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Fifth Street

June 24, 2021

In this issue: Writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain: ‘At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I might have, like, six novels sitting on my hard drive’ | The “Most Ratchet” Beauty Pageant Queen You’ll Ever Meet | Media Sommelier: Hockey Goalies Should Not Be Giant $%#ing Gobots! | We Sent a Poet to Cover the News, Kind Of


THERE WAS a time when Lan Do didn’t know the art of pageant walking. She used to lumber down the stage, shoulders squared — even committing the sin of picking up her dress now and then. That was before hiring a coach, before hours of YouTube tutorials, before obsessively replaying her own walks and analyzing them, the way an athlete might, for the subtlest weakness in technique.

Do is preparing for the 2021 Miss Nevada USA Pageant on June 26-27. This will be her third attempt at the state crown, and a win would grant her entry into the Miss USA Pageant, which is a qualifier for Miss Universe. Her first year, she was cut within 10 minutes. “I went into the bathroom with Miss Mojave Desert because she didn’t make it either and we were both crying our eyes out. I thought there was something wrong with me. For a long time, I was bitter about the whole pageant scene.”

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Unlike its cousin, the Miss America Pageant, which has done away with swimsuit competitions and is known for its talent portion and scholarship program, the Miss USA Organization is still unapologetically a beauty pageant. I didn’t know much about it until I was introduced to Lan through friends, and when we first met, I wouldn’t have guessed she was the reigning Miss Las Vegas. She looked like any other person who had become accustomed to staying in during the pandemic — sitting on her couch in a pair of sweatpants, no makeup, wearing the biggest pair of glasses I’d ever seen. Until then, my only experience with beauty queens was occasionally seeing them on TV — high cheekbones, hair like something out of a shampoo commercial. Yet when I met Lan, she was just a normal person, and more than that, she was funny.

“I’m probably the most ratchet beauty queen you’ll ever meet,” says Do. “In high school, I went through a rebel phase. My parents got divorced and I moved to Vegas with my mom. Then I started getting tattoos in the ’hood when I was 14. My grades were horrible. I was chasing boys, partying too much.”

Now, Lan covers her tattoos with makeup before each competition. The Miss USA Organization doesn’t technically allow tattoos — and in the past, Do’s personal history would also have needed a makeover. Yet Do is open about the low moments in her life, signifying a shift within the pageant industry itself, which seems to be doing everything it can to adapt to the current cultural moment.

You may be surprised that such spectacles are still a thing in 2021. The concept of judging women as they stride down runways in bikinis and high heels seems antiquated at best, but like many media brands, pageant organizations are beginning to emphasize diversity, body positivity, and community engagement — all of which Do has embraced as she battles for the crown. She talks openly about her Vietnamese heritage during the interview portion of the pageants, often embracing the struggles she’s had with her Asian American identity.

“My parents immigrated here from Vietnam after the war,” she says. “They came over on a boat from the Philippines and ended up in Taylorsville, Utah. I was the only non-white person there, and I remember at night I would wish upon a star for blond hair and blue eyes.”

When her life began to skid in high school, her father decided to send her back to Vietnam to discover her cultural roots. “At first I hated it,” says Do. “It was dirty and I missed home.” When her father took her to Ben Tre, a province in southern Vietnam where he had grown up in poverty, Lan saw something that shocked her. “There was a man with no arms and no legs selling lottery tickets on the side of the road, and a woman walked by and gave him a piece of meat. Instead of eating it himself, he gave it to a street dog that was walking by. That small act of compassion was the moment I realized what my heritage is.”

Upon arrival back in Las Vegas, she joined the Navy ROTC program, eventually boosting her GPA from 1.0 to 3.8, which gained her admission to Harvard University. Yet after heading to the East Coast for a semester, it wasn’t the right fit, and eventually she graduated from UNLV with an architecture degree. Despite the dramatic turnaround, she’s open about the times she felt insecure about who she was as a person.

“When you think of Miss USA, you typically think of a woman with blond hair and blue eyes,” she says. “You don’t think of an Asian person or a Latina person. Part of my goal in competing for Miss Nevada USA is to show young girls that there are different types of beauty and that it’s okay to be different.”

Some argue that pageant queens are hardly the ideal candidates to take up such advocacy. The contests are often criticized as oppressive to women, who continue to battle over-sexualization in media and advertising. “I think pageants are really good for young girls,” Do counters. “When I first started out, I didn’t know how pageants worked. I thought I could just show up on stage and be skinnier than the other girls and they’d put a sash around me. I didn’t know what they were looking for with the way I walked, the way I posed, my dress choice, my shoe choice. Learning all those intricacies and working towards this goal has given me confidence about who I am as a person, and in the end, confidence wins pageants more than beauty alone.”

“Training for a pageant is like training for a boxing match,” says Lan’s boyfriend, Bowe Van Dam, who is a professional boxer and, along with his father Armin, runs City Boxing Club on Sammy Davis Jr. Drive. “Preparation is key with the way you eat, the way you work out. You can’t just show up and be in better shape and win. You need to know how to move, how to land points for the judges. Even when you do everything right, you never know what can happen when you’re out beneath the stage lights.”

Like Do, Van Dam went through his own personal transformation. He used to weigh over 300 lbs, eventually using boxing to help him cope with insecurities about his body. For the past three years, the two of them have helped each other through the highs and lows of their careers — which have come with periods of depression following a pageant or a boxing loss. “Pageants and boxing are very similar when you think about it,” says Van Dam. “You’re up on stage for the world to see, and everyone is judging you. When things don’t go your way, you have to pick yourself up again. That’s what life is like, so it’s helpful to learn those lessons in a controlled environment.”

“I think this is my year,” says Do. “Obviously, the competition will be stiff, but I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. I’m happy with where I’m at right now, and I think that will show onstage. Either way, I couldn’t be more grateful for the experience so far.”

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BELOW IS a small portion of my conversation with Blackfoot novelist Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, which yielded a laughing, gravid, freewheeling 1:33:48 talksplosion. Because he’s the current occupant of the writer’s residency at the Writer’s Block, I’ve hacked and nibbled and gisted this thing down to the passages primarily concerned with his literary practice. So here’s your homework: Augment this interview by reading this one, too. Deeply thoughtful, HolyWhiteMountain leans into, rather than away from, the uncomfortable complexities of such fraught issues as “blood quantum,” cultural appropriation, and the politics of Native art (“The people whose minds you need to change aren’t reading literature,” he told me. “They’re reading Breitbart”). Worth your time.

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Wait, you didn’t know the Writer’s Block has a writer’s residency? Called Writing Downtown, it’s a partnership with the literary studio Plympton that brings a new writer each month to an apartment in The Lucy complex, where they can focus on their work and spend time in the city’s literary bloodstream. (It continues a program begun at the old Writer’s Block location on Fremont Street.) Past residents have included Joshua Baldwin, Garance Franke-Ruta, Meredith Alloway, and more.

As this month’s occupant, HolyWhiteMountain — an unrecognized citizen of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, he went to Stanford University on a prestigious Stegner Fellowship and recently earned a spike of attention with his story “Featherweight” in the New Yorker (hear him read it) — finds Las Vegas growing on him. “I began to suspect when I was here last time that Vegas might be my favorite city in the U.S.,” he says. “And now that I’m here again, I think that’s probably true.” He’s fascinated by its cheerfully honest dishonesty. “It’s interesting to me that people know exactly what it is and still they love it.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you working on while you’re here?
It’s a novel, unfortunately. [laughs]

Your recent interview with The New Yorker made it sound like you might have two novels underway?
At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I might have, like, six novels sitting on my hard drive; I just didn’t know that’s what they were. It’s part of what happens when you write for as long as I have and don’t publish anything. I have a lot of things that are partially written that I thought were long stories, because I don’t really know how to write short stories. But while I was at the Stegner I solved a couple of writing problems I’d been dealing with for a long time, and then I was able to write a lot longer on the page than I was before, and I started thinking about all these things I have on my hard drive, and I thought, They might very well all well be books. I have at least two novels, the one I’m working on, plus two others, at least; three for sure.

Writers who read this are going to be *makes envious growling noises* ...
But I also wrote for years and years without ever trying to publish anything because I was trying to get to a point where my writing felt right to me. And when I finally got there, I had this backlog of work.

When you say you finally “got there,” what does that mean?
I had to figure out what kind of writer I am, and I didn’t know what kind of writer I was even though I’ve been writing a particular way for most of my life. What’s interesting to me in fiction is the deep study of character — getting at the psycho-emotional complexity of a character or set of characters. And the way for me to do that is to spend a lot of time in their interior, in their consciousness. But in order to write that way, there has to be some modicum of story that’s pulling things forward. And I just didn’t know how to do that until ... there was a very particular moment at the Stegner when I was, Oh, this is how I’m writing, and these are the things I have to do for the narrative to move forward. And I had just never been able to pull those things together in the right way in my head.

I spent a long time trying to be a kind of writer I’m not. The most disappointing thing about writing is that you eventually come to a place where you realize all you are is yourself.

[explosive laughter]

All these other writers you’ve read and you loved and imitated —

You mean I’ll never be Thomas Pynchon?
— the funny thing is, though, Thomas Pynchon is doomed to only be Thomas Pynchon; he can’t be anyone else. I think a big departure point for a writer is that moment when you realize, I’m only ever gonna be myself, and that’s it. And there’s something, at least for me, that was really freeing about that, and also just extraordinarily disappointing.

[more explosive laughter]

You can take certain things from other writers, and that becomes part of your capacity on the page, but you’re still just yourself, and it’s such a brutal revelation.

There was a moment in “Featherweight” (about two native American characters in a relationship) in which the main character says of the woman he’s interested in, “She was from a people my people used to kill, so I knew I could ask for her number.” It sounds like a comic throwaway line, but it also seems to speak to a deep well of understanding not only of the character’s complexity but of historical tribal relations.
I got a lot of responses to that story, but very few of the things that people responded to were the things that I was most interested in getting on the page — but that’s one of them. That’s one of the things I want to say on the page. It’s such a deep and also common experience of being Native and being from Indian Country, you grow up knowing certain things about history that most people do not know.

I don’t designate the tribal affiliations of the characters. But I was thinking of him as being Blackfeet. I’m Blackfeet, and historically we were legitimately a warrior tribe, and we had a lot of enemies. The particular area I was thinking about when I was writing that story, the woman in that story, in my imagination, was from a tribe that we have had a long, long history of, I guess, violence with. There’s no way to be part of that situation, whether you’re Blackfoot or one of the other tribes around us historically, there’s no way to not know that there’s a history of violence there. And it’s something I think about a lot. It’s something I don’t see on the page in fiction. And I’m interested in it because it’s real life.

I’ve asked myself, would I have the same drive to write if the world I’m familiar with was more common in literature? I don’t have an answer. Obviously there are other Native writers, but ... I’ve just never quite seen things shown in the way that makes sense for me, and that’s part of the reason I write.

You’ve indicated in interviews that the Blackfoot have a talkative, verbal tradition. Does affect the way you write?
Yeah, it does. I’m obviously a very verbose person. [laughs] One of the things I figured out while I was at Stegner was how to get more of the way my mind works on the page, and that automatically makes things longer because I talk a lot.

I’ve had conversations with Blackfoot elders where they have literally — and I’m using literally correctly — talked for three-plus hours, and I’ve hardly said a word. That’s not uncommon. Everyone talks about the oral tradition, especially if you’re in academia. But they never talk about what that looks like in real life. They talk about, Oh, the stories that were conveyed to children. The stories are important, but that’s not how orality manifests itself in day-to-day life. The way it manifests itself is that quite often, older people will talk for a long time to younger people. The record for me was, I was sitting with an elder in Canada a couple of years ago, and he talked to me for five hours, and there was less than five minutes of talking on my part. It’s hard to explain until you’ve actually been in it.

I can look back at however I’ve changed as a writer, and one of the things I see is that I’ve found a way to get more and more of that sense of a voice onto the page. Part of writing for me has been to find a way to convey that experience of listening to someone talk. The way that Blackfoot people talk when they talk like that, it’s a different angle on reality that I don’t experience away from home. I’ve never seen the kind of conversation I’m accustomed to in Indian Country outside of it, ever, where one person will talk to someone else at great length. There’s a sense that — and this is something I think is behind my fiction — when they’re saying something to you ... for example the first time my cousin and I worked with a fluent Blackfoot speaker, when we asked him a question, he talked to us for three hours, and only in the last three minutes did he actually answer our question. He could have answered it in three minutes at the start. But the point of the communication is for the person to give you the entire picture, so that when they do give you the answer, it’s not just the answer, but you have a sort of totality, an extremely broad and deep contextual understanding of the situation, so you can now understand why that is the answer. In some way or another, everything I write has been trying to get that sense of consciousness onto the page.

You’ve been here nine days. Have they been productive days?
Yeah. The last couple days I spent working on a short piece for The New Yorker fiction issue, a nonfiction piece that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I really wanted to write it — but I never dreamed in a million fucking years that it would be in The New Yorker.

This is an amazing place to work. I’m gonna get a lot done in the next few weeks before I take off.

Do you think Vegas will work its way into your fiction in some oblique or overt way?
I have never hoped more that a city would become part of my fiction! [laughs] There’s part of me that really, really wants to spend more time here so it actually can become part of what I’m doing. I don’t feel like I know it well enough, but I want to. So this isn’t my last trip to Vegas.

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1. I THOUGHT I’d be skittish about resuming Life As We Know It in the New Normalishness™ but, no lie, getting to see friends and family after a year of isolation has basically outed me as a big hug-drunk animatronic golden retriever with a vampiric appetite for serotonin. My vert’s hella extro, turns out! That said, my qualifying trials for actual physical contact with other human-persons did require some initial awkward negotiation — “You, uh, cool with some hygienic consensual touching?” etc. — so I could relate to Anna Russell’s New Yorker piece, “The Age of Reopening Anxiety,” an informal survey of the nagging social neuroses we’ve developed during the pandemic — such as cave syndrome, which is like Stockholm syndrome except your captor is your living room couch + all the weed you smoke on it. Another neurosis: performative self-awareness. As Russell tells it, other New Normalers report strange feelings of dissociation as they step cautiously into their social circles again. Russell writes: “Those venturing out of their bubble often describe a feeling of watching themselves socialize. ‘I’m very conscious about what I’m saying when I’m speaking aloud,’ one friend told me. ‘I immediately apologize for myself, like, I haven’t really talked to anyone in a long time—I’m sorry!’” Can! Totally! Relate!

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1a. Oh, and for a cringily hilarious roundup of post-COVID social awkiness rolled into one delicious Twizzler of silent ego death by utter embarrassment, definitely read “It’s Great to Hang Out After Self-Isolating for a Year — I’m Not Acting Weird, Am I?” over at McSweeney’s. Can! Also relate!

2. As an unabashedly fair-weather hockey fan, I’ve been enjoying the Stanley Cup semifinals immensely. Because I am apparently 11 years old, my favorite part is when the goalies flounder into action, lurching and flailing like gigantic plush toy Frankenstein robots, comically sucking all the grace and panache out of the game. (I always imagine Marc-Andre Fleury howling like Sloth from The Goonies when he’s shamble-swatting at incoming pucks.) Which makes me wonder: How did hockey goalies get so massively padded up? I’m not the only one wondering. Over at The Atlantic, Ken Dryden also asks whether the advent of the Nerf-armored swole-tender has diminished the game. His answer is in the title: “Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem.” Dryden — a former goaltender for VGK’s semifinal rivals, the Montreal Canadiens — surveys the whys and hows of the biggification of hockey goalies, and makes a case for slimming down these puff daddies to restore elegance and speed to a sport that has become “utterly congested.” “I like goalies,” he writes. “But I also like to see the remarkable, hard-earned skills of the other players rewarded, skills that have never been greater, and that, if undiscouraged, will be greater still. Push these forwards and defensemen, challenge them, by all means make them be more. But make the goalies be more, too. … Make them show signs of athleticism and intelligence. Make them move and think. Put them to the test.”  

3. I would make some summer reading recommendations here, but instead I’m gonna bust a meta and instead recommend this short but spicy Bookforum article, which is a kind of wish list of the types of novels contemporary writers want to read In This Moment. Don’t worry; refreshingly, it’s not a prescription for some brand of morally optimized fiction that aligns with this or that current crusade. It’s kind of the opposite. And these writers' thoughtful prescriptions — for work that, above all, takes risks in every dimension — are flashpoints of fine writing in their own right.

Author Michelle Orange: “If only my craving were simple: for a novel unconstrained by the age’s various curses, chiefly that which renders every work of art a performance of itself. … What a relief it would be to pick up a novel without the sense of participating in an attenuated dance with the author, the object of which is to keep the form we both know and love alive. The ‘risk’ that interests me now involves retreat from that dance, an end to the mania for renovation, shallow politicking, and aesthetic primacy.” Dayuuuum!

Author Ottessa Moshfegh — whose slim dark blade of a novel Eileen I recently read and can most definitely recommend as summer reading — weighs in as well: “I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an ‘afternoon special’ or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. … We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. … We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?” Andrew Kiraly

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Editor’s note: In “Poet on the Scene,” we send out a poet to report on Las Vegas — in poetry. In this installment, Nick Barnette shares his impressions of Wink World, an exhibit at the interactive attraction Area 15.

Parceled infinity lures sunburns off
the Strip. Sometimes crossing the Styx
calls for 3D glasses, not a boat.

Aboard the cardboard and plastic lens,
I’m shuttled through portals promising
a glimpse of eternity. Dubstep

clank-grunts streamers into a fury, the room rains
neon as mirrors zoetrope the frenzy 360.
There is something here that is not infinity.

There is something here to dislodge every
memoried birthday candle I’ve extinguished,
every gumball I’ve spat to trash that

could have also lit up a carnival funhouse,
deserved to be a storm of its own.

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Photos and art: Sterling HolyWhiteMountain: Katy Grannan; Lan Do: Mikayla Whitmore; Wink World: Courtesy Area 15

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