James Hannaham

  • In Plane Sight

    “I’VE NEVER KEPT SHEEP / But it’s as if I did.” How did these two lines of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry irritate a person like me, often considered a novelist, enough to write a multigenre book full of short pieces and images called Pilot Impostor? The short answer is that the couplet collided with a swarm of issues all at once in an airplane above the Atlantic Ocean.

    My husband and I visited Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, in December 2016. Most TAP Air Portugal routes there require a transfer in Lisbon, so we decided to stop there for a few days on the way back. Whenever I go to a new

  • Immodest Proposals

    My husband and I canceled our spring-break trip because of the pandemic. His parents own a vacation house on a salt pond in Rhode Island that they let us use some weekends. Bummed about the cancellation and bored at home, we headed up there for a long weekend on Wednesday, March 18, thinking we’d return that Sunday or Monday. Coincidentally, that was the week that New York became the worldwide epicenter of COVID-19. Now it’s August and we’re still here.

    During the cold, frightening spring, we maxed out our data streaming everything we could think of (there’s no internet-hardware setup at the

  • Will the Revolution Be Televised?

    Despite its obdurate titlewhich cribs the catchphrase made famous by Damon Wayans’s outrageous character Homey D. Clown from In Living Color—David Peisner’s Homey Don’t Play That! plays practically everything. It dodges and weaves through the biographies of many people, laying down a cultural history of late-twentieth-century black humor, television, and civil rights, even as its bite-size chapters maintain the brisk, gossipy tone of a celebrity tell-all.

    Peisner’s main narrative concerns the rise and fall of the highly unusual, incredibly influential, and wildly popular black-American

  • Shock and Awe

    IN STANLEY MILGRAM'S most famous experiment, sometimes referred to as "The Milgram Experiment," a subject who thinks that he or she is participating in a study about memory and punishment is brought into a room by an authority figure and given the title of "teacher." This teacher will supposedly be testing a so-called learner's aptitude for memorization during a word-association game. (As it turns out, the "learner" is actually an actor, but the teacher doesn't know this.) The authority figure explains that whenever the learner gets an answer wrong, the teacher must administer electric shocks

  • A Different Breed

    “A TRUE FREAK CANNOT BE MADE. A true freak must be born.” Or so says Olympia Binewski, the bald albino hunchback narrator of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989). She makes this declaration with a burst of filial pride, as part of a family bred purposefully to serve as sideshow freaks. Olympia’s parents are circus performers seeking a cost-effective solution to the financial throes of a moribund industry. Her mother, Crystal Lil, agrees to ingest heaps of toxic chemicals and drugs during a gaggle of pregnancies in order to deliberately induce deformities in her offspring. Many don’t make it (but