I’m finding it hard to speak. While translating Lina Wolff’s second novel The Polyglot Lovers, published in spring 2019 by And Other Stories, I found a woman screaming. She was cursing a man for what he had done to her. Her private pain had become public rage, and in that moment, the woman was powerful. But would it last? What would happen next?
Wolff’s novel is about the search for a lover who is fluent in your tongue set against the story of a lost manuscript entitled The Polyglot Lovers. Max Lamas, the character who narrates the second part of the book, is the author of the lost manuscript. Max is self-important, pompous and blinkered. He daydreams about his ideal woman, piecing her together from memories he has of eight other women. His dream woman is ‘dark, short, curvy’ and wears ‘her hair in a wavy bob’. He says: ‘The fantasy woman spoke a language I didn’t understand, rendering any communication impossible. It gave me the deepest sense of calm.’
In fact, no one speaks a language Max understands because he can only really hear himself. On a day he has set aside for flaneuring, Max ends up in the World Trade Center business complex in central Stockholm. There he meets a receptionist who comes on to him and onto whom Max projects his desires. They agree to a tryst and Max rents a hotel room. But her failure to live up to his fantasy turns him cruel. Instead of goodbye, he tells her: ‘You’re not good enough. You’re too old, too inhibited, too boring.’ As Max strides out of the hotel onto the street, the receptionist leans out a window and shouts: ‘Stop.’ Wolff’s narrative shifts to present tense.
‘Who, me?’ I ask in disbelief placing my hand on my chest.
‘Max Lamas!’ she roars.
I break into a full-body sweat. She is standing in a window in a building in the middle of Stockholm roaring my name. She’s standing there. I laugh, looking around. No, I think. No. A semicircle has formed around me. People have retreated, as though I were enclosed in an invisible dome. Now they’re standing there. Looking at me with disdain.
‘But . . . !’ I shout up at the window.
And to the people in the semicircle:
‘I don’t know who that is! I don’t know her!’
But they don’t believe me. And I see it, their disdain. Disdain has installed itself in their eyes, and will not yield. I suddenly understand: the people who happen to be on the street hate me. They know nothing about me. They’ve never seen me before, they don’t even know what happened up in the hotel room. But they hate me. They believe the rage of a roaring woman in a window. She still hasn’t said anything, and yet they fully believe what she’s about to say.
‘The madwoman in the attic . . .’ I begin.
But the voice in the window interrupts me:
‘I curse you! I curse you, Max Lamas!’
Everything is still and quiet, only the sky is darkly revolving, like a door to something unknown.
I have been a woman screaming, once in real life, more often in dreams.
A long time ago I managed to disentangle myself from an emotionally and on occasion physically abusive relationship. That is to stay, I managed to disentangle myself from the relationship. The man haunts me still, in the way I might flinch if you move to touch me, if you don’t take no for an answer, in recurring dreams where he is calm and cruel, holding all the cards. I am just a woman screaming, wishing the people around us would see the nuance of the situation, but instead they think I am the one doing wrong: disturbing the peace, slandering a man, acting ʻcrazy’. In my dreams, my voice becomes noise, then breaks. I lose my ability to speak.
For years this relationship was all I could talk about: during and after. I told everyone my story. I don’t know why, exactly. A purge, perhaps? I could never get my fill of people listening to me, believing me, even though I’m sure I alienated plenty of folk along the way when the dull thud of this story landed at their feet, revealing my bare need. I think I was hoping someone would respond with an insight that would free me of my anger and pain, as if by magic. Could I have gone another route? When I imagined speaking out beyond, shall we call it, a whisper network, I imagined what he would say. He’d be able to laugh it off, and convince everyone else that I was a worthless, unlovable slut, just like he’d convinced me. After all, he was respectable, and I was the girl working in the adult entertainment industry, the girl who had just written a thesis on BDSM, with passages on the joys of bruises after a good scene. It would be like in my recurring dreams. No one would believe me. I would just be a woman screaming.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and the city’s legacy of occult and esoteric thinking came to me with the drinking water: I speak the lingua franca of astrology, I visited a card reader from childhood onward because it’s what the people around me did, I read books about Wicca in neighbors’ homes, I thought about my goals in terms of ‘manifestation’ and ‘drawing down the moon’. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining a belief I developed that my ex was all-powerful. He did nothing to discourage this thinking. He claimed he had powers, too. His actions, insults and statements were sometimes so uncanny I assumed he could read my mind. (It never occurred to me that he might be gathering information about me using more conventional means, like snooping. I trusted him fully.)
When I finally left him, I took a strand of his hair and cast a spell that would keep him from doing further harm. I remember taking the act seriously, while also thinking that what I was doing was nuts. Still, nuts didn’t matter. I was desperate and frightened: I wanted my brain and my life back, and I thought the spell would loosen his hold on me. As in Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch, which explores how gaslighting sets a woman on the path of witchcraft, the idea that I was connected to something greater than myself made it possible to regain a sense of control. But the spell itself felt insufficient. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. When I wanted to be done with him, I just threw the hair away.
The realization that we can change how we perceive and interact with the world is extremely powerful, and witchcraft offers one alternative to the dominant modes. This is to say, whether we are talking about witchcraft, Indigenous ways of knowing, or Audre Lorde’s uses of the erotic, there are ways of listening and learning that differ from the ways many of us were taught, and each offers its own insights that contrast and intersect. What have we lost in our devotion to capitalism and its value of growth and expansion, by conceiving of the world as a thing to be claimed, as a resource to be exploited? What can be gained by opening ourselves up to new ways of listening and learning? Wolff engages with these questions in The Polyglot Lovers through each of her three narrators. The book begins with Ellinor, a woman from southern Sweden, who is all too aware that Stockholmers, including the literary critic she meets online, might consider her to be a ‘hick’. But she is intelligent and intuitive in ways that Ruben, the critic, and Max are not. Max finds himself drawn to Ruben’s ex-wife, a medium called Mildred. He is a skeptic and yet what she sees for him leaves an impression. My own ritual of casting a spell was also about impressing something on my mind. At the very least I was declaring my intention to leave my ex, and I kept a reminder of this intention around my neck in a locket inlaid with tiger’s eye and onyx, two protective stones. People would always ask me where I got it. I tried not to say that I had picked it out, but he had given it to me.
By turning to witchcraft, I was drawing from a powerful tradition and symbol: the figure of the witch, which is often now posited as a feminist position. For instance, the writer and translator Johanne Lykke Holm, who has translated my debut novel Permission into Swedish, runs a writing course called Hekseskolen, ‘The School for Witches’. Among other things, the course looks at the witch as a figure who is excluded from the center of power, but nonetheless challenges the reigning order. How does a voice that works outside of the dominant power structures take shape? The title of the writing course is provocative, evoking the potency of the witch today and how we might think of her in terms of literature and creativity. Kristen J. Sollée in her book Witches, Sluts, and Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive offers us a view on the idea of the witch as an empowering figure: ‘Like many millennial women, I see a reclamation of female power in the witch, slut, and feminist identities. Each of these contested words conjure and counter a tortuous history of misogyny, and each in its own way can be emblematic of women overcoming oppression.’ I think of the witch in this way, too. I also imagine the witch as a woman who is unafraid to express her rage and take action, seek justice or revenge. She is a potent archetype whom we can channel to resist and challenge structures that favor the lives of some over the lives of others. However, this idea of the witch sits alongside a feeling that came to me when watching Biller’s film. In The Love Witch, the power the titular witch has gained through witchcraft is still inscribed in a patriarchal order. An essential powerlessness causes Biller’s protagonist to turn to witchcraft, and in witchcraft she tries to connect to powers immeasurable, powers she wields over men. For the space of this essay, rather than following a narrative of empowerment, I’d like to stay with the idea of powerlessness.
Which courses of action were available to me? Was it within my power to keep my ex from doing harm to others? I didn’t want him to hurt other women; I wanted the hurt to stop in me. As I considered what I should or could do, my fantasies ran wild, and in each fantasy I was anonymous for fear of being discredited. I thought to spearhead a poster campaign, showing his face stamped with strategically chosen words. (It embarrasses me to tell you this.) I also imagined setting up some sort of website, like a one-man Shitty Media Men list. I went online to see what the precedent was and found forums for women with abusive partners. Communication seemed to go there to die. I recognized the scripts I was using, too: sentences and formulations that suggested certain commenters were still locked in a cycle of abuse even when they claimed they were adamant about leaving. Fellow forum members offered support and community, but like so many spaces on the internet, the dialogue would devolve, hitting boundaries of pain and resistance, or more petty things. She’s never going to leave. I was surprised how quickly my searches led me past these forums to websites about sociopaths and conspiracy theories, spaces of madness, paranoia and the occult. I think the keyword that was making this search so hard was ‘sociopath’, a word my therapist had suggested for the behavior I was describing, the way that man would lie and rage. The word seems to conjure riotous shadow spaces, untethered from fact or reason.
I realized that neither revenge nor compulsive storytelling would release me from this pain. I sat with my story, spoke of it only when it felt relevant, like when the PTSD would come for me, teeth bared, at inopportune moments. My behavior would become so odd the only reasonable thing to do was to be open, within reason, about why. Once I ran away from a vendor at a market because he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I had failed at finding a polite way to end the interaction. As soon as I see a red flag, even in a low-stakes situation, I heed it. This means that sometimes I am no fun, sometimes I have zero chill, sometimes I am quick to judge the person you are dating, and that I am always braced. A basic trust was broken, the one that breaks when your bodily integrity is violated, when you are left to contend with the horror that someone you loved and who said they loved you has in fact been manipulating you all along. I was no longer able to believe that a person who loves me is someone who will also endeavor to keep me from harm. And then there was the gutting reminder that harm can be inflicted without recourse.
Because the world can be very small, it happened that people reached out to me to talk about my ex’s behavior. You used to date, right? I’m worried . . . The worry was for themselves or a friend. I did my best to listen. I wanted to be supportive, but I also wanted to leave it all behind. And frankly, I wasn’t sure who I could trust. Every communiqué felt like a trap. I had to live with this, and he had to live with himself. There was nothing else to do or say. I curse you, Max Lamas.
To make peace with my ex during a fight, I had to play on his terms. Almost anything could be made better if I promised him that he was my one and only and would be forever and ever. He learned to take advantage of that, too – playing on my terms when it could get him what he wanted. I stayed with him for so long, I think, because I believed that there was a set of words that would drive out the abuse from our dynamic, so all we’d be left with was the bliss he’d allowed me to glimpse in our early days of courtship, a word I use because of the life he claimed to want with me. And of course, I know that some of my behavior must have been infuriating. I am stubborn to a fault, and he was fiercely protective of his intricate web of lies. I got loud when we fought and backed him into corners, something I try not to do anymore. I would watch him fly into a rage, but I would not yield, my hopes pinned on what may lie on the other side. When he raged, I would take it all in, listening to the salient parts, ignoring the insults, tried to decode it and wondered what I could do to change. How could I prevent it from going this far again? I took his rage seriously, and not just because I was afraid, but because it pained me to know that he was hurting. He seemed oblivious to how he was hurting me. He once punched me in the arm, suddenly, and in the next breath, when I asked him why, he told me it hadn’t happened. I bruised. I wished we could find a better way to communicate. We talked, we wrote, he came with me to a therapist once for a couple’s session. He had strings of words that worked on me, too. Promises of change. Incantations that convinced me to stay. On the other side of our incantations, a fantasy of what could be. Ultimately, my ideal man was not him. His ideal woman was not me. The fantasy woman spoke a language I didn’t understand, rendering any communication impossible.
I remember hearing at a conference that a good translation is like looking at the world through a window. You are aware of the glass, it is part of the interaction, but it does not obstruct your view. The glass is between you and the text, but it is through the glass that you connect. The medium stands between us, author and text, seeker and the unknown.
In Lina Wolff’s novel, characters are constantly observing each other and the world across a gap, a threshold, in mirrors, through computer screens and windows. Even when we are skin to skin, make eye contact, or speak in clear and certain terms, something stands between us all. The space of translation is the gap between you and me, feeling and language. In the novel, Mildred, the blind medium, is gifted with powers of seeing, but these powers are not absolute. When Mildred uses her gift to read Max, she says, ‘You’ve come with questions of the spirit. But you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’ She continues, ‘What surrounds you. In the fields. It’s empty. It’s like they’re waiting for something, and meanwhile nothing can happen.’ All she can say is that something is coming and it will change him, perhaps with the force of a tsunami. That is to say, insight and answers to burning questions aren’t always available to us, whether we are accessing our intellect or unseen forces. Maybe it’s then we are most likely to give ourselves up to the unknown, perhaps in the form of a higher power, the existence of which assures us there is an order to things, a structure to our story, the promise of justice or revelation. And so we might find respite in the act of casting a curse or spell.
I have written before about how my priority as a translator is to capture the feeling of the text, an intangible idea subjective to my experience of the work. But I can only translate in this way when I am able to access a headspace where I can channel the words, where language just flows. But sometimes I can’t get there. Maybe I need a snack, maybe I’m allowing myself to be distracted. I work those parts of the text to death – cross-referencing other texts, online sources, dictionaries and thesauri in English, Swedish, and other related languages in search for the perfect word or turn of phrase. In the first sentence of The Polyglot Lovers, for instance, Ellinor, the narrator of the first part of the book, reveals that in searching for ‘the one’ she never thought online dating would be her thing. The sentence has been rewritten what feels like one thousand times, including a back and forth with the editor about capitalization of ‘the one’. Down to the last edit, I could feel my vision clouding each time I revisited this sentence. There was too much I wanted from that line. I wanted you, the reader, to love this book from its very first words. I felt the pressure of what the beginning leads you to expect from the middle and what it might say about the end. It had to be right, it all had to make sense. I put my hands to the glass. The glass fogged with my breath. The sky is darkly revolving, like a door to something unknown.
A friend told me that in her queer, feminist circle, an interest in occult and esoteric practices seemed to be a way of marking out space. Space for ways of communicating that are not the norm, suggesting that we might need to expand our ways of seeing, finding other ways to access knowledge about ourselves and others. That is to say: our rational systems of knowledge and the language they give rise to are insufficient. But I couldn’t get into it. Once, I would have wanted to dive deeper into the conversation, dance on my tightrope, testing the air around empiricism by discussing what we mean by manifestation, the edges of perception, and tarot as a tool to develop intuition. Instead I told my friend that this conversation felt dangerous today. Where do you draw the line between a tool for thinking and a belief worthy of investment?
I am most often pulled to esoteric practices when I feel weak, lost or am craving rhyme and reason. The last time I sought counsel from a medium was around my fertility. I just wanted to know if it would happen for my husband and me: would I get pregnant and would it be soon? In fall 2017, a medium told me that yes, I would get pregnant and it would be by the end of 2018, as long as I cut down on travel. I cut down on travel. I did all the other stuff you need to do to conceive naturally. Time passed and her words were a comfort: it would happen that year. When my period arrived shortly before the close of 2018, I cried all day. A friend tried to explain that the medium might have meant a metaphorical pregnancy, or that the basis of her seeing had changed. I wasn’t having it. I had taken the medium at her word; it felt like a betrayal. Would it have been better to sit with my vulnerability and spend time with the idea that conception isn’t something I can control? Should I have exercised patience instead, accepting that this would take the time it takes and could go any which way? The danger I felt had something to do with agency: how much agency had I given up by putting my trust in this medium’s word? The other things she’d told me had felt like good counsel; did I need to discard them, too? How had trusting her made me blind?
It is like magic when something shifts, like when the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal on 5 October 2017, which led to the outpouring of #MeToo. I’m sure many of us have channeled our energies into the desire to see the culture change, to see abuses of power end, for the norm to be that we believe victims of abuse when they speak out, and for the justice system to deliver justice. It seems insufficient to think about #MeToo as the result of something like karma or a curse. Or a result of karma and a curse alone. To do so, I would have to believe in a master plan, and I do not. We can only theorize as to why this time the tide of the crowd was moving this way. The reasons for the movement’s popularity are complex and culturally specific. It resonated in different ways, and not really at all, in other countries and industries. Sexual assault allegations made in autumn 2017 in the wake of #MeToo’s resonance in Sweden essentially led to the cancellation of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature. Judging by the headlines, India’s ‘#MeToo moment’ arrived in October 2018. Tarana Burke, the American civil rights activist, first started using the words ‘Me Too’ in 2006 to draw attention to the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault in her community. She has written that the movement propelled by social media and Hollywood is one that has become ‘unrecognisable’ to her in its relentless takedown of powerful individuals and obsession with their careers – and in the media backlash that has vilified victims and suggested a plot against men. She wants the focus to be on realizing the vision of a world free from sexual violence and understanding ‘that power and privilege doesn’t always have to destroy and take – it can be used to serve and build’. It is exhausting and painful speaking and not being heard. We choose our words carefully, we do what we can, we keep the faith in change for the better, we exercise patience, we wait. Sometimes that patience threatens to run out.
After the 2016 presidential election, I considered for a moment the end of my time as a person who works with language for a living and who believes in using language, writing and storytelling as tools of change. The violence in the way words were being drained of meaning and consequence felt suddenly acute. There were so many bad faith actors and people asserting their beliefs as material fact. I imagined in which way I might retrain myself: plumbing, carpentry, caring. Something concrete: it flushes, it can be sat on, it is clean, dry and fed, and so we can all agree that the task for now is done.
I want what we say to matter.
You are my one and only forever and ever.
I curse you, Max Lamas.
There he was on the street. This was it, I thought. There was nothing at stake between us anymore. All I wanted was an apology for the things he had always refused to acknowledge that he had done. I thought this would be healing. I should have just walked the other way, but the old wounds wanted to be acknowledged. It was for him that they were screaming. Had their screaming made him appear?
It was just like in my dream. He laughed at me. And I roared. I remember the ruckus caused a hairdresser to look up from a client to see what was going on outside. One day your behavior will catch up with you, I raged. It was a statement of hope, not unlike a curse.
Julian Lucas, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that curses are versatile fictions, endowing misfortune with a narrative, moral significance and a corresponding sense of justice. My rage came from my sense of having been done wrong, having no recourse, not being able to do enough. I was ashamed and humiliated to find that he still had power over me. He laughed at me, trying to communicate to anyone watching that what I was saying was not valid. I wonder about the validity of what I am saying, too.
One concrete action would have been to file a police report, but that time has passed. Once, in public with him, a police officer inquired if I was all right, and in that moment I did nothing. It was more important to me to resolve whatever we were fighting about than to involve the law, and I wanted to protect him because I loved him and wished him well even in what was our worst moment. I also didn’t know how I would have explained the situation. I had also done things to make that fight as bad as it was. Each party’s involvement complicated the sense of blame, and I feared I would only make myself more vulnerable if what happened between us was put on record. What else could I have done, I ask myself. Broken up with him at the first red flag? I have walked away from people for less. Why did I stay? I remember how lonely I was when we met, how much I wanted the love he was proposing. When I think of that loneliness now, I can’t escape my own harsh judgment of myself. I still wonder if taking legal action would have been a valid trajectory. Would it have caused him to change his behavior? The abuse was mostly emotional, mostly he broke things. I wonder where to draw the line between a private and public matter.
But what did I want when I invoked a higher power there on the street? Most of all, I wanted to erase the past. I wanted not to have entrusted my heart and body to a person who did not have my best interests in mind. In appealing to a higher power, I felt the guilt of not having done enough to prevent him from being able to do more harm. In appealing to a higher power, I felt how powerless I was when faced with him again and how powerless I had felt before. What did I expect to achieve by screaming at this man in the street? Screaming rarely does any good. Back then, I wanted some sort of justice, even in the form of a sincere apology, but I wasn’t willing to look at my actions either. My encounter with Wolff’s text brought me right back to that moment, and with distance and a shift in our cultural context, I no longer feel that I acted correctly. Anyway, I was making a moot point. This was already an instance of his behavior catching up with him. In that moment, I was the curse. (The shadow thought, the shame-filled thought, the deep and quivering fear: Is the power I have the power to turn man into a beast? Was it me who conjured his rage and violence? With any other lover would he have been a gentle man? Am I the curse?)
I harbor no fantasy that after he disappeared from my life his behavior towards women changed more than perhaps in intensity. I believe it would have a negative impact on my well-being if I were to try and find out. I can offer no narrative of hope. I will live with the unknown.
Lina Wolff’s 2016 novel offers a more satisfying scenario and one that has taken on new significance since the #MeToo movement went viral. When I was on the street screaming, I wished, as in Wolff’s scene, that disdain would have installed itself in their eyes. I wished for a collective moment like the one she describes: They believe the rage of a roaring woman.
Depending on the news cycles, it feels like we are an inch, a yard, or a mile closer to old wounds being acknowledged and considered, to women’s rage being seen and heard, and justice served. Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Brett Kavanaugh’s record exposed both racism and misogyny inherent in some of the judge’s rulings – notably when Sen. Kamala Harris asked if he could name any laws that ’give the government the power to make decisions about the male body’. Though this did not keep Kavanaugh from becoming a Supreme Court Justice, something did feel different in how we were hearing Ford and being asked to see and relate to Kavanaugh. As I write this essay, a headline arrives saying that India’s #MeToo is facing a backlash. Progress doesn’t follow a straight line. It staggers, unfolds and overlaps. Sometimes it doesn’t look like progress at all.
I believe in the transformative power of anger, but I don’t believe in casting curses. So I sit with this wound, let go of the hope that the man who gave it to me will take it away, and I look for new ways to heal and new ways to speak, from a different place, one that is not dependent on a master plan as dictated by a higher power: karma, black magic, God. One that does not involve me screaming at a man on the street. They’ve never seen me before, they don’t even know what happened up in the hotel room. But they hate me.
I am choosing to write this now, so I must believe that what happened between us in private has relevance as a public matter. But who cares about me and my ex, really? I’m writing because there is so much that I want, and because there is so much at stake when we talk about abuse, rage and interpersonal violence. I want our culture’s relationship to abuse, rage and violence to change. We’ve seen how these issues reach from the people involved deep into the structures that govern our lives. What would it take to expand the space for conversations about consent and power in public discourse? I want us to reckon with why these issues are so often dismissed or excused as private matters, and consider when it is or is not useful to think in terms of public and private. When we speak out about ourselves, we are putting our stories to work for our communities. How do we turn the uneasy tension between the need to acknowledge abuse and the desire to hold people accountable into a productive one? I wonder if the answer can be found in returning to what is broken: trust. By focusing on trust, can we harness the power we channeled in being believed? Can trust be the cornerstone for a new model of power? Grounded in trust, we would be free to communicate. Imagine how we would listen and how we would speak then. It gave me the deepest sense of calm.