Using Life: Instructions for Play – By Ben Koerber

This article was published first at: https://thenewinquiry.com/using-life-instructions-for-play/

Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to see playfulness as a growing challenge. Three years for a cartoon portraying the president in Mickey Mouse ears, the Fan al-Midan (Art is a Public Square) festival has been effectively shut down, the cartoonist Islam Gawish was jailed in February, and just last week, prosecutors extended the detention of the “Street Children” comedy troupe. 

The criminal excerpt can be read online in English translation by Ben Koerber.

Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.

 

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Aymen drawings from “Using Like”

 

…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…

I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.

July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.

Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.

Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015.  Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.

The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.

There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.

As a book, Using Life follows a number of recent experiments in graphic fiction in Egypt and the wider Arab World, such as Metro (El-Shafee, 2008; trans. Rossetti, 2012) and The Apartment in Bab el-Louk (Maher, Ganzeer, and Nady, 2014); as a literary-graphic hybrid, it resembles most closely Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut (beautifully translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton; available from the University of Texas Press in August).

Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.  

Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.

There is also “The Last Dance of the Blue Anus-Fly,” a film by Ayman Zorkany. Based on an illustrated section of Using Life, the animated film was recently screened at the Institut Français d’Egypte and other venues.

There is Using Life merchandise.  The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs.  These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.

There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.

There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.

Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.

One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.

Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.

Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers.  Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genresIn fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.

In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.

 

 

 

 

Interview with Ben & arablit: ‘I Wanted to Write Something More Fantastical’

Ahmed Naji — winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award — remains on trial for his novel Using Life, for its alleged violation of “public morals.” The novel recently appeared in English, and Naji and translator Ben Koerber talk about the book, the legal case, and what Naji’s working on next:

Ben Koerber: To start off, could you give us a brief update on your case and the legal (and extralegal) sanctions against you and the novel?

Editor’s update: The North Cairo Appeals Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over Naji’s case and has referred it to a criminal court. PEN America has called the situation “half free.

Ahmed Naji: In the meantime, I remain banned from leaving the country.  As for the novel, no ruling has been issued against it, but due to the increasing censorship of the book market in Egypt, we’re having difficulties publishing a new edition (in Arabic).  The owners of some presses have refused to print it, since the National Security Investigations Service have obligated them to report any book before printing.  At the same time, we’re worried about printing it outside Egypt, since this means it will have to pass through the office of censorship for artistic works at the Customs Administration.  This office has banned several books from entering Egypt as of late.

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Pages from using life in exhibition for Aymen

BK: Some commentators have tried to link the case against you to the rise of fascism in Egypt, or to the police state.  Yet it seems that Using Life — and indeed some of your other works — conceptualizes politics and repression in somewhat different terms.  Do you agree?  How might the novel itself be used to reflect on your case, or politics in Egypt more generally?

AN: I finished the novel’s first draft at the end of 2010 [i.e. before the Egyptian uprising of January-February 2011].  The novel itself does not specify its political context, but provides the general contours of two worlds.  The first world is governed by a nameless general, while the second world – after the “Tsunami of the Desert” – is ruled by a conglomeration of multinational construction firms.  At the time I was writing the novel, I had been preoccupied with the idea of the nation state – which began to take shape in the late nineteenth-century – and its potential demise.  Politically, the novel is about this imminent moment of change.

Now, it seems this moment has come to pass.  In the western world, for example, we see the rise of far-right movements, who view the nation state as a unified racial entity, and at the same time as a lucrative commercial enterprise that bestows its benefits on a racial elite.  Perhaps Trump in America is the best embodiment of this state of affairs. We see it too in the Third World and the Arab countries, where a new generation of dictators present themselves as CEOs capable of making profits through brokering deals and selling their real estate assets.

In Egypt, 6th of October City hasn’t yet become the fantastical, futuristic city of the novel.  But to the east of Cairo, the state is siphoning its entire economic resources into building what they’re calling the “New Administrative Capital.”  It’s supposed to be a “city of the future” where the president and government will be relocated, far from the present Cairo.  I don’t like the image of the writer as a predictor of events, but I can only be amazed that the end I wished for Cairo in the novel is presently taking place in reality.  The plan announced by the government is to let the city choke and die while they flee along with their presidential palaces, administrative buildings, and security apparatuses to a new city that’s completely fortified.

BK: Who or what are the “Animals of Cairo”? Can we live with them?  Can we live without them?

AN: They’re portraits of characters and personality types that grow and reproduce in Cairo.  The reason they took this shape – Ayman’s drawings together with some abstract prose poems – is because I didn’t want to write about the city as it’s typically been portrayed in the Arabic realist novel, where you choose a well-defined geographic location – a working-class neighborhood, a residential building, a city street – and follow the fates of a group of characters and their class struggle.  Instead, I wanted to write something more fantastical, based on the city’s most widespread characters.

BK: Bassam has a complicated relationship with “ass-kissing” (ta’ris) and “cocksuckery” (khawlana).  I’m not sure the translation is able to communicate the cultural baggage of these terms.  Could you explain?

AN: I really like Ben’s translation of both expressions, and I think the reader can grasp their cultural connotations from the context of the novel as well.  I find the topic of “ass-kissing” in Arab culture really quite fascinating.  In one sense, it’s a way of surviving and making do in a culture dominated by an ethos of control and subjugation, as is the case with Arab political culture.  It’s a topic that’s garnered considerable attention in the Arabic novel, as for example in the works of Muhammad Mustagab, or with some of Naguib Mafhouz’s famous characters – Mahgoub Abd al-Dayim in Cairo 30, or Anis Effendi in Adrift on the Nile.  There’s also, of course, the works of Albert Cossery.

BK: What role do the footnotes play in the novel?

AN: The novel is the art of polyphony, of voices in the plural.  The footnotes were a way of experimenting with this idea.  Sometimes they provide clarification or explanation of the main text, and sometime they conflict with it by raising doubt about its accuracy or presenting a different narrative of the same event.

BK: The novel is a very “open” text, with gestures toward reader participation at many levels.   What did you hope to achieve with these gestures, and how have readers responded?

AN: I strive to let writing become an open dialogue.  I like for the text to contain many spaces and secrets, so that the reader can fill in the gaps and become more immersed.  The readers responded to this in different ways.  The responses I always get for these types of experiments gives me a sense of personal fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to form new friendships.  With Using Life, some readers colored in the novel’s illustrations, and others send me their ideas and images of other “animals of Cairo.”

The text’s openness to interpretation helps achieve another artistic goal that I strive for, which is that writing induce others to exercise doubt and ask questions about the work, its subject, and their own lives.

BK: Your thoughts on seeing the novel in English?  What do you think American readers will make of it?

AN: I’m really excited about it.  I remember, years ago, when my first novel [Rogers, 2007] was translated into Italian [Rogers, et la Via del Drago divorato dal Sol, 2009], and I expressed my concerns to the translator, Barbara Benini, that it wouldn’t find an audience in Italian culture.  But I was surprised to find myself invited to Italy for the book tour, and to hear from Italian readers their reactions and the connections they made between the novel and their own personal experiences.  I don’t know how it will be with American readers, but I’m eager to know how they respond.

BK:  Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?

AN: Currently I’m trying to finish a nonfiction book on my trial and time in prison.  Starting with my own experience, it looks at the broader issue of literary language vs. the language of the law, and asks why literature goes to the courtroom.  I review various cases brought against literary works in Egypt and France, since that’s where the charge of “obscenity” or “offending public morals” has been brought against literature, beginning with Voltaire.  I also look at the case brought against James Joyce’s Ulysses in New York, and the case against Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”.

published first at : https://arablit.org/2018/01/16/ahmed-naji-i-wanted-to-write-something-more-fantastical/

Laughter in the Dark -by Zadie Smith

I first heard the name Ahmed Naji at a PEN dinner last spring. I looked up from my dessert to a large projection of a young Egyptian man, rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused. I learned that he was just thirty and had written a novel called Using Life for which he is currently serving a two-year prison sentence. I thought: good title. A facile thought to have at such a moment but it’s what came to mind. I liked the echo of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual—the coolness of that—and thought I recognized, in Naji’s author photo, something antic and wild, not unlike what you see when you look at pictures of Perec. You could call it judging a book by its cover: I’d rather think of it as the readerly premonition that this book might please me. If he had written a book called Peacocks in Moonlight and posed for one of these author portraits where the writer’s head is resting on his own closed fist, I would have been equally shocked and saddened to hear he was in prison, but perhaps not as keen to read it.

As I was having these unserious thoughts the contents of the novel were being roughly outlined for us all from the stage. It sounded intriguing: a kind of hybrid, with certain chapters illustrated as in a graphic novel, and with a comic plot concerning a dystopian Cairo, although it was in fact the novel’s sexual content that had landed its author in jail. Though the novel had been approved by the Egyptian censorship board, a sixty-five-year-old “concerned citizen,” upon reading an excerpt in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, had felt so offended by it that he made a complaint to the local judiciary, who then charged Naji and the editor of the weekly with the crime of “infringing public decency.” (The editor is not serving a jail sentence but had to pay a fine.) There was, to me, something monstrous but also darkly comic about this vision of a reader who could not only dislike your prose but imprison you for it, although of course at the dinner the emphasis was necessarily on the monstrous rather then the ludicrous. But when I got home that night I found an online interview with Naji in which the absurdity of his situation was not at all lost on him:

I really enjoyed the dramatic statement of that plaintiff reader. He told the prosecution that he buys the journal regularly for his daughters, but that one time, his wife walked into the room showing him my published chapter and ridiculing him for bringing such writing into their home. He said his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.

Naji seemed bleakly amused, too, by the months of semantic debate that had led to his prosecution, in which the judges sophistically tried to separate fiction from a non-fiction “essay,” determining finally that this extract was in fact the latter, and so subject to prosecution as a kind of personal revelation:

According to their investigations and official documents, my fiction registers as a confession to having had sex with Mrs. Milaqa (one of the characters in my novel), from kissing her knees all the way to taking off the condom. They also object to my use of words such as “pussy, cock, licking, sucking” and the scenes of hashish smoking. Ironically, this chapter speaks of the happy days of Cairo, as opposed to the days of loss and siege dominant in the remaining chapters. This specific chapter is an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo, but perhaps a happy life feels too provoking for the public prosecutor!

Which sounded even more intriguing. A few days later I’d managed to contact Naji’s friend and sometime translator Mona Kareem, who sent me a PDF of Using Life (itself translated by Ben Koerber) to read on my Kindle. It opened with a beautiful line of Lucretius, and I felt immediately justified in my superficial sense of kinship: “Forever is one thing born from another; life is given to none to own, but to all to use.” And as I read on, the novel’s title took on a different resonance again, for here was a writer not content to use only one or two elements of life, no, here was a guy who wanted to use all of it:

In September, as the city’s residents were just beginning to recover from the most traumatic summer of their lives, there came a series of tremors and earthquakes that would be known as “The Great Quake.” It resulted in the destruction of nearly half the city. The there was an eruption of sinkholes that swallowed entire streets, and distorted the flow of the Nile…The sinkholes did not spare even the pyramids, and nothing could be done for the Great Pyramid itself, which was reduced to a simple pile of rubble. All that was left of our great heritage—our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose—would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.

So here was the epic mode—the fantastical analogy for a present political misery—but right up next to it, unexpectedly, was the intimate, the bathetic, the comic:

[She] went back to rolling the joint, twisting one end into a little hat. She took out her lighter and set the little hat on fire. Watching the slow, dark burn gave me a tingle on my cock, which I put out with a scratch.

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Aymen Drawings in Using life

The girl in question is Mona May and she’s impossible. The narrator is a young man in a failing state but he is also just a kid in love with a (slightly older) woman who happens to drive him up the wall: “I looked at my face in the mirror, and asked myself a serious question: what am I doing here? If I could put up with her arrogance, her stupidity, her hallucinations, her mid-life crisis…what should I expect in return? At the very least, if I loved her, was still obsessed with her, then there was no reason for me to be here, since my presence clearly causes some kind of disturbance in her world.” Angst! Romance! Sex! Dicks! And illustrations, though these I could not see in the PDF, and had to content myself instead with the tantalizing captions. (“The leftover particles of shit that stuck to our bodies resulted in certain deformities. Marital relations suffered, and many died.”) Using Life is a riotous novel about a failing state, a corrupt city, a hypocritical authority, but it is also about tequila shots and getting laid and smoking weed with your infuriating girlfriend and debating whether rock music died in the Seventies and if Quentin Tarantino is a genius or a fraud. It’s a young man’s book. A young man whose youth is colliding with a dark moment in history.

In an attempt to draw more attention to Naji’s cause, Mona recently translated three very short, flash-fiction type stories for PEN’s website. They published one, “The Plant,” which begins like this:

I will not come through the door or the window,

but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.

I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.

From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.

I read this voice first as the spirit of underground resistance, then as the essence of pervasive dictatorship, and then back to resistance once more. The second story, unpublished, was called “Ambulance” and began like so: “She was sucking my dick when suddenly she stopped to ask if I had given grandmother her medicine.” The last, also unpublished, was called “Normal,” and it opened this way: “One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.”

Mona seemed a little perplexed that PEN had chosen only one of these shorts, but I could understand it. An imprisoned writer is a very serious thing indeed and should not be treated lightly, so it puts an activist in a certain sort of bind when the writer in question turns out to be lightness itself. Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart. It’s very bad historical luck—of the kind I’ve never suffered. It’s monstrous. It’s ludicrous.

But the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime—that prison is, at this moment in Cairo, the absurd response to the word “pussy”—is exactly what shouldn’t be elided. In another historical moment, or so it occurs to me, young Ahmed would be at that PEN dinner, sitting right next to me, having come over from Cairo for a quick jaunt to see writer friends in Bed-Stuy, and he’d be a bit bored by the solemn speeches, sneaking out the back of the museum to smoke a joint perhaps, and then returning to his seat in high humor just in time to watch a literary giant whom he didn’t really respect come up to the stage to receive an award. That, anyway, is the spirit I detect in his novel: perverse and brilliant, full of youth, energy, light! Some writers, in the face of state oppression, will write like Solzhenitsyn. Others, like Naji, find their kindred spirits in the likes of Nabokov and Milan Kundera, writers who maintained their instinct for unbearable lightness and pleasure, for sex and romance, for perversity and delight, in the face of so much po-faced violent philistinism.

“I think I understand now,” writes Naji, in Using Life, “that the bullshit inside of us is nothing but a reflection of the bullshit outside. Or maybe it’s the other way round. In either case, the outside bullshit eventually seeps inside, and settles into the depths of our souls.” But on the evidence of his own writing the bullshit has not yet settled in Naji, not even in his jail cell. He is part of a great creative renaissance in Cairo, of young novelists and poets, graphic novelists, and—perhaps most visibly—graffiti artists, who have turned the city’s ever increasing walls into a staging site for political protest and artistic expression. Since 2014, President Sisi has cracked down on this community, with new restrictions on the press and multiplying arrests of artists and writers, and yet the Egyptian constitution guarantees both artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Naji has been prosecuted instead on Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “content that violates public morals.”

An attempt to appeal was rejected in February. Naji’s last appeal is on December 4. If you read this and feel so moved, tweet #FreeNaji and any other social media action that occurs to you. Hundreds of Egyptian artists and intellectuals have signed a petition in support of Naji but there are also loud voices who feel that his example should not be used in a “freedom of literature” argument because they see his writing as not really literature, as fundamentally unserious. Using Life is certainly comic, sexual, wild—the work of an outrageous young man. We should defend his freedom to be so. “Falling in love in Cairo,” I learn, from his novel, “You have to prepare for the worst. You just can’t walk over to her and say, ‘Mona May, I’ve got the jones for you.’ Words like these could get a man hurt.” Over here, in New York, words won’t get you into too much trouble—not yet, anyway. What would we dare to write if they did?

Editor’s note: Ahmed Naji was released from prison on December 22, after Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended his sentence; a hearing will be held on January 1 to determine whether he will face another trial or be sent back to prison.

Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life, in an English translation by Ben Koerber, will be published by The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at The University of Texas at Austin next year.

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/12/…