By Natania Rosenfeld
Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
Elena Ferrante has written the great novel—the great four-volume novel—of female friendship that Virginia Woolf dreamed of in A Room of One’s Own. But it’s more complicated than that, for Ferrante’s Naples Quartet is also a post-Freudian allegory of the female soul and of the profound ambivalence a woman experiences in a society that quashes her ambition and dictates the contours of her desire. It is about being both sexually desirous and intellectually trenchant, and about the need for recognition of both aspects of the self. It posits that perhaps only another woman can provide this recognition, but also that any friendship between two women with both of these traits is inevitably riddled with competition and envy. Ultimately, the only sure love is self-love, an absolute necessity for survival; but sadly, more dependable than self-love is the self-hate a rigidly patriarchal society ingrains in women. Ferrante leads the reader to the “new expectations” she insists on nurturing, while also fully satisfying the old ones: suspense, drama, secrets gradually or suddenly revealed, violence, sex, and fully fleshed sociological delineation of a particular place at a particular time.
By Miroslava Chávez-García
At the bottom of my closet sits a neatly organized treasure trove of more than 300 personal letters written in the 1960s and exchanged among family members across the US-Mexico border. Written in Spanish with sprinklings of English by my mother and father, their brothers and sisters, parents, and friends living in Mexico and the United States, they contain a wealth of insight about the personal, emotional, and intimate relations cultivated across the vast divide.
By Elly Bulkin
“Jews, Blacks, and Lesbian Teens in the 1940s: Jo Sinclair’s The Changelings and ‘The Long Moment,’” I knew a lot less than I know now, three decades later, about the life and work of Jo Sinclair, the pen name of the working-class, Jewish, lesbian writer Ruth Seid (1913 – 1995). I knew that she’d written Wasteland, which won the $10,000 Harper Prize for Fiction, and The Changelings, because I’d learned about them from black lesbian-feminist Barbara Smith at a 1979 National Women's Studies Association panel. In 1985, when I began work on the article that became
But in the 1980s, I didn’t know that Sinclair identified as a lesbian. I did know that the Wasteland dust-jacket photo of the author, with her short, light hair and tailored jacket, looked just like Debbie, a minor but pivotal Jewish lesbian character. In the first draft of Wasteland, Debbie was named Ruthie, and both Sinclair and her character worked in the WPA and published fiction with black characters in New Masses, a radical left magazine. With Debbie, Sinclair created what the gay historian Jonathan Katz has called “probably the most complex, human, and affirmative portrait of a homosexual (female or male) to appear in American fiction” before 1964.
By Louise Knight
Though I love history now, consider myself an historian, and have published two biographies set in the nineteenth century, I first discovered my love of history by reading historical fiction. I read Gone with the Wind in eighth grade, but even before that, in fourth grade, I read Julia Ward Howe: Girl of Old New York, by Jean Brown Wagoner (it was one of those orange biographies of famous Americans, which you may remember if you grew up in the 1940s through the 1960s). Though the book’s inspiring feminist message must have been a good part of its appeal (I only understood that message when I reread the book a few years ago), what I most enjoyed was the way this talented author transported me into the historical past. Too young to wonder if the book was accurate or not, I loved the idea that I was taking a trip back in time.
Even for adults, this remains the great appeal of historical fiction. In a 2013 survey, 75 percent of 2,400 devotees of historical fiction from around the English-reading world gave as their top reason for reading books in that genre, “To bring the past to life.”
Of course there is another genre that, like historical fiction, is set in the past and typically has a main protagonist: biography. Can biography make the same claim? Sometimes. A lyrically written biography about a life for which the historical record supplies the right kind of material can provide that elusive, transportative experience. Richard Holmes’s prize-winning Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 did that for me.
By Jayne Benjulian
In my twenties, I wrote poems and published them under another name. To dredge up those poems, you’d have to know the name I was born with—my father’s name and the married name of my mother, who died when I was a child. That was before I quit a PhD program and fled a brutal marriage, and before my former college roommate told me if I wrote commercials, I could earn ten times the money I was earning writing freelance articles.My first assignment in advertising was to compose 100 rhyming mailgrams for Western Union. I had never made so much money and had so much fun. I was no longer living hand-to-mouth.
By Erin Aubry Kaplan
He broke a major color barrier, fielded intense opposition from day one, and lived his time in office under the unrelenting gaze of the Internet and social media—and for these and other reasons, Barack Obama has probably been the most scrutinized president in American history. Most of the scrutiny has been critical: everybody from conservative tea party zealots on down to disillusioned progressives have complained about his policies, his lack of this and overreach of that. But what about Obama the man, or more accurately, the symbol? Where will he finally lodge in our national consciousness? And what did he mean to women, especially black women?
Polls reported that Obama consistently resonated among women of all colors, most obviously because of his broad sympathy for their issues. The first bill he signed into law when he got into office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He’s prochoice and has talked a lot about single working moms, something that speaks to his own family experience growing up. He pushed through healthcare reform.
by Ruthann Robson
With the unanticipated death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, the United States Supreme Court has become a more hospitable forum for feminist causes. While Justice Scalia was not alone in his hostility to feminism—remaining Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas are equally unsympathetic—Scalia proved himself particularly rancorous during his three decades on the high court bench. In opinion after opinion, Scalia expressed views inconsistent with women’s equality: he believed that an historically all-male military academy should be able to continue to exclude women; that the constitution did not protect a woman’s right to abortion or her right to be free from domestic violence; and that the constitution should not prohibit attorneys from excusing potential jurors based on their gender. He was an ardent foe of sexual minority rights, contending that the constitution did not protect against the criminalization of same-sex intimacies or the prohibition of same-sex marriages. He believed a state should be able to prevent local laws that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. He did credit theconstitution as having rights for some: if you claimed to be “disadvantaged” by an affirmative action program; or if you wanted to purchase, own, or use firearms; or if you challenged environmental regulations on your beach front property, then Scalia’s constitution proved most accommodating.
"The day after the filet, she had been unable to eat a pork chop, and since then, for several weeks, she had been making experiments. She had discovered that not only were things too obviously cut from the Planned Cow [the diagram in her cookbook identifying cuts of beef] inedible for her, but that the Planned Pig and the Planned Sheep were similarly forbidden. Whatever it was that had been making these decisions, not her mind certainly, rejected anything that had an indication of bone or tendon or fibre."
By Jewelle Gomez
In the mid-1990s I was at a signing event at the Miami International Book Fair as the queue of readers assembled to get autographs from a dozen writers. I watched as many fans discreetly peeled off to approach authors much more famous than I and tried not to feel like a poor relation. My usually sunny smile carefully masked my humiliated feeling, familiar from dreams in which I’d been dropped into some ultraformal public event where everyone laughed because I was wearing my pajamas.