The Light and the Dark


Wherefore then do you realize these nets of beauty & delusion / In open day to draw the souls of the Dead into the light — William Blake, “Jerusalem”

Only the Nazis were supposed to see their ‘death mills’ and live. The expectation all knowledge of such places would be taken to the grave perhaps the only thing they ever felt they shared with their millions of victims. In 2019, however, 2.3 million people visited Auschwitz, the deadliest Holocaust site. Other camps also drew large numbers: 800,000 went to Dachau, 700,000 to Sachsenhausen, and 200,000 to Majdanek (1). Justice and memorialisation are difficult subjects to navigate in relation to the Holocaust, but if the Nazis wanted these places hidden, opening them to visitors is surely a positive step. Yet seeing Holocaust sites in person is not how the majority of people actually see them; for all those who visit in reality, many more visit through camera lenses. This paper returns the gaze of those lenses, analysing who has taken photographs at Auschwitz and why. Outlining four types of Auschwitz photography—perpetrator, resistor, liberator, and visitor—I discuss examples of each alongside their effects upon modern engagement with Auschwitz and understanding of the Holocaust.

Sight, Photography, and History

Sight is prized among human senses. Aristotle’s Metaphysics opens: “All men by nature desire of knowledge, and an indication of this is the love of the senses […] preeminently above the rest, the sense of sight” (2). In Christian tradition, Thomas refused to believe Jesus had risen, saying “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands […] I will not believe” (3). Eyesight has long been considered trustworthy, conventional wisdom holding that ‘to see is to believe’ as “sight provides a bridge between the interior realm of the mind and exterior realm of matter” (4). The Renaissance, however, began blurring the distinction between reality and its representations: the printing press spurred debates of ‘book experience’ versus ‘world experience’ and artists’ use of camera oscura (dark rooms or boxes with holes through which images of external objects are projected onto the opposite internal surface) led to more accurate replications of reality and the development of perspective (5). Use of telescopes, microscopes, and glasses later reemphasised sight’s value but also highlighted the potential for distorted perspective (6).

Photography’s arrival in the nineteenth century intensified debates of sight versus perspective and representation versus reality. In 1824, Leopold von Ranke wrote historians were “merely to show how it actually was”, photography thus threatening to make them redundant (7). Defending their utility, historians detailed photography’s limitations, particularly its inability to see beneath surfaces (someone’s thoughts) or beyond the frame (circumstance) (8). Favoured though sight is, the simultaneous experience of other senses (physical and emotive) enhance it. While touching and smelling physical photographs is possible, communicating their content depends mostly on narrowed application of sight alone; after all, photographs are flat, fixed, and cropped (9). Modern language hints at these limitations. The phrase ‘photos don’t do it justice’ is commonly said by eyewitnesses underwhelmed by photographic representation. Photographs can underwhelm because they are merely compositions of light wholly dependent on the skill and circumstance of the photographer. Another clue is the ‘taking’, not ‘making’, of photographs. We do not consider photographs fabrications of reality, but we do consider them representations lifted from reality; as photographers ‘take’ or reveal perspectives from within wider reality, so wider reality is ‘taken’ or concealed from photographs.

Ultimately, these limitations meant photography did not supplant historians, though by the mid-nineteenth century, photography was predicted to be a “great service […] to the historian of future ages” (10). In 2019, however, Elizabeth Edwards described photographs as historical sources as:

strange and different […] ‘alternative’ sources […] subject to the familiar cultural processes […] They are dynamic, difficult, slippery, ambiguous, incongruous and contradictory […] They lead on seductively. They reveal in ways texts never could. But they also face us with the dualities of the relationship with history – visceral yet discursive, instinctive yet interpretive, sensuous yet cognitive, voluptuous yet analytical (11).

Critically, as Edwards suggests, photographs can be useful historical sources but can also be manipulated and manipulating, a fact exploited by propagandists. Beyond propaganda, photography still manipulates perception and memory, whether people were present at a photographed event or not. Roland Barthes insists “not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory […] but it actually blocks memory” (12). Certain perspectives are made permanent, distorting memories made from lived experience (13). John Tagg writes:

What alone unites the diversity of sites in which photography operates is the social formation itself: the specific historical spaces for representation and practice which it constitutes. Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work (14).

Tagg’s work establishes the theoretical framework for my suggestion there are four types of Auschwitz photography: 1) perpetrator – taken by, or under orders from, the Nazis, showing victimisation; 2) resistor – taken by victims in acts of resistance, showing criminality; 3) liberator – taken by enemy forces, showing extent; 4) visitor – taken by visitors post-1945, showing (dis)connection. These distinctions are critical to meaningful engagement with Auschwitz photography.

Perpetrator Photography

On 2 February 1943, Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss banned all unofficial photography, adding “I will punish with the utmost severity those who do not observe this order” (15). Considering they wanted Auschwitz hidden, the SS took an incredible amount of official photographs during the camp’s operation: from prisoner identification, to propaganda depicting ‘humane’ treatment of Soviet POWs, to executions and medical experiments (16). Their assumption Germany would be victorious contributed to such brazen documentation of their own atrocities, so when the Red Army approached, the SS scrambled to erase the evidence at Auschwitz. Between 17 and 26 January 1945, the SS blew up crematoria and gas chambers, set fire to warehouses and records, and evacuated 58,000 prisoners on ‘Death Marches’ into the Reich’s interior (17). Soviet troops liberated the camp on 27 January, finding a former gas chamber intact, the belongings of hundreds of thousands and victims, and some 7,000 prisoners left behind; the SS simply failed to obscure the truth from history (18).

It is unknown how many prisoner identification photographs the SS successfully destroyed, but images of 38,916 prisoners survived; taken in profile, face on, and face on with caps for males and shawls for females (19). Those sent straight to gas chambers were not photographed (20). Defining these photographs is their subjects’ powerlessness; the images themselves constitute abuse. Moreover, the photographers were also prisoners, units known as Erkennungsdienst, forced to abuse fellow prisoners accordingly (21). Wilhelm Brasse, an Erkennungsdienst photographer who took some 50,000 prisoner identification photographs, died in 2012, guilt preventing him from holding a camera after 1945 (22). He described photographing his fellow prisoners:

At first their eyes were bursting with fright, with time, they became indifferent. The vision of a starving human being is forlorn, looking into infinity […] When I was taking pictures of them, I asked them not to look into the camera directly, but just to the side of the camera. “Don’t smile, don’t cry” – I would say (23).

Exhibiting these photographs risks perpetuating abuse and defining the subjects on such terms. The Faces of Auschwitz project, a collaboration between the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial and Brazilian photo colourisation specialist, Marina Amaral, says their aim is:

to honor the memory and lives of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners by colorizing registration photographs […] By bringing color to the original black and white registration photos and telling prisoners’ stories, “Faces of Auschwitz” commemorates the memory of those who were murdered […] More than coloring their faces, we will also tell their stories (24).

If telling prisoners’ stories is the aim, why use photographs of them experiencing genocidal abuse? Why include an interactive ‘before and after colouristation’ tool? If memorialisation is the aim, does colourising the pictures achieve this? For example, of Seweryna Szmaglewska’s two images (below), does not the black and white one from her normal life better preserve the memory of who she really was than her colourised Auschwitz registration photograph?

These two images appear on Szmaglewska’s page on the project’s website. Attaching her regular photograph (though without information of when, where, or by whom it was taken) underneath her identification pictures and (brief) life story suggests an awareness of the need to show Szmaglewska as she really was, not only as the Nazis saw and abused her; an admission, perhaps, of the project’s controversial nature. No regular picture appears on Aron Löwi’s page and his identification photographs (below) reveal an injury, so the ethicality of exhibiting his images is even more questionable. If ‘telling Löwi’s story’ is the aim, why does the project not discuss a lack of other photographs of him or even how he sustained his injury? Apart from the red triangle branding him a communist, what does colourisation really achieve?

Some might say exhibiting these photographs of Löwi is better than exhibiting none at all, but doing so with minimal context moves from commemorating him as a Nazi victim to cementing him as one; viewers forced to look through Nazi eyes yet not to see what they did. Of photographs of abuse, Susan Sontag writes:

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel “bad”; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)? (25)

These photographs provide evidence of Nazi crimes and the Auschwitz arrival process, but voyeurism is inherent howsoever their exhibition is justified. An article in Metro, titled ‘Faces of Auschwitz prisoners are even more devastating in colour’, uses voyeuristic and revictimising language to describe the project: “artist Marina Amaral has managed to bring these nine victims of the Nazi regime back into the present”, the colourisation “breath[ing] life” into the photographs (26). Online, the article is surrounded by advertisements (screenshot below). The undignified presentation in Metro is not the project’s fault, but it underscores the risks of exhibiting perpetrator photographs no matter how they are redressed.

Resistor Photography

The only surviving examples of resistor photography at Auschwitz are the four Sonderkommando photographs. While the industrialisation of the genocide makes the Holocaust a unique historical event, the mass murder systems still required significant manual slave labour. Sonderkommandos assisted in every stage of the murderous ‘assembly line’ at Auschwitz: corralling victims from trains to gas chambers, pillaging their belongings (and bodies) for the Reich treasury, moving their corpses from gas chambers to crematoria, and disposing of their ashes. However, the number of Hungarian Jews arriving in the summer of 1944 ‘overloaded’ Auschwitz’s facilities and alternative methods were needed. Taken that summer, these photographs (below) are the only visual record of these events.

A note smuggled out of Auschwitz by prisoners Jósef Cyrankiewicz and Stanisław Kłodziński on 4 September 1944 reveals something of the desperate circumstances surrounding these photographs:

Urgent. Send two iron reels of film (2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.) as soon as possible. It is possible to take pictures. We send you photographs from Birkenau—people who have been gassed. The photograph shows a heap of bodies piled outdoors. Bodies were burned outdoors when the crematorium could not keep pace with the number of bodies to be burned. In the foreground are bodies ready to be thrown on the heap. Another photograph shows one of the places in the forest where people were told to undress, allegedly for a bath, but in fact before being driven to the gas chambers. Send a reel as soon as possible. Send the enclosed photographs to Tell (27).

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum’s exhibition of these four photographs says they were taken by “members of the Sonderkommando of crematorium V: Alex from Greece […] Shlomo Dragon and his brother Josel, Alter Szmul Fajnzylberg […] and David Szmulewski”. In his testimony, Fajnzylberg said “even though the Greek Jew, Alex, was the person who pressed the shutter, one can say that the pictures were taken by all of us” (28). These photographers were all victims of Nazism, but their actions documenting Nazi crimes stem not from their victimisation, but their resistance (29). In his assessment of these photographs, Dan Stone writes:

Photographs taken by members of the SS are today no less horrific to our eyes for the fact of their authorship, but the Sonderkommando photographs are especially harrowing, not only because of their content but also because of the extreme difficulties involved in taking them, smuggling the film out of the camp, and having them developed in Kraków (30).

Stressing their “manifest importance”, Stone nonetheless criticises their exhibition at places like the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and the Holocaust Exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum (31). Stone’s critiques centre on the editing or omission of some combination of the four photographs, often without informing viewers. Instead of showing the four photographs as they were taken by the Sonderkommandos, which Stone says produce horror and disorientation, exhibitors select and manipulate the images to retain only the desired horror. For example, the original Sonderkommando photographs (below, left) are often enhanced and cropped (below, right).

Detail is gained in the manipulated images, and detailing Nazi crimes was the Sonderkommandos’ intention, but the manipulation loses all context; as if taken in the open by a passive bystander, resistor photography essentially disfigures into perpetrator photography. The ethics of morphing resistance photography into furthering victimisation are obviously questionable. Stone suggests the second images satisfy “a desire to get closer to the ‘thing itself’, possess it, render it amenable to the senses and cognizable in a way that the [original] photograph will not allow” (32). Yet without context of who took these pictures and why, what is the point of exhibiting them? In the instance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial’s exhibition, Stone writes “Apart from the fact that the visitor is seeing them in Auschwitz, there is nothing to indicate why these photographs are important”, noting the label of “pornography of violence” is applicable since “The photographs are displayed with only one thing in mind: shock” (33). Understanding the nature of Auschwitz photographs, as much as they can be ‘understood’, extends into their presentation in ways reflecting this understanding.

Liberator Photography

On 10 December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published a report detailing Germany’s systemic mass murder of Polish Jews “In the hope that the civilised world will draw the appropriate conclusions” (34). The report mentioned “Extermination camps” where people “were stripped and killed by various means, including poison gas” (35). But so extraordinary were the claims they were “simply unbelievable” (36). Experienced with Nazi brutality, the Soviets nonetheless struggled to comprehend the extermination camps they encountered as they moved across Poland, beginning with Majdanek on 23 July 1944. They opened Majdanek as the first camp museum in November 1944 for journalists and soldiers “who needed to see in order to believe” (37). Western media remained suspicious, David Shneer writing:

The problem with Soviet photographs was that the Soviet media were considered unreliable. Western press agencies were suspicious of Soviet sources, and dismissed images published in Soviet newspapers or coming over the wires from Soviet sources as “propaganda,” […] like Soviet print and radio, Soviet photographs were presumed to be lies (38).

It was not until the Western Allies pushed into Germany in 1945 and discovered camps for themselves that the truth dawned on them; they had ‘to see it to believe it’. The same was true for the public. An exhibition staged by the Daily Express at their reading room in London, titled ‘Seeing Is Believing’, opened on 1 May 1945 and left visitors in “horrified silence” (39). Some attendees were interviewed upon exiting, many saying they had heard about the camps but had never envisaged anything so terrible, assuming the reports had been exaggerated. One said “I couldn’t bear to look at them all” and another “I believe it’s true. I can see with my own eyes. Pictures don’t lie” (40).

While the Soviets the Allies both liberated camps, their experiences were different. Owing to the rapid Soviet advances in the East, the Nazis relocated eastern prisoners to western camps, so the Soviets typically encountered relatively small numbers of prisoners in large, abandoned complexes, while the Western Allies typically found large numbers of prisoners in relatively small, overcrowded complexes. The horrifying liberator photographs of emaciated prisoners and corpses that became so well-known in the West were taken at these smaller, overcrowded camps liberated by the Western Allies in the spring of 1945, such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. Meanwhile, photographs from the East (such as Auschwitz), while capturing the human suffering also focused on abandoned industrial evidence (41). Furthermore, getting photographic material on the Eastern Front was much harder, limiting what could be photographed (42). In sum, liberator photographs in the West were easier to take and distribute, the sources were more ‘reliable’, and the images more ‘dramatic’, resulting in Auschwitz slipping into the background of Western consciousness.

That said, the Western Allies took the first of what can be classed as liberator photographs of Auschwitz. On a reconnaissance mission of a nearby fuel factory in Monowitz on 4 April 1944, the South African Air Force unintentionally took the first photographs of Auschwitz by people who were never supposed to see it. Later missions photographed it in more detail, and while it was identifiable as a sprawling camp complex, the truth was only revealed when Soviet ground forces arrived on 27 January 1945 (the labels on the aerial photograph below added later by US intelligence) (43). On the ground, Soviet photographers took ‘traditional’ liberator photographs, with stills taken from the film Chronicle of the Liberation of Auschwitz among the most well-known, such as the one of children behind barbed wire (44). Other photographs show piles of the deceased’s belongings (wedding rings, glasses, shoes, prosthetics, hair, etc.) and the terrible physical states of the survivours. These images eventually became familiar in the West, as evidenced by CNN’s feature marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation (45).

It may seem Allied aerial photographs and Soviet photographs from the ground have little in common, other than their militaries fighting the Nazis. However, two striking characteristics are shared that define liberator photography, transcending time, place, and politics. First, there is an emotional ‘distance’ between the photographers and the subject. This is not to suggest the photographers lack empathy, it is simply an inevitability when the photographer is neither victim nor perpetrator. For many liberating photographers this distance was necessary, Margaret Bourke-White writing of photographing Buchenwald “Only through the viewfinder could I calmly watch these macabre scenes” (46). This distance has only increased with time and problematises much modern engagement with the Holocaust (discussed more in ‘Visitor Photography’). Secondly, there is a sense of the need to show extent: the size of the camp; the depth of a hatred that imprisons children; the severity of the starvation; the sheer number of victims, shown through piles of wedding rings, glasses, prosthetics, shoes, and corpses.

These characteristics suggest ‘liberator’ photography might be better labelled ‘documenter’ or ‘chronicler’, but the photography is an extension of liberation. Since the Nazis had already left, how is this the case? Was the Red Army ever a ‘liberating’ force or just a ‘conquering’ one? Were they liberating truth or seizing “control of the means of symbolic production”? (47) As Jefferey Alexander writes:

if it had been the Soviets and not the Allies who “liberated” most of the camps, and not just those in the Eastern sector, what was discovered might never have been portrayed in a remotely similar way. It was, in other words, precisely and only because the means of symbolic reproduction were not controlled by a victorious postwar Nazi regime, or even by a triumphant communist one, that the mass killings could be called the Holocaust and coded as evil (48).

For example, unsatisfied with footage of Auschwitz prisoners’ emotionally and physically exhausted reactions to the initial ‘liberation’, the Soviets re-staged the event with prisoners rushing up to the soldiers in a wave of euphoria (49). Certainly, however, the Soviets saw themselves as liberators of Europe and of historical narrative from Nazi control. In this way, liberator photographs from the East and West, regardless of circumstances, bear similar hallmarks: distance, extent, and liberation of the truth from Nazi domination. The characteristics of distance and extent (or multitudinousness) are easily seen when viewing liberator photographs side-by-side (not shown, the well-known photographs of the dead would also demonstrate this characteristic):

Visitor Photography

More than 6,000 people a day walked underneath the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate at the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial in 2019. It can be assumed hundreds of cameras (including smartphones) accompanied them, meaning thousands of digital photographs were likely taken at the camp each day. Indeed, the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate bottle-necks daily as visitors stop to photograph it. Struk writes “Not to be photographed under these gates would be like leaving Pisa without having been photographed with the leaning tower” (50). Inside the camp, visitors continue taking pictures; there exist more photographs now of the pairs of shoes than there are pairs of shoes. Some visitors even photograph the photographs on display—perpetrator, resistor, and liberator—a redoubling of the distance characteristic of latter’s category. Why photograph a photograph? Sontag answers:

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph and move on (51). 

What happens to these images? Struk suggests these pictures become lost in people’s physical and digital collections, or posted to social media accounts, a modern variant of the nonchalance seen in the albums the Nazis kept, such as the so-called Auschwitz Album (an infamous example of perpetrator photography showing the arrival of Hungarian Jews about to be gassed in the summer of 1944, kept in the same album as pictures of Christmas celebrations) (52). Struk perhaps goes too far in drawing a moral equivalency between perpetrator and visitor rphotography, but her point is still valid: what use are these photographs beyond proof that a person visited Auschwitz? The ease in which digital photographs can be taken today is part of the answer; when technology changes, so does human behaviour: “the machine evolves together with us; its mutation is our mutation” (53). But the phenomenon of ‘dark tourism’ provides more insight.

Visiting places like Auschwitz falls under tourism’s ‘dark’ subset. Lea Kuznik outlines 17 categories of dark tourism, distinguishing the Holocaust from other genocide tourism due to its number of associated sites, museums, and memorials across Europe and the world (54). Since they had no choice, dark tourism does not describe the German citizens forced to visit the camps by the victorious powers in the war’s immediate aftermath, though on this subject Shneer writes:

when photographs might fail to convince, the act of physically bearing witness, of seeing with one’s own eyes, became the most important way of proving to a disbelieving public the veracity of Nazi atrocities (55).

Kuznik outlines the seven main motivators behind dark tourism—curiosity, education, empathy, horror, nostalgia, remembrance, and survivour’s guilt—all thus acknowledging the Holocaust’s factuality (56). So, as Stone suggests with regards to the manipulated Sonderkommando photographs, dark tourists also seek getting ‘closer to the thing’, to make personal connections. Once at these sites, satisfying some combination of these seven motivators, dark tourists behave in different ways; some take no photographs, some take hundreds. In order to maintain decorum at the site, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has rules it expects visitors to adhere to: “Visitors to the grounds of the Museum should behave with due solemnity and respect. Visitors are obliged to dress in a manner befitting a place of this nature” (57). Only commercial photographs, drone usage, and photographing security systems require permission (58).

Inevitably, with the volume of daily visitors, some fail to meet the expectations of ‘due solemnity and respect’. Often, these visitors take photographs as part of their disrespectful behaviour and share them on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Only when their posts receive online backlash do they realise the inappropriateness of their conduct, sometimes making apologies and deleting their posts, suggesting the gravity of Auschwitz was poorly understood during their visit. In 2017, for example, Republican Congressman Clay Higgins took a selfie video inside the former gas chamber at Auschwitz and uploaded it to YouTube, using the setting to advocate for US military spending. After severe backlash, he took the video down (59). But perhaps the most famous example is Breanna Mitchell, who on 20 June 2014, posted a selfie of her at Auschwitz to her Twitter account ‘Princess Breanna’ with the text “Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp” followed by the rosy-cheeked smiling emoji. Quickly going viral, Mitchell became known as the “Auschwitz Selfie Girl”. Breanna’s example gained more attention than others (of which there are plenty) partly because she defended her actions, saying the Holocaust was the area of history her father was most interested in and that he had recently passed away, so the post was in memory of him (60). Though her explanation provided some context, it suggested she remained unaware of what is so objectionable about such posts: relegating Auschwitz to a mere background for photographs emphasising the photographer sidelines the millions of victims. Attempting to show their connection, photographs like Mitchell’s (below) actually reveal a serious disconnect, the expansion of the distance which began enlarging the moment liberators arrived. Of the four Auschwitz photography subsets discussed, visitor photography has the unique ability to make the photographer the central focus.

While the Internet sometimes forgives, it never forgets, and the image of Mitchell smiling in Auschwitz serves as an enduring warning to would-be visitors to understand the nature of their visit and their photography. Last year, the museum attempted to reinforce this message on its own Twitter account,  reminding visitors that victims should be the focus their visit, not themselves, including objectionable visitor photographs (below) and adding “Respect their memory”.


When exhibiting or taking photographs of Auschwitz, there exists a fine line between honouring victims and exploiting them. I have outlined four distinct categories of Auschwitz photography and suggested that understanding these categories can help avoid revictimisation or denigration. In short: perpetrators documented victims; resistors documented criminality; liberators documented extent; visitors document themselves. Perpetrator photography was abuse and exhibiting it risks perpetuating that abuse, while resistor photography was evidence and tampering with it risks tampering with evidence. Meanwhile, liberator photography was necessarily distant, with photographers needing to emotionally and physically step back in order to reveal scale, while visitors step forward in an attempt to reduce that distance, but by photographing their attempt they merely expand it. Ultimately, however, all these photographs are merely compositions of light, so it is incumbent upon historians and exhibitors to aid the understanding of what lies beneath the surface and beyond the frame, the ‘dark’. With careful consideration, we can use photographs to help illuminate what the Nazis tried to keep shrouded in darkness.


  1. ‘2 million 320 thousand visitors at the Auschwitz Memorial in 2019’, 7 January 2020, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,; accessed 24 September 2020; ‘Concentration Camp Memorial Site: Visitor Information’, Dachau,; accessed 25 September 2020; Marcel Fürstenau, ‘Sachsenhausen concentration camp: Anniversary of liberation’, Deutsche Welle, 22 April 2018,; accessed 25 September 2020; ‘Annual Reports: Reports on the Museum Activities’, State Museum at Majdanek,; accessed 25 September 2020.
  2.  Aristotle, The Metaphysics trans. John H. McMahon (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 11.
  3. John 20:24.
  4. Carsten Strathausen, “The Speaking Gaze of Modernity”, The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 45.
  5. Ibid, p. 38; ‘Frisius Gemma’s illustration of a camera obscura, 1544’, Science & Society Picture Library Prints,; accessed 30 September 2020.
  6. Alasdair Whittle, The Times of Their Lives (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2018), p. 19.
  7. Jens Jäger, “Elective Affinities?: History and Photography”, Global Photographies eds. Sissy Helff and Stefanie Michels (Magdeburg: Transcript Verlag, 2018), p. 40.
  8. Ibid, p. 40-1.
  9.  Nicoletta Leonardi and Simone Natale, Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (United States: Penn State University Press, 2018), p. 208.
  10. Jäger, p. 42.
  11. Elizabeth Edwards, “Thoughts on Photography and the Practice of History”, The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and Twentieth-Century German History,eds. Jennifer Evans, Paul Betts, and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019), p. 24.
  12. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), p. 91.
  13. Dario L M Sacchi, Franca Agnoli,  and Elizabeth F Loftus, “Changing history: doctored photographs affect memory for past public events”, Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 21, no. 8, 20 November 2007, pp. 1005–22.
  14. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 118.
  15. Janina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 104.
  16. Ibid, p. 102.
  17. ‘Liberation’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,; accessed 3 October 2020.
  18. ‘Liberation’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,; accessed 3 October 2020.
  19. ‘Faces of Auschwitz’, Faces of Auschwitz,; accessed 28 September 2020.
  20. ‘Registration and Marking System’, Ibid.
  21. Struk, p. 102.
  22. Anna Dobrowolska, The Photographer from Auschwitz (Poland: Rekontrplan, 2013), p. 9.
  23. ‘The Photographer from Auschwitz’, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, 26 November 2013,; accessed 4 October 2020.
  24. ‘Faces of Auschwitz’.
  25. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), p. 92.
  26. Joe Roberts, ‘Faces of Auschwitz prisoners are even more devastating in colour’, Metro, 31 May 2018,; accessed 4 October 2020.
  27. Struk, p. 114.
  28. Dan Stone, “The Sonderkommando photographs”, Jewish Social Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, Spring 2001, p. 132.
  29. Kate Lawless, “Memory, Trauma, and the Matter of Historical Violence: The Controversial Case of Four Photographs from Auschwitz”, American Imago, vol. 71, no. 4, Winter 2014, p. 395.
  30. Stone, p. 132.
  31. Ibid, p. 137.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 10 December 1942, p. 3.
  35. Ibid, p. 9.
  36. David Shneer, “Is Seeing Believing? Photographs, Eyewitness Testimony, and Evidence of the Holocaust”, East European Jewish Affairs, vol. 45, no. 1, 2015, p. 65.
  37. Ibid, p 68; ‘Museum History’, State Museum at Majdanek,; accessed 7 October 2020.
  38. Ibid, pp. 65-6.
  39. Maureen Waller, London 1945 (London: John Murrary, 2004), p. 78.
  40. Struk, p. 125.
  41. Ibid, p. 146.
  42. Ibid, p. 143-6.
  43. ‘Aerial Photographs of Auschwitz’, Yad Vashem,; accessed 8 October 2020.
  44. ‘The film that documents the crime’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,; accessed 10 October 2020.
  45. ‘In pictures: The liberation of Auschwitz’, CNN, 27 January 2020,; accessed 9 October 2020.
  46. Struk, p. 146.
  47. Jefferey C Alexander, Remembering the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 8.
  48. Ibid, pp. 8-9.
  49. John J Michalczyk, Filming the End of the Holocaust (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), p. 50.
  50. Struk, p. 189.
  51. Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 10.
  52. ‘Struk, p. 190; Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS: A Tale of Two Albums’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,; accessed 10 October 2020.
  53. Jelena Stojković, “Vision Without the Eye: Following the Material of Abstract Photography”, See eds. Andrea Pavoni, Danilo Mandic, Caterina Nirta, and Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (London: University of Westminster Press, 2018), p. 40.
  54. Lea Kuznik, “Fifty shades of dark stories”, Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (Fourth Edition) ed. Mehdi Khosrow-Pour (Pennsylvania: IGI Global, 2018), p. 4079.
  55. Shneer, p. 67.
  56. Kuznik, pp. 80-1.
  57. ‘Regulations for visitors and persons staying on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, 1 October 2020, § 2.1.
  58. Ibid, § 3.14-5.
  59. Jack Holmes, ‘This U.S. Congressman’s Selfie Video At Auschwitz Is Deeply Unsettling’, Esquire, 5 July 2017,; accessed 11 October 2020.
  60. Jessica Durando, ‘Auschwitz Selfie Girl Breanna Mitchell Defends Her Controversial Picture’, USA Today, 24 July 2014,; accessed 9 October 2020.

The Over(arching)story

A Trump-Biden Debate Without Climate Change Is Inexcusable | WIRED


Art is inspired by that which precedes it, akin to genetics and evolution. Richard Powers’ The Overstory celebrates this tradition, referring to famous literary works throughout; a selection by no means arbitrary. The title’s double meaning is an immediate clue: ‘overstory’ referring to forest canopies but also to narrative’s long ancestry. To align his novel with the historical novel tradition, for example, Powers references the genre’s defining works, Scott’s Waverley and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This essay shows Powers’ similar efforts to align Overstory with myth through careful reference to Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth. Examining these texts, I detail how Powers uses them to seed his-story’s overarching message: to survive the Anthropocene, humanity needs new myths.

1700 BC – Gilgamesh

The oldest fragments of Gilgamesh are attributed to an anonymous Babylonian poet chiseled 3,700 years ago; no human narrative predates it. A logical starting point in Powers’ efforts to align Overstory with myth, it nonetheless speaks to his ambitious timescales. An example of his vast temporal considerations is the description of the tree that breaks Douglass’ fall when his plane is downed over Vietnam: “It grew; its roots slipped down and encased its host. Decades passed. Centuries. War on the backs of elephants gave way to televised moon landings and hydrogen bombs” (101). Unlike War and Peace, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth, Powers only briefly employs Gilgamesh, much like Waverley. Douglass is furious to learn that trees are left to line highways only to block views of deforestation:

But the deliberate, simpleminded, and sickeningly effective trick of that highway-lining curtain of trees makes him want to smack someone. Every mile of it dupes his heart, just like they planned […] He feels like he’s on the Cedar Mountain, from that Gilgamesh […] The forest from the first day of creation. But it turns out Gilgamesh and his punk friend Enkidu have already been through and trashed the place. Oldest story in the world (110).

Enkidu, raised in the wild, is sent by the gods to end King Gilgamesh’s tyranny over Uruk. However, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu and ‘civilises’ him. Then, in a quest for fame, they travel to the Forest of Cedar and kill its guardian. While environmentalists in Overstory see themselves as forest guardians, arguably the most relevant aspect of Gilgamesh to the modern world is its depiction of the ‘civilised’ versus the ‘wild’; urbanisation firmly established as superior over nature. This relevance to modern attitudes responsible for causing the Anthropocene is remarkable, but not coincidental. Civility between strangers developed in Mesopotamia after the repurposing of nature to human service, agriculture, required people to remain by their crops; settlement creating civilisation. The Agricultural Revolution, perhaps the earliest origin of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al 845), redistributed labour in ways unmatched until the Industrial Revolution, creating two populations: urban and rural. The city-country divide in modern democracies’ voting habits suggests this division remains substantial, affecting ideologies and stalling societal responses to climate change (Damore et al 6). Gilgamesh, humanity’s oldest story, tells of humanity’s oldest divide.

The brevity of Gilgamesh’s inclusion in Overstory, like Waverley, suggests Powers is seeding a mythological narrative tradition that will grow like Scott and historical fiction. Explanations for using Gilgamesh in this way are found in Andrew George’s edition, where he cites Assyriologist William Moran’s description of Gilgamesh as a human story insistent on “human values” (xxxii). George warns of reading Gilgamesh as myth because:

the function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is. On these grounds the epic is not myth […] myths are incidental to the story and the epic is certainly much more than the sum of its mythological parts – unlike, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (xxxiii).

However, Gilgamesh is often studied alongside mythological texts because “no book on the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia can resist it […] [Gilgamesh] retains, in spite of its long literate history, an unmistakable aura of the mythical” (Ibid). Gilgamesh, though not mythological, has become mythic. Powers uses it accordingly; not as a myth of origin, but as an origin of myth. This aspect of the epic transcends its main theme: the search for immortality. Unsuccessful in acquiring immortality, Gilgamesh realises death can be metaphorically vanquished by building lasting legacies in life, the epic closing with him admiring the towering walls he has constructed to protect Uruk (XI.323-6). Powers’ first marker of myth thus establishes humanity’s views of nature and death as enemies to overcome.

8 AD – Metamorphoses

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, containing some 250 myths, is the most explicitly mythological text Powers uses to position Overstory. Ovid opens with “Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me/now to recite” (1.1-2); Powers, concerned with the natures of change and the changes in nature, could not have avoided Metamorphoses if he tried. Dramatising physical, emotional, and spiritual transformations, Metamorphoses’ opening words introduce Patricia’s character and remain central throughout; her scientific career goes through phases and transforms how other characters consider trees, changing their lives in turn. An important moment in Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character comes when it prefaces her attempt to rationalise finding a tree that resembles a woman:

The word turns odd, foreign in her head. Myth. Myth. A mispronunciation. A malaprop. Memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives […] They laugh at the stupefying odds against anything accidental growing exactly like this, like us, out of mindless wood […] Her staff, her scientists, her board of directors: no one has any use for myth. Myths are old miscalculations, the guesses of children long ago put to bed (492-3).

Three similarities between Metamorphoses and Gilgamesh are particularly noteworthy. First are the floods (also found in Genesis). Like the urban-rural divide, it is again remarkable how relevant these ancient texts are to specific twenty-first century concerns of the Anthropocene; rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of storms among the most pressing. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh writes “through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great weariness” and “before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean” (37). Yet during the “mastery and conquest” of European imperialism, founding cities like Mumbai and New York defied ancient wisdom; considered defendable islands with strategic harbours, the Anthropocene is revealing them as “precarious” (37-9). Resulting from Jupiter’s anger (God’s in the Bible), Ovid’s flood (the ‘Deluge’ in Gilgamesh) depicts nature as a “method of punishing mortals” (1.260). As in the Bible and Gilgamesh, Ovid’s flood, in which “The world was reduced to an ocean” (1.292), is an early literary example of climate change; the distinction between these depictions and today’s understandings of climate change is while human activity inspired the floods, it did not cause them; they are supernatural punishments, not natural consequences. Other environmental transformations occur throughout Metamorphoses’ opening: before the flood, Chaos becomes the world, which then passes through ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron (1.5-252); divinity always the prime mover.

The transition of humanity from rudimentary and natural states to civilised ones is the second noteworthy similarity. Like Enkidu in Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses depicts humanity originating within nature but quickly positions them at odds. Ovid writes “Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance/ was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man” (1.87-8) but adds humankind is “a holier living creature, more able to think high thoughts […] freshly formed and newly divorced” (1.76, 80). After the flood, the current iteration of humanity forms from stone (1.401-13), and while Ovid admits we “bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin” (1.415), humanity’s evolution, or elevation, to “hold dominion over the rest” (1.77) is firmly established.

The third comparison is the quest(ion) of immortality. To close, Ovid upstages Gilgamesh, inserting himself to claim immortality:

Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy […] My name shall be never forgotten […] people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages, if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame (15.871-8).

Crucially, though Ovid exemplifies myth’s ‘old miscalculations’ of death and nature as requiring mankind’s conquest, Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character also underscores the potential for humanity to make ‘new calculations’, repeating Ovid’s words four times throughout the novel “people turn into other things” (147, 445, 492, 583).

1606 AD – Macbeth

Shakespeare presents myth in radically new ways. For Ray and Dorothy’s first date, Dorothy takes them to an audition for an amateur production of Macbeth: “Why? She says no reason. A lark. A whim. Freedom” (80). But Powers’ reason is to prime fate and prophecy as ‘evolutionary cousins’ of myth, narrative and supernatural traditions their ‘common ancestors’, writing “they both get cast. Of course they get cast. They were cast already, before they tried out. That’s how myths work” (81). Macbeth thus serves Overstory’s vast temporal considerations and establishes a symbiosis between myth and prophecy, an ‘ecosystem’ where past and future imply each other.

Like Powers, Shakespeare uses narrative traditions passed down from writers like Ovid to frame his characters, the Witches and Hecate, who in turn frame the play. Hecate, the Greek goddess of mythology, does nothing to advance the plot, so her inclusion in Macbeth is similar to Overstory’s inclusion of the works in question: a marker to signal wider narrative traditions. The nature of the Witches, central to Powers’ framing, has become obscured over time. In some editions, the Witches are called the ‘Weïrd Sisters’, often misinterpreted as ‘strange’. However, the 1623 folio calls them “weyward” (136), again often misread as ‘wayward’. ‘Weyward’, however, is a variant spelling of an Anglicised spelling of a Norse word: weyward = wyrd = urðr, meaning ‘fate’ (“urðr”). That Shakespeare makes Hecate (mythology) ‘oversee’ the Witches (fate) as “the mistress of your charms” (3.5.5) underscores Powers’ implication that myth and fate exist on a spectrum of time, the arrows simply travelling in opposite directions.

Macbeth acts as a steppingstone in Overstory, a ‘missing link’ in the evolution of myth from Antiquity to the Anthropocene. Macbeth’s attempt to overcome one mythologised enemy of humanity (death) is ill-fated by his interpretations of another enemy (nature). When the Witches tell him “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.94-5) and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill/Shall come against him” (4.1.107-9), Macbeth’s assumptions of nature betray him. He misses that ‘none of woman born’ could mean Macduff, who “was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped” (5.7.46-7), and he dismisses the threat of Birnam Wood, for “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/Unfix his earthbound root?” (4.1.110-1). In this way, while Gilgamesh and Metamorphoses establish humanity’s views of death and nature as enemies, Macbeth exposes these views as problematic. For example, the Witches set the ominous tone of the play by suggesting perverted views of nature are the real enemy, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-3).

Macbeth foreshadows the events that happen in Ray and Dorothy’s life, like Metamorphoses did for Patricia; the play about prophecy becoming prophetic. Unable to have children, Dorothy gives twisted meaning to ‘None of woman born shall harm Macbeth’ when her infertility spurs her infidelity. Similar to how Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to murder by subjunctivising his manhood —“When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49) [italics mine]—leading to Macbeth’s undoing, so does Dorothy question Ray’s manhood by cheating on him. While not explicitly stating this causes Ray’s ‘undoing’, Powers nonetheless is highly suggestive by writing of Ray’s thoughts of Dorothy “off getting her brains fucked out” alongside a breakdown of the seconds leading to his aneurism (387-90). Echoes sound of Macbeth’s forewarning: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3.2.39). In the same way Gilgamesh became myth, Macbeth has become prophecy; the ‘Scottish Play’ warning of the dangers of ‘conquering’ death and misreading nature. When Macbeth learns that branches have been used as camouflage and Birnam Wood has ‘come’ to Dunsinan, he charges nature a conspirator against him, saying “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun/And wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (5.6.51-2). Macbeth’s wish prophetic of the Anthropocene.

2018 AD – The Overstory

While Overstory openly works to rectify humanity’s relationship with nature,Powers more subtly recalibrates immortality. Immortality, an egotistical concept, progressively darkens from inspiring ‘greatness’ in Gilgamesh, to inspiring Metamorphoses itself, to inspiring Macbeth’s downfall. Given this trajectory, a downward spiral of egoism ironically detrimental to human life, Powers reevaluates the myth: Patricia nearly succumbs to suicide twice but ‘overcomes’ death by choosing to live, while Olivia survives an overdose, becoming ‘reborn’ with an awareness of the everlasting qualities of nature. Though Olivia dies, the novel’s final lines belong to her, as thought by Nick: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end” (625). Powers redefines ‘immortality’ as something possible through humility, when death and nature are seen not as enemies but vital parts of human life. This is depicted in Nick’s rearrangement of fallen branches to spell the word “STILL”:

Already, this word is greening. Already, the mosses surge over, the beetles and lichen and fungi turning the logs to soil. Already, seedlings root in the nurse logs’ crevices, nourished by the rot. Soon new trunks will form the word in the growing wood, following the cursive of these decaying mounds. Two centuries more, and these five living letters, too, will fade back into the swirling patterns, the changing rain and air and light. And yet – but still – they’ll spell out, for a while, the word life has been saying, since the beginning (624-5).

Refraining from adding new myths himself, Powers’ prognosis of the need to do so and his reassessments of existing myths constitute evolutions of the mythological tradition all the same. The final section of the novel is called “Seeds” for this reason: planting new ideas that will grow. Ghosh suggests fiction, myth, and epic make it possible to imagine the world “as if it were other than it is”, which is “exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis” (128). He adds, “to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide” (Ibid). At first, Powers’ efforts to meet Ghosh’s challenge might conjure the famous diagram of human evolution:

Left to right: Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, Macbeth, Overstory, new myths…

But this diagram presents modern humans as ‘more evolved’ than our ancestors, suggesting evolution has a ‘destination’ that is us. If Powers is not suggesting Overstory is ‘more evolved’ than Gilgamesh or his novel is the ‘destination’ of narrative tradition, what is he saying? Tree rings, a metaphor and narrative device throughout Overstory, help answer this question. After Olivia dies, Nick sleeps on the massive tree stump of Mimas, the tree they tried to save:

He lies on his side as night comes on, his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles, the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn and the expanses of Iowa. Beyond the length of his body, crowding up to the cut’s cliff, are the rings of his own birth, the death of his family, the roadside visit of the woman [Olivia] who recognized him, who taught him how to hang on and live.

A more accurate diagram of Powers’ work on the evolution of myth might therefore look like this:

Powers hints at this through Mimi: “Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim” (42-3). In short, our past is not behind us, it is within us, as will be our future. It is through Ray, however, after his aneurism renders him as immobile as he (and Macbeth) once considered trees to be, that Powers most succinctly summarises humanity’s need for new myths in the face of the Anthropocene:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one […] and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. But Ray needs fiction now as much as anyone (478-9).

—as much as everyone.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh ed. Andrew George (London: Penguin Books, 1999).

Damore, David F, Robert E Lang, and Karen A Danielsen. Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021).

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Ovid. Metamorphoses trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

Powers, Richard. The Overstory (London: Vintage, 2018).

Shakespeare, William. First Folio: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623).

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNiell, “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives”, Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 369, no. 1938, 13 March 2011, pp. 842–867.

“urðr”, Old Norse Online, The University of Texas at Austin, Linguistics Research Center,; accessed 1 October 2020.

NZ stand (together) 2m APART

A piece of graffiti appeared in Wellington soon after the Christchurch terror attacks in March 2019. It read “NZ stand together”. It was updated a year later in March 2020 for COVID-19; a sign of the times.



As I write this, COVID-19 has infected 1.2 million people, 64,000 of whom are dead. The true scale of the pandemic, particularly in developing nations, will likely never be known; estimates will range in the millions. To reduce those numbers as much as possible, the entire world has come to a screeching halt. Humanity is in lockdown. Nobody knows how long this will last, but unemployment is certain to spiral as entire industries are being wiped out. Governments are mobilising in ways not seen since World War II, writing blank cheques to mitigate an economic collapse rivalling the Great Depression. Undeniably, these are historic days. Not since 9/11 has the world been so suddenly upended, so irreversibly divided into distinct eras before and after the event. While this is less ‘spectacular’ and less symbolic than jetliners knocking down skyscrapers, it is no less deadly; it comes with its own sense of the surreal, wholly quieter and eerily dispassionate.

9/11 and its repercussions were horrific: the Middle East was set ablaze, civil liberties were eroded, trillions of dollars were wasted, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. It’s hard to think of a single positive resulting from that September morning. If peace is the only real tribute to the victims of war, then the victims of the War on Terror are yet to have their tribute. But perhaps they finally will if we learn not to make the same mistakes; those who die from COVID-19 needn’t die for nothing. We have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our economies in fair and sustainable ways which will improve not only our quality of life but that of future generations. It’s clear that generation-defining action to a crisis is possible; if we can do it to stop a virus, we can do it to stop ourselves from becoming a virus. We can tackle climate change; we can work to end poverty; good can come from bad.

After all, the Black Death helped spark the Renaissance.

Hand of God

My Own Eulogy


One should only write such a thing
in a good mood.
And I am.
I am.

Scatter me in the trees and sunlight
in the wooded, fern-laden hills
of my country
after a day of food and drink
where birds speak for us
and play Nostalgia by Ethiopiques
for that is where you shall always find me
smiling drifting living dying ending. being
Then get mad and drunk and high and jam
or go to bed and wake in the morning
to be whoever you want to be

Saga of the West

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

When a Genoese mariner sailed west across the ‘Ocean Sea’ in search of Asia in 1492, he happened upon the Americas and claimed them for the Spanish Crown that had financed his voyage. Christopher Columbus’ return to Spain in 1493 laid the foundations for contact between Europe and what he thought were Asia’s eastern shores, the ‘Indies’. In 1501, another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, seconded Columbus’ subsequent realisation that the shores were not Asian at all, but an entirely separate continent “unknown” to European powers. This ‘New World’ soon bore Vespucci’s name, and by Columbus’ death in 1506, the link between the ‘Old World’ and America was firmly established, forever changing human events (1).

Or rather, the link was firmly reestablished. Half a millennia earlier, the Vikings had already begun colonising parts of North America. Their story is recorded in literature known as the Icelandic Sagas (Íslendingasögur). Set mainly between c. 850 and c. 1050 AD, the traditionally oral (2) sagas were committed to vellum in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (3), the word ‘saga’ being Old Norse for ‘what is said, utterance’ (4). Two sagas recount the Viking exploits in North America: The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga Saga) and The Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks Saga Rauða). By investigating the potential transmission of the sagas and Columbus’ own whereabouts, this paper will seek to answer the question that naturally arises: did the Íslendingasögur help inspire Columbus’ first voyage?

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892.

Humanity in the Americas

The first humans to set foot in the Americas came on foot. During the Last Glacial Period (c. 115,00 – c. 11,700 years ago), what is now the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was bridged by the lost region of ‘Beringia’. Over the millennia (c. 25,000 – c. 15,000 years ago), humans moved from Asia across Beringia into the Americas. The end of the Last Glacial Period saw sea levels rise to their current position, severing the human connection between the landmasses of Afro-Eurasia and America. Isolated, these early Americans soon populated North and South America with cultures and civilisations independent of those in the Old World (5). Thousands of years later, the long-lost cousins of humanity reunited on 12 October 1492 when Columbus landed in the Bahamas and encountered the Lucayan. In none of their wildest imaginations did either group think they were meeting their distant relatives.

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period.

Yet this was not the first ‘family reunion’. While Greenland is not connected to mainland North America, it is often considered part of the North American continent—though the definition of ‘continent’ varies—as it sits on the North American tectonic plate and shares flora and fauna with the mainland (6). ‘Chapter 2’ of Eiríks Saga Rauða tells of Greenland’s naming and colonisation by Erik the Red in the late tenth century; Europeans’ first contact with the Americas. ‘Chapter 8’ tells of the first contact with mainland North America, when Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, reaches ‘Helluland’, ‘Markland’, and ‘Vinland’, which twentieth-century archaeology suggests are Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland (7). Thorfinn Karlsefni later follows Leif’s route and in ‘Chapter 12’ he battles the ‘Skrælingar’, ancestors of today’s Inuit:

There was seen approaching from the south a great crowd of Skrælingar boats … the Skrælingar were all howling loudly. Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles (8).

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688.

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Columbus’ enslavement of the Taíno in Hispaniola in the 1490s was not the first episode of violence and inhumanity between people of the Old and New Worlds. But as Fitzhugh writes:

Not least is the question of whether Nordic knowledge of the northwestern North Atlantic and its lands and peoples was transmitted to Europe from its medieval manuscripts and tradition-bearers in Iceland and Scandinavia, what information this consisted of, and whether it influenced later European exploration (9).

Columbus offers us no easy answers, for if he did know of the Íslendingasögur, he never indicated so (10). In Libro de las profecías (Book of Prophecies)—his collection of Biblical, Classical, and even Islamic sources ‘proving’ his Divine fulfillment of ancient prophecy—he makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (11), nor in his letters (12). Yet their absence alone from his writing does not mean he never encountered them. Plausible reasons for their omission include: he did not consider them noteworthy; he chose not to cite them; he cited them in work still undiscovered. Short of unearthing hypothetical documents, this paper will instead seek to determine the probabilities of Columbus and the Íslendingasögur crossing paths. To do this, both their paths need to be traced.

Transmission of the Íslendingasögur

The Íslendingasögur “exercised enduring influence upon the English literature of the Middle Ages” (13), but Columbus’ opportunity to encounter either their printed or oral forms in fifteenth-century Spain or Portugal was limited. Like the people mentioned in the sagas, it is hard to know precisely how far they themselves travelled. To determine where the sagas could have theoretically travelled by Columbus’ lifetime, we need to define the geographic extents of the ‘Viking World’.

Contemporary map of Old Norse place names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite

Contemporary map of Old Norse place-names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite.

Graham-Campbell describes the Viking World as consisting of “a loose grouping of the Scandinavian homelands and new overseas colonies, linked by sea routes that reached across the Baltic and North Sea, spanning even the Atlantic”. Those colonies stretched from Novgorod to Normandy, and possibly even Newfoundland, while Viking raids took place in the Mediterranean and North Africa (14). After the ‘Viking Age’ (c. 790 – c. 1050 AD) (15), by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Christianisation of Scandinavia saw members of the Nordic elite pilgrimaging to Rome and the Holy Land (16). In the twelfth century, Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian clerics studied at universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Orleans, Montpellier, and Bologna. By Columbus’ lifetime, Scandinavians were studying in Prague, Leipzig, Vienna, and Rostock (17). This is not to say that the Íslendingasögur necessarily travelled to these places too, but they could have. Additionally, with Scandinavians adopting the Latin alphabet in the eleventh century (18) and the first Icelandic histories being written in the vernacular and Latin (19), it is also possible that the Íslendingasögur could have been read, transcribed, or translated beyond Scandinavia.

The numbers of verified pre-Columbian Íslendingasögur manuscripts suggest this scenario is incredibly unlikely. No other saga survives in as many copies as Njáls Saga, of which there are just 18 extant copies, all in Scandinavia (20). With parameters set between 1200 and 1500 AD, Karlsson totals the number of existing texts at 59. Including earlier fragments, Lethbridge counts 64. Of Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða, Lethbridge counts just one and three copies respectively (21). That four copies survive is undoubtedly remarkable, that Columbus read one of them is undoubtedly impossible. Unless a miraculous fifth copy is someday unearthed miles from Iceland, it can be safely assumed none ever accompanied the Nordic elite to European universities or on pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

While Columbus never read the sagas during his time in the Mediterranean and Iberia, spoken versions cannot be dismissed so confidently. Unsurprisingly, Flint’s chapter on the texts Columbus is known to have read makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (22). More surprising is their absence in her following chapter of “the stories of water and sea crossings [Columbus] knew, or might have known” (23). If a lifelong mariner like Columbus was as insatiable for clues of what lay to the west as Granzotto (24) and Philips (25) suggest he was, why is Flint left with nothing to say about the Íslendingasögur?

The dissemination of the Íslendingasögur was so limited, in part, because Iceland had a “conservative, exclusive society” which “maintained heavy restrictions on change” (26). Far from the affairs and concerns of continental Europe, Icelanders had about as much interest in sharing the Íslendingasögur with the outside world as the outside world had in hearing them—excepting, perhaps, certain explorers. Foreign interest in the Íslendingasögur is a more recent phenomenon. It was not until the nineteenth century when Scandinavian migration to the United States increased and English translations of Scandinavian histories became available, that interest in Viking history spread beyond its traditional bounds of Scandinavia (27). Other than King Eirik of Denmark marrying Princess Philippa of England, who happened to be a cousin of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, Seaver writes “it is doubtful that the Spanish and Portuguese paid much attention to either Denmark or Norway in the late Middle Ages” (28). Even Icelanders at the time saw little importance in the territorial discoveries of Leif Erikson, Clements suggesting “Vinland was merely one more place where they could find furs and wood” (29). To Icelanders, the sagas serving as entertainment and expressions of cultural memory spoke of people and places closer to home (30). The common trait of intertextuality between sagas of genealogical histories, family feuds, and local places render single sagas taken out of this context largely meaningless and uninteresting to outsiders (31).

By the 1180s, the colonies in Greenland had come under Norwegian rule (32), and evidence that knowledge of Arctic colonies had spread beyond Scandinavia, if not knowledge of the Íslendingasögur themselves, is found in Church documents. A letter from Pope Nicholas V, dated 20 September 1448, concerns the Bishopric of Garðar in Greenland, the ‘Diocese of Ice’, which had become “cut off from Scandinavia … imprisoned in the ice, abandoned by all, left without support or hope” (33). The letter reads:

Profoundly impressed therefore with the responsibility of our position, it is not difficult to understand how our mind was filled with bitterness by the tearful lamentations which have reached our ears from our beloved children, the native and other inhabitants of the island of Greenland, a region situated at the uttermost end of the earth (34).

Two things are noteworthy. Firstly, there is no reference to colonies or lands beyond Greenland, it is ‘the uttermost end of the earth’. Secondly, Greenland is described as a faraway island, not a part of Asia nor any other continent (35). These are significant points in light of other documents. In c. 1070, the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, wrote in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen) of his conversations with King Sweyn II of Denmark. Adam specifically mentions Vinland—tentatively believed today to be located at the L’Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland (36)—making it the earliest European record of the Americas (37):

[Sweyn II] spoke also yet of another island of the many found in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes (38).

Fifty years later, Pope Paschal II appointed Eiríkur Gnúpsson as the first Bishop of Garðar and its “lands to the west” (39). According to the Íslendingasögur, however, Gnúpsson went looking for Vinland in 1121—the same year he received episcopal consecration in Lund, Denmark, from Archbishop Adzar (40)—suggesting contact between Greenland and Vinland had been lost (41). Bishop Jon Smyrill later made a pilgrimage from Greenland to Rome before his death in 1206 (42), but even if he had spoken of Vinland, any knowledge from him, or from Adam and Paschal II, appears forgotten in Nicholas V’s 1448 letter. Furthermore, the information privy to Nicholas V regarding Greenland, or Vinland to previous Pontiffs, and that privy to Columbus does not simply overlap. Nonetheless, Rome’s ties to the Catholic monarchies of Portugal and Spain, alongside Columbus’ own relationship to these monarchies, means the possibility of Columbus knowing of Greenland or Vinland cannot be ruled out entirely. In any case, however slight the possibility, Columbus’ knowledge would not have come from the Íslendingasögur, it would have bypassed them altogether.

Scholars who claim Columbus had knowledge of the Íslendingasögur often provide poor evidence or none at all. For example, Ólafsson writes unequivocally “Icelandic chroniclers spread the knowledge of these new lands to Europe. It is likely that Columbus knew about this discovery when he sailed west” (43). But he provides no sources for his assertions. Fitzhugh writes “Some scholars believe that [Columbus] … must have grasped the import of the Norse voyages” and cites “Stefansson 1942, Egilsson 1991, Quinn 1992, and Seaver 1996” (44). Yet enquiry into these sources reveals immediate flaws. Fitzhugh’s bibliography lists two of Stefansson’s works but neither date to 1942. Egilsson’s 1991 article appears in a magazine promoting Icelandic culture, Iceland Review. Published by MD Reykjavík, a tourism company, there is no publicly available archive of their publications (45), but given the quincentennial of Columbus’ first voyage was to take place the following year, Egilsson’s work is likely a celebration of Columbus’ Icelandic connection. No ‘Quinn’ appears in Fitzhugh’s bibliography, but he is probably referring to David B. Quinn, a specialist in North American colonisation. Quinn also wrote during the quincentennial, but his article appears to contradict Fitzhugh’s claim:

There is no need to suggest that [Columbus] learned of the medieval Greenland colony: Icelanders had lost interest in it after Norway took control of contacts with it in the late thirteenth century. He is still less likely to have heard of the Vinland sagas, even if they had been retained in folk memory, which is very doubtful, or had been written down in unintelligible language between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (46).

The closest Seaver comes in her 1996 book, The Frozen Echo, to supporting Fitzhugh is when discussing Columbus’ possible trip to Galway, writing if he did make such a voyage then “accounts of unfamiliar land glimpsed by storm-tossed crews must have joined both vague tales of Vínland and reports of relatively uneventful working voyages to such well-known places such as Iceland” (47). Evidently, we must now assess the whereabouts of Columbus himself.

Travels of Christopher Columbus

In the Journal of his first voyage, Columbus wrote on 21 December 1492:

I have traversed the sea for 23 years, without leaving it for any time worth counting, and I saw all in the east and the west, going on the route of the north, which is England, and I have been to Guinea (48).

There appears no reason to doubt Columbus’ claim that he visited the West African coast, ‘Guinea’. The town of Elmina in Ghana grew around the São Jorge da Mina Castle, which the Portuguese completed in 1481 (49). Logic dictates that Columbus must have visited Elmina between 1481 and his proposal of a westward Atlantic voyage to the Portuguese in 1484-85 (50), as notes either written or authorised by him refuting the idea of an uninhabitable equator state:

It is not uninhabitable, for the Portuguese sail through it today, and it is even very populous, and under the equator is the castle of Mina of the most serene king of Portugal, which we have seen (52).

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572.

Less convincing are the details surrounding Columbus’ “much-debated” (53) northern voyage, his ‘route of the north’, in the 1470s. Such a voyage could have very easily brought him into contact with some iteration of the Íslendingasögur, if it happened. Fernández-Armesto’s chronology of Columbus’ life states Columbus “Makes voyage to Iceland, perhaps via England and Ireland” next to the year “1477?” (54). He later adds:

Columbus might well have joined a Bristolian venture to Iceland. There is nothing inherently implausible in his claim, and his participation in such a voyage would also provide a context for the visit to Galway in Ireland which he mentioned in another marginal annotation (55).

That annotation appears in Columbus’ copy of d’Ally’s Imago Mundi and translates to “Men of Cathay have come from the west. [Of this] we have seen many signs. And especially in Galway in Ireland” (56). This note is not itself evidence that Columbus himself visited Ireland, but if stories of ‘Chinese’ bodies washing ashore in Galway hold some truth, an explanation might be that indigenous Americans, whose distant Asian ancestors crossed Beringia, could appear thus that Europeans could not distinguish them from Chinese. Instances of this phenomenon occurring in the Azores are cited by Morison (57) and Knox-Johnston, the latter writing “two bodies with Chinese-type faces (probably Eskimos) were found on a beach at Flores in the Azores” (58). The likelihood of corpses drifting across the Atlantic aside, why would Columbus have travelled to Galway in the first place? One explanation might be if he was en route to the farthest known land to most Europeans, ‘Ultima Thule’, Iceland. But if he travelled as far north as Iceland, why write ‘the north, which is England’?

As with the Íslendingasögur, Columbus offers us no easy answers regarding Iceland since he never wrote of such a voyage (59). His son, Ferdinand, is our sole source for the voyage and the evidence he cited has since been lost (60). Nevertheless, he claimed his father wrote:

In the month of February, 1477, I sailed one hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile [Thule], whose northern part is in latitude 73 degrees N, and not 63 degrees as some affirm, nor does it lie upon the meridian where Ptolemy says the West begins, but much farther west. And to this island, which is as big as England, the English come with their wares, especially from Bristol. When I was there, the sea was not frozen, but the tides were so great that in some places they rose twenty-six fathoms, and fell as much in depth (61).

The loss of Ferdinand’s physical evidence has led to the content of it coming under heavy scrutiny, particularly the impossible tidal measurements, the incorrect latitudinal coordinates, and the apparent folly of sailing amid the Arctic winter. Hanns Graefe offers explanations: Columbus was using Arabic measurements for the tide; he was not referring to the latitude of Iceland but Jan Mayen; his report of an ice-free coast is corroborated in “old records” found by Magnusen and is a fact that could only have been known to Columbus “as a result of personal experience” (62). Debate about measurement systems has validity (63), but Graefe’s claim that Columbus was giving the latitude of Jan Mayen is contradicted by the comparison in size to England. Whether Columbus was referring to the island of Great Britain (209,331 km2) or literally the country of England (130,395 km²) is unclear, but a comparison between either to Iceland (103,000 km2) in 1477 is more forgivable than to Jan Mayen (377 km2). What Magnusen’s ‘old records’ were, Graefe does not say, but both Storm and Ruddock cite evidence in the Icelandic Annals that refer to 1476–77 as “unusually mild” (64). Another of Magnusen’s claims, however, is described by Storm as “fantasy” (65) and De Lollis suspects it of being “freshly fabricated” (66). Lacking evidence, Magnusen claims that Bishop Magnus Eyjolsson of Skálholt was abbot of the monastery of Helgafell, where Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða were supposedly kept, and when Eyjolsson met Columbus in 1477, he showed them to him (67). Lacy, also with no sources given, paints a similarly Romantic scene of Columbus in Bristol, “where news of the Norse voyages would have made good conversation over a mug of ale” (68).

Established trade networks and a lack of record-keeping do leave open the possibility that Columbus entered England en route further north. Fifteenth-century Genoese merchants sailed to Southampton and London, and while Genoa and Bristol had no direct link, Lisbon and Bristol did. Bristol was the main English port for trade with Galway and Iceland (69), and despite no customs records of Columbus entering England exist, no records at all exist for Southampton in 1476–77 (70). Open-ended possibilities abound, but does any proof?

Ronciére first presented the so-called ‘Paris Map’ in 1924, now housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale, verifying for some Columbus’ northern voyage. The Paris Map depicts the North Atlantic with particular details of Norway, Ireland, and Iceland, which Seaver says provide “significant clues to Columbus’s geographical knowledge on the eve of his first trans-Atlantic voyage”. Rather than being the work of Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, Nebenzahl suggests the Paris Map was merely commissioned by Columbus. Nevertheless, Pelletier concludes the Columbuses were involved in its creation. But the Paris Map proves only his knowledge, not his northern voyage (71). How else then could Columbus have come to possess such knowledge if not through personal experience?

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

Palos in Spain is where Columbus first set sail in 1492, but its significance is more than symbolic because the Friary of La Rábida is located there and may have been the site where Columbus learnt of the north. Hunter (72) and Ruddock (73) both provide evidence that Bristolian merchants had contact with the Franciscans at La Rábida. Columbus’ own connection to La Rábida is not disputed and this is the most likely scenario in which information regarding the Bristol-Galway-Iceland route could have been shared with him. Such information could explain Columbus’ vague and incorrect notes and supplied him with details for the Paris Map. It is simply unknown if Bristolian merchants also shared the Íslendingasögur at La Rábida.


Seeking conclusions and closure in storytelling is a universal human instinct, but historical enquiry does not always satisfy this desire and all we can state for certain is an uncertainty: we do not know if Columbus ever knew of the Íslendingasögur. Written Íslendingasögur almost certainly never crossed Columbus during his time in the Mediterranean—but oral accounts may have, particularly at La Rábida. It is possible Columbus encountered the Íslendingasögur in either form in the North Atlantic—if he went there. He might have learned of the Viking colonies through Church sources—though this remains unclear. Frustrating as this may seem, the intertextuality of the Íslendingasögur offers a satisfaction to our need for narrative conclusion, a need which probably drives so much of the unsubstantiated writing on this subject. From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, by viewing the different strands of ‘discovery’ of the Americas, from Beringia to Vinland to Columbus, as individual episodes of one great human story requiring no fictional contrivances, we can appreciate the true wonder of humanity’s collective ‘Saga of the West’.



  1. Wilcomb E. Washburn, ‘The Meaning of “Discovery” in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’, The American Historical Review, vol. 68, no. 1, October 1962, pp. 9–10.
  2. Emily Lethbridge, ‘The Icelandic Sagas and Saga Landscapes: Writing, Reading and Retelling Íslendingasögur Narratives’, Gripla, vol. 27, January 2016, p. 56.

  3. James H. Barrett, Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2003), p. 140.

  4. ‘ONP: Dictionary of Old Norse Prose’, University of Copenhagen,; accessed 22 January 2020.

  5. Ker Than, ‘On Way to New World, First Americans Made a 10,000-Year Pit Stop’, National Geographic;; accessed 29 January 2020.

  6. Emily Upton, ‘Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent’, University of California, Santa Barbara;; accessed 3 February 2020.

  7. Jonathan Clements, A Brief History of the Vikings (European Union: Avalon, 2005), pp. 150–151.

  8. ‘Eiríks Saga Rauða’, trans. J. Sephton, The Icelandic Saga Database;; accessed 24 January 2020.

  9. William W. Fitzhugh, ‘Puffins, Ringed Pins, and Runestones: The Viking Passage to America’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution 2000), p. 13.

  10. John Noble Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 75.

  11. Carol Delaney, ‘Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 48, no. 2, April 2006, p. 266.

  12. Christopher Columbus, The Authentic Letters of Christopher Columbus, trans. William Eleroy Curtis (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, 1895), pp. 118–192.

  13. Alexander Bugge, ‘The Origin and Credibility of the Icelandic Saga’, The American Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 2, January 1909, p. 259.

  14. James Graham-Campbell, The Viking World (Hong Kong: Frances Lincoln, 2001), p. 10.

  15. Knut Helle, ‘Introduction’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 5.

  16. Eljas Orrman, ‘Church and Society’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 457–458.

  17. Lars Lönnroth, Vésteinn Ólason, and Anders Piltz, ‘Literature’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 495.

  18. Thomas Lindkvist, ‘Early political organisation: (a) Introduction survey’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 160.

  19. Nicolas Jaramillo, Íslendingabók and the Book of the Icelandic Sagas (Oslo: University of Oslo Press, 2018), p. 10.

  20. Emily Lethbridge, ‘‘‘Hvorki glansar gull á mér/né glæstir stafir í línum”: A Survey of Medieval Icelandic Íslendingasögur Manuscripts and the Case of Njáls saga’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi, vol. 129, 2014, pp. 55–56.

  21. Ibid, p. 65.

  22. Valerie I. J. Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 42–77.

  23. Ibid, pp. 78–112.

  24. Gianni Granzotto, Christopher Columbus (London: Guild Publishing, 1986), p. 34.

  25. William D. Phillips, Jr., ‘Columbus and European Views of the World’, The American Neptune, vol. 53, no. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 263–264.

  26. Clements, p. 137.

  27. Ibid, p. 8.

  28. Kirsten A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca A.D. 1000-1500 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 256.

  29. Clements, p. 158.

  30. Lethbridge, 2016, pp. 54–55.

  31. Ibid, p. 75.

  32. Magnús Stefánsson, ‘8 (d) The Norse island communities of the Western Ocean’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 213.

  33. Lewis Rey, ‘The Evangelization of the Arctic in the Middle Ages: Gardar, the “Diocese of Ice”’, Arctic, vol. 37, no. 4, December 1984, pp. 330–331.

  34. Nicholas V, ‘Letter of Nicholas V., September 20, 1448’, The Voyages of the Northmen, ed. Julius E. Olson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), pp. 70–71.

  35. Ibid, p. 70.

  36. Stefánsson, p. 212.

  37. R. I. Page, Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials, and Myths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 92–93.

  38. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 219.

  39. Terry G. Lacy, Ring of Seasons: Iceland, Its Culture and History (United States: The University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 133.

  40. Richard H. Clarke, Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States: Volume I (New York: P. O’Shea, 1872), p. 17.

  41. Stefánsson, p. 213.

  42. Rey, p. 331.

  43. Haraldur Ólafsson, ‘Sagas of Western Expansion’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution, 2000) p. 143.

  44. Fitzhugh, p. 13.

  45. ‘About Iceland Review’, Iceland Review;; accessed 5 February 2020.

  46. David B. Quinn, ‘Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland’, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, April 1992, p. 285.

  47. Seaver, p. 208.

  48. Christopher Columbus, The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492–1493), trans. Clements Robert Markham, (London: Chas J. Clark, 1893), p. 121.

  49. Wilford, p. 76.

  50. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. xvii.

  51. P. E. H. Hair, ‘Was Columbus’ First Very Long Voyage a Voyage from Guinea?’, History in Africa, vol. 22, 1995, p. 223.

  52. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942), p. 41.

  53. Paulo Emilio Taviani, Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, trans. William Weaver, ed. John Gilbert (London: Orbis Publishing, 1985), p. 319.

  54. Fernández-Armesto, p. xvii.

  55. Ibid, p. 19.

  56. Quinn, p. 284.

  57. Morison, p. 60.

  58. Robin Knox-Johnston, The Columbus Venture (London: BBC Books, 1991), p. 22.

  59. Alwyn A. Ruddock, ‘Columbus and Iceland: New Light on an Old Problem’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 136, no. 2, June 1970, p. 180.

  60. Ruddock, p. 180.

  61. Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus: by his son Ferdinand, trans. Benjamin Keen (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1959), p. 11.

  62. Hanns Graefe, ‘Die Islandfahrt des Columbus vom Jahre 1477’, Erdkunde, vol. 9, no. 2, May 1955, p. 153.

  63. Seaver, pp. 210–211.

  64. Ruddock, p. 183.

  65. G. Storm, ‘Studier over Vinlandreiserne’, Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 1887, pp. 369–71.

  66. Cesare De Lollis, Cristoforo Colombo nella leggenda e nella storia (Rome: 1923), p. 44.

  67. Taviani, p. 351.

  68. Lacy, p. 133.

  69. Taviani, pp. 318–319.

  70. Quinn, p. 280.

  71. Seaver, pp. 208–210.

  72. Douglas Hunter, The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (United States: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 213.

  73. Ruddock, p. 187.

Land of the Free

“What do you think dying would be like?” my cellmate, Michael, asks me. He’s 34 years old and has spent just three months ‘outside’ since he was 17. His daughter, now half his age, has only spent three months with her father. He’s covered in tattoos, dark green and black marks on his arms, legs, hands, neck, and face; skulls, crucifixes, illegible scrawls. He’s your worst nightmare. I’m not sure if Michael is trying to intimidate me with his question or if he’s just thinking about the person he had murdered. I decide to answer with a question of my own.

“Have you ever been put to sleep for surgery?”

“Yeah”, he replies, a little surprised.

“Well, do you remember how you went to sleep and then instantly woke up, as if no time had passed, but in reality, a few hours had gone by?”

“Yeah”, he nods slowly.

“So, obviously I don’t know for sure, and it’s different if you’re religious, but I have a feeling that’s what being dead is like. It’s not like when you’re asleep. When you’re asleep and you wake up you’re aware that some time has passed, right?”

A dark, contemplative frown adds an additional series of lines across Michael’s graffitied forehead.

“You’re right”, he eventually says, “You’re totally right. You don’t remember a thing.”

“Right, it’s not an experience of nothing, it’s more absent than that, it’s pure nothingness.”

“Holy shit”, he says, looking off into the corner of our white concrete cell, “It’s like how you don’t remember anything from before you were born.”

“I think so, yeah.”

“It’s nothing. It’s totally nothing.”

“Which makes life something, right?”

He nods.

“Holy shit, man, that’s like a fuckin’ revelation.”

Whether or not he was trying to intimidate me, he’s not anymore. I’ve somehow earned his respect. Not that I think I needed to. I don’t know the details of his past, I don’t know what he’s been through and what he’s put others through, but he’s being nice to me. At this point in time, that’s all I care about.

“It’s totally not like being asleep”, he continues, his mind still occupied with this, “It’s not like a bad dream. It’s just… nothing.”

He lies back on his bed, the bottom bunk, and I lie back on mine, the top bunk. While Michael thinks about how death isn’t like a bad dream, I think about how life has suddenly, somehow, become one.

I was on my way to visit my girlfriend and her parents in California. A day ago, I was in Wellington. How the hell did I end up sharing a prison cell with a murderer in the Federal Detention Center in Hawaii?

Rewind 24 hours.

I’m in Auckland International Airport talking to a kind-faced Malaysian man named Sun about his trip to the United States. We’re both waiting for our Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu, after which he’s going to Los Angeles and I’m going to San Francisco. I’m planning on meeting my girlfriend, Emma, and her parents, who live on the other side of the Sacramento Valley in a small mountain town called Mi Wuk Village. Emma and I are planning on camping in some of the national parks and visiting places like Death Valley, Monument Valley, and Portland. West Coast road trip. In Portland, I have a friend that I have never met, the publisher of my book, The Bloom. We’re probably just going to get a beer and talk about life and literature in her favourite brewery. Sun is going to meet his wife in San Bernardino. We board the plane just after midnight on the 2nd of November and fly northward into the night sky.

I wake up several hours later and see the pale blue waters off the Hawaiian archipelago underneath the plane’s wings. Gliding over fishing boats dotted around Pearl Harbor, we touch down and disembark. The customs line is long and slow and I begin getting a little nervous that I’ll miss my connecting flight. With about an hour to spare, I finally make it to the customs desk. Instantly, things turn sour.

“What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?” the stern woman behind the computer, fingerprint machine, and camera asks me.

“I’m just transiting on my way to San Francisco.”

“Let me repeat”, the woman says coldly, “What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?”

Caught a little off-guard by her accusative tone, I go into more detail.

“Well, I’m going to San Francisco to meet my girlfriend and her parents.”

“You have a girlfriend in San Francisco?”

“Yes. Well, she’s staying with her parents about three hours out of the city.”

“What’s their address?”

Now, prior to leaving New Zealand, I had to apply for my ESTA visa, just like any other New Zealander travelling to the United States. It’s a simple enough process and doesn’t cost a lot, but it requires you to provide an address that you will be staying at upon your arrival in the country. I had tried putting Emma’s parents’ address into the online application form, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t accept their rural address. I tried again and again but it simply wouldn’t work. Before picking me up from the airport in San Francisco, Emma was going to be staying at her friend’s house in Oakland, closer to the airport and an address that would surely work. So that’s the address I used on my ESTA visa application form. It worked. So, now that the customs official is asking me “What’s their address?”, I give her the Oakland address that I had used on the form to avoid complications.

It seems innocuous. Big mistake.

I search for the address in Emma and I’s WhatsApp messages before the customs official then asks to see my phone. I’m not sure if I have the right to deny this request, but either way, if I don’t give it to her she’ll surely become suspicious and if I do give it to her she’ll see the messages between myself and Emma in which we talk about the Oakland address being that of her friend. I’m damned either way. I give her my phone and she reads the messages.

“Come with me”, she says, taking my passport and cellphone with her.

My heart sinking, I follow her into a small side room. There are a couple of rows of seats all facing a big television playing MSNBC news. Something about the endless madness of Donald Trump’s presidency dominates the room. Along one side of the room are several CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officers sitting in booths with dark uniforms, guns, and serious faces, all pouring over documents and computer screens. The woman who led me into the room doesn’t say anything as she shuts the door behind me. None of the other officers say anything either. After standing there in confusion for a few moments, I approach one of the booths.

“Excuse me”, I say, “Can you please tell me what’s going on? I have a connecting flight I need to catch.”

The officer doesn’t look up from his paperwork.

“Well”, he says, leafing through his documents, “What’s going on with you?”

I’m not sure what to make of this reply. And why won’t he look at me?

I sit back down and wait. I’ve got about 40 minutes to board my flight to San Francisco. I’m starting to get incredibly anxious. Finally, after maybe five or ten minutes, a CBP officer at a booth calls out my name, sort of.

“David Cole?”

“Yeah, that’s me. David Coyle.”

“Your passport is invalid.”

Now my heart is really racing. Before I left New Zealand I had gotten a brand new passport through the correct government channels. How could it be invalid?

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“It has no signature, it’s invalid”, the officer says, placing it on his desk with a pen. I don’t find the joke particularly funny, given the circumstances, but laugh it off nervously and sign it. I realise their ridiculous attitudes and personas are simply aimed at irritating and agitating me, though I’m not sure of the precise reason for this approach, other than perhaps making people ‘crack’ and thus allowing them to be hit with the full weight of the law. Why antagonism is their chosen modus operandi is a mystery to me. As much as I wish I didn’t, I sign my passport with a visible tremor in my hand.

“Why are you shaking?”

“I’m just a little nervous.”

“Is it a medical problem?”

“No, no, I’m just a little bit nervous”, I say, “I’ve got a flight to catch soon and I’m not really sure what the problem here is.”

“Are you sure it’s not a medical problem?”


“Why are you nervous?”

I know what he’s doing. He’s asking repetitive questions that have obvious answers.

“I just don’t want to miss my flight.”

“So you’re shaking because you don’t want to miss your flight?”


“Don’t know why that would make you shake unless it was a medical problem.”

“It’s not a medical problem.”

“Where are you going?”

“San Francisco.”


“To meet my girlfriend and visit her parents.”

“Who is your girlfriend?”

“Her name is Emma Serianni.”

“How do you spell that?”


“And why is she in San Francisco?”

“She lives there. Well, she used to. She’s a dual citizen of New Zealand and the United States but she’s wanting to start a new life in New Zealand. She’s coming back with me in December.”

“So where does she live?”

“She’s staying with her parents at the moment. They live in California, a little place called Mi Wuk Village.”

“You’re going to stay with your girlfriend’s parents until December?”

“Yes. We’re going to do a little bit of driving around the national parks and make our way up to Portland too to see a friend.”

“What friend?”

“The publisher of my book lives there. I’m a writer.”

“What’s their name?”

I tell him.

“That’s the publisher’s name?”


“And what are you going to do in Portland?”

“Just meet her and have a drink, I think she wants to show Emma and I around the city.”

“So you’ve never met this woman?”

“No, not in person. We’ve been contacting each other via email.”

“Please unlock your phone. I want to see these emails.”

He hands me my phone and I unlock it, still with a slight quiver in my fingers. I know this isn’t going well. I show him the emails between the publisher and I where she says she looks forward to meeting me and buying me a beer.

“What’s this woman’s phone number?” he asks, putting my phone down.

“I don’t know. I’ve always only ever emailed her.”

“You don’t know her phone number?”

“No. You could easily find it online if you Google her company.”

“And where are you going to stay in Portland?”

“We’re not sure yet, we don’t know exactly when we’re going to drive up there.”

“So you don’t have any accommodation booked?”

“Not yet, no.”

“And you don’t have this woman’s phone number?”

“No, but you could easily find it.”

“Do you have your girlfriend’s phone number.”

“It’s in my phone, yes.”

“But you don’t know it?”

“No, it’s in my phone.”

“How much does your book sell for?”

This sudden change in the line of questioning makes this whole exercise all the more dizzying than it already is.

“Thirty-four dollars, something like that, New Zealand dollars.”

“How much US?”

“I don’t know. Depends on the exchange rate. Maybe twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars US?”


“What’s it called?”

“‘The Bloom’”.

“‘The Bloom’?”


“What’s it about?”

“Ah, it’s a complicated story, it’s a long poem, an epic poem.”

“An epic poem? What’s that?”

“It’s just a really long poem that tells a story.”

“So you’re doing business in Portland?”

“No. We’re just going to go for a beer, maybe she’ll show me around the office, I don’t know.”

“Why would she show you around the office?”

“I don’t know, just to introduce me to people, maybe show me how they make books. It’s a pretty casual meeting, definitely not business. You can see in the emails it isn’t business.”

“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”

“I already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

“Emma Serriani.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s between jobs at the moment, she’s hoping to find something in New Zealand in the near future.”


“Yeah, a job.”

“What kind of job?”

“Well, an office job, maybe immigration or at the local university.”

“What university?”

“Victoria University.”

“Where’s that?”



“Yeah. It’s the capital.”

“Why does she want to leave the US?”

I have to seriously bite my tongue here.

“She just wants to start a new life in New Zealand.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“In Wellington.”


“By the city library.”

“What’s the name of the library?”

“The Wellington City Library.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student.”

“What do you study?”

“English literature, history, and Spanish.”

“¿Hablas español?”


“Why are you learning Spanish?”

“I lived in Mexico for a while, it’s a beautiful language.”

“You lived in Mexico?”

“Yes, I taught English.”

“Where in Mexico?”


“Where’s that?”

“It’s about two hours north of Mexico City.”

“So you speak Spanish?”

“Not fluently, but I can hold a conversation.”

“How did you afford this trip if you’re a student?”

“My grandfather died recently and left me with some inheritance.”

“When did your grandfather die?”


“What day?”

“I don’t know. I’d have to check.”

“You don’t know what day he died even though he left you with an inheritance?”

“It was mid-April. As I said, I’d have to check.”

“And he would want you to spend his money on a holiday?”

“I think he’d want me to enjoy life, yes.”

“What’s your father’s name?”

This kind of insane, pinball questioning lasts for two hours. I miss my flight. I start thinking I need to contact Emma and tell her I will be late. The CBP officer finally tells me I can sit down. The television is still on about Trump. The insanity begins to feel so very real. A few minutes later, the officer goes through my luggage. He goes through my backpack. He finds the two books that I’ve been reading, one on African dictators and Edward Snowden’s autobiography.

“You like reading about criminals?” he asks.

“Lots of people do”, I say, my patience running out.

He finds the chocolates I’m bringing for Emma’s mother.

“That’s all you’re going to give your girlfriend’s mother, some chocolates?”

“That’s all she wanted.”

He finds my notebook. It’s a personal diary that I’ve kept for the last few years. It’s full of ideas, thoughts, personal reflections, dark rumination, sad musings, despair, hope for the future. He begins reading it.

“You have depression?” he asks.

“Yes. Although, I’m feeling fine now.”

He keeps reading.

“Your girlfriend had an abortion?”

“My ex-girlfriend did, yes.”

“What was that like?”

“Excuse me?”

“What did that feel like?”

I pause in an effort to remain calm. I’m feeling like ripping this bastard’s head off. I give him a dead stare that I hope tells him he’s crossing the line.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”, I say through gritted teeth.

He seems unfazed by his behaviour. He seems convinced I’m some sort of criminal, a drug runner perhaps, someone with suspicious connections to Mexico. I don’t really know what he’s thinking. I doubt it’s anything particularly intelligent. He finds the worthless Cambodian banknote that I’ve been using as a bookmark in one of my books.

“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”

“That’s a souvenir.”

“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”


He finishes ransacking my stuff before letting me pack it all back up again. He leads me to an interview room. He makes me raise my right hand and pledge, I’m not sure on what, to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He questions me in this same absurd fashion for two more hours, pistol on his belt. At some point in this circus, I come to terms with the inevitable. He probably decided four hours ago that he wasn’t going to let me into the country. I’m heartbroken. I just wanted to see my girlfriend and meet her parents and my friend.

“You falsified a federal document and lied to a federal officer” he finally says, having evidently killed enough of his shift, “As such, you’re in violation of section [I can’t remember what number] of the [something-something] Act and I have no choice but to deem you as inadmissible to the United States.”

He goes on talking in more of this masturbatory language. I don’t bother saying anything. The ability to change someone’s mind is dependent on the premise that they have one to begin with. He tells me he’s going to send me back to New Zealand on the next available flight. The next available flight isn’t until the following day, so he’s sending me to the Federal Detention Center, Honolulu. I’m not going to California, I’m going to jail.

I’m allowed to make a brief phone call to the New Zealand consulate in Honolulu. I ask the friendly kiwi accent on the other end of the phone to call Emma and my father to let them know what’s happened.

After making me take off my shoes, my belt, my hoodie, and my necklaces, I’m thoroughly patted down. It’s done in front of other CBP officers and is uncomfortable to say the least. I then have to face the wall, spread my feet, lean forward, and put my hands behind my back. Another officer cuffs me and he and his partner lead me through the airport to a waiting police car outside. The hot Hawaiian air hits me like a warm blanket. I’m shunted into the back of the cop car and driven to the twelve-story prison nearby.

I ignore the thick-necked officers’ attempts to chat to me and instead think of a certain irony. I’m thinking of the phrase that has always inspired me to travel, “Ships are safest in harbour but that is not what they are for”. In 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific fleet while it was at anchor nearby in Pearl Harbor. The knockout blow that the Japanese had hoped to administer failed in part because none of the American aircraft carriers were in port that day. As it would turn out, aircraft carriers would prove to be the most important weapons in the war in the Pacific. As we arrive at the prison, formulating the exact contours and irony of this metaphor is how I distract my heartbreak.

Led into the basement of the building, I’m told to strip naked before being given pale green prison clothes and black Velcro shoes. I’m mugshot and fingerprinted. The medical officer asks me if I have sex with men or women before asking how many partners I’ve had in the last five years. He asks if I have HIV or if I’ve ever been raped. He tells me I can’t have my depression and anxiety medication because it isn’t life-threatening. Another officer then asks if I have any gang affiliations or tattoos and if I’ve ever testified against anyone in court. I’m cleared for admission into general population and told to wait in an empty concrete room. The echo of steel and concrete and the banality of white fluorescent lights make me realise this is a real prison. I see someone has scratched into the metal bench the words ‘BE HAPPY’. I’m far from happy. However, I gain some perspective when an old Samoan prisoner is ushered into the room with me. He tells me his wife and children are American citizens but that his green card application was denied. He was therefore in the United States illegally and locked up while he waits to be deported back to Samoa. He’s a nice man and puts me at ease somewhat as to who I’m about to encounter in general population. But he’s old and I’m pretty sure the prisoners will have different attitudes towards the elderly.

He and I are soon led upstairs to the male prison block. We have to face the back of the elevator as it takes us up. The particular part of the prison where I’m taken is a big long room with two levels of cells lining the perimeter. There’s stairs leading up to the upper level and tables lining the ground floor. It’s dinner time when I arrive and I can see all the prisoners are sitting in racial groups; black guys huddled around one set of tables, Hispanic guys huddled around another, Hawaiians and other Polynesians around another, Asians another, and white guys another. Everyone eyes me up as I walk towards my cell, number 218 on the second level. I don’t make eye-contact with anyone, but I also don’t keep my head low. I do my best not to look scared as shit, and I’m scared as shit. In my peripheral vision are the meanest looking mother fuckers; bald heads covered in vicious ink, teardrop tattoos running down their cheeks, muscles indicative of years pent up in confinement with only push-ups to pass the time. I’d be made a fucking meal of in no time. Passing the Hispanic prisoners, I hear the filthiest Spanish being spoken, but thankfully none of them are saying anything about me, though I can feel their eyes on me.

The guard leads me to 218 and pushes the door open. Being dinner time, it isn’t locked. I step inside 218 and see my cellmate, Michael, lying on the bottom bunk and reading A Tale of Two Cities.

“Hey”, I say.


“‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’”, I say, quoting the opening line of his book.

“How’d you know that?” he says, sitting up.

“It’s a good book, huh?”

“It’s alright”, he shrugs, lying back down.

“I’m Dave.”

“Michael”, he says, reading his book, “Shoes by the door and sit down to pee, otherwise piss splashes everywhere.”

I see the toilet in the corner of the room.


Climbing the bunk, I lie on my back and keep quiet.

“So what ya in for, Dave?”

I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.

“They put you in here for that?”


“C’mon, man, what you hidin’?”


“Fuckin’ hell”, I hear him say from the bottom bunk.

“How about you?” I ask.


I don’t ask for any more detail. I offer him the orange they gave downstairs while they were processing me and at first he’s suspicious.

“What do you want for this?”

“Nothing, man. Honest. It’s yours.”

“You don’t want it?”

“Go for it, man.”


Gradually, the conversation starts flowing a little more easily.

“So where you from anyway?”

“New Zealand.”

“New Zealand! Shit. I heard it’s real nice down there.”

“It’s got its problems, like anywhere, but it’s nice, yeah. The police don’t carry guns.”

“What! The police don’t carry guns! How the fuck do they stop the criminals?”

“They keep their guns in their cars. Besides, not many criminals have guns.”

“Man, I gotta go someplace peaceful like that. I wouldn’t even do anything. I’d just hang out. The police don’t carry guns. Holy shit, man, that’s fuckin’ crazy.”

He asks if I have anything to read and offers me an old book of short stories. I stare at the pages but very little of it goes in.

“What time do they wake us up?” I then ask.

This is the only time Michael seems angry with me.

“Don’t ever fuckin’ talk to me about time, man. Six o’clock, eight o’clock, what the hell fuckin’ difference does it make?”

I don’t say anything. We just lie there and read. Michael’s friend from another cell, whose name I miss, then comes in and sits down. He’s missing his front teeth and has a skeleton tattoo on his face.

“They locked you up with a murderer for that?” he asks when I tell him why I’m there. I glance briefly at Michael who’s sat himself on a small table, he doesn’t acknowledge or deny the charge.

“Shit. Welcome to the U-nited States, huh?” his friend laughs, “They lock you up real fast around here.”

They tell me about their time in different prisons across the United States; Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri. As they swap stories, I realise I’m no longer scared. I don’t know exactly who I’m talking to, but at least they’re real people, unlike the robotic authorities. I actually start to enjoy the conversation. They find it hilarious that we called being drunk in New Zealand being “pissed”.

Michael’s friend asks if I enjoy the food here. I tell him I haven’t tried it. He asks if he can have my meal downstairs and I say of course he can. We head down to the ground floor with all the other prisoners huddled around their tables. Some are watching a repeat of the World Series and some are playing chess. I get my meal and give it to Michael’s friend. He slinks off and I don’t see him again. Walking back to 218, I stop to watch two guys playing chess. They’re black and white, like the pieces, and I realise that either the self-imposed segregation isn’t as strict as I first thought it was, or games are an acceptable middle ground in which to mix and meet. The white guy loses and since I’ve been watching the game, the black guy asks if I want to play. He’s good, but I beat him.

“You got game, son, you got game, I’ll give you that!”

We start talking about strategy and how the game could have gone differently. For a moment, I forget I’m in jail. He packs up his chessboard and I’m left sitting at the table. Two Hispanic prisoners then sit down to play cards.

“You’re good sitting there, man”, one says to me in English, “You don’t get in our way and we won’t get in yours.”

I decide not to reply in Spanish and instead let them have the table to themselves. Feeling a little more comfortable, I walk around and see a small library, a kind of chapel room, and a shower block. The lights soon blink off and on and the prisoners begin slowly walking back to their cells. Dinner time is over, lock up has begun.

This is when Michael asks me what I think dying would be like. He keeps talking about death, the universe, God, and the nature of hallucinations, group and individual, for a couple of hours. He’s got those wide eyes where you can see the entire white outline of his iris. It has the effect of making him appear particularly frightening at certain moments when saying certain things. His conversation is real prison philosophy stuff, limited, like the prisoner, by the confines of his reality. It’s interesting, nonetheless. I can tell he’s had nothing but a lot of time to sit and read and think. His conversation fades away after lights out with him repeating my thoughts on death.

“It’s nothing, nothing” he keeps saying.

Then he makes me smile to myself.

“I mean, nothing isn’t ideal”, he says, “but it could be worse.”

It could be worse.

I don’t get to sleep for a long time. Not only am I thinking about how I should be driving through San Francisco with Emma at that very moment, but because I wasn’t allowed my medication, I can’t sleep. Taking the medication helps me sleep, not taking it makes me  incredibly anxious. It’s like trying to sleep after having three cups of coffee and an argument with your boss. Not only that, but I’m prone to having weird and noisy nightmares if I miss my medication. The last thing I want is to have a loud or embarrassing nightmare in a cell with a murderer.

When a guard wakes me up in the morning, I’ve had maybe two hours sleep. Michael bumps my fist as I leave.

“Don’t ever come back, man”, he says.

“I won’t”, I tell him, “And just remember, there’s nothing to it.”

The same procedure as when I arrived, just in the opposite order, then sees me handcuffed in the back of another police car driving to the airport. The officer keeps telling me that I smell. I don’t reply.

Back in the airport, I’m put in a holding room of some kind for six hours until my flight. They offer me food and water, but I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I just want to go home. Bored out of my brain, I eventually get given something to read. I look at the words but struggle to take anything in. Finally, I’m escorted by a policeman through the airport to my flight to Auckland. Along the way, I see an official portrait of Donald Trump hanging up on a wall. I have had many great experiences in the United States in the past, it’s an incredible country filled with wonderful people and fascinating places that have a lot to offer, but this particular experience, this particular portrait—it’s the ugly, the punitive, the paranoid dark side. I can’t wait to leave it.

When the plane lands in Auckland eight hours later, the head flight attendant gives me my passport back. The nightmare is over. I’m back in New Zealand. I’m back in paradise. I’m home.

Curiously, however, when driving back to Wellington and stopping at a bar to enjoy a pint and watch a pink and yellow sunset over Lake Taupo, the snowcapped peaks of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe shining brightly in the distance, I then get an unusual email. It’s from a reporter working for Stuff and The Dominion Post. She says that she has heard about my experience in Honolulu and wants to call me. None of my friends know I’m in Taupo, only my immediate family, everyone else thinks I’m in California enjoying my holiday. I fire back an email asking how she found out about what happened to me in Hawaii. She says she can’t tell me. I reply that, therefore, I can’t tell her anything either.

I finish my beer as the purple sky deepens. I think of John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Heartbroken, but not broken, I begin planning for Emma’s arrival in December.


[I decided not to go to the press with this story. If I ever want to visit the United States again (and despite what their government might think, I really don’t want to visit again, especially not any time soon), but if I do want to visit, I have to go for an interview at the consulate in Auckland and pay $260 (I have to do this even if I’m just transiting through the country and not leaving the airport, for the rest of my life). If I had given the press this story, I can’t imagine my interview at the consulate would go well. I decided to write this account for my friends and family on my own website where I can control what is written and when it is taken down, probably in a couple of weeks. And let’s be honest, this basically just saves me from retelling the story a thousand times over!]