Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement Edited by Shelley Oria
Reviewed by Andi Zeisler
It’s been two years since #MeToo grew from a modest hashtag to become a movement that destabilized previously bullet-proof icons of power, and in the process put to rest the sneering assessment of social-media activism as a toothless performance of wokeness. But the question of whether the effort to make sexual harassers, coercers, and abusers accountable for their actions has “worked” is one that the media news cycle has worried over more or less since it began. With no agreed-upon metric for what constitutes success, the answer seems to be ... maybe?
Yes, a handful of the high-profile men whose patterns of behavior yielded a critical mass of allegations and evidence have seen actual consequences: They’ve had the C’s, E’s, and O’s stripped from their titles, lost lucrative broadcast deals, been made socially radioactive, and, in at least one case, seen criminal prosecution. And there’s no question that #MeToo mainstreamed a vocabulary to describe the range of behaviors that may not qualify as outright assault or quid pro quo harassment, but that nevertheless have a demonstrable negative impact on the livelihoods, careers, and potential of too many women.
On the other hand, it’s clear that more than a few public figures believe that #MeToo is a kind of frustrating career roadblock that they can get around with a combination of strategy and timing, tiptoeing back into book deals and radio shows and comedy clubs, shell-shocked by the indignity of consequences. Furthermore, there seems to be a misunderstanding in some corners that what curbing sexual harassment in workplaces demands is not less sexual harassment or even a more equitable leadership model, but fewer women who might potentially cause problems.
But it’s undeniable that the same urge to promote solidarity among survivors that in 2006 prompted Tarana Burke to type those two words into a MySpace account remains necessary in what mainstream media insist on calling the “post– #MeToo era.” The importance of #MeToo is that it helped us recognize with retroactive clarity that history has always minimized, erased, and reworded the lived realities of women. We only had to flip the tapestry to see how many women— trailblazers and unsung heroes, “difficult” outcasts and national laughingstocks—were connected within a complex tangle of threads and loose ends.
To document social change as it happens—and to do so in a time when news never stops breaking—is challenge enough, but capturing #MeToo with nuance and care requires reckoning with the number of stories that have no measurable outcomes and no neat endings. Impeccably reported new books like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin’s The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, or Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and the Conspiracy to Protect Predators are gripping, but they still keep the focus largely on the perpetrators.
This makes the new anthology Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, seem even more unassuming by comparison. The book, whose title is taken from Christine Blasey Ford’s September 2018 testimony during the confirmation hearings of now-seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, collects 22 personal essays, poems, and prose pieces, all brimming with emotion that’s barely contained by their brief format. Edited by author Shelly Oria, the book has none of the advance publicity of this fall’s meaty #MeToo titles; it feels consciously compact, a kind of jewel box of literary voices, each piece reflecting the shine of its neighbors while nestled in its own velvet nook. Written by authors with identities that are underrepresented in #MeToo’s public face, including women of color and queer and transgender people, some of the work is impressionistic. Some is straightforward, linear, timely. Some are clearly fiction, others fiction that feel like nonfiction—in Oria’s own contribution, alltoo- real violence (a woman hands out pamphlets about her friend who was hit by a car while trying to get away from a street harasser) is interrupted by wish-fulfilling violence (the narrator murders a man who asks how she knew the friend); the cartoonishness of the latter feels almost unfairly amplified by the believability of the former.
Many of the works in the book speak to the first part of Blasey Ford’s recollection, the way she identified, with clinical precision, the hidden place where sickeningly familiar memories are stored. “Indelible” stands at odds with the American legal system’s regularly dismissive approach to cases of sexual harassment and assault, its age-old assumption of women as unreliable narrators of their own lives. But indelible does not mean inflexible. As Kaitlyn Greenridge notes in the book’s first essay, “Your Story Is Yours,” the manner in which we give voice experiences of harassment, abuse, and coercion can be dependent on who is listening, who will understand, who will believe. (“You used to tell the story as a joke. It was easier that way.”) Karissa Chen echoes this indelible malleable in “My Body, My Story,” writing “Sometimes my body tells me things whether I want to know them or not.”
But the second half of Blasey Ford’s statement— the part about the laughter—is less in evidence here. What she acknowledged is that sexual predation and humiliation have long been sanctioned experiences of male bonding: The laughter is the point. The groping, the dick-waving, the sexual mocking are the means to an end; the recipient of them just the vehicle. Childhood sexualization, purposely humiliating advances, and cruel humor have punctuated #MeToo tales like a joke-shop can of mixed nuts, opening and reopening to eject a springloaded snake with a loud pop, surprising even when you know it’s coming. The experience of being the butt of a joke and also being expected to laugh simmers in Indelible’s subtext, but remains underexplored in these writings.
That’s not to say that the pieces themselves don’t contain the dark humor that feels necessary to numb #MeToo’s painful mundanity: the Twitter post you write when a favorite actor’s name trends on Twitter and you hope fervently that they’ve died and not, say, harassed someone out of a career, the grim eyeroll shared with a coworker as you listen to a higher-up plead the innocence of his pal who would never, ever send creepy after-hours DMs. Not surprisingly, one of Indelible’s standout pieces lampoons the absurd, inescapable mediation of #MeToo: Elisa Schappell’s “Re: Your Rape Story,” plays out in emails between a freelance writer and her editor as they wrestle with what needs to be a simultaneously tragic, triumphant, and marketable account. (“This shouldn’t be hard for you, just tell us what happened to you, and how you got past it. I am not saying that the ending has to be uplifting, but you know.”)
The question of who Indelible in the Hippocampus is for seems worth asking. #MeToo has established that a critical mass of us have experiences that hit points all along this spectrum; social media and the demand for daily content have offered a wealth of them. The anthology’s straightforward intentions— we have stories, here they are—are neither trajectory nor incitement. In many ways, Indelible feels like a young relative of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s 1996 stage play that bloomed into a movement. Ensler ’s words, channeled through different characters, challenged generations of norms that alienated women from their anatomy— and, by extension, their potential for both pleasure and power. It marked a shift in time where words made public what privacy had never protected or empowered.
The Vagina Monologues is, these days, everything from edifying to hopelessly essentialist, but there’s no question that it was foundational in inviting women to recognize that, whatever you’ve experienced, you have not done so alone. Indelible in the Hippocampus, too, invites us to bear witness to the voices that aren’t the loudest, the splashiest, or the most demanding of a platform, but are the ones in whose many facets we can all recognize ourselves.
Andi Zeisler is the author of We Were Feminists Once and is the co-founder of Bitch Media.
Interview with Alix Kates Shulman By Jennifer Baumgardner, with Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert
In 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was published and hailed as the first novel of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It sold more than a million copies, and its author, Alix Kates Shulman, went on to write more than a dozen works of fiction, memoir, essays, and children’s literature. I first interviewed Shulman in 1993, when I was a young assistant at Ms. magazine, and we’ve remained friends ever since. At 87, Shulman is editing (with Honor Moore) the anthology Writing the Women’s Movement (Library of America, 2021). Her best-selling first novel is out in a new edition, which inspired a reason to interview Shulman again, this time with WRB interns Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert, at her loft in lower Manhattan.
Jennifer Baumgardner: What was going on in your life and in the world when you were writing Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?
Alix Kates Shulman: I found the movement in December of ’67. I was a housewife-mother. I had had a wonderful job as an encyclopedia editor, but you couldn’t be pregnant and keep your job. There was no maternity leave; you couldn’t “return” to work, because your job would have been filled by somebody else. So, there I was, at home with two little kids, keeping house and doing some freelance work, and I heard on WBAI these young women talking about a new movement: Women’s Liberation. They gave the name of a group— New York Radical Women—a telephone number, and a date and address for the meeting. I wrote it down, went to that meeting, and that was it.
I first conceived of this book at our 1968 Miss America protest. The Women’s Liberation Movement was barely a year old. As I marched, it suddenly came to me that the Miss America Pageant and the prom queen beauty contests all over America were the same. At that time, the pinnacle of female achievement was the Miss America crown. I wanted to show how being judged by men, with looks counting for so much, affected us. I think it was Ros Baxandall who said, “Every day in a woman’s life is a Miss America contest.” We were competing to get the man. Because the only legitimacy a woman had was through her man. I wanted to write a novel with a prom queen heroine, which would show the ways that women were oppressed.
JB: Were you already writing before the Women’s Movement came into your life?
AKS: I had written a couple of children’s books—largely because I had kids and was desperate for some that had positive girl characters and weren’t so sexist, which was a new word back then.
I was writing stories, too. Of course, they were rejected because they were feminist. Well, this was before the Movement, so they weren’t exactly feminist, but they were about women. The first one became the first chapter of Prom Queen, about leaving her husband. And it had the character’s name: Sasha Davis.
I was writing stories, and nothing was happening, and then suddenly the Movement started founding feminist journals. My first fictions were published in Aphra, the first feminist literary journal of the Second Wave. It’s named after Aphra Behn, a seventeenth-century writer said to be the first woman writer to earn her living writing. There was a huge push at the beginning of Women’s Liberation to re-find, reclaim, and write about so-called “lost women.” Or those just not recognized by the male literary establishment.
JB: Prom Queen has a fractured timeline. Why did you approach it that way?
AKS: There was this man I had known in the early fifties and used to beat at chess. Chess was almost exclusively a male activity; women didn’t play, but I played and beat him so he thought I was smart. I met him again at a party in ’69, and, by that time, he was an editor at a big publishing house. He said he read my story about Sasha Davis leaving her husband in Aphra and, “If you ever write a novel, I want to look at it.” I went home and made an outline for my novel. Since it was that story that attracted him, I thought, “I’ll start with that, and then flash backward from childhood on.”
My initial idea was to start every chapter with an episode at the Miss America protest, in order to indicate that it was a feminist novel. And the frame was not going to be her leaving her husband so much as twenty-four hours in Atlantic City. At about chapter three, I saw that this structure was clunky, even silly; the frame wasn’t working. I didn’t need to telegraph it as a political novel. Just let it be. I dropped the protest frame, and it was so freeing for me.
JB: The very last scene is in the beauty shop. Sasha’s getting her hair cut. She’s trying to connect to her earlier self by wearing her hair the way she did when she was named prom queen at her high school. As she’s under the dryer, she starts to panic. It’s a very bad haircut. When she gets home, her husband reacts with horror, as if she had hurt him with this bad look. Sasha says something falsely conciliatory and then goes and calls her friend, Roxanne.
AKS: The beauty shop scene is the culmination of the novel. Among other things, it’s about how it’s a fool’s errand to try to look like what you used to look like. It’s absurd, and it doesn’t work. It was very important to me that the book end with some intimation of the Movement, but nothing overt, so I ended the book on a woman’s name: Roxanne, Sasha’s best friend.
I struggled with how to end it. I know for some young women, who didn’t have children and a wandering husband, like Sasha, that was not a satisfying ending.
JB: It’s very subtle and very packed with meaning. Did your editor understand it right away, that it was like Nora slamming the door?
AKS: Yes, exactly! Sasha picks up the phone and calls Roxanne. If you’re a perceptive reader, you know that means she’s going to say, “Can I come and stay with you? I’m leaving.” Because that also happens earlier in the novel, when Sasha leaves her first husband.
It’s a prescient #MeToo novel, too, because she—poor, little Sasha—is oppressed by so many guys trying to get into her pants, whether it’s rape or other kinds of sexual assault or, in the work context, a quid pro quo. To me, looking back at it, it’s a catalog of everything that was going on then and lots that is still going on now. Some things are different. Virginity is no longer required in high school, for instance, but there’s still massive slut-shaming.
JB: That strict box around virginity and being desirable has been reconstituted for this generation in a way that looks like sexual freedom, but it’s really like enforced exhibitionism—being coercively asked to send nudes, being expected to know how to do things from a weird porn menu.
Let’s talk about tone: the book describes marital rape, date rape, abortion, and harassment, but Sasha laughs a lot of it off. She has her eyes on the prize: having a big life. The language of today, a time when we’re finally taking harassment more seriously, is often about trauma and PTSD and interactions making you “feel weird.” Where Prom Queen was once perceived as an angry novel, Sasha might now be perceived as not sufficiently understanding that she was violated.
AKS: Right, well, first of all, this novel presents a pre-feminist world. Second, I wanted it to be a comic novel. This book was written out of my rage—feminist rage, which I’m so happy to see has been revived! My approach, as a writer, was to see it all ironically. I thought, when I wrote it, that only the ten people in my consciousness-raising group would get the humor, but it turned out that, by the time it was published, hundreds of thousands of people had gone through consciousness-raising just in a couple of years. And they wanted an interpretation of their experience that was feminist.
In terms of Sasha’s reaction to rape and harassment: Sasha has her goal, which is to experience life as fully as she can without getting trapped, without getting a reputation, without being ignored, without being thrown on the garbage heap. She uses whatever assets she has to make her way through this maze of oppression that is waiting for her at every turn. She thinks, “If I just get through this, then it’ll be okay.” But no, at the next turn, there it is again, oppression in another form. “I’ll get through this, and it’ll be okay.” She avoids victimization by not letting it wreck her. That’s her strength. And she goes onto the next self-appointed task. I see it as funny that Sasha—who is not me the writer, only the narrator and the protagonist—thinks she can escape the bad treatment if she gets the right man, or if she gets the abortion, or if she doesn’t let whatever’s happening mess up her life.
Actually, we in consciousness-raising were not stopped by all the horrible things that happened to us, either. We got together, we discovered problems that each of us thought were “just me.” We were all faking orgasms. I mean, it was everybody! And that made us laugh like crazy, to discover that we were all faking orgasms. Within the Movement, these things that we named—these ways that we were mistreated—were grist for our mill. They let us know what we had to go out and change. We felt empowered by all this knowledge, not traumatized by it. I’m not saying people weren’t traumatized by their experience, though that wasn’t a term we had. We were just like, “Oh, that guy mistreated her? Let’s go and picket his house.” It was fun. One of the things about the early Women’s Liberation Movement that gets lost now is how much fun it was. We laughed so much!
In the early Movement, the point of consciousness-raising was to make women understand that all of this experience that they just took as a given was oppression. I don’t think women nowadays need to learn that they’re oppressed. Everybody knows it. It’s true that, for decades, because of the backlash, women would say, “I’m not a feminist” even though they benefited from and approved of the changes that the Movement made. But now, suddenly—since Trump’s election—feminism is not a dirty word.
JB: I think the shift came before Trump. By 2013, a critical mass of people felt invited in, like they could be themselves and be a feminist, and started using the term. In 2014, Beyoncé famously performed at the Video Music Awards with FEMINIST in huge letters behind her. That was a big tipping point.
AKS: Well, of course there’s going to be a great variety in geography, ethnicity, age, race, and all kinds of differences. This is a huge country with a huge population. But if you can get more than a million women to march the day after Trump’s inauguration, to me, that marks a change. So that’s why I say Trump. I’m sure that it was a gradual continuum. I mean, there were always some women who proudly called themselves feminist—like us.
Kayla Bert: It actually bothers me when people use the word “feminist” loosely. Do you feel that way?
AKS: Yes, but it’s certainly better than being anti-feminist.
JB: Are you saying, Kayla, that there is a superficial consumerist variation, and that’s less meaningful?
Alice Stewart: Right. It’s cool to call yourself a feminist, but many people won’t take in what it means and execute it in their daily lives. Feminism means changing your actions and interactions, not just slapping it on a t-shirt and calling it a day.
AKS: I agree. But words do change, and, eventually, the meaning of a word can become so diluted that people have to use a new word to describe what they’re talking about. And maybe “feminism” will become one of those words; it will have to be replaced by something that you would both like. “Intersectional feminism” has kind of replaced plain feminism, but that’s a mouthful. People do make new words, so don’t worry if it has a problem.
JB: Say a little bit more about a reemergence of feminist rage. What’s the function of rage, to you, within the feminist movement?
AKS: It’s organizing, because rage is a very powerful emotion. You cannot dismiss it, you cannot put it down. And when other people see they have the same [rage] about the same thing, a movement explodes. I think it usually starts with an outrage, that people are doing this, that people are getting treated like this.
JB: What is the role of literature in a movement?
AKS: It’s very important, because literature—I mean fiction—recreates emotions, and you can reach people who might not be interested in reading an argument. I recently wrote a column in Lit Hub about books that made me a feminist novelist. One was Richard Wright’s Native Son; it was so clearly a political novel. Back in 1969, in America, fiction and politics did not go together. Politics were considered toxic to art. But Richard Wright wrote a political novel that was also very moving and very important. That gave me permission to write a political novel without feeling that I was going to be trashed by the male literary establishment. Well, of course, I was wrong about that.
JB: Art is truth-telling, but politics often has an agenda. I am thinking of politics in terms of propaganda in our hyper-polarized society.
AKS: I don’t mean anything like electoral politics. To me politics is power relations. In my novel, I was describing power relations between men and women, and that’s why I think of it as political. The power relations between men and women are so disparate, and how is a group that lacks the power supposed to respond? The novel narrates one way: by trying to make the best of each situation you can without getting killed. And then, in my next novel, organizing.
JB: One of your gifts must be being attuned to the things that are going to resonate with the largest number of people. The fact that the first radical feminist action would be at the Miss America pageant is so savvy, because everybody’s watching it on network TV.
AKS: Carol Hanisch came up with the idea. Yeah, it was brilliant. It wasn’t the first action, but it was the first to get national coverage. We had a lot of actions before that, like W.I.T.C.H., a small consciousness-raising group which I belonged to, hexed Wall Street.
JB: Witches have come back. There’s a whole spate of books coming out this fall—The Witches Are Coming, Hexing the Patriarchy, etc., podcasts like “The World Needs a Witch.”
AKS: Back then, West Coast feminists had a spiritual witchy group that embraced Wicca. We in New York were just political witches. Witches represented a certain kind of male oppression—burning!—in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and that’s why the group W.I.T.C.H. took that name.
JB: Everything with feminism right now—the surging rage, the witches— does it feel familiar?
AKS: The rage of #MeToo reminds me of consciousness-raising. I think it’s a latter-day, Internet version. Consciousness-raising was done in small groups of women, maybe a dozen members, all over the country, and it was a huge organizing tool for the Women’s Movement.
Speak-outs were the public face of consciousness-raising. The first speak-out was put on by Redstockings on abortion, in 1969. People broke the taboo and spoke about abortion publicly for the first time. Then there was a speak-out on rape, then there was a speak-out in ’75 on sexual harassment—when the term was invented. I think that #MeToo, in that it is on the Internet, is the public face of a taboo subject. It has had a huge effect, as every one of those speak-outs did. As consciousness-raising did.
When I think of today’s movement, I applaud it. I just applaud it in every way. Each generation is born to a certain set of tasks, that’s the limit of their horizon. People born after that horizon has been seen and those tasks accomplished have a different set of tasks ahead of them. They see a different horizon. So, I look to younger feminists for help in my understanding. They see further than I could see when I was their age, much further, and I look to them to see how to expand my own horizon. I’m just thrilled that the movement is reborn. Whatever form it takes isn’t for me to judge. It’s for me to learn from.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.
Red at the Bone By Jacqueline Woodson
Reviewed by LaToya Council
Ever masterful, Jacqueline Woodson gifts to the literary community another account of Black life that can be read through the lens of Black feminist traditions and thought. In the 208 pages of Red at the Bone, she shows readers how multiple family, personal, and societal histories inform present and future lives and outcomes.
The novel begins with sixteen-year-old Melody and her family at her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Melody is in her room preparing for her cotillion—a celebration that welcomes young girls from upper-middle-class and elite backgrounds into womanhood. A few minutes later, she stands at the top of the stairs, waiting to descend into the living room, reflecting on an earlier conversation she had with her mother, Iris. During the conversation, Melody learns that, if Iris had revealed a month or so earlier that she was pregnant, Melody would not have been born, which would have unknowingly altered the lessons about family history, race, class, gender, and choices readers are able to learn.
Although Red at the Bone holds within its pages many starting points and layers of complexity, the ceremony for Melody and the individual musings of her grandparents and parents regarding their memories teaches readers how much our past informs our present and the choices we believe we have access to. As Melody descends the staircase to join her family in the living room, Woodson pauses the ceremony to introduce readers to her parents and grandparents, and to tell their personal stories as to how they came to be in that moment—celebrating her. Melody, simply, is a symbolic representation of her parents, who are two individuals from different class backgrounds and who became parents as teenagers—binding two families, showing the uniqueness and complexity of Black family life and the not-soclear- cut class boundaries between middle- and working-class Blacks. Thinking about how best to summarize and review Red at the Bone, I am choosing to highlight two among many critical lessons the book offers readers: the importance of family history and historical context in shaping individual lives, and the “greyness” of choice as it relates to Black womanhood.
Drawing on Black feminist traditions and thought, historical context tends to be a lens utilized to theorize about the individual and collective Black experience, particularly when discussing Black folks and family patterns. In simple terms, Black families cannot be analyzed without the inclusion of the historical context shaping their experiences, because historical context tends to illuminate some of the present reality for many Black people. Readers learn, for example, that fire and gold are historical influencers shaping the lives of the book’s characters. Readers are told a story of Black life during Jim Crow and the domestic terrorism inflicted on Black communities by white supremacists. Although this story is not a main theme of the book, the reference to fire, gold, and the historical family account illuminates resiliency among Black families when faced with structural violence and strains. Iris’s mother’s family could have given up when domestic terrorists destroyed their community, but their ancestors stated, “You rise. You rise. You rise.”
The idea of rising and its relation to Black families’ historical context is displayed throughout the novel. Rising during and after violent encounters with entities and systems in place that tend to constrain Black Americans reveals how embedded the legacy of resistance is within the Black community. Without her realizing it, this historical legacy impacted Iris as she navigated identity from teenage years to adulthood. Although the challenges that she and her mother faced were different from those of their ancestors, they were able to tap into a legacy of rising against adversity.
As her eyes burned in the dim light of the reading lamp,” Woodson writes, “she knew it was her mother and her mother’s mother and on back to something that couldn’t be broken that was driving her. The story of her life had already been written. Baby or no baby.” A second lesson on historical context that Red at the Bone offers readers is the intentional and not-sointentional perpetuation of class and race inequality. A common question I receive when teaching undergraduate students is, “Why do people who live in poverty lack the will to strive to do better?” After cringing and holding my breath, I answer the question with the comment, “That is the wrong question to ask.” Instead of focusing so much on an individual’s actions, I challenge my students to think about income inequality and its connection to inadequate resources, which disproportionately impacts communities of color— emphasis on Black communities. Red at the Bone captures the complexities of being a Black family from a particular class; as Woodson says, “One day chicken, next day bone.”
The emphasis on race and class and their intersection with historical context is beautifully captured with Aubrey, Melody’s father. One way in which Aubrey comes to understand the differences between his class background and his daughter and her family’s class background is through his hands. He struggles, for instance, with placing his hands properly for the cotillion ceremony. Readers also learn that he comes to recognize that the texture of his hands is different from his daughter ’s family’s—being that his hands are used to hard physical labor working-class individuals are known to participate in:
His mother’s hands had been calloused, but he never knew why ... But the first time he shook Sabe’s and Po’Boy’s hands, he was surprised. He had thought all grown-ups had rough and calloused hands. And now his own hand inside his daughter’s felt the way his mother ’s had … He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother ’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was.
Aubrey’s hands are like his mother’s, he realizes, and thus the old question of “doing better” is addressed in Red at the Bone. Through this example, we see that the impact of income inequality combined with race inequality and combined with family history connects and informs individual experiences and outcomes from youth to adulthood.
Choices, family history, and Black womanhood are complex ideas, often tasks taken up by Black women literary and humanities scholars and social scientists. Woodson continues this tradition in Red at the Bone, as well as providing readers a lens to interrogate the “grayness” of choices as it relates to Black womanhood. Iris engages with choices in her youth, as a teenage mother. Readers learn that she plans to attend college, and with the resources afforded her due to her upper-middle-class background, that is attainable. Iris’s choice and ability to act on her decision speak to her class privilege. They also challenge normative beliefs regarding motherhood and family commitment.
Iris’s choice illuminates the uniqueness of Black motherhood and Black community care. The choice to attend college away from home—the empowered decision to choose self over family and community, an option not always available to many Black women—can be viewed as selfish. Iris’s making this choice is why Red at the Bone is a special novel. I interpret it as a form of sacrifice some Black mothers can make to ensure the well-being of their children and community. Yes, Iris could have attended a school that was much closer to home, but perhaps at the cost of offering her child the best resources she herself was afforded as a child. Further, the option to attend college away from family illuminates the importance of community care work in the Black community. That is, Iris’s choice emphasizes the integral role of “othermothers,” “community mothers,” and kinship ties and networks among many Black Americans.
Red at the Bone is a novel packed with layers, and adds to the canon of literature that highlights an accurate account of Black family life. If I had to summarize it in a few words, I would say it is a literary representation of Black feminist traditions and thought. Woodson marks the personal as political by showing how manifold girlhood, womanhood, sexuality, and motherhood are for Black women. These beautiful pages illuminate how race and class are experienced in gendered, patterned ways for Black women and men. In short, Woodson produces knowledge about Black Americans that pays homage to family history, historical context, and intersectionality—forms of analyses that mark a writer worthy of Black feminist theorizing.
If Red at the Bone had centered on a Black man’s narrative, I don’t think I would have battled with it as much. If I only had Aubrey’s story to lean on, and if he made the choice that Iris made, I don’t think I would have been as critical or surprised. Fathers are often given room regarding parental participation as it relates to their own education and career success—an inequality to which I, too, can fall victim. In short, I wouldn’t have had as a hard a time understanding Aubrey’s choice to leave his child for college. Conjuring these complicated emotions makes the book beautiful. It challenges readers to not view Black women through a one-dimensional lens particularly, as well as the larger Black community broadly. I appreciate Woodson for taking me on an intellectually stimulating journey of highs and lows.
In an April 2019 O interview, Woodson commented to Leigh Haber that “novels tend to find the people who need them.” She is right. Novels such as this tend to find the people who need them, and I am one of those people. Red at the Bone challenged me to reflect on my personal history. I saw my family in those pages. I saw the challenges of being a Black girl growing up in America, where I am constantly trying to overcome family circumstance and understand more of who I am.
A novel told in the traditions of Black feminism incorporates the historical, so we can properly inform, complicate, and challenge conditions within a political moment. Marking the personal as political relies on historical accounts. Such accounts inform the choices we make; they shape who we are—and perhaps where we are going.
LaToya Council is the author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All. A social justice activist and an academic scholar, she is currently working on her dissertation Her Work, His Work: Time and Self-Care in Black Middle-Class Couples at the University of Southern California.
Siempre con las Pibas By Noelle McManus
I wasn’t very graceful, dropping my backpack onto our building’s front steps and untying the green bandanna from its left strap like my life depended on it. Passersby slowed to see what I was up to. I stuffed the bandanna inside my bag and zipped it up; clearly, I was hiding something. My host mother, unaware of what I had stashed away, greeted me when I arrived at the door to our apartment. For a bit, I sat by her side in the living room, while the television blared on in front of us. “PROTESTS FILL THE STREETS,” newscasts declared in bold letters. “ABORTION DEBATE RAGES ON.”
The green bandannas first caught my eye early in my semester abroad in Buenos Aires. I’d been hearing about them on social media since August of 2018, when the Argentine Senate rejected a proposal for the legalization of abortion. Where pale blue represents pro-life sentiment, green represents pro-choice. As soon as I had the opportunity, I rushed to a street vendor selling bandannas corresponding with Argentina’s remarkably color-coded social justice movements—in addition to the pale blue and green, orange represents support for the separation of church and state, and purple represents women’s rights—and bought myself a green one. I dreamed of displaying it proudly like the Argentines my age.
“What sort of feminist am I?”
The explosion of feminism that resulted from the abortion proposal—and, later, the rejection—was loud, angry, unapologetic. Girls began doing everything they could to push against the age-old Latin American concept of marianismo, the idea that women should be as placid and innocent as the Virgin Mary. They cut their hair themselves in wild, choppy bangs. They filled their skin with tattoos and wore shorts out in public. They kicked, they screamed, they sprayed graffiti on churches and government offices. On the way home from buying my bandanna, I passed a brick wall painted with the words, “MUERTE A LOS MACHISTAS,” and a footnote below: “No es una metáfora.” The bandanna newly tied to my backpack, I stared in muted awe, aware that I was a mere witness to something much, much bigger than I was.
“People don’t know what feminism is,” a porteña friend told me early in the term, fingering the frayed ends of her bandanna. “They’re scared of it. They think we’re all crazy.” I noted the furrow of her brows, the tired frustration in her voice, and thought to myself, I’m so lucky that my country is different.
I was still in Argentina when Governor Kay Ivey signed Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act. When Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Ohio rushed into line behind her. States were dropping like flies, led by ringleaders who believed that “all life has value” besides women’s, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was shocked into quiet, this time for the horrors of a people—my people—who, in my ignorance, I thought were past this stage.
Though I had seen it growing up in a Catholic Long Island suburb and spending my high school years in an institution that, as part of its official curriculum, compared today’s abortion “body count” to that of the Holocaust, I’d always assumed that the rest of the country was different. That our past decisions would never be overturned. But, as more and more state governments proposed heartbeat bills and jailtime for doctors, I began to rethink what it meant to identify with a movement. If we had green bandannas in the US, would I now be afraid to display one?
The radical fervor of Argentina’s feminists is something I fear US feminists may have lost a bit, as we “grow out of” our rage-filled past. In Argentina, I glimpsed a reality where being sent to prison for choosing an abortion is a real fear. We can discuss and debate all we like. But there’s a sharp distinction between saying what you stand for and sticking it on your forehead, putting yourself in the way of critique by any person—friend or stranger—that you come across. Some days, I felt vulnerable and self-conscious with my bandanna on my backpack, trying to keep myself resolute against the side-eyes, the people scooching away from me on the bus. I visited the Casa Rosada, the office of conservative President Mauricio Macri, and, fearing judgment, hid the bandanna away. What sort of feminist am I? I thought one afternoon. I had just opened a book in a local bookstore to find that the author included “feminist” in her bio—despite the novel itself having little to do with feminism.
In an instant, I understood more fully why the Women’s Review of Books has to exist—something I thought I’d comprehended before. To write “feminist” beside one’s name and publish it goes beyond simply having a belief and sharing it. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t take it away; people will think of you what they will. I walked home that day, the bandanna a flash of green on my form, and was reminded of a poster I’d seen stuck to a wall just by the Metropolitan Cathedral. It was green, filled with drawn faces of angry, shouting women, and marked by the words, “SIEMPRE CON LAS PIBAS”— roughly meaning, “Always with the girls.” I hadn’t been doing all I could. There were people I needed to stand beside. Who I needed to stand beside me, bravely, loudly, as ferociously as a feminist in the streets of Buenos Aires.
When I opened the apartment door, my host mother asked me about school. I answered. Our conversation progressed for a minute or so before her eyes drifted down and she noticed my bandanna, dangling over my left shoulder.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “How wonderful!” The looming shadow of the world outside diminished. We had signaled we were safe with each other.
Noelle McManus is a junior linguistics and Spanish major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and editorial assistant for the Women’s Review of Books.
By Donna Freitas
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
I remember the moment my father told me that the Police song “Every Breath You Take” was a song from the point of view of a stalker. Until then, I, like most pre-teen Top 40 listeners of the 1980s, thought of it as a love song. How dreamy to be loved so intensely by someone. “Every breath you take, every move you make … I’ll be watching you.”
I also remember being sixteen and receiving a pair of earrings from an older male teacher, after a choral concert one evening, politely saying thank you and walking off thinking, “that was weird.” And then, two years after I’d left that school, receiving a call from that same teacher congratulating me on my eighteenth birthday and suggesting we get together some time. That time I said, “okay, sure, maybe sometime,” hung up quickly and thought, “Ew!” I was embarrassed and never mentioned it to anyone until years later. I was riddled with questions about our interactions. Did he get a kick out of me because I was an enthusiastic student? Or was he being creepy because I wore short skirts and ripped nylons? It felt dangerous to even name it. He was a teacher and trusted and liked, and I was just a teenager.
He died recently and there were tributes to him on Facebook by my old classmates. He had been a great teacher, it was true. Who was I to ruin that for anyone? And after all, all he did was give a gift and make a call. And yet. And yet.
As an adult I know, unequivocally, that he was being creepy. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I’d venture that if you ask every woman and girl you know, the majority will have some version of the story, and sadly, some far worse.
In Consent, author and scholar Donna Freitas tells the story of being stalked by Father L., a priest and professor at the Catholic university she attended for her PhD in Religious Studies. As a writer and lecturer on sexuality, consent, and Title IX on college campuses, she applies her research skills to her own long-undisclosed story and is unflinching in her examination. It is a harrowing and brilliant personal exploration of consent, shame, and power. It tells a clear story about how quickly a very smart young woman can lose her bearings as her power, and her voice, are taken from her.
Freitas writes beautifully; she is both a probing academic and a poet. In quick strokes, she evokes the world of close-knit Catholic family and community in Rhode Island, of undergraduate life at Georgetown University, the joys of being an academic, and, finally, the devastation of not trusting one’s mind anymore, and losing hold of future dreams.
Freitas leaves a path of breadcrumbs. We meet the young, passionate Donna in Catholic school, and she has discovered her secret power: reading and learning. She’s the self-described teacher’s pet who reads so voraciously that she requires her own one-person AP English class in high school with a generous and supportive nun. The set-up is critical to fully comprehend the break in trust between a teacher and student that ensues.
While not a story of Catholicism per se, Freitas’s own Catholic upbringing and the fact that her stalker is a teacher and a Catholic priest are themselves critical pieces of the story. From birth, Freitas’s experience of the church is nothing but positive. It is the bedrock of her Italian and Portuguese immigrant community in Rhode Island. It is the nuns at school and the Jesuits at Georgetown University who encourage her along in her path. Even as she decides early on that she may not share the faith of her parents, her nostalgia for ritual and gratitude for the way the Catholic community in her town supports her mother during an illness make it a virtuous institution. Academia becomes her church, and the church remains her hearth. The structure of the church alone and the myth of the infallibility of priests— these events unfold just before the church’s abuse scandal—lay at the heart of how Father L. gains the access he does. Not all stalkers are Catholic priests. But, several times, the author wonders if Father L.’s early entry to the priesthood stunted his emotional growth to such an extent that he doesn’t possess the maturity to understand his own desire and that it is not reciprocated.
The title is important. The book is called Consent, not, say, Stalked, or My Creepy Teacher. Consent is the nagging question that runs through the book—when and how or whether consent took place. Freitas does not owe anyone an examination of her role, but she probes it, pokes it, turns it over in her hand, and exposes it to light in a way that is a great gift to her reader.
The examination of the experience yields a clear enough picture of a stalker on the one hand, but we see Freitas’s anguish at every opening she perceives herself as having created. It is painful to witness. And important and generous, even, of her to do. She levels a steady gaze at a woman’s desire to be seen. We see a girl in short skirt and tall boots, aware of her looks and enjoying them, a self-described “kissing bandit” along with being the aforementioned eager student. Her favorite mentors become those teachers who relish that wonderful student, encourage her with more books that pertain to her boundless curiosity. Father L. starts out as one of those mentors, and she says, “I was flattered, too … his attention made me feel special, though not special in a way that a boy I liked might make me feel special. Special as an aspiring PhD, as an aspiring professor, like himself.”
Are female students complicit because they want to be liked by the men they like, because they wear short skirts and high heel boots? A major idea embedded at the core of questioning consent is complicity and, from that, shame. Entire passages find Donna questioning her own role in the unwanted attentions. Is it harassment if it’s just friendly? Did she elicit and encourage it? Why her and not that other student? And of course, from those questions and uncertainties, the shame arises and settles itself into every crevice and wreaks havoc.
Freitas talks about a “half-assed non-consent,” familiar to most women as what we do to maintain the peace. The threat of losing everything, of disturbing lives, and worlds, is always present when we weigh how to say no. It’s the balancing act (or conflict) of holding a hand up to keep someone at bay and smiling at the same time.
Freitas’s pacing is akin to a well-plotted thriller. Slowly but surely things add up. On their own, each of Father L.’s infractions are hard to pin down or call stalking. Which lends more unease. The hairs on the back of one’s neck prick up as one realizes, along with Freitas, how slippery the mudslide has become. We see a young woman wondering whether she is indeed being stalked, or whether she’s rejecting a great teacher and being difficult and ungrateful. The harassment has an insidiousness to it, almost like a vapor that winds itself in and around and obscures clear vision, and ultimately enters the bloodstream.
Harassers and abusers make the objects of their interest question their own intuition and sense of danger. Every woman has it. And needs it. Walking home alone after dark; sitting on a train and knowing that it’s time to move by the slightest offgesture or gaze; when compliments veer ever so slightly into something hard to pinpoint, but decidedly not okay. Freitas the grad student does know when things start to feel not right. But she sees no path then, early on, to say why exactly. Any number of the interactions would be perceived as harmless, the sign of a great professor taking interest in a passionate student. What feels so common-sense matter-of-fact to the reader, looking at the story as a whole, is in fact nothing like that to the student in the crosshairs. Girls and women must often ask themselves: “Ddid that just happen? Am I taking it to mean something it’s not?”
By now we have reached peak use of the word gaslighting (from the title of a 1938 play about a man who manipulates the lighting in his house to convince his wife she is losing her mind), but here it is the most apt descriptor; Freitas writes, “he … was sneaky and convoluted and just indirect enough to leave me doubtful, to make me question my instincts, my judgment, my intuition….”
One of the greatest passages of the book is also the most heartbreaking. After months of calls, letters, and lurking, Father L. brings Donna a pear. By now, the bright, passionate student in highheeled boots has been replaced by a furtive, exhausted, disheveled young woman. She leaves the pear on her kitchen countertop and is reduced to a sort of Nancy Drew of theology as she wonders if the slowly rotting pear is an intentional allusion to the sins of Saint Augustine or is simply a pear from a teacher. Throughout the book young Freitas is trapped, trying to close a door ever so politely while the priest wedges his foot in ever further. Father L. holds all the power. He is important in her university and in her chosen field; without his stamp of approval and letters of introduction, her career will suffer.
The ways in which the university fails Freitas when she turns to it for help are maddening. In describing the damage done to women when they sign nondisclosure or settlement deals with universities, she writes chillingly about the agreements; “I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources … There are file cabinets of the bloody tongues of women … all of them taken from us by people in business-casual attire, in suits and sensible skirts.”
In spite of her experience, as both a passionate student and teacher Freitas is quick to defend the sanctity of a bond between teacher and student, and it only underscores how tragic it is when people like Father L. and his brethren violate the pact. Freitas asks herself repeatedly what she would counsel a student in her shoes and knows that she would advocate for her, and yet she struggles to apply the same empathy and support for herself. The writing of this book feels like an exorcism of sorts of that residual shame. To expose it to the sunlight, as they say, and kill the germs. The book is important beyond that though. It walks us through why our intuition is worth its weight in gold. And walks us through the complexity of consent, of power dynamics, and of what shame can do to even the brightest. In the end, Freitas comes to her conclusion with humility and honesty. She hasn’t conquered every demon left behind by the experience, but there is a sense of release, and, critically, a voice returned.
Kira von Eichel is a writer based in Brooklyn. She reviewed the novel Please Read this Leaflet Carefully for Women’s Review of Books in May/June 2019.
The Promise By Silvina Ocampo
Forgotten Journey By Silvina Ocampo
Reviewed by Ana Castillo
Forgotten Journey and The Promise by late Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo are cornucopias, outpourings of words with the same concision we ascribe to nature. Descriptions pour forth not like water but sap, ensuring the reader will pause and savor, not just in a portrait but every paragraph, each word. Sunsets leave “dirty fruit stains in the sky.” A girlfriend’s tenderness is “the bed you sleep in when you’re tired.” And pillows are “white seashells through which you [can] hear the sound of the sea at night…” Both slender volumes are dense with metaphor, reminding the reader that the great gift of literature is to trigger our imaginations, bringing us into the writer’s world—even if it is a world that exists only in her own mind. In this case, it is likely equal parts observation, memoir, and made-up stuff, but above all, the skill of a born poet.
There is ample material in the pages to ground us sensorially—succulent Cling peaches in summer, the sight of rotting meat as a potential charity to gypsy women (the fortune telling women in long skirts and hoop earring who still roam plazas in Argentina). There are the seduction and revulsion produced by the combined smells of perfumes and chemicals filling a beauty parlor where women got perms or a doctor ’s home office, crowded with bulky furniture he inherited with the house from his mother. In a single vignette we are given vivid scenes of daily life decades ago, as with teens dancing to rock and roll on a phonograph in the country and who later catch a taxi carriage.
Descriptions of animals are rendered such as to consider them characters—in the circus, at the zoo, on abandoned haciendas, and as pets. Often, they are the victims of the cruelty bestowed upon them by inferior humans. Children, too, give and receive pleasure and pain often without their awareness. In The Promise, a character reflects, “for every small dose of happiness they give us, we have to swallow the bitterness in the entire world.”
In the story Esperanza in Flores, Esperanza, a spinster boarder, is enthralled by Florián, a beautiful boy who lives in the house and must go out to beg. He’ll cross his eyes to gain more pity from strangers, but the writer tells us he’d get more when not marring his perfect gaze. Ocampo’s relentless metaphors cause us to catch our breath. “Sleep placed its holy hands over Florián’s eyes,” she tells us, and we are reminded in that moment there remains grace on our planet.
The animals are limited for their inability to be independent and to speak, but children may be precocious while at the mercy of anyone who’ll take them in, anxious about the forthcoming punishment that may lie behind gifts of toys.
Although they are usually not traditional stories, replete with conventions taught today to aspiring creatives, in both texts, Ocampo’s short fiction skills are showcased. Don’t look for arcs, and reserve judgment of their absence. It is a choice made by the writer, not an oversight. Yet, occasionally, complete stories arise. For example, “The Backwater,” a vignette in Forgotten Journey, is about a caretaker who takes his young family to tend a summer home for an intergenerational family. Upon arrival, they are delighted by his adorable little girl whom he carries when stepping out to greet them and who looked more like “a tiny monkey dressed in red.” Each summer, over the years, the girl and her sister continue to charm the family when they descend upon the summer home. Eventually, the marked disparities between their classes rear an ugly head. The owners stop coming to the summer house. Either the city is preferred or the grown kids have lost interest in the country, with its rural detachments from their exciting lives. The caretaker’s daughters stop receiving hand-medowns and soon, they too, flee, only to meet the fate awaiting their status in society.
The Promise—a novel about flashbacks a young woman experiences while drowning in the ocean—was promised to her readership for a long time, while the writer continued to age and suffer from illness until her death at ninety, though was most likely unfinished. Like Scheherazade, Ocampo kept herself alive refining her written stories. At one hundred fifty-two pages, the novella was her longest work. Even so, length is of less importance here. Like ceramic miniatures, each vignette is marvelously crafted. Courtships and dark marriages make cameo appearances, as do modern young women who contemplate taking a lover or have orgasms while drowning in the sea. Then, exhausted and destined to die in the ocean, she (Ocampo as herself or the narrator) writes, “Face up, I am by own bed.”
In the novella, among the few characters that is brought back is Leandro. The young man becomes a physician, and, in his melancholy personal life, he desperately hopes for true love. The narrator is his confidante, and, perhaps unbeknownst to Leandro, also in love with him. In her own words, he is her obsession. “It was as if he were several men,” the narrator tells us as a disembodied character.
It is also possible that the author herself was writing a memoir in a veiled context. The narrator is a young woman who has fallen off a ship without anyone noticing. She is going to drown. Meanwhile, she recollects people she encountered throughout her life. Upon this novelistic scaffolding, Ocampo delivers fully fleshed lives, many of which make brief appearances. We don’t need more, however. She delivers backstory with a few brushstrokes. In the way Andrew Wyeth gave us Christina’s World, all the yearnings contained in a single human and made obvious to the naked eye in the painting appear in each character. Due to a genetic disease, the subject of Wyeth’s masterpiece was crawling across the field. It is also the case with Ocampo’s cast. “Children’s dreams, rise like a white night gown.” A suffering woman falls on her knees like “two wounded hearts.” Humans and the natural world are arresting with depth and yet, even if in the most obscure way, still tragic.
Such images are the grist for the mill of the poet, surrealist, and writer influenced by the prevalence of existentialism, spiritualism, and unconventional structures—all popular beliefs and styles in the late nineteenth century through to the era of the Latin American Boom. In the hands of this masterful poet, short fiction writer, and artist, they are rich, literary droplets designed to reach the soul.
The Promise, the only novel known to be attempted by Ocampo, over which she worked for more than twenty-five years and was published posthumously from a file left on her desk, complies with her belief that fiction required no plot and no endings. Suitably, the novella stops with, “The ears of the tree continue to wait for her… but the man keeps waiting for her in the ears of the tree, as neither the Indian nor the beloved will return.” The pacará, or “elephant ear tree,” appears to absorb the abandoned lover through some form of osmosis. Similarly, we may approach the translated editions. Neither may we worry about caution or surrender in Forgotten Journey. Ocampo has done all the work.
In an interview published in 1978, Ocampo was asked about her ongoing work-in-progress—at that time still untitled. “Something is making this woman talk on and on,” she reports. In the end, what she left us in The Promise was not an unwieldy, diarrheic project, but—to use her own word— “phantasmagorical.” It is a gem.
Ana Castillo is the author of two works of nonfiction (most recently the Lambda award-winning Black Dove: Mamá, Mijo, and Me), seven poetry collections, and eight novels. A teacher and independent scholar, she divides her time between New York City and New Mexico.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me By Adrienne Brodeur
Reviewed by Cathi Hanauer
At the opening of Adrienne Brodeur’s fastpaced and evocative memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, Brodeur ’s stepfather’s lifelong friend, Ben Souther, bursts like a strapping Santa Claus into the beautiful Cape Cod beachfront home where her mother, Malabar, and her stepfather, Charles, await. Ben holds high a brown paper grocery bag, damp with what turns out to be blood; inside are the dozen squab he’s just slaughtered. “Let’s see what you can do with these, Malabar,” Ben booms, presenting the bag. His longtime wife, Lily—ten years older and a thousand times less demanding and alluring than Malabar—follows quietly behind him, bearing homegrown flowers and watercress; from her angle, she misses the long, appraising, ultimately impressed look her young friend fixes on her— Lily’s—husband.
In no time, Malabar, the “five-star general” of her huge, stunning kitchen, has whipped up a mouthwatering feast, which Ben proclaims “perfection.” Wine flows; the ocean swells in the background; animals alive just hours ago are devoured by ravenous humans; flirting and conversation wax and wane and wax again, everyone wrapped up in their own forms of pleasure. Brodeur, fourteen and tipsy from the wine she’s been served, heads off to the beach, where she experiences her first taste of sex; later, home again and drifting to sleep, she feels newly enlightened to the powers of her body. But in the middle of that night, her mother jars her awake. “Ben Souther just kissed me!” Malabar confesses, joy and excitement oozing off her. She tells her daughter he’s invited her to meet him in New York next week, then says, “I’m going to need your help, sweetie. I need to figure out how to do this.”
With those words, Malabar ensnares Brodeur, at the very time when mother and daughter should be separating, as a thrilled accomplice in her ongoing adultery and deception—a trap and situation that will have a profound impact on the author’s life. Describing the trajectory and roller coaster of her first few decades—years ruled by divorce, instability, and this secret she shared with her deeply narcissistic mother—Brodeur attempts to answer the central questions of love, family, and life: What do we owe our loved ones—parents, children, spouses, even siblings? Do our marital vows compel us to stay together until death do us part—or allow us to leave if the feelings are no longer there? Is love something that simply happens to us, or something we can, or should, try to control? Which is “right”: to be true to our partners, or true to ourselves? At what point are we responsible for our own moral failings, even if those failings are encouraged by our parents?
Writing this from the safe distance of her fifties, stepfather Charles now dead and mother Malabar in her eighties and suffering from dementia, Brodeur moves forward from that pivotal night into Part Two of her young life, in which she revels in her role of best friend and favored child to her headstrong, boundary-less, morally bankrupt mother. Born on the birthday of Malabar’s first child, a boy who died tragically at age 2, Brodeur suddenly has a way to not only earn legitimacy in her mother’s eyes, but also to supersede her living older brother, Peter. Whether she’s helping scheme ways for Ben and Malabar to be together, skipping days of college to help her mother weasel out of their affair being discovered, or (yes) actually marrying Ben’s son, Jack, in her early twenties, and even then keeping her knowledge of their parents’ affair from him, Brodeur allows her mother’s presence, needs, and desires to dictate and supplant her own (“My mother’s broken heart felt like my own,” she writes), becoming, unsurprisingly, as morally questionable as her mother. “In our family,” she tells us, “being right trumped being truthful.” It’s not until Part Three of her life—with help from her father’s third wife, Margot, and the piles of books she lovingly pushes on the author—that Brodeur starts to see clearly what’s been going on and attempts to extricate from it and come into herself. But not before sinking dangerously close to rock bottom.
Brodeur’s writing is passionate, sensual, and often deceptively simple. She culls gorgeous details of Cape Cod, with its screeching terns and “bluefish blitz[es],” its low-tide displays of “horseshoe crabs coupling” and “moon snails pushing plow-like across the sandy bottom” of the bay, to make the setting as much a character in this drama as the humans inhabiting it. Food also plays a central role, with Ben’s and Malabar’s gleeful partnered capturing, cooking, and devouring of sea, land, and sky creatures serving as the perfect metaphor for their destruction and disregard of their human families. Whether coating live minnows with seasoned flour before tossing “still wriggling” fistfuls of them into a sizzling hot pan or trapping angry lobsters in inches of boiling water to steam them (“Ben slapped down the top with a bang and held it in place as the lobsters thrashed for a minute before the steam quieted them permanently”), as presented by Brodeur, the two blaze along wreaking havoc on those they once loved and leaving destruction in their wake; if each shows the occasional moment of guilt, these moments, particularly in contrast to the author’s deep soul-searching about her own role in all this, are fleeting before it’s back to the business of meeting their own voracious desires and appetites.
Occasionally Brodeur’s omissions, though they kept me turning pages, left me wanting a bit more; toward the end, she refers almost in passing to her “own checkered history of love affairs and infidelities” as well as to her habit of (self) cutting, and while a line about the latter was enough in a memoir this broad, the former took me a bit by surprise coming so late and minimally. (Wait—what affairs?!) Too, the writing can veer into cliché: someone “stand[ing] outside of time,” “look[ing] mindfully for a new path,” or, the cliché du jour, “not feeling known.” And occasional sentimentality— “milk-drunk babies,” “lanky children … running full tilt across the sand”—stood out like, well, bright plastic beach toys on perfect white sand. But these minor details displeased only because so much of the writing is literary; whether recounting her joy at returning to sordid New York, with its “messy velocity,” after years of feeling displaced in sunny San Diego, or describing the insect perfectly trapped within the “cube of amber” on her psychiatrist’s desk (“‘Stupid beetle,’” I thought”), Brodeur shows herself a worthy descendant of her family of writers, including a father who worked for The New Yorker.
Though this memoir is being billed first as a mother-daughter story, what interests me most is how it depicts both the strengths and the frailty of marriage. Ben and Lily stay together even though he’s mostly deaf and she, due to earlier illness, literally barely has a voice. Yet how “together” are they when he’s lying to her and sleeping with someone else? Would she be better off if he left? Would Charles, if Malabar ditched him to be with Ben? That’s something you could ask a million people and get a million different answers—or at least two. Malabar, predictably, felt “not one whit of guilt” about the affair. “‘Here’s how you need to think about it, Rennie,’” she tells Brodeur. “‘Ben and I didn’t mean to fall in love. It just happened. The important thing is that we have chosen to put Charles and Lily first. Neither of us wants to hurt them. You understand that, right?’” She adds that by not divorcing their spouses and instead having this illicit affair, “…Ben and I are acting altruistically here. As are you, sweetie.’” At last, Brodeur writes, “I understood the immensity of my mother and Ben’s sacrifice. The plan was to wait for Lily and Charles to die. It was the narrative they’d settled on. At the time, it struck me as noble and even kind.”
It would take many years and lots of help for Brodeur to develop the backbone and principles her family deprived her of. But in the end, she can still deceive guiltlessly when it’s warranted: Reading from the book to her elderly, only semi-aware mother, Brodeur chooses passages that depict Malabar as “a powerful woman who went after all that she wanted” while “skip[ping] over the parts where she failed me.” It’s a fitting finale; the once indomitable woman who’s spent her life deluding and overpowering those who are weaker is now weak and deceived herself—and on display for the world to judge.
Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels and two anthologies, including The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage and The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, which was an NPR Best Book of 2016. She and her husband started the New York Times “Modern Love” column.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls By Mona Eltahawy
Reviewed by Rachel DeWoskin
What might it look like if women embraced behaviors we’ve been forever warned against, screamed from rafters, stopped agreeing to anything close to correct deportment, were no longer nice, polite, contained, “feminine,” or “civil”? What if we described in frank—even profane—ways exactly what we need, fear, and want changed before we continued to participate in society? Would that look like grabbing power instead of explaining to our young daughters over breakfast what “grab her by the pussy” means, and why someone who takes and gloats about that tack is in charge of the free world? Might such a shift mean defunding militaries and funding public schools? Buying essential food and medical supplies for all children, including feminine hygiene products for poor school girls? Abolishing prisons, borders, and ICE? Allowing for and celebrating mixed-gender and women-led prayer? Megan Rapinoe would get to dance, sing, and revel in her own and her team’s badassery without an army of trolls coming after her in furious force. In China, women wouldn’t be forced to sign employment contracts promising not to get pregnant. Women would demand liberation and attention; we would make our rage collective and productive, turn it consistently outward, never in on ourselves. What if we insisted that the voices, stories, and perspectives of women matter by default, especially those most marginalized, those used to being ignored, attacked, or made invisible by a machine that doles out praise and punishment (the patriarchy): women of color, poor women, trans women? We would welcome immigrants, and, as Representative Ilhan Omar put it at her swearing in, would “send them to Washington.” There would be plaques in places from Bosnia to Brazil to the US, commemorating female victims of violence as well as female heroes.
An imagined world of this sort is on shimmering display in Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, a book at once thoughtful and rageful enough to read like the lovechild of a primal shriek and a dissertation on the state of global women’s rights. Memoir, historical record, and manifesta, the book offers an enraged testimony of injustice and misogyny, as well as a tribute to women fighting both. It is evidence of Eltahawy’s life-long unwillingness to be silent, as well as what her activism has cost, wrought, and produced.
So contemporary it feels almost spoken, Seven Necessary Sins called to my mind an antique counterpoint, the ancient Chinese Biographies of Model Women. Compiled during the Han Dynasty (212-206 AD) by scholar Liu Xiang, Biographies was the first Chinese book devoted entirely to the subject of women. The biographies begin with illustrations of the “correct deportment of mothers,” and work their way from “chaste and obedient” wives and widows to the climactic finale, “biographies of the pernicious and depraved.” I read Biographies in college, and used its shape as an inspiration for a memoir I wrote in my late twenties, about women. Maybe predictably, it was the bad girls I found most interesting, the lessons they offered up most useful. For example, for women to bare our bodies and shout is a terrible curse. For a woman to be “like a man” is a sin almost guaranteed to bring about the sort of plummet from grace we’re used to seeing women endure after daring to attract attention, to rage, lust, or fight. In the “pernicious and depraved” section, a concubine named Mo-Shi has “the heart of a man,” not to mention a sword and cap. Her appropriation of machismo causes the fall of a kingdom. Of course, the lessons we are meant to take as readers (of the don’t-try-this-thing-at-home sort) are often casualties of the dangers of tempt-and-teach literature. Instead of being quietly schooled in how we might be winningly obedient, some readers (including me) may be compelled by disobedient models, finding in their stories permission and inspiration.
Elthaway admires Audre Lorde’s admonition that, “Your silence will not protect you,” and from that seed grows a set of radical chapters on the sins necessary to a revolution designed to dismantle the patriarchy: Anger, Attention, Profanity, Ambition, Power, Violence, and Lust. The book is a call to arms, the aim of which is clear: “I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are,’ all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men for the benefit of men.’”
Before Eltahawy actually imagines a world in which women are being inaugurated (in a whimsical moment set in 2050 in which Donya Zaki becomes Egypt’s first woman president; Areej Mohamed, Saudi Arabia’s first woman mufti; and Octavia Hernandez “the third consecutive woman president of the United States of America”), Seven Necessary Sins already feels fantastical in its vision of an alternate (future?) world in which women are powerful and in power, rendering the patriarchy part of an ugly history we’ve all agreed to learn from, and never to repeat.
Eltahawy is famous for refusing to be silent, for what she describes charmingly as “not wanting crumbs” of the patriarchy, but the whole cake. An Egyptian-born activist, journalist, and feminist, she reported in 2011 on the subjecting in Egypt of seventeen female activists to “virginity tests,” a form of sexual assault. Eltahawy suggested that Egypt needed a feminist revolution, and subsequently joined protests against the police and army in Tahrir Square, during which time police beat her, broke her left arm and right hand, sexually assaulted and threatened her with gang rape, detained, blindfolded, and interrogated her. She notes after telling the harrowing story of her detention and the myriad on-line attacks on her that followed it, that Abdel-Fattah el- Sisi, the head of Egyptian military intelligence during her arrest and torture, is now the president of Egypt. I could not help but wonder, and not without a certain amount of pleasure, whether he (and others Eltahawy names and holds responsible for the atrocities taking place on their watches and payrolls) might read her book. She reclaims the word “whore,” often used against her, defusing it by calling herself an “attention whore,” why not? She has something urgent to say, and wields all the words and force at her disposal to make sure she is heard. It’s a risky act, often thrilling to watch, related to the recent moment she describes in which she was groped in a nightclub and tore after her attacker, catching and punching him in the face while screaming, “Don’t ever touch a woman like that again!”
One of the take-aways from Eltahawy’s lived experience and book is that attention itself is both a reward and a punishment. If women get it in sanctioned ways, we are celebrated and protected by the patriarchy, but should we seize or use it toward fighting injustice/thwarting the patriarchy, we are punished, even murdered. After rendering her own story, Eltahawy turns her fierce attention to stories of other women fighting power, model bad-behavior biographies, in other words, sorted by sin. As Eltahawy remarks in a section on education, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” and she makes good by providing models of defiance, courage, and willingness to call out and battle misogyny.
Four such women, all Iraqi, were murdered or died mysteriously over a six-week period in 2018; all were the subjects and objects of attention they had gathered in the service of conveying messages important to them and threatening to the patriarchy. An especially compelling chapter is largely devoted to the work of Stella Nyanzi, an epidemiologist at Makerere University who calls herself as a “queer laughist” and defends LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Nyanzi has been arrested and put on trial for her vocal attacks on Ugandan President Museveni and a poem she wrote about him; she has been dedicated to calling him out for torture of members of the opposition (examples of which include having the skin peeled from their ears and hands), and dismissal of women, including broken promises to poor school girls of sanitary products that would allow them to stay in school. While Museveni himself has yet to be held accountable, Nyanzi’s “radical rudeness” is punishable, as is Michigan Democratic state representative Lisa Brown’s violation of the “decorum of the house,” for her use of the word “vagina” during a debate over an anti-abortion bill. As was the performance of a “punk prayer” in a Moscow’s cathedral in 2012 by female band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, for attacking patriarchy and condemning homophobia.
Seven Necessary Sins gives the exciting, sometimes abrupt sense of someone live-thinking, reading, percolating, and asking. It uses historical and contemporary stories of misogyny to raise and complicate questions, rather than trying to sum up or answer simply: on what systems, fuels, and foot soldiers does patriarchy rely? What forces have contributed to the perpetuation of injustices from physical violence against women to the rigging of medical school admissions in Tokyo? Why must a woman be “firmly within the accepted norms of her society in order to be considered worthy of whatever attention she garners”? How dare governments trumpet civility and police the language of women and girls when the real obscenities are rampant and ruinous: poverty; white supremacy; torture; kidnapping; an “overwhelming and suffocating” amount of violence against women and girls; the racism of lower expectations; girls dropping out of school because discussing menstruation is so taboo that they must be absent when they have their periods? Eltahawy deep dives into egregious examples of crimes against women, including some staggering official statistics on violence against women in Brazil (606 registered domestic violence cases and 164 rapes per day in 2017). Three women a day are killed in the US by intimate partners, and Eltahawy cites figures from the Femicide Census, using facts to ask: if the revolution lives “on the margins,” how might we traverse, transgress, enact wholesale, revolutionary change? She acknowledges that some of her questions are horrifying, intentionally “absurd,” or rhetorical, and doesn’t apologize: “I stand in the disturbance and discomfort caused by the questions I’ve posed.”
In a moment symbolic of the book’s graceful sweep from what’s happened to what could come of it, Eltahawy hearkens back to the time when then Republican nominee Trump made his ignorant and racist remark about Ghazala, the Muslim-American mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, implying that she had nothing to say because she wasn’t allowed to speak. Now, Eltahawy daydreams that maybe Trump’s words “conjured a hex,” and delightfully imagines “a coven of us American-Muslim women working together to bring about Trump’s worst nightmare: not one but two Muslim women—each with plenty to say—elected to the US House of Representatives in November 2018.” Then she names the model women: Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib; and Ilhan Omar, a Somali American.
Seven Necessary Sins races into intentionally provocative territory, including a chapter on what the world would look like if violence were perpetrated by women against men instead of the other way around (the reality). The section “Violence” conjures a full-throated declaration of war. It suggests that we should be screaming in a chorus, joined by those whose words and power Eltahawy amplifies, from queer Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa; to comedians Michelle Wolf and Mindy Kahling; punk activist Nadya Tolokonnikova; actress Helen Mirren; poet Erika L. Sanchez; artist Hilma af Klint; leaders Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff; Islamic Studies Professor Amina Wadud; Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from northern Iraq who was sexually enslaved by ISIS; Rahaf Mohamed, a Saudi Arabian woman who sought asylum in Thailand, was threatened with extradition, and then galvanized a network of feminists and won freedom; and rapper/songwriter Cardi B., whom Eltahawy quotes defending herself: “Let me be free.”
Why not accept Eltahawy’s invitation to a revolutionary party? Why not imagine the fullest extent of what intersectional gender justice might look like, and keep fighting the forces that intentionally disenfranchise, discredit, and marginalize women? The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls offers a lucid distillation of collective aims and messages, as well as a jolt of bravery. Its philosophy demands that we stop yielding, conceding, apologizing, and restraining ourselves, and gives us permission to use our considerable power to free and protect ourselves. And, as Eltahawy’s signature slogan encourages, to “fuck the patriarchy.”
Rachel DeWoskin is the award-winning author of five novels, including Someday We Will Fly, Blind, and Big Girl Small. Her most recent work is Banshee, published in 2019 by Dottir Press. She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
To read Imani Perry’s new book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, as an African American mother of a teenage son is both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. It is not unlike raising a Black boy in America. It prompts a complex rush of emotions. I highlighted so many passages, lines that I wanted to remember, to use as inspiration—including those that made me wince in uncomfortable recognition—I simply decided to reread the book as soon as I’d finished it.
The book evokes so well the myriad ways in which Black parents and children alike must be intentional about how we inhale and exhale. And frankly, given this moment in which we live, the book reminds us all to take a deep breath. It is so startling and apt and timely that you will likely devour it the way a swimmer takes a giant gulp of air as she cracks the surface of the water—greedily and gratefully.
Right from the start, Perry states her position directly to her two Black sons, Issa and Freeman: Between me and these others—who utter the sentence—the indelicate assertion hangs midair…. But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one.
She goes on to give the truth to her sons straight, no chaser. And here is where she takes our breath away:
I have known from the first day of your lives that I cannot guarantee your safety…. Racism is in every step and every breath we take. It has been proven over and over again … you are always under the watchman’s eye … the insult is incessant … you are remarkable boys, but we are all at risk of falling under the sway of a much too cruel world … feeling deep love and complete helplessness to protect the beloveds is a fact of Black life.
We’ve not seen this intimacy from Perry’s writing before. She is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and prolific author of several books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. But the interrogative, intellectual writer we’ve come to know makes her presence felt throughout these pages as well. That Perry can navigate so seamlessly between interiority and the interrogation of American culture is astonishing. There’s something so tender and vulnerable about Perry’s voice here, yet I would not call it “raw.” It’s refined and honed, each word burnished and given to us with care, as a hand-carved, African sculpture might be bestowed by its creator; it’s a loving gesture, this book, mindful of its recipient.
You will likely think of Breathe as the companion piece to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, his letter to his son, which laid out his own coming-of-age as a Black man in America as a way of instruction and warning and guidance. Perry’s letter to her sons is that, too. At its stripped-down core this is a manual for living, replete with sound advice for Freeman and Issa. We are cognizant that Perry’s oneword advice to her sons, “breathe,” is a way of insisting they stay alive, that they do what Eric Garner plaintively repeated over and over that he could not do against a policeman’s chokehold, a cutting off of breath that ultimately stopped his heart. But Breathe is so much more than a guide or a caution, and more revealing. It is a layered meditation, one that fluidly moves through memory, history, “wild-eyed” whiteness, faith, ancestral inheritance, community, freedom, and grace … a kind of holistic, textual nebulizer Perry provides to her boys, a lifeline she knows they will ultimately need.
To be clear, we’ve never seen a book like this before. This is a beacon for any young African American trying to swim through the waters of that unique antagonism that America has long held for its Black citizens, be they man-child or woman-child. In fact, in her acknowledgments, Perry says that had she written this book for girls her advice would be much the same. And as the mother of a teenage daughter, I find a lot here to glean for helping my fifteen-year-old make her way in the world.
Breathe also transcends race-specificity, just as Perry’s own personal narrative does, just as her own boys do. It’s for any person of color, and for any mother looking for articulation of her own doubts and fears and hopes; and this book is for anyone who resides in difference, and/or is rearing a human being who does, i.e., that wide family of us who are not white, male, and straight.
Amidst the advice and eloquence and shimmering honesty is Perry’s own story folded in via pivotal anecdotes. We learn some stark facts about her, almost in passing: that in Black spaces she has always become physically indistinguishable; her struggle with asthma and lupus (what she calls “hallmarks of an inherited vigilance”); that she had a white daddy who was not her biological father; that she is a “born mama,” a nurturer by disposition. We also learn that as she toggled between her life in Birmingham and Chicago and Cambridge, there were moments of joy.
And in a passage that prompted me to do likewise, she tells her sons what she loves. She lists 21 different things—from drinking limeade and being outside in the summertime, to reading and people-watching to laughter and silliness to sitting in solitude and crocheting—that personally bring her joy. Because she understands that as mothers, giving our children the chance to really see us for who we are as individual women is important, too.
Its bruising honesty comes most powerfully when Perry admits her mistakes, her missteps and uncertainties as a mother. Who among us as mothers hasn’t once lost a child in a public place, or questioned our decision to not offer up religion to our offspring (“I haven’t raised you in the church, and I probably won’t now … I wonder if this isn’t another area in which I have failed you when it comes to discipline….”) or felt the guilt that comes when a child has an accident, when a child falls, bleeds, hurts? She speaks to that conundrum all parents face, complicated for Black parents by a real and present danger, of not wanting to clip their children’s wings in the effort of trying to keep them safe. We can hear her reminding herself to heed her own advice as she tells her sons, “Yes, we are afraid but we cannot wear terror around our necks like cowbells for our own denigration, no matter how lost we feel, no matter how dangerous the poisons.”
And yet, what also comes through is what she has gotten right, how sensitive and conscious her sons are, how the arc of their moral universe already bends toward justice. She has allowed them to be her guides, her teachers even as she parents them, understanding that children are not extensions of the parent. She does not gloss over their particularities, nor present them as perfect boys. She is too honest for that; but she does show us what it means to see each child for who he is, in his specificity, and to love him for that, full stop, so that you can give him the tools to protect his selfhood, his self-worth. “Freeman, you arrived as an independent fugitive … you can see another world,” she tells her oldest. “Issa, you called my refusal to let you pierce your ears inconsistent with my feminist identity,” she tells her youngest. “True ... Be better than me with respect to that.” She lays out for her boys what her hope is for their future, for their becoming:
You have been running from lies since you were born. But the truth is we do not simply run away from something; we run to something…. I want you to be appreciated for your labors and gifts. But what I hope for you is nothing as small as prestige. I hope for a living passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence. The greatness that you achieve, the hope I have for it, for you, is a historic sort, not measured in prominence.
Oh, that we’d all receive such a letter of boldfaced, unconditional love from our parents; Oh, that we as parents would take the time to craft such a letter to our children.
“She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it,” James Baldwin said of Lorraine Hansberry. This line came to me as I finished reading Perry’s book the second time. Imani Perry also is not a romantic, but she is a woman of deep devotion, and that is what will bring you back to this slim, penetrating book many times, like rereading your favorite psalm; or perhaps more precisely like a morning meditation, deep breaths filling your lungs with air, leaving you in a state of grace.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author most recently of the memoir, The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing.
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Taken from the opening line of her poem “The Colonel,” What You Have Heard Is True is the title of Carolyn Forché’s recently published memoir. It concerns her involvement in events leading up to and including the civil war in El Salvador (1979–1992) and the relationship between that experience and her development as a Poet of Witness. Although Forché cites children of Salvadoran refugees (“who want to know more about their country”) and her own son Sean-Christophe (“so he will know this part of his parents’ past”) as her audience, this text has a much wider reach, including US citizens seeking to understand their country’s involvement in Central American politics, students of literature measuring the relationship between creative selfexpression and activism, and poets who must decide about their own place in an increasingly violent world. It also addresses women, singularly and as a group, for whom war has traditionally been considered a masculine undertaking. While this account offers no direct answers to the questions it raises, it does provide a number of details from which one may draw conclusions. What we know from the beginning is that it is factual, all the more gripping for the shock that it really happened—this way.
Forché’s account of her poetic re-education begins in El Salvador with a scene in which she and her guide, Leonel Gomez Vides, encounter a dismembered corpse in a cornfield. He has told her to wait, to stay behind, but the poet is not good at waiting, and her urge for immediacy takes her to a situation that is difficult to absorb. She notices flies and turkey buzzards humming about a corpse. A man’s crotch is covered with tar. His legs and one of his arms are gone, as is his head. Silently, hypnotically, the campesinos who accompany them collect the head, which is missing its eyes, lips, and tongue, and the severed limbs and reposition them around the mangled torso. They take off their straw hats and pray over the remains. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” the poet thinks she asks.
This nightmarish event sets the stage for scenes teaching job in Southern California, to a country on the brink of collapse, where poverty, violence, and corruption are the norm. It depicts a flurry of encounters with figures who occupy the various sides of this conflict: from the military strongmen who live opulently off confiscated US aid, to public servants who make do with little to no resources, to the simple farmers who occupy the champas in the Salvadoran countryside and whose mutilated bodies are regularly displayed in public places as a warning against dissent. Such encounters are interspersed with memories from her own past in order to discern what she, a young American woman, could bring to bear on this suffering. It’s all part of a process, founded in a belief in words; a way of internalizing experience, so that it can be rendered with the immediacy and emotional accuracy that Witness requires. “Mira” (“Look, …”), Leonel would say at the beginning of each exchange, and there would follow explanations, clues that would lead her closer to understanding. Other senses were also engaged—hearing, smelling, tasting—and, after that, entries in her notebook, a shorthand of responses, written in pencil “so the words evanesce.” Here, one finds personalities, images, and encounters to help the poet remember. One also encounters silences: emotions and events for which there are no words, and in those cases, the page is left blank.
Identity is a recurring theme in this saga, pushed forward by the question as to why Forché would go to El Salvador in the first place. What was her goal? And who is this Leonel, really? The man who showed up at her door unannounced with papers and maps and convinced her to join him on this perilous journey? Who is she, a twentyseven- year-old woman, enjoying early poetic success, who sets aside concerns for her own safety for reasons that are not quite clear? To those closest to him, Leonel is a puzzle, a person not to be discussed. He seems to have no active employment, no fixed abode. He shows up and disappears unpredictably, sometimes in the company of another person, sometimes by himself. He takes her to meet peasants, dignitaries, soldiers, and men of the cloth; leaves her at various safe houses, apartments, flophouses, champas; depends on relatives and acquaintances to take him in. He uses pseudonyms, too, on one occasion, going by “Hermano” (Brother); on another, “Christos” from the movie Z. On yet another, he acknowledges that one faction of the guerillas calls him El Gordo because they think him fat. Even his aunt, Forché’s mentor Claribel Alegria, doesn’t know who he really is. “So who is Gomez?” Leonel says to Forché, “Nobody knows.”
Forché assumes various identities as well: Papu (adopted granddaughter of Grandpa Goodmorning), journalist, girl, nun, CIA operative, doctor, nurse ... poeta. This shape-shifting comes partially from her own lack of self-knowledge, partially from the various roles Leonel has her play. On one occasion, she poses as a doctor in a local hospital. On another, she is an emissary from the US government, trying to get information on an American citizen thought to have been “disappeared.” On yet another, she is a nun working with the resistance to locate the desaparecidos. Sometimes, she resents Leonel’s manipulations, sometimes she goes along with them, not fully understanding where it all will lead. She herself is a cipher, a collection of impulses that don’t quite add up. “Listen to me, Carolyn,” her friend Margarita tells her. “I’m going to try to explain you…” The poet seizes on this phrasing. ‘“Explain me,” I thought to myself, “good luck.”
In the course of several visits, the poet does learn from her experiences, not only about the political dynamics of El Salvador, but her relationship to the people who suffer under military rule. She moves from a condition of fear and disorientation to a determined focus, discovering in herself the courage not to look away. One stage in this process comes after a visit to a prison, where she is confronted with the stench of human waste and sees in a darkened room “wooden boxes the size of washing machines” in which men are kept in solitary confinement. Unsteadily, she returns to the van where Leonel is waiting, vomits, sobs, and says she has had enough. “Papu, listen,” he tells her. “You are always asking me why people don’t do something… Could you fight back at this moment?”
This lesson is followed immediately by another. She wants to cancel her meeting that evening with a group of local poets. She waits outside as Leonel goes in to deliver her regrets. One of the participants comes out and tells her that the meeting has been cancelled; the wife of one of the poets has just had a baby. She goes inside to see and discovers a woman lying on a blanket on the floor, her new baby next to her in a cardboard box. They have named her Alma, (meaning “spirit” or “soul”).
The spokesman presents her with a sheath of freshly mimeographed poems. “We were hoping that if you publish them in the United States,” he tells her, “you will be careful not to say who gave them to you.” This experience stays with her, guiding her responses to future challenges:
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off … and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
The final section of this memoir is devoted to returning. The poet has spent some time at the Catholic University, working on human rights. She has made the acquaintance of Monsen͂or Oscar Romero, the activist priest who shelters the poor and speaks out against the brutal practices of his government. She has survived several close calls with the death squads, including one in which she and an unidentified photographer prevent a massacre of refugees by threatening to record the event for the American press. Seemingly, she has earned a place in this world and a growing sense of her own worth, but even Leonel believes it is time for her to go home.
She returns to the United States a week before Monsen͂or Romero is assassinated and the civil war begins. She experiences what she describes as a period of great personal turmoil, in which she relocates to the East coast, teaches briefly at two universities, and publishes her new book of poems, containing her iconic prose poem about “The Colonel,” with his bag of human ears. The implicit question for this phase of her existence is: can a young American woman experience such atrocities and not be permanently marked by them? Can she put aside these images and live?
The answer comes in the form the American photojournalist whose path she crossed during a raid in El Salvador. Having been assigned to write the narrative for a book of photographs, she works with him to communicate the truth about events leading up to the Salvadoran civil war. They go on to marry and have a son, exchanging cartons of cigarettes and mugs of black coffee for juice boxes and Legos, strategies of evasion for scheduled play dates, and a fixed abode. But there is always a sense of disassociation for her between what Americans assume about El Salvador and what she has learned from her experiences there. A young defector from the Salvadoran army comes to stay with them while seeking asylum. He testifies before Congress as to the brutality and corruption of his government and is repaid for his efforts by being sent back to the Generals and to his death.
This is a compelling memoir, poetically written. It offers important contexts for Forché’s second book of poems, The Country Between Us, and it raises essential questions about the role of poetry: whether it can contribute to positive change; whether the cost to those writing it is worth the sacrifice. What is clear here is that it holds promise for those who believe, providing emblems by which they live and work. Even within a context of extremity, there is continuance: a baby in a cardboard box; words scrawled on a page.
Joann Gardner is associate professor of English at Florida State University, where she regularly teaches Contemporary Poetry, from both a critical and a creative point of view. She is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks, including, most recently, The Deaf Island.