What We’re Watching on TV

“Nathan for You”

The other night, the Comedy Central series “Nathan for You” made me laugh so hard that I felt a weird pain in my chest I have never felt before. The premise of the show is thatNathan Fielder—young, awkward, earnest, clueless—comes up with absurdly stupid ideas for struggling small businesses, and


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The Ignorance of Trump’s Vague Tax Plan

Frank Ramsey lived as if he knew he would die young—and he did, just shy of twenty-seven. Born in 1903, he spent his shortened twenties in something of a fury, hurtling around Europe and engaging with the most exciting intellectuals of the time. His mentor, at home in Cambridge, was John Maynard Keynes, with whom

 

A First Step in Defeating Trump and Trumpism

To start with the caveats: New Jersey and Virginia, where the Democrats won big victories in gubernatorial elections on Tuesday night, were already blue-leaning states. In last year’s Presidential election, both voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Elsewhere on Tuesday, as Trump pointed out on Twitter from South Korea, the G.O.P. did win four elections to the House of Representatives, including a tightly fought race in Kansas. And across the country there was little evidence that Trump’s core supporters—white voters without college degrees—abandoned the Republican Party. In Virginia, the exit poll showed Ed Gillespie, the defeated G.O.P. candidate, getting seventy-two per cent support in this group—practically the same as what Trump got last year.

So, Trumpism didn’t collapse on Tuesday. It did get a bloody nose, however. And, for many Democrats, the Trump backlash that was evident from Maine to Virginia raised hopes of a much bigger victory in next year’s midterm elections. If the Party can build on Tuesday’s results to seize control of Congress in 2018, it would leave Trump, at best, as a lame duck, and, quite possibly, as a President facing impeachment.

Of course, next November is a long way off—that’s another caveat. But Democratic leaders think that they have hit on a replicable winning strategy: to turn every election into a vote about Trump and what he stands for. “This was a referendum on American values,” Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, said, as the results came in from Virginia.

Dark Matter Gets Its Day

Not long ago, the actor Tilda Swinton—cosmic muse to cinéastes, fashion designers, and physicists—took on another shape-shifting role as the voice of a new a planetarium film, “Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt for Dark Matter.” “As we look out into the night sky, we are both dazzled and comforted by the patches of light we find there,” her narration


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How to Hoax Yourself: The Case of A Gay Girl in Damascus

e blog A Gay Girl in Damascus began appearing in early 2011, with posts by Amina Arraf, a self-described Syrian-American lesbian. The title said it all. The Web site quickly grew in popularity, and Arraf began several online relationships with lesbian political activists, one of whom considered Arraf her long-distance girlfriend. When Arraf disappeared, a few months later, in the midst of the uprising that became known as the Arab Spring, the Internet flooded with a campaign to learn her whereabouts. “I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing,” Arraf’s cousin posted. “Free Amina Arraf” posters began appearing online, bearing a motto presumably taken from one of her many vaguely profound quotes—“borders mean nothing when you have wings”—and suggesting just how swiftly her story had spread. The unrest and uprisings in the Middle East meant that concerned readers and activists well aware of the region’s troubles wanted to hear from Arraf.

But the inspiring Arab-American lesbian turned out to be a white man from Georgia named Tom MacMaster. As the Washington Post revealed, MacMaster for several years had used Amina Arraf as a fake profile, primarily in online forums—he did so, he said, in order to “have a discussion about the real questions” in the Middle East. Later, in what passes for an apology, MacMaster said that the blog started “innocently enough” and just “got out of hand.” When faced with how to end the hoax, MacMaster decided to have Arraf kidnapped, claiming, bizarrely, that he thought that might end interest in her case. His wife, who apparently hadn’t known of his other life, was as shocked as the rest of us.

MacMaster’s backstory follows a pattern similar to those of other hoaxers, especially recent ones: he was a publishing failure who had written pieces in his own voice, as well as a novel, but these efforts met with little success. NPRreported:

MacMaster posted on different websites and listservs as Amina and suddenly he found himself with an “extremely full and vivid character.” He wrote a back story for her and started writing a novel based on her. As a way to flesh the character out, he created profiles of Amina on different social networking sites to create a “depth of character. He used Amina’s profile, he said, so that he could snoop around sites that MacMaster couldn’t. And he was living the character so much, he would walk into restaurants and know immediately, what Amina would like on a menu and what she wouldn’t like.

To keep up his hoax, MacMaster had to invent a whole cast of characters, from a loving Arab father (“My father, the hero”) to cousins and friends. “Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her,” he would say. Failure is one of the hoax’s main muses.

The mock kidnapping that he settled on instead provided a kind of Orientalist fantasy—a fetishistic cliché borrowed from white-slavery panics of a century before. It reveals the hoaxer as not only a deskbound exoticist but also a cultural and sexual tourist, the bad-girl wonder turned into an Internet star: an American story if ever there was one. The modern hoax often happens somewhere just over the horizon, the next valley over, and the Middle East has become a popular site of American displacement: an exotic locale that Americans can visit safely, and sexually, via their computer, as with MacMaster’s blog; somewhere they can save, as in the self-serving fabrications of Greg Mortensen’s “Three Cups of Tea”; or a ground target to be conquered by one man with a rifle, as in the quickly withdrawn propagandist fantasy about the Benghazi terrorist attacks, “The Embassy House.”

The hoaxer’s typical mix of desire and danger is borne out by the fake memoir MacMaster had half-shopped around, claiming to be merely the emissary on behalf of Arraf, who’d supposedly written it. A woman he had been in contact with posted the thing online; having read what I could, I can report it’s a hot mess—predictably Orientalist and exoticist, depicting the Middle East as a place of secret sexuality. “You’ll know that it’s axiomatic that Arabs are unreliable and prone to lie (if not to lie prone), so, if you buy that whole reasoning—and why not? It is the dominant paradigm—you’ll expect me to lie at every turn,” MacMaster writes, in character as Arraf. “I won’t but what’ll it matter?” MacMaster uses Arraf’s Arab stereotypes—ones he’s perpetuated—against her, saying that she won’t lie, except a little, though you’ll think it’ll be a lot. She won’t lie prone, either—she’ll only pun in order to protect the guilty, which is, we soon realize, MacMaster himself. As if we didn’t get the point, the manuscript is titled “A Thousand Sighs, and a Sigh: An Arab American Education,” though it could be titled “A Million Little Yawns.”

Like a yawn, the hoax is contagious. MacMaster’s unveiling also revealedanother pretend lesbian, this one with the real name of Bill Graber, “a retired Ohio military man and construction worker.” Under the handle “Paula Brooks”—the name of his wife, who was unaware of his deception—Graber had helped found a news Web site called Lez Get Real, a popular forum for progressives and lesbians, which had published stories by Arraf. After he was exposed, just days after MacMaster, Graber, too, pled advocacy—not realizing, apparently, that supporting a cause does not necessarily mean pretending to be its very center, or that centering yourself in this way is a form of the privilege that people who are genuinely part of the cause may be speaking out against. The idea of fake lesbians, too, has always been conflated with the “Oriental”—there is a long history of male writers fantasizing sexy harems and poetesses, as in “Songs of Bilitis” (1894), by Pierre Louys, who at least wrote with a wink in pretending to be a lost lesbian Greek poet. “What the hell is it with straight men and lesbian fantasies?” the female managing editor of Lez Get Real wrote in an editorial note. Comments on the note ran to dozens of pages; the site crashed from all the activity. “Personally, the idea that Tom and Bill were flirting with each other in their personas as lesbians is too funny,” the managing editor added.

While claiming advocacy, what hoaxers really exhibit is self-interest. Often, this is because there is only the self to support their false claims; any revelations merely provide further opportunities for details and forgery. Though no one had met her, Amina Arraf’s Facebook page was a real “who’s who of the Syrian opposition movement,” as the Post put it—in fact, the confusion over Arraf’s identity continued for longer than it might have, because online pseudonyms were commonly used within the Arab uprising to hide activists’ real identify and protect against reprisal. Arraf’s purported “advocacy” not only put real bloggers in the Middle East and Syria in jeopardy, but her unmasking suggested that the online postings of those who helped foment the uprisings were somehow fake, too. The Syrian government seized on the exposing of Arraf to say that the Arab Spring was simply crafted, or instigated, by carpetbagging foreigners.

In an interview after he was outed, so to speak, MacMaster described his feelings after his first full-fledged stories were published on Lez Get Real. “When I got a first couple initial media bites, I was extremely flattered and impressed with myself that here I had written something that was fictional but it was getting taken seriously and treated as a real event,” he said. “It appealed to my vanity that here I am, I’m so smart, I can do this.” Of course, his interlocutor was none other than “Paula Brooks.”

Can you explore real issues as a fake character? Yes, it’s called acting. Or fiction. But acting is not a method of engaging with the actual world, just as pretending to know what a character might eat does not a novel make—much less make that make-believe real. MacMaster mistakes backstory for the real story—or for real talent—and his creation for the story of Pygmalion and Galatea when it’s really Geppetto and Pinocchio.

Of course, MacMaster’s hoax hurt not only the cause but also the people who believed that Arraf was real. His hoax’s domino effect was made clear when NPR spoke to Arraf’s would-be girlfriend, Sandra Bagaria, who had helped publicize her disappearance and had tried calling “Amina” in Syria repeatedly and got no answer. (Her search has been dramatized in a fascinating French-language documentary, “The Amina Profile,” from 2015.) Later, MacMaster-as-Arraf would post a response to the missed connection: “We will have a free Syria and a free nation; it is coming soon. The revolution will succeed and we will rise above sectarianism, despotism, sexism, and all the dead weight of these years of bitterness, of division and partition, of oppression and of tyranny. We will be free!”

It should be no surprise to find that MacMaster’s “fake novel,” modelled as a memoir, fashions Arraf as a biracial symbol of displacement. Her mother, being white, helps her serve as a kind of mixed-girl wonder. “Maybe half of me is from here and everything else is confusion between those two sides, the stranger and the native, the believer and the infidel.” These stark dichotomies and bothersome biracial tropes are the only options, ones the hoax reënacts again and again, without the complexity of lived lives or of full-fledged fiction. The true love these hoaxers have is with their characters, which is to say themselves.

This has been made all the more easy by the Internet, with the “fireside traveller” or travel liar having been replaced by the desktop one. The Gay Girl in Damascus blog is now squirrelled away somewhere in the ether, like Amina Arraf was; Lez Get Real bears no trace of the controversy. For the Internet is a bit of a travel liar itself—an unreal place where real things happen. We’ve learned quickly that the Web is far more pseudonymous than anonymous: online, our names have simply been changed to a number, an I.P. address, protocol, and code. Hoaxes, especially online ones, prove that on repeat almost anything, from our lives to our loves, can be made unreal.

The hoax not only expresses a fantasy but also records a fantasy sold, and most importantly bought, even by hoaxers themselves, as true. It’s not just a wish but a cure for that wish—a curse—it’s face paint you wear, if only for a while. “People want to believe,” MacMaster would say. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, unlike Amina Arraf, Tom MacMaster is people, too: his willingness to believe his own story is one more sign that the hoax’s first victim may be the hoaxer.

This is the third in a series of pieces adapted from “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” which will be published in November by Graywolf Press. The first piece examined race, the penny press, and the Moon Hoax of 1835, and the second considered the time when Virginia Woolf wore blackface.

When a Day in Court Is a Trap for Immigrants

On March 29th, in Pontiac, Michigan, Sergio Perez appeared in a county courtroom to seek sole custody of his son and two daughters, who were between eleven and seventeen years old. The children lived with Sergio’s estranged wife, Rose, and, he told me recently, he was concerned about them. His wife had taken out a yearlong protective order against her boyfriend in 2015, but, as far as Sergio knew, they now lived together. (Rose and the boyfriend could not be reached.) Perez paid the rent on the house where his children and Rose lived, he told me, although he had fallen thousands of dollars behind on child support. (He said that he spent other money on the children directly—for example, for their clothes.) Perez ran a small contracting business near Pontiac, installing carpets. He said that he wanted “to see my daughters do well, with modern lives.” He was “never rich at all,” but he was “working fourteen, sixteen hours a day,” he told me. “I was working three customers a day.”

Rose and the three children are all United States citizens, but Perez was undocumented. He had grown up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and crossed into the United States, without authorization, when he was nineteen. During the next twenty-one years, he and his attorney, Bethany McAllister, told me, he had moved back and forth to Mexico, and he had been deported several times before. But otherwise he had never been arrested or convicted of a crime, and had received only one ticket, for driving on an expired license. Amid the anti-immigrant fever created by the Trump Administration, he feared that pressing the custody case might lead to someone informing on him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ice, in order to have him arrested and deported to Mexico. Perez decided to go to family court anyway. He said that he wanted to show his children that “no matter how hard or difficult it might be, you have to do what you have to do, no matter what.”

In the courtroom on March 29th, he heard his name called out, and entered a side room. There were men in plain clothes; one identified himself as Anthony. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said, as Perez recalled. The man pulled out a badge. “We’re with ice.” (The arresting agents were from Border Patrol, and they transferred Perez to ice custody.*) The agents arrested Perez right there, transported him to a jail in Dearborn, and then later transferred him to a detention center in Louisiana. McAllister, Perez’s attorney, urged the ice field office in Michigan to reëxamine his case and to stay his deportation, in the interests of his children. Two attorneys from the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Michael Steinberg and Juan Caballero, also wrote to ice, noting, “This practice of obstructing non-citizens’ access to courts endangers public safety and has a chilling effect on families seeking protections from the court.” Their efforts didn’t work. ice deported Perez to Mexico City.

When I caught up with Perez recently by telephone, he was back in Guadalajara, where he was working as a waiter and a translator. He remained worried about his children, he said. He had promised McAllister that he would not cross the U.S. border again without authorization, so he was trying to find some legal way forward. “I want to go back and change my daughters’ lives,” and also his son’s, he said.

One of the most disturbing aspects of “interior enforcement” of the immigration laws—meaning arrests and detentions carried out far from the American border, typically by ice agents—is that the actions can pollute the administration of justice and undermine the rights that the Constitution affords all criminal defendants, whether they are U.S. citizens or not. Because immigration-removal proceedings are generally carried out under civil laws, they are exempt from many procedures mandated in criminal cases. For example, the warrants that ice uses to arrest unauthorized immigrants like Perez aren’t reviewed by a judge; they’re just written up by ice office supervisors. Immigrant detainees don’t have a constitutional right to a lawyer. Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure don’t always apply when ice agents investigate a target for arrest, because the cases typically don’t involve a criminal prosecution. This troubling and confusing inheritance of immigration policing has now been made worse by the Trump Administration’s expansion of arrest operations in American courthouses.

The Immigrant Defense Project, an advocacy group based in New York City, said that it had received reports of eighty-four arrests and attempted arrests in courthouses in New York this year through September, more than six hundred per cent more reports than it had received last year, including fifty-one arrests in or around New York City courthouses. Most often, ice agents target criminal defendants who may be deportable, but they have also arrested people in New York family court, juvenile court, and specialized courts devoted to the prevention of human trafficking.

According to an Immigrant Defense investigation, in April, in Suffolk County Family Court, ice arrested a Pakistani-born father who had appeared on “a visitation matter.” The father was the primary custodian of two children who were United States citizens. He himself had come to the United States as a five-year-old child, “when his family fled political persecution in Pakistan.” In June, in Queens, ice officers followed a woman who had appeared in Human Trafficking Intervention Court. The agents arrested the woman as she walked to the subway. On September 27th, ice agents arrested a victim of alleged domestic violence as he left Queens County Criminal Court.

Wendy Wayne, who directs the Immigration Impact Unit at the Massachusetts public defender’s office, told me that the surge of courthouse immigration arrests across the country, including in Massachusetts, “has a tremendously negative impact,” because “defendants are being arrested before they resolve their criminal cases and witnesses and victims are not coming to court.” During the first six months of this year, Latinos in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco reported fewer cases of domestic violence than during the same period the year before. Advocates believe that the decline reflects less a drop in the crime rate than a rising fear among undocumented victims and witnesses that, if they seek justice, they will be deported.

Some courthouse administrators, judges, and even prosecutors, such as the acting Brooklyn District Attorney, Eric Gonzales, have tried to persuade ice to back off. Earlier this year, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, the California Chief Justice, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, that “courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety.” She accused ice of “stalking courthouses.” Sessions and Kelly wrote in reply that, because sanctuary policies enacted by cities and jurisdictions in states such as California “prohibit or hinder” ice from enforcing immigration laws, they had no choice but to carry out operations in courts. They reaffirmed their policy.

During the Obama Administration, ice, through policies derived from executive orders, prevented agents from performing operations in “sensitive locations,” including houses of worship, schools, and hospitals, except in extraordinary circumstances. The Trump Administration has continued that policy, to date. Courthouses weren’t on the “sensitive locations” list, but arrests were very rare. That is what changed under Trump, Sessions, and Kelly.

Khaalid H. Walls, an ice spokesperson, acknowledged in a statement to me that the agency continues to make arrests at courthouses, but that these generally take place “only after investigating officers have exhausted other options.” He said that many of the targeted people “have prior criminal convictions, pending charges,” and/or pose “threats to public safety.” He added that “every effort is made to take the person into custody in a secure area, out of public view, but that is not always possible.” (Last August, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging Congress to pass a law expanding the “sensitive location” policy to include courts. There are bills pending, but their chances are doubtful.)

Yet ice’s defense of its policy on public-safety grounds cannot account for the arrests in venues like family court. And the public defenders and other defense lawyers I spoke with said that they saw the courthouse arrests as largely arbitrary. They weren’t certain how ice identified targets for arrest from court dockets, especially nonpublic dockets, such as those in juvenile or family court. ice has access to many national-security and federal databases, and it may be running software to identify matches between names on court dockets and deportable individuals in its own databases. Or ice field officers may be doing that work by hand. (Walls declined to comment.) From the actual arrests, it is hard to discern a pattern. “I think, in my most cynical moments, that maybe that’s the point—that it is random, to cultivate this widespread fear that nobody is safe,” Casey Dalporto, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, who specializes in immigration law, said.

One Year After Trump’s Election, Revisiting “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”

A year ago, panicked friends were writing to ask me what to do now that the United States had elected Donald Trump. Like I’d know: I had spent years writing and organizing in opposition to Vladimir Putin, only to have to leave Russia. But a decade and a half in Putin’s Russia taught me something about living in an autocracy. I am familiar with the ways in which it numbs the mind and drains the spirit. I wrote a piece called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which was published by The New York Review of Books and read by millions of people. Today seems a good day to look at how well my proposed rules have held up.

Rule No. 1: Believe the autocrat. I argued against the expectation that Trump would change in the months following the election, becoming somehow “Presidential” and abandoning his more extreme positions. This belief, it seemed to me, stemmed from the inability to absorb the fact of a Trump Presidency, and not from any historical precedents of similar transformations. The best predictors of autocrats’ and aspiring autocrats’ behavior are their own public statements, because these statements brought them to power in the first place.

Trump had repeatedly made several promises that many people hoped or expected he would drop post-election: to build a wall on the border with Mexico, to repeal Obamacare, to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and, of course, to “lock her up!” I wrote, “If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that Trump has focussed on infrastructure. He has not let go of the Obamacare repeal or the wall, he has pushed various versions of a travel ban to keep Muslims from entering this country, and “Crooked Hillary” is a recurrent target of his Twitter storms. What makes the attacks on Clinton particularly disturbing is that, in order to go after his political opponent, Trump would have to turn the judiciary into an instrument of the executive branch. His renewed emphasis on “locking her up” has coincided with his tantrums about the Justice Department, which, he has discovered, does not report to him.

A year ago, much of our attention was focussed on the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I feared that Trump would appoint “someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court.” This did not happen: his pick, Neil Gorsuch, could have been chosen by a conventional Republican President. But Trump has nominated more than fifty judges to federal courts—this seems to be an extraordinary pocket of efficiency in his Administration—and many of these nominees personify an attack on the judicial system. The judges are very young, very conservative, and very much outside the existing culture of the judiciary. The American Bar Association has characterized four of the candidates as unqualified (in two cases by a unanimous vote, and in two more by the vote of a majority of the panel). In the case of Leonard Steven Grasz, nominated for an appeals court, the A.B.A.’s standing committee concluded that the candidate lacked respect for precedent and judicial procedure.

A year ago, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie were believed to be potential candidates to head the Justice Department. Imagine, I wrote, one of them going after Hillary Clinton, “quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.” That sounds almost quaint now. Trump chose Jeff Sessions, who has spent the last ten months undoing federal civil-rights protections. His Justice Department stepped back from pending cases on the Texas voter-I.D. laws and on the North Carolina anti-trans bathroom bill; Sessions has moved to reduce the Justice Department’s oversight of policing; and he has issued homophobic and transphobic “religious freedom” guidelines. The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Cole, hascalled Sessions “more dangerous than Trump.”

Rule No. 2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Most catastrophes unfold over time. Following the shock of a disastrous election—or a Presidential tweet—the sun rises again in the morning, and life appears to proceed as before. One adjusts, until the next shocking event.

Trump has moved faster, assaulting our senses in more ways and more often than I (and, I think, most other people) expected. The sun still rises every morning, but an early-morning barrage of Trump’s tweets might obscure it. The word “Presidential” has gradually faded from the conversation: no one expects the President to live up to the standards of speech and behavior that his office would seem to demand. Instead, we have settled into constant low-level dread: a state in which a person can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future. A Russian writer who blogs under the name Alexander Ivanov-Petrov.

“The Band’s Visit” Translates Those Muted, Indie-Film Longings to Broadway

o knew that hospitality had such dramatic potential? The surprise hit on Broadway last season was “Come from Away,” a musical about the thousands of airline passengers who were stranded in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, on 9/11. The show’s uplifting message, in these xenophobic times, is that people can just get along—though it helps if half of them are


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Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

e first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.

’aa ’áhályánii: “bodyguard”

In August of 2015, I move from Boston to Tucson, to join an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I applied to schools surrounding the Navajo reservation because I wanted to be closer to my mother’s family. My plan: to take classes on rug weaving and the Navajo language (Diné Bizaad); to visit my family as often as possible. It will be opened: the door to the path we have lost.

’ąą ’ályaa: “It was opened.”

A PDF version of the Navajo-English dictionary from the University of Northern Colorado. I wonder which librarian there decided to digitize it. Most government documents, after they are shipped to federal depositories around the country, languish on out-of-the-way shelves and collect decades of dust before being deaccessioned and destroyed. I have worked in these libraries—I know.

ąą ’ályaa, bich’į’: “It was opened to them; they were invited.”

One of the reasons Navajo soldiers were recruited as code talkers during the Second World War was because there were no published dictionaries of their language at that time—and because the grammatical structure of the language was so different from English, German, and Japanese. They were invited to: a world beyond the borders of the reservation. My mother always told me the only way to get off the Rez is to join the military or marry off.

’ąą ’át’é: “It is open.”

One of the first typewriters that could adequately record the Navajo language was built for Robert Young, a linguist who also worked with William Morgan and published a more comprehensive dictionary and grammar guide (“The Navaho Language”), in 1972. In the nineteen-seventies, a Navajo font was released for the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter, which would serve as the basis for a digital font on early computers.

’ąą ’át’éego: “since it was open”

Navajo fonts are now available for download in multiple typefaces: Times New Roman, Verdana, and Lucida Sans.

’áádahojoost’įįd: “They quit, backed out, desisted, surrendered.”

Spring. 1864. The “Long Walk” begins. The U.S. Army forcibly relocates the Navajo from their homeland, to Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. Those who do not resist learn to walk, but death follows both paths.

’aa ’dahoost’įįd, t’óó: “They gave up, surrendered.”

There are many reasons parents do not teach their children the Navajo language: U.S. monolingual policies, violence experienced in boarding schools, and perceived status. Those who speak English well will have a better chance for escape.

’aa dahwiinít’į́iį’: “into court (a place where justice is judicially administered)”

A close cousin of mine is scheduled to testify in court in one week; she isn’t sure if she wants to go. I pick her up anyway. Bring her back to Tucson with me.

’aa deet’ą́: “transfer (of property, or ownership)”

My aunt tells me we have land on the reservation, just off I-40. We’ve inherited it from our great-grandmother, Pauline Tom. Only Pauline Tom had many children, and their children had many children, and after she died, in 2008, all those children started fighting. It’s a common problem, and it isn’t unique to the Navajo Nation. Federal land-allotment policies have resulted in too many heirs for too few acres.

’áadi: “there, over there (a remote place)”

On the drive to Tucson along I-40, my cousin points out the black-tar roofs of our family’s houses, and the cemetery—a small, square piece of land—where our great-grandmother is buried. The cemetery is barely distinguishable from the rest of the landscape, and, when I follow her gaze, look away from the highway, I see only the stark, white faces of the headstones and the silver glint of a ribbon in the wind.

’áádįįł: “It is progressively dwindling away; disappearing.”

In 1968, a decade after the first dictionary was published, ninety per cent of the children on the reservation who entered school spoke Navajo; in 2009, only thirty per cent knew the language (Spolsky, “Language Management for Endangered Languages,” 117).

’áadiísh: “There? Thereat?”

September 22, 2015. The second time I pass our allotment on I-40, I try to find the spot my cousin showed me. I look for the headstones; I think of stopping and trying to find my grandmother’s grave. My cousin told me that if you don’t do the proper blessing, the spirit will follow you home. (She asked me, “What is the difference between a spirit and a ghost?”) I don’t know the blessing, but it doesn’t matter; I can’t recognize the cemetery or my family’s land.

’ąąh ’dahaz’ą́: “illness, sickness, an ailment”

September 19th. I catch a cold from my students. Might be the flu. I tell my cousin to stay away, but she says she won’t get sick. We spend all day curled up on the couch watching “Shameless.” She rests her head on my shoulder, on my hip.

’á’á hwiinít’į́, “kindness”

’aa hwiinít’į́: “trial (at law), molestation”

How are these words (kindness/molestation) that sound so similar so different? My aunt tells my cousin that our maternal grandmother molested her sons. My mother tells me other stories, similar but not the same. (“Why would they tell us that?”) It’s hard to believe, but it isn’t. There will never be a trial. These are words better left unspoken, forgotten, erased.

’aa hwiinít’įįhígíí: “the court session that is to come”

September 16th, 2015. My cousin is told that if she doesn’t appear for the court date, a warrant will be put out for her arrest. I agree to drive her back to Window Rock on Monday night, after I am done teaching for the day. It is a six-hour drive, but I am almost happy to make it. I will be in Window Rock, with my family, on the second anniversary of my mother’s death, not by plan but by circumstance.

’ą́ą́hyiłk’as: “body chill”

I am sick with fever, alive with fever dreams. I dream of a two-story, sandstone motel, its three square walls opening onto the desert. A sun sets between two mountains, and heavy drapes are drawn across all the windows. My mother and my aunt and all my sisters are running in and out of the rooms, slamming doors, shouting at each other from the landings. I understand that each door is a choice, each room a potential future, and that my mother’s and my aunt’s and my sisters’ doors are closed to me.

’aak’ee: “fall, autumn”

I start teaching my first freshman-composition class in the fall. I’m convinced, like most first-year teachers, that I have no idea what I am talking about; I spend the entire hour sweating in front of my class. But, afterward, two dark-haired, dark-skinned girls walk up to me and ask me: What are your clans? Where is your family from? We are Navajo, too. We are all three nervous and unsure where the conversation should go, but I want to grab hold of them and root them next to me; graduation rates of native students are abysmally low.

’ąą kwáániił: “It is expanding; it is getting bigger.”

My cousin disappears in the middle of the night and leaves us a note: Went to Gallup with Heather and Faith need to get pads and face wash. Should be back soon. She leaves us a number, the wrong number. (“She prolly went to see that guy.”)

’aaníí, t’áá, “It is true; truly; really; verily.”

My cousin tells me she didn’t see her boyfriend again. That she went over to Shorty’s and helped him set mouse traps in the middle of the night. He couldn’t do it himself, he kept catching his fingers. But she would tell me if she saw him.

’aaníí, t’áásh: “Is it so? Is it true?”

The answer is, in many ways, unknowable; for our mothers, the surest protection from the past was to spin truths and falsehoods into one story, one thread, impossible to distinguish in the weave.

’ááníłígíí: “that which is occurring; the happening; the event”

I have been walking around the thing that happened, stepping around the truth, trying to protect my cousin from myself.

’áát’įįdę́ę: “what he did; his aforementioned act”

My cousin calls me at four-thirty in the morning, and I answer; her voice is thick with tears. She found out her boyfriend was cheating. She started the fight. I know this story. I know it. These are words better left unspoken; a story better lost to time. Still, I have no words to help her. I will come get you, I tell her. I will bring you home with me.

’abąąh náát’i’: “border, strand (of the warp of a rug)”

A Navajo blanket is woven on a loom and will never outgrow its frame. Do we finish the story our mothers began, or do we rip out the weaving and begin anew? It is not so easy to erase or forget the things that have come before us.

’ábi’diilyaa: “He was made to be . . . ”

. . . the kind of man who hits women. He crawled inside his father’s shadow and filled it out.

’ábidiní, ha’át’íí shą’: “What do you mean?”

One of my Navajo students interviews her aunt, who teaches Navajo language classes, and she writes a paper about revitalizing Diné Bizaad. I ask her if she would put me in contact with her aunt to answer some of my own questions. Her aunt agrees to e-mail me her responses, but I am so lost, I don’t know the right questions to ask. I write a rambling e-mail about adjectives and verbs and the state of being, and she never responds.

’abi’doogį́: “He was hauled away.”

When I was little, my mother called the cops on my father, often. Usually after they had both been drinking. I remember standing on the street with our neighbors, watching the cops chase my father down the road, shove him into a police car, and haul him away.

’ábi’dool’įįdii, t’áá ’aaníí bee: “that with which he was really harmed”

What are the roots of domestic violence on the reservation? Inescapable poverty. Powerlessness. Untreated mental illnesses. Self-medication through alcohol. Cycles of abuse: fathers beating mothers beating sons beating their lovers and future mothers.

’ábidoołdįił: “It will annihilate them.”

Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are higher among Native Americans than any other ethnicity in the United States. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2008 reported that almost forty per cent of Native American women identified as victims of domestic violence during their lifetimes. These are conservative figures; many assaults go unreported.

’abíní,: “morning”

My first trip to the Rez. I wake before everyone, and slip out of bed and out the door with my aunt’s binoculars. My aunt’s dog, Toro, follows me down the twisting dirt road and into the flowering sagebrush hills. Toro follows his nose off the path, under bushes, over piles of gravel and rock. He misses a pair of cottontails, who bolt out from under my feet as I cross the same ground minutes later; they reach the safety of a hidden burrow before he turns around.

’ách’ą́ą́h: “in front of”

My aunt and her neighbors clear the summer weeds out of the front yard and sweep them into piles. Toro has made a small rabbit’s nest of them; he lies in a tight little ball. I call Toro’s name and he lifts his head, fixes me with red, watery eyes, but he does not move.

’ach’é’é: “daughter, niece (daughter of one’s sister) (female speaking)”

After my mother dies, my aunt tells me that I am her daughter now—that she is my “little mother.” This is how she introduces me to everyone: This is my niece! She’s a teacher at the University of Arizona! This is how everyone responds: Hello, niece.

’ach’é’édą́ą́’: “one’s yard, or dooryard”

My maternal great-grandmother froze to death, and my aunt is shocked that I did not know. I don’t understand because freezing to death in the desert, in the sun, surrounded by yellow sagebrush flowers, doesn’t make sense to me. My aunt tells me that Pauline Tom fell while checking on a noise outside, and she broke her hip in the fall. My aunt curls her hands on her skinny little wrists, mimes our grandmother crawling in the dirt, but she could not crawl far enough. My grandmother froze to death in the winter, in the deep dark of the night, in her own backyard.

’acheii (achaii): “maternal grandfather”

I met my maternal grandfather once, when I was very young. He was a Navajo police officer. When he got sick, my mother and my aunt started fighting over who would take care of him. My aunt talked too soon about pulling the plug, and they stopped speaking for years.

’áchį́į́h: “nose, snout”

I call Toro’s name again, and he stands on quivering legs. He hobbles over to me and leans his entire weight against me. “Toro,” I whisper, and I trace the black line between his eyes, smooth my hands over his head, down his sides. I rub his soft ears, over and over. “It’s so hard, I know. It’s so hard.” I think of the stories my cousin told me. All the times Toro has been hit, flipped over the hoods of cars. Gotten up, shaken it off. Has he been hit again? My aunt won’t take him to the vet. He’s a Rez dog now.

’ach’į nahwii’ná: “to have trouble; to have difficulty; to suffer”

My mother was homeless in the six months leading up to her death, and she never called to ask me for help.

’achó: “maternal great grandfather”

Young and Morgan’s dictionary tells me ’achó means maternal great-grandmother, that ’acho’ is not gendered. I am too embarrassed to ask, too scared my voice will betray me on the rising “O.”

’ádaa ’áhojilyą́: “He takes care of himself; he is on the alert.”

My father would never admit his own violence, though I remember it like a mirage in the desert—the images came back to me in shimmers, a disturbing gloss over the horizon.

’ádaadahalni’go: “when they tell about themselves”

When my mother dies, I am the one who must go through her things: her diaries, her letters, her photographs. She says things in writing she would never say to me herself, and I feel some validation. I let my cousin read some of her entries: there is truth in their stories, truth in our memories, if only we could let ourselves believe them.

’ádaadin: “They are none of them; they are nonexistent, they are absent.”

Dr. William Morgan, Sr., the linguist and translator for both Navajo dictionaries, passed away, in 2001. He was eighty-five years old, nearly twice the age of my mother when she died. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico and taught at Cornell, the University of New Mexico, and the Navajo Community College. According to his obituary, he left behind nineteen grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. And though he is gone, he left a cultural legacy that will survive him and his children’s children’s children, perhaps.

’ádaadinídíí: “the ones that are gone; absentees; decedents”

I am unsure how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren survived Pauline Tom; there are too many blank spaces on the family tree my mother left behind. Many of my questions have no answers; the ones who could answer them are gone.

’ádaadzaa: “They did.”

I find out after I leave that my cousin is back with her boyfriend.

’ádaadzaa yę́égi ’át’éego: “like they did”

My mother would leave the men who hit her, but she would always take them back.

’ádaadzaaígi ’át’éego: “like they did”

I should know better, but I don’t. I hook up with men from the Internet and drive long distances to meet them in hotel rooms. I let them tie me up, bruise my skin with ropes and clamps and leather, tear me up, and make me bleed. I tell myself that it’s O.K. because I let them—that I am the one with the power. I cannot tell if it is a lie, or if there is truth there, too.

’ádąąh dahosíst’ą́: “I committed a crime.”

I should not have taken her home. I should have spoken the words I meant to say. That we are worthy. That there is another path. That we can weave a rug of our own design. I started to look for those words but did not find them; I found only the same ghosts haunting the page.

This piece was drawn from “This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home,” edited by by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, which is out November 14th from Seal Press.