Every traveler knows that some of the most moving and profound encounters she has in a foreign land are not with the living but with the dead. There is something about your balance that makes the past seem closer and more accessible, and an understanding that you are walking the same city walls or medina alleys or earth-packed streets as travelers from a century ago. Two centuries ago, millennia ago, you feel less consistent and at the same time less alone. Here I am, you think, one of countless millions, and although my time here is short, I too will have joined the others by setting my foot on this earth.
In the months since we assigned this issue in the summer of 2019, we have all had to rethink our relationship with death. But if death itself scares many of us, it shouldn’t be the dead themselves. Ghost stories, like folk tales and fairy tales, are one of the first ways to learn about the values and concerns of another culture, and as such, they’re not necessarily intended to be scary – they are often ways to explain to yourself the living unresolved matters of the heart: old ambitions, old loves, old hatred. What happens to these feelings? Where you go? As the three novelists who created an original short story for this issue suggest, a ghost is less a person than a personal or historical legacy that we cannot fully understand but know that it needs to be addressed.
By that definition, we all live with phantoms, and some of us are even brave enough to face them. When artist Senga Nengudi began making her now iconic “RSVP” sculptures in 1975, she was a new mother, fascinated by the changes pregnancy had made on her body. This experience inspired her series of works in pantyhose – a humble material but so flexible and expandable, and therefore as wonderful as meat – which she activated with choreography. Forty-five years later, Nengudi, who is now 77 and finally recognized as the leader of the black and performance arts movements, sees the sculptures differently from an exorcism of abuse inflicted on her as a child. It’s not just the body, she says, but also the psyche that “can stretch and get back into shape”. History always lives alongside the present – but if we are ready to face it, we can sometimes reassign what it means and even, yes, its shape.