Summer 2020

Jeffrey Liao

The Republic of Salt


yellow girls

We live in the dregs of Flushing, New York, where laundry hangs open and greasy on clotheslines, where snaggle-toothed men whistle at our bodies in slack-jawed Mandarin, where the stench of dead fish and ammonia stains the air. On our block, a lonely tree grows. Its roots extend outward from a patch of parched mulch, running like veins through slabs of dirty concrete. The only living thing in this industrial wasteland.

The tenement buildings sag like rows of crooked, rusty teeth. We sit on their stoops after school, let our yellow skin bake in the warm lemon sun. At night, we blister phantom under the freckled moon. We stand before the fluorescent glow of our bathroom mirrors, press tape to the almond-curve of our monolids, dream of eyes the hue of oceans that sailors drown for. We stand back. Pinch the soft fat lining our sickly bodies. Wonder what it’s like to inhabit a beauty worthy of art films, architecture, the daydream-glossy pages of Vogue. We dream of a day when we’ll look at our yellow faces in the mirror and say, How beautiful. Me, beautiful? Yes. You. Beautiful.


yellow boys

Weekends in Flushing, most of us yellow boys congregate at the basketball court tucked behind the schoolyard. We grope for masculinity in the lyrics of rap songs, the rigid contact of handshakes and fist bumps, the sweat dampening our sleeveless shirts. Feet blurred, swift as wind, we play basketball. Jeer at each missed shot, failed pass, intercepted dribble. Return home before twilight, where our mothers have already set us a placemat. Our mothers, who greet us by our names. Not our American names, but our names spoken in cramped living rooms, the ones our mothers dream of in their restless sleep, those they use to shake us awake. They call us by our names, and for a moment, we flinch. We turn away.


dreaming in tongues

Our mothers sing in a language raw and pulsing as muscle. The blood and sinew of its syllables rot on our baptized tongues. We press a switchblade to the ravaged flesh forking our teeth, pour rice vinegar on the edges of our memories. Sometimes, we still smell the salt of the ocean on our mothers’ tired bodies. We hear the music of a mythological homeland in the lilt of their accents. 

Our mothers croon in a language whose shapes no longer fit in our mouths, and we mourn the impossible geometry of what we’ve left behind. At night, when our mothers rub our earlobes in the feverish dark, we cling to their warmth like a second skin. Let the memory of an untraceable bloodline seep into our bones. We think of our mothers uprooting their lives in foreign soil, praying for something better to grow. We wonder if we are that something, if we have done enough. We float into a dreamless sleep.



Memory is an untouchable horizon, one we will spend our whole lives walking toward. It is the blackened underbelly of a rifle shoved down a grandmother’s throat. It is the aftermath of a steel factory: sirens flecking the river delta, faces sunken with soot. It is a child’s ragdoll unraveling into yarn.

At night, when our mothers believe we are sleeping, they retreat to the solitary corner of the kitchen that smells of old leeks and surrender. Lit by the sallow glow of the stovetop, they press palms to quivering mouths, their muffled cries heard only in the space two fingers wide. Our grandparents are negative spaces in the photo albums of our hearts, the timeline of our histories blurred by radio dispatches. The architecture of memory is a war we mistake for home. Its bullets fall, unendingly, and with great violence and politics, upon the body.



At birth, each of us is assigned a body to be buried in, a country to clothe like a corpse. This is how to leave home: with passports thumbed down throats, with flags sutured along the boat-ripped banks.

In school, the pledge of allegiance is a glance shared in the room with another yellow face. It is the knowing silence between us: the motive to a crime scene yet to happen. Meanwhile, our classmates unhinge the anthem from their jaws, a mechanical recitation. Their white bodies fuse into one metallic beast.



If you really want to know, we are the color of 99¢ lemonade at our local convenience store. The color of sand at Jones Beach, where our fathers used to chase us with homemade kites tied to our wrists, the wind humming cool and wet against our skin. Color of urine. Color of dusk. Color of the mooncakes we eat on Chinese New Year, hard yolks stuffed in our soft red mouths. Color of tiger swallowtail butterflies. Color of Dutch hyacinth. Color of the sun and its brilliant, blinding light. We cry, laugh, breathe in shades of yellow. This is the only life we’ll ever know.



At night school, our mothers attempt to purge the Eastern ghosts of their tongues, green cards shredded between teeth. When our mothers pronounce water correctly, the ESL teachers say gooood jooob, slow as if talking to dogs or small children. They frown when our mothers mistake live for leave.

After class, when our mothers walk home beneath the starless dusk, a surplus of white men—bloody drunk, faces eclipsing into blood moons—stumbles toward them. They pinch their eyes into slants, jeer me so horny, love me long time. Our mothers respond in the language of silence, which is the language of survival, which is the language of unbelonging. The white men laugh celestially. Our mothers hold knives to the water in their mouths.  


night film 

2:00 a.m., the sickle-peared moon hangs above a bloodless velvet sky, beams of phantom light drifting in through the second-floor apartment window. We wake up in crumpled sheets, shivering. A film of sweat paints the canvas of our bodies. From the window, we watch cars whizz past, the abrasive metal of engines echoing through the soundless streets. Where are they going, we think, so fast we want to join them. Leave behind our pasts, our tender sad wounds. Outside, a suite of rain elegizes the blue oblivion of dawn. We listen to its exquisite symphony, let its minor notes pirouette upon our skin.


history lesson

Good sons and daughters, we stomach ginger root for breakfast, along with the Yangtze and its blanched-bone myths. The origin of hunger is this: a ripe moon and its river children, cheap milk bought in Beijing heat, the husk of a village elder kneeling along the roadside. 孩子, 游泳. Child, swim. Memorize the etymology of this overripe country.  

Sometimes, we dream in Mandarin and have no idea what is being said. In the red smoke of the city, our past and future assassins come to greet us. We look up, and in the prism of refracted light, their faces become our own.  


the christening

Here is a white stone, a white fence, a white tooth, a white jug of milk, a white country. Here is a white bar of soap to rinse out your mouth. Here is a white parasite to invade your body. Here is a white piece of chalk to trace the corpse of your forgotten motherland. 


no geography

Of course they have scars. No one crosses an ocean just for fun. Their shoulders weary with the weight of a sunken hemisphere, hands stitched with the threads of a muddled lineage. In American soil, they become less citizen, more nomad. The chords of a shipwrecked hymnal hook themselves to their throats. 

Sometimes, we find the topography of the Himalayas on our parents’ calloused skin, the rugged syllables of a fossilized language excavated from the tomb of their tongues. We martyr our bodies in the dark, pledge allegiance to no one. Landless as driftwood. Sometimes, we wonder what it would be like to return to China. Yet we fear that our imagined homeland too is nothing but a utopia: u- as in no and -topi as in place. 


definitions of america 

The Republic of Liberty. The Republic of Freedom. The Republic of We The People. The Republic of Diversity. The Republic of Capitalism. The Republic of Guns. The Republic of the White and the Powerful. The Republic of Blood. The Republic of Television Static. The Republic of Histories, Erased. The Republic of Accents. The Republic of Water. The Republic of Drowning. The Republic of Salt. 


a chronology of yellowness (american history, abridged)

1869: Chinese migrants build the Transcontinental Railroad—1,776 miles of train tracks stretching from Atlantic to Pacific, the spark that propels America into modern industrialization.  

1882: Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration law to exclude an entire ethnic group.  

1922: Due to Yellow Peril—the psycho-cultural perception that the faceless hordes of East Asian people are an existential threat to the Western world—Congress enacts the Cable Act, illegalizing marriage between Asian men and white women. Thus begins the pathology of the Asian male body.  

1910-1940: Angel Island, located near Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay, serves as a de facto detention center for hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants. For months, these detainees are interrogated and left in prison-like conditions.  

1942-1945: During World War II, under Executive Order 9066, roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans are isolated in “relocation centers” located in deserts and swamplands, questioned for residency and allegiance to their country. After the war, many return to defaced and vandalized homes, leaving them impoverished and rootless.  

1955-1975: Kill that gook, you gook! becomes an expression for the phenomenon in which Asian-American soldiers are mistaken for the enemy during the Vietnam War. Some are fired upon or have military care delayed when mistaken for the North Vietnamese.  

1982: In Michigan, two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, shout racial slurs while bludgeoning Vincent Chin—27, celebrating his bachelor party with friends—with a baseball bat until his head splits open. Chin dies four days later in a coma. The judge sentences his attackers to three months probation, stating, These aren’t the type of men you send to prison. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime, you make the punishment fit the criminal.

2019: Four sleeping, homeless elderly men in Chinatown are brutally murdered. A random, motiveless crime. According to a study from the Asian American Federation of New York, roughly one in four Asian-American seniors live in poverty. Many of them come to the U.S. alone, hoping to support their families. 



aftermath of a pilgrimage

Our mothers are the keepers of the four-paned window in the kitchen, catching the dying light between their fingers. Beyond the glass, our mothers see familiar soil sprouting the ripe mangoes they plucked as children under soft summer heat. They dream of a country that fits between their teeth, of constellations of languages plotted above pulsing horizons, of yellow bodies sung electric. We stumble over the desperation of their love the way our fingers stumble over piano keys, a failed attempt at grace. 

Maybe there’s no learning curve. No way to navigate the sunken history creasing our palms, or the fault lines of a fractured bloodline, the telephone receiver muted in static. Home is is a word unsung, a parable left to rot in salted ocean wind. 


everything we left behind

We learn the imprecision of language from the crookedness of our parents’ native tongues, the curvature of 普通话 blooming like tiny flowers from the softness of their mouths. We mistake drowning for salvation, the sea for home. In the cusp of honeysuckle June, we surrender to softness, christen our tongues with English nouns. Each word tastes of goldenrod and new fortunes, of an autumn where survival is green and endless, and no one’s shadow kisses the pavement. We light candles for the ghosts of our thirst, pray to the moon and its bloodless light. Tonight, the city we once loved now belongs to burning. Even an ocean away, we see the afterimages of unfiltered gunsmoke, of bodies alight with grenades, of blood-soaked rivers left switchblade-thin. O godless life. Pray and prey taste the same in our mouths. Tonight, we will surrender ourselves to the ruination of memory. 


homeland, underwater

In monsoon season, farmers cleave the earth with rain as their weapon. From the heart of the village, rice paddies sweep a thousand black eggs, water children borne from the weeping of the river gods. History is a flood, exhaled with great velocity upon the body. Birthed from a collision of mountain and sea, we once believed we could survive its wrath. Because even as waves pulled apart the prepared flesh of holy cities, as half the world was drowning, we wanted to be the exception to prove our existence. Because all that pins us to this brief and gorgeous life is the rain falling sweetly upon our tender skin. Because nothing has ever held us as closely as water. 



In spring, our mothers come home with bags of lychees, steamed pears, ripened mangoes. They share these small gifts with us, their eyes softening in the faded kitchen light. Orbed reminders of home. Soon, the juice of sliced fruit forms small rivers around our chins. Our mothers’ laughter soars in the air like birdsong. And so we come to learn that love is something we can smell. But what we don’t yet realize is that love isn’t actually a noun but a verb. That it moves. Knows the symmetry of hunger and prayer. Tries on this new country like a coat. 


a lifetime of ghosts 

Dusk opens its mouth, a beautiful wound. In the open streets, our mothers pin laundry to clotheslines while children clamber over concrete sidewalks. An early evening breeze flutters upon the horizon. In the waning golden light, everything transforms into a tapestry of sound and color. The ghosts of our past come to greet us, their voices stretching like blossoms through the tile floors. We watch our mothers through the screen door—the maiden-curve of their hips, the calluses sunken into their cheeks, the soft brown of their eyes. Our ghosts watch with us, yet their silence is not unsettling. Instead, it sounds like forgiveness. 

After dinner, our mothers help us with homework. We listen to their crooked English, flowing like the purest water, and have never heard a sound so beautiful. Because we have never breathed so easily as right here, underwater. Because growing up yellow is learning to live. And to be kind. And to know. To know that perhaps the quietness of our existence does not have to mean unbelonging, or ineloquence, or ineptitude. That perhaps this life—this small, beautiful life we inhabit—is, and has always been, enough. Our mothers push our heads into their laps and rub our shoulders, and we try not to inhale. They mouth our names, our Chinese names, and we close our eyes. Stay there for half an hour. Later, we push our heads up and look at the gold of their faces. Our eyes make sunsets. 


Jeffrey Liao is a senior at Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey. He is a 2020 National YoungArts Foundation Finalist in poetry, a 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts Semifinalist, and he has received four national medals and a Best-in-Grade Award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Additionally, he is a winner of The New York Times’ Connections Contest, a runner-up in The New York Times’ Personal Narrative Contest, and a 2019 National Student Poet Semifinalist. While his favorite form of writing is poetry, he enjoys creative nonfiction and fiction as well. He is primarily inspired by the politics of the body, the navigation of history and inter-generational trauma, and the liminality between selfhood and community.


Giles Scott

In Everything Enchanted There’s an Element of Trust.



My wife’s on a flight to Chicago, sitting on the LAX runway, third or fourth plane in line. She’s on page 85 or so. The man next to her leans over and recites from memory the first two sentences, “‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sign, my soul.’”

“It’s ‘my sin,’” she tells him.

“I know,” he says, “That’s what I said.” A pause and then, with the emphasis on each famous syllable, “Lo-lee-ta.”

There’s something feels sinister about that, the precursor to a moment that might have developed differently. She tells him her husband’s teaching it. He assumes to college students. “No, high school,” she says. She adds “seniors” as a clarification.

As she tells it, he visibly recoils. The response when it comes, “Wow, you’re a brave one.” It’s not like she said middle schoolers.


It usually works to open with the novel being initially rejected by most major publishers in the U.S. That it was finally published by Olympia Press in England in 1955, to little acclaim until John Gordon, the editor of The Sunday Express, called it, “the filthiest book I’ve ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography.” Instant notoriety. Banned by the Home Office and seized at customs. Banned in France for two years. Not published in the U.S. until 1958 when it sold almost a 100,000 copies in three weeks. Previously only surpassed by Gone With the Wind.


They want to know if there was a trial? What were the specific grounds for seizure? And then for repeal? I warn them that it’s not quite as lascivious as they imagine. That it’s not Faulkner. There’s no donkey in the corner of the bedroom. Information which does nothing to temper their excitement. I think they think I’m kidding—the reason it’s so famous being exactly the description of the involvement of the said non donkey in the non corner of the room.


Not “He’s a brave one,” but “You’re a brave one.” The implication being that to teach this to high schoolers places her husband, her life partner, in a compromised position, a position involving possession of certain kinds of desires, desires that undermine and eat away at the center of healthy relationships, relationships between fully formed adults. Because of that, brave, because she tolerates such depravity in the one she attested to vows with, vows involving words such as “love” and “commitment.” He didn’t expand. She didn’t ask him too.


When she reaches the end of part one, after the rape, the entrapment, the horror at the center of the central relationship she asks why I keep teaching it.


“Because they read it,” almost instinctively emerges first. Second-semester seniors in high school with barely enough motivation to view each other’s Snapchat posts. But Lolita—they read. Girls devour it. The boys keep going even after realizing there really is no donkey. They read it in stunned amazement, sentences wound around nouns, verbs, and adjectives they’ve never seen before—words like expiatory, favonian, rufous, valetudinarian—sentences that bemuse and baffle, constant interjections of untranslated French, references to logodaedaly and lepidoptery that leave them clueless. Still they read, their brains bloodied and battered but unbowed. Stunned that anybody could write like this, about this, and write about it like this. Convinced he, Vladimir Nabokov, had to have been a pedophile.


A group of editors from The Anchor Review, planning to carry a substantial excerpt from the novel, asked Nabokov how he happened to know so much about little girls. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, tactfully answered the question by saying he had sat on buses and listened carefully. He had also haunted playgrounds until his doing so had become awkward. There were, otherwise, Vera assured, no little girls in his life. Though there were other girls. They married in 1925, a marriage that survived until his death in 1977, survived his serious affair in Paris with Irina Guadagnini, survived flirtations, survived dalliances—all on his side. In a letter to Vera in 1924 he told her, “In everything enchanted there’s an element of trust.”


They have so many questions. About Nabokov and his predilections but equally about the things inside the novel: Why tell Lolita her mother died? Does he rape her? Why does he hit her? Why take her out of school? Why does he throw up? They have sex, right? What exists as love here? Why all the French? Why does he still want Lolita despite that boy at camp? Tommy? Why does he constantly talk about himself in the third person? Why the phrase “celestial vapidity”? What does that mean? How does Lolita die? What is his greatest sin? Does he believe Lolita ever loved him? Why make Quilty’s death so bizarre? Why drive on the wrong side of the road? Who are the children’s voices coming up from the valley? Are they real? What are “aurochs”?


Nabokov wrote most of the novel, purportedly, in the car—strange in and of itself, and added to by his inability to drive. Vera would drive down a nondescript country road in Colorado, or Arizona, or Utah, Wyoming, Montana etc. on their lepidoptery trips, and he would write for a few hours, usually on 3x5 cards. One has to wonder what Vera and their teenage son Dmitri did while husband and father sat in the car and gave human breath to the monstrous. Did they just walk around the countryside, and then do the same again after lunch while trailing husband and father sporting a butterfly net? Or did he do all his writing between locations while Vera drove, Dmitri a taciturn cloud in the back seat?


Brave. Because it is uncomfortable, especially the first part, the florid descriptions of penises and vaginas and the escapades of Humbert Humbert’s youth. Passages about giving her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. It’s so obviously not about scepters and all about the obvious something else. So, an alarming passage to read out loud in front of a group of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, especially given that some of the innuendo needs to be foregrounded. She holds the scepter of his passion. For those who missed it first time around, that’s not a literal scepter. So awkward. Even seniors love the sophomoric humor of a teacher saying the word penis out loud. And then fellatio. How are they not supposed to giggle?


The word eruption on the whiteboard instead of orgasm reduces them to fits. But that’s how Nabokov refers to it, I say. More fits and general falling about. And it’s Lo-Lee-ta, I tell them, as in lo-lli-pop. Not Low-Lee-ta, but Lo-Lee-ta. I read to them from the Playboy interview: “It should not be pronounced as...most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy ‘L’ and a long ‘o’. No, the first syllable should be as in ‘lollipop’, the ‘L’ liquid and delicate, the ‘lee’ not too sharp.” Of course it’s a Playboy interview, they say, but what about when he calls her Lo. It’s surely not Lo as in lo-lli-pop? And then toward the end of part two, I play them the recording of Nabokov reading chapter 35 and the murder of Quilty. See, they say, he says “Low” as in “low-nely,” even when he says her name. They’re not wrong. But what about the laughter in his voice?” I say, this a murder and a voice brimming with laughter? Let’s talk about that.


The seduction of Lolita brings the most gasps. Highlights before this include the licking of the eyeball, Humbert Humbert getting into Lolita’s bed to re-read Charlotte’s letter professing eternal love in the same breath as asking him to leave. Charlotte and H.H. coupling in Lolita’s bed. The moment on the divan, “divan-gate” as one of the students called it. Humbert Humbert exploding into his perfectly creased slacks. Lolita blissfully unaware. As Humbert Humbert puts it, the conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and lo the purse was intact. Thus had I delicately constructed my ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe—and I was safe. She knows, some of the girls say. She’s thirteen, not nine. How could she not notice the club in his perfectly pleated slacks? The pouring of champagne into the new, white purse has them guffawing because of how heavy-handed, how 1950s, the metaphor is. But the seduction scene invariably brings the conversation to a forceful argument about whether or not it's rape. The debate coming from Lolita’s supposed initiation, from her willingness to partake in the campfire game, the energy with which she manipulates his insensate gadget. Humbert Humbert’s claim that Charlie and his campfire games had thoroughly depraved his fiery opal long before he got to her. But none of that undoing this as an abomination. This, to her, a game, something learned at camp like duck-duck-goose and kumbaya. To him, a reclamation, the apotheosis of a life’s work, a pushing of twenty-four years of delay into a singular moment of jubilation repeated at twenty-minute intervals. No matter how singularly he describes it as if part of the Sistine Chapel, the carefully weaved comparison only more grotesquely unmasks the mechanical reality, the biological, corpuscular reality of flesh on bone. As H.H. himself tells us—The pain that flits across her face, the heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult, the squirrel squashed in the road, the wincing child.


I have a twelve-year-old daughter, thirteen in August. The novel becoming harder to teach as she and puberty more closely approach each other, and her own age marks the midpoint of H.H.’s markers for nympheticity and that moment between a beginning of an understanding of her body in the same matrix as constantly picking her nose and unconsciously eating her meals squatting in a chair with her legs akimbo. Wanting to protect her from a predatory world where men, thousands of men, and women, but predominantly men, do unspeakable things to children, children who talk in a strange and remarkable language of a moment just in front of them and out of reach, children who can spend the entirety of twenty-minute car rides describing a playground game involving a ball and a song about kingfishers and goblins that makes no sense without both and less sense with. The fear of a daughter’s body being seen as something to be consumed. The only time Lolita talks about her body is to say it hurts.


My wife never finished the novel. She got to within the last third. And this not a woman who leaves things unfinished. She sat through Highlander 2 and read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch in under a week. “I felt like I was inside a cartoon,” she says. “It so dehumanized Lolita, so undermined her. It turned the rest of the novel grey and sickly.” She missed Mrs. Richard F. Schiller’s letter, Quilty’s murder, the absurdity of it. She missed the car crash, the driving on the wrong side of the road, the hearing of the children’s voices coming up from the toy village at the bottom of the Alpine valley, the final moment of possible reclamation, the final moment of redress. “I got tired,” she says, “of her being a shadow.”


My wife’s skeptical when I tell her the end asks us to consider redemption. “For whom,” she says quietly. There’s the money he gives her, of course, tacky in the extreme, and then the murder of Quilty. Quilty, however, being Lolita’s one true love. The act of allowing her to leave might be the arguable first step, and then the act of writing the narrative, of transforming her from flesh into matter more ethereal. The girls in the class balk at such gestures; they see Lolita’s beatification as a carefully manipulated alibi, even the claim that he would have given himself at least thirty-five years for rape and dismissed the rest of the charges. All the work of the ultimate, inveterate Houdini. For most of them the greatest sin is not rape, it’s the refusal, the inability, to see Lolita outside the literary confines he constructs for her. It’s not that he consumes her sexually, abhorrent as that is, it’s that the recounting of the consuming still perceives of her as consumable. He never allows us to see Dolores Haze. Instead, we get Lolita, Lo-lee-ta. Lo, plucked fully formed from his own fear and loathing, his own brow, from his own ridden, preconceived misunderstanding of who girls really are, and, more forcefully, what girls really do.


Which brings us back to my own daughter and to the current #MeToo movement documenting so carefully a separate litany of monstrous moments. How to shield her from such a world as long as possible while preparing her for it? A world where sex so often gets presented as something exerted, a mechanized then pulverized event. A coupling in the sense of engines and railway compartments. Here’s what I know: as a boy, raised in a good, middle-class family in the north of England, a family that believed in things like being fair and true and honest, I thought of girls as things. All the other boys I knew thought of girls as things. Girls were strange and other and impenetrable and the product of their bodies. I didn’t understand them, the lure of them, nor the impossibility of the inside of a vagina. I had posters of Charlie’s Angels and models from Cosmo on three of my bedroom walls—all in various states of undress. On the other wall: three posters of The Clash, a huge 36x24 poster of The Sex Pistols playing the Hammersmith Apollo, and a framed portrait of a tawny owl. As boys, all we talked about was football and girls and the two-and-a-half topics in between, such as wanting to do this and that with bits of girls. My mum each night making a dinner for four boys, five years between them, and their father. Then, of course, cleaning up. Women as functional. Functional collections of body parts. An embedded prejudice that uncoiled slowly, painfully slowly, in response to a marriage to a woman who refused to be seen as anything but whole. And, of course, some therapy along the way. But years of carefully unraveling prior years, formative years, of damage—the damage of girls getting written inside the heads of boys as bodies not as beings.


At a lunch table in the school cafeteria, the boys’ soccer coach shares some of the things the players talk about when they sit in a circle after practice and stretch out. Suffice to say they’re not talking about how to protect the ball in the midfield and then counter attack down the wings. Instead, apparently, they talk about things like how their chances of getting laid increase exponentially if they beat their crosstown rivals on Friday night. About how x had sex with y in the bathroom across from the science department during first period and then a different x got his fingers inside the same y that same afternoon in the back row of a math class. First off, can that possibly be true? Then, what am I supposed to do with that information? He looks relieved just to share it. So preposterous it undermines fiction. A similar conversation overheard while walking between classes: one tenth-grade boy casually asks another how his date with x went (a different x, mind), and the answer just as casually comes back—a blowjob on the kitchen counter. A pitch for a recent article for the school newspaper wanted to investigate and talk about the connection between the vast amounts of porn teenage boys consume on the internet and the things those teenage boys then want and expect girls to replicate off screen. The pitch, by a girl midway through her junior year, rejected by the editors-in-chief, both senior boys.


Lolita not a human being to Humbert Humbert but a reflection of something in his head, something that he translates to his soul, and which calcifies there as amber, as something he never moves beyond. In these girleens he sees himself. Lolita, the novel, in some sense about this, about the human urge, especially the male urge, to harden images of women as certain kinds of possession, and harden those images so deeply into their inner being that to reclaim them as anything else, as something whole and flexible and changing and alive, becomes a lifelong task—a lifelong task that, tragically, so many men fail at. The novel almost too blatantly bringing to life a worry not just for my daughter’s physical self but for the ways in which she will be dismissed as such, reduced to something that boys banter about, then masturbate over. Pulverized.


Nabokov claims so vehemently that this is not a moral tale that it almost has to be. Difficult to detach Humbert Humbert from the aftermath of World War II, a war barely mentioned in the novel though less than a decade prior, a war of course that marked out other kinds of atrocity—atrocities thought of as institutionalized though involving the hundreds of thousands of personal moments that makes such atrocities viable. To allow for the possibility of understanding H.H., even the breath of it, given the monumentality of his crime, the crime not just of rape but of consumption, allows for other kinds of understanding, other kinds of forgiveness even, for those things outside the fictional world that terrorize us, terrorize our souls. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. The novel ending where it begins, with Lolita, and the addition of the possessive pronoun. His “immortalizing” of her an act that again pushes Dolores aside, but also reveals Humbert Humbert—a lonely figure casting treacherously against a world rotten at its core, a world where love cannot exist unless redefined in some grotesque manner. This the way to show the world its own corrupt heart. Which in no sense excuses his sin, his transgression, especially as it so stenches the water that it allows for the occupying by so many of a moral high ground as opposed to a brutal self-examination. Well, I could never. Humbert Humbert, ironically, after all this soul-claiming, all this scribbling, all this immortalizing, still caught inside his own calcified being, a self-examination only of the self—as opposed to the kind of examination that allows for others. But in the classroom, at least, a calcification that allows for a discussion of that self, for how it mirrors so many other male selves, how atrocity begins in some sense with an inability to recognize the self outside itself.


When the #MeToo movement first began to break, I was shocked by the number of ex-students sharing on facebook the ways men took from them their humanity. The horrifying alongside the horrifyingly banal: the college professor holding the door open for a student then saying to her, “I just wanted to see you from behind.” My wife reels off half-a-dozen incidents without needing a moment to reflect. I think of myself as a good human being, not a predator, not a pig, but, as one colleague put it, I, with so many other “good” men, spent so much of my dating life, “trying to get to a yes.” Predatory thinking. Calcified ways of being. Reading Lolita with high-school students begins a conversation about these things in a space where conversation can happen, where girls can talk, through the lens of Lolita, of the way boys see them, and where boys get to speak, but also to listen. Boys thinking mostly, most of the time, about getting to a yes.


Because, despite how uncomfortable teaching Lolita can be, especially as a male, it’s the one book that most students at the end of the year say they read almost cover to cover, the book that generates the most animated discussion, the most carefully thought through and insightful written responses—responses that defraud Humbert Humbert, that argue for Lolita as the only truly heroic figure they’ve come across.


Because it’s a novel, yes, about a pedophile, about a monster, but also about how atrocity begins with the personal, about how the monstrous marks where the modern world begins. Because it’s a novel that tries to teach us, all of us, but especially the male of us, about how the body, especially the female body, if not outrightly sacred, belongs, sacredly, only to its own self.


 Giles Scott has been teaching high school for over fifteen years, primarily in the Bay area. Recent articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Catapult, Critical Flame, and The Millions, and he’s currently revising a creative nonfiction manuscript about identity, adoption, and parenthood entitled “If In An Echo.”


  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.