makers, I pulled the nine of swords from my own Tarot deck. The other side of knowledge is to overwhelm and shut down. Gemini, ruled by Mercury, holds information in her hands. She understands duality in all things. Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, yearns for the expansion of mind and the illumination of power. The philosopher and the moralist, a Sagittarius at her best can teach anyone to break open a prison. A Sagittarius at her worst can justify any cage. Don't forget that Jupiter was the king of the gods. His lightning bolt was a weapon. Sometimes, we are too exposed to each other. We imagine we know others through the stories we create about one another. We imagine we know the future because we refuse to be humble about how vulnerable we are to the universe's ever-shifting outcomes. We refuse abundance by convincing ourselves that the cage of identity we build for ourselves is our only possibility.

For the next two days, as the Sun lingers in Gemini and we feel the effects of the moon's fullness in Sagittarius, reflect on the ways you have used knowledge. When has your knowledge been a tool of empowerment for yourself and others? When have you shared the beauty of the world and the joy of radical ideas/ways of living? When have you used knowledge to understand and relieve your own suffering and the suffering of others? And, too, when have you used knowledge as permission for self-delusion? When you have expanded so far into your idea of the world and your own work in it that you forgot how to be accountable to your daily life, your body, your friends, and the people you love? You know when Janis Joplin sings "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose"? That's only one kind of freedom, and it's the kind that Sagittarius thinks it knows very well. Freedom can be about nothing, if nothing is what you want. Then welcome to the monastery, friend. Freedom can also be another word for everything you revel in not knowing. Freedom can be about having everything because you are part of everything, even if you can't see the relation, even if you can't imagine yet how what you want also wants you.

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Photo courtesy of HBO.

Kat is making me relive my fat-teen trauma

When people say that HBO's new Zendaya-led teen drama, Euphoria, is triggering, believe them. In the pilot alone we're introduced to Rue (Zendaya) and her drug addiction issues via a graphic depiction of the overdose that sent her to rehab. Then, there's the disturbing rough sex scene featuring Jules (Hunter Schafer), a teenage trans girl who has just moved into town, and a middle-aged man she met on Grindr. Oh, and don't forget the unchecked, toxic masculinity of uber-jock Nate (Jacob Elordi); or the body obsession of his sometimes-girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie). For me though, the ultimate trigger came via Barbie Ferreira's character Kat's experience, as she dealt with and internalized a vicious form of fatphobia.

Kat—almost alone amongst her friends—seems self-assured and dismissive of the idea that any high school drama should be taken too seriously. "You just need to catch a dick and forget about your troubles," Kat tells Maddy, following the latter's recent breakup with Nate. But internally, Kate craves male attention, and resents the fact that she's the only virgin she knows; she hints at this when she tells Maddy that she'd "settle for, like, four Corona Lights and some non-rapey affection," from a guy—any guy.

Kat's bravado leads her into a compromising situation at a high school party; she winds up in a room alone with three boys, where she talks a big game about how she's a "savage" who watches porn and has slept with more people than any of them can count. None of this is true, but Kat is determined to become "a woman of questionable morals."

The scene shows the fine line between being an empowered young woman deciding what to do with her body, on her terms, and being a teenager who thinks she's in control but doesn't fully understand the power dynamics at play. Because, yes, Kat is trying to make an intentional decision about her sexuality and how to use it, but she's doing so with a group of boys who don't value or respect her. This reality is made clear when one of them says to her, "You know what they say, right? Fat girls give the best head."

At those familiar words, I melted into my couch and said a silent prayer of gratitude that I wasn't watching Euphoria in the company of anyone else. Onscreen, Kat, too, shrinks ever so slightly into herself, all while trying to keep a poker face about the whole thing. We don't see exactly what happens in the room, but, later, she seems happy when she shares the news with her friends that she's lost her virginity; even though she then lays down, awake, scrolling through the guy's Instagram, seeming altogether less than happy.

Kat's isn't the most violent or necessarily the saddest story line in the episode. But it showed the ways that issues like consent, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and body image—all of which are difficult to deal with no matter what your size—are further magnified when experienced through the additional trauma of fatphobia. This is something with which I've personally dealt, and so I felt my past experiences rise up inside me when I watched how Kat couldn't build her own sexual identity without being constantly aware of the ways her body exists outside the parameters of acceptable desirability.

My childhood and adolescence are defined by my experiences as a fat girl; it was a time that often felt like a hazy battlefield, when I could hardly navigate which feelings and thoughts were my own, and which ones were the result of outside forces. My body hardly ever felt like mine, and it took years to develop the autonomy that Kat is grasping at as a teenager. Kat, like so many other fat women, has a total lack of support from her peers when it comes to body image and acceptance, and there's a devastating absence of affirmation about her own worth and the importance of her pleasure. Because of fatphobia, Kat is going to be swimming against a strong, but invisible current as she navigates the already fraught social politics of high school. It's one thing to grasp this truth on an intellectual level, but letting those principles guide your decision-making is truly difficult—even for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Euphoria airs Sunday nights at 10pm, on HBO.

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Courtesy of RLJE Films

White-knuckle your way through wedding season with Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid

Maya Erskine might have first come to our attention in PEN15, the hilarious show she co-created and stars in with Anna Konkle, in which they play 13-year-olds in the year 2000, but in the just-released Plus One, Erskine is all grown up and engaging in a very familiar adult activity: white-knuckling her way through wedding season.

Written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer—who just so happen to be Erskine's former NYU classmates—Plus One stars Erskine and Jack Quaid as Alice and Ben, two longtime friends who decide to attend a summer of weddings together, and avoid any of the awkwardness that can come with finding the right plus-one. This is especially important for Alice, who is coming off a bad breakup. Of course, as the laws of rom-coms dictate, nothing stays totally platonic. Beyond that, though, Plus One doesn't fall into predictable rom-com tropes, and instead hilariously explores what it's like to spiral into a quarter-life crisis, all while dressed in optional black-tie. Which, we've all been there, right?

"We kind of use the script as its own therapy," Chan told me recently, when I spoke with him, Rhymer, Erskine, and Quaid, about the film. "We were watching friends who have been broken up for a long time get back together at weddings; we were watching people get really sad and get drunk and start crying... they were breeding grounds for lots of emotions coming to the surface."

Courtesy of RLJE Films

And those emotions have the perfect outlet at weddings in the form of toasts and other assorted speeches. Plus One makes good use of that platform by making the wedding speech the hilarious eye of the storm at each of its weddings. These toasts were delivered in the form of scene-stealing cameos—also friends from NYU, of course.

"Almost all of those speeches are based on a real speech Andrew and I have seen," Chan said. "We'd go to a wedding and [we'd think], Yep, that's going in there."

Rhymer adds that they used these speeches as metonyms for the weddings, which made sense time- and budget-wise: "Being an indie film, we obviously produced 12 weddings, but did so kind of cleverly, showing you the rooms or the side rooms where they're rehearsing. We weren't seeing 12 full-blown receptions in all their glory... that would have been, like, millions of dollars."

But perhaps what's most refreshing about Plus One is that it destroys the image of weddings—and, by extension, relationships, and women, in general—as having to be fantasies, as having to be perfect. Because nothing is perfect, and that's what makes life interesting. Erskine, for one, likes being able to show the weirder sides of life, whether as a 13-year-old girl washing a thong with hand soap or a millennial woman who doesn't know what comes next. "There's something really liberating and freeing to show and bear the ugliest parts of yourself—or what society may deem as the ugliest, weirdest parts of yourself—that no one wants to see," she said. "I'm also an over-sharer. So I am drawn to roles that expose more than is typical, and everyone is weird in one way or another."

"I think," Erskine laughed, "it's because I myself am a wacky trash goblin." As it turns out, that's exactly what rom-coms have been missing, until now.

Plus One is in select theaters and available to stream via Amazon now.

PLUS ONE Official Trailer www.youtube.com

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Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

That's one way to solve a wardrobe malfunction

Cardi B twerked so hard during a performance that she ripped her outfit and had to rock a bathrobe for the majority of her set.

At Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennesee, as Cardi got a little too down and into it, a seam split on her bedazzled body-con jumpsuit only moments into her set. Not one to be set back by a wardrobe malfunction, Cardi B rocked a nude strapless bra with a bathrobe on top, making for a Serious Fashion Moment.

"This wasn't just part of the show," Twitter user Lena Blietz pointed out. "No one performs in a nude, strapless bra by choice." I have to agree there. A strapless bra is the bane of my existence on a slow day, I can't imagine what it's like to have to dance in one on stage.


Honestly, watching Cardi perform in this getup made me a stan for life. Despite it not being as flashy as her jumpsuit, Cardi made the bathrobe work, throwing the shoulders down for drama as she paced the stage during each song.

Bonnaroo attendees couldn't help but agree that a bathrobe and nothing else is a mood we all felt in the very, very hot and sweaty crowd. If she had one in my size to share, I would have gladly changed in a heartbeat.

But, despite loving this comfy solution to a big problem, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the beauty that was the original jumpsuit. RIP.

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Photo courtesy of Summersalt

And launched an inclusive summer campaign showcasing 30 different models

Just in time for swim season, sustainable swimwear brand Summersalt launched an inclusive summer campaign, called Every Body is a Beach Body, and significantly expanded its size range.

The brand's sizes now go up to 24 and 2X—quite a jump from its previous availability, which went up to a size 14. Co-founders Reshma Chamberlin and Lori Coulter told NYLON that the size expansion was a must because "we know that there are countless women out there who are missing out on the joy of summer because they don't have the right suit." They noted that they have plans to expand the brand's sizing even more: "We're excited to continue to add more sizes and be even more inclusive."

For the summer campaign, each suit was fitted on 30 professional and non-professional models ranging in body type to ensure it would look great on as many bodies as possible. "We wanted the models for this campaign to be just as diverse and unique as our customers, and we're proud to show models of different sizes, races, gender identities, and physical abilities," said Chamberlin and Coulter. "We want our customers to see themselves in our models, and know that their body is a beach body, exactly as it is right now."

The new collection includes bright new colorways and styles to rock at the beach or the pool. There are bikinis, one-pieces, and even a swim tunic and leggings for modest fashion wearers.

Check out the campaign and some of the new styles, below, and shop the new collection now at Summersalt.

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt