We are now deep in the era of Trump. As a magazine, we’ve accepted our role. We don’t employ an investigative team. Our contributors’ page lacks a platoon of reporters. Our only Washington correspondent practically filled the last issue. (We’re giving him a break.) Our function is to offer up a series of Very Specific Commissions which will allow our talented readers to do the work for us and imagine alternative realities, or just attempt to inhabit the minds of the characters in Trump’s White House – cabinet members and appointees and other d-listers suddenly thrust on to the international stage. We’re asking you, the readers, to push back against reality. It shouldn’t be difficult. American reality isn’t what it used to be.
We’re eager to publish your work, whoever you are. In advance of this issue, we sent out a Very Specific Commission to all the writers we know and, once again, both the overtly political and the wildly imaginative responded.
Perhaps it was because we asked writers to imagine the inner monologue of Ivanka Trump. Perhaps it was because we specified the short story must be set during a meeting with Xi Jinping. Once again, writers around the world followed the strict rules and produced excellent pieces of short fiction – funny, cutting, at times anarchic. Some even found a sense of poignant loss buried within the recesses of Ivanka’s consciousness. We also stipulated the stories contain the line, ‘But would the clothing still sell?’ It’s a sentiment never far from Ivanka’s thoughts, as author Lynn Mundell demonstrated in her submission, when Ivanka peers across the table and thinks: ‘Xi Jinping’s plum-coloured tie and diplomat’s sash could be a good look for the fall.’
In the submissions, the requisite line was woven into Ivanka’s vengeful or complicit or bored thoughts in various surprising ways. To enter her head begged the question: who is this unelected presence in our lives? ‘Her last name sounded like an axe splitting wood victoriously,’ wrote David Drury in his story. ‘Trump-Trump-Trump. But her first name sounded like a weather balloon filled with oil bouncing on a sticky trampoline: Ivanka-Ivanka-Ivanka.’
The name also concerned Ethan Emey: ‘It belongs to a tower in Manhattan and tenements in the Bronx,’ he wrote. ‘It belongs to the signs raised throughout the Dust Bowl, the Rust Belt, the heartland … And every once in a while it sneaks on to a bicep as a tattoo.’ It also, Emey wrote, belongs ‘to the 4chan hordes.’ And how they love it, even if they’re typing their All-American tweets from Vladivostok.
Some contributors to the contest explained the rules of being a Trump. Ivanka is aware of her comportment. ‘Always sit up straight, that’s the role. Stomach in, body tense,’ wrote Marianne Hastings. ‘Look serious, but also human. A finger on the chin and a strong stare should do it. Show off the Trump shoulders to sell the Ivanka epaulettes.’
During her meeting with the Chinese leader, she’s aware of the senior advisor across from her, who just happens to be her husband. In M. L. Edwards’s story, Jared makes a pitch to the Chinese leader, ‘looking very confident as he reels off that little bit of drivel he rehearsed for me SEVEN times this morning. Too confident.’ In Andrew Neilson’s story, her husband is nervous: ‘Jared is sweating again. Little pearls of it are gathering at the crest of his eyebrows.’ And soon, ‘like ridiculous tears’, that sweat threatens to run down his cheeks. There is, of course, also a bloated, orange-tinted presence in the room with the Chinese leader. At some points he expostulates on North Korea and, in other stories, sits lumpenly, like a … moron, I suppose, if that’s the official State Department term.
‘How did I become babysitter for the Leader of the Free World?’ Ivanka asks in Brett Cullen’s short story. ‘Ha – I wish. Babysitters get twenty dollars an hour. I’m the one who’s free.’ Soul searching was a common theme: ‘When I look at dad,’ writes Jose Sotolongo, ‘with his cement pancake, that peach tint he uses for his cotton candy coif, the lavender wrinkle-cover under his eyes, I’m like, why me?’
We’re like: don’t forget there’s plenty more in Issue 43. In this age of migration and suspicion of refugees, award-winning novelist Mohsin Hamid eloquently sets out the case for empathy. We are, in the end, all migrants through time. There’s no going back. It’s one of the traits even Trump has in common with all those on his banned countries list.
The theme of the issue is blindness. And if you’re interested in stories that examine a topic other than moral blindness, try Sarah Lyall’s feature. Face blindness makes her an interesting guest at a dinner and also, unfortunately, leads to various misadventures. It’s not an affectation. Some people just can’t recognize what’s in front of them these days.
Also included inside: poetry from the talented Noelle Kocot, oral history from Svetlana Alexievich and columns by Martha Sprackland and Hermione Thompson. If you’re a fan of Angela Carter or Francis Picabia, read on, don’t be shy.
The winner of our contest can be found on page 72.
Check out the next Very Specific Commission here.