How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide By Crystal M. Fleming
Boston, MA; Beacon Press, 2018, 230 pp., $23.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
For the last six months, I have been on a book tour for a children’s picture book I wrote and illustrated about whiteness and abolishing white supremacy. I always read the book the same way, but my talks before and after are completely different on account of all of the different points of entry to any discussion of racism—its causes and its solutions.
Take adult audiences: With the exception of spaces held by a majority of Black adults, I could never assume a shared understanding about what racism is or even a consensus that it exists. Though I am rarely challenged in spaces with a majority of white adults, I don’t dare take the silence in those rooms as agreement or alignment with Black Liberation. I focus on the ones nodding, with flushed faces and soft eyes. They are getting—or, at least, feeling—something. I cannot guess at the rest. Children’s audiences tend to be different. At a library event in Sonoma County with a class of second graders where almost all of the children were Brown, fluent in Spanish, and studying English, I wondered how they’d make sense of a book about whiteness. Their teacher later reported that during the art activity, she overheard students asking each other, “Are we white?” “I don’t know—are you?” “Am I?”
At the Henry Ford Academy of Creative Studies High School in Detroit, which has a majority African American student population, the aspect of my book that drew the most curiosity was that a “Caucasian” person cared. I noted their use of “Caucasian” to replace my use of the word “white” and sensed, in the careful way students used it with me, that it was a more respectful alternative to a word they, fairly, associated with ignorance, cruelty, and indifference to the lives of Black people. I wonder how we will ever get on the same page when we have never read, let alone lived, the same story?
Dr. Crystal M. Fleming wondered likewise and wrote a book for these times. How To Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide speaks into the chasms that persist between those who experience racism and anti- Blackness in a bodily, generational, encompassing way (as many Black people do) and those who may not know a single freaking thing about it (as my target audience of young white children and many of their adults do not).
Fleming, who identifies as a queer, bisexual, Black woman, begins with the “The Origins of Racial Stupidity”—her own. “Despite being a child of the 1960s and ’70s, and living through the civil rights and Black Power eras,” writes Fleming, “Mom never spoke to me about discrimination or desegregation or anything related to oppression, really—at least, not until I began formally studying these matters in graduate school.” This was a choice on her mother’s part to shield her daughter from the damaging effects of negative stereotyping in childhood. “I had no fucking idea that we in the United States live in a racist (and sexist and classist) society until I was a full-grown adult.” Her own process of becoming less stupid about race makes Fleming an ideal guide for those of us on that path, especially those of us cursing a blue streak along that path. Today, Fleming is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Faculty in Gender and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She earned her Ph.D. and master’s at Harvard and her first book explored white supremacy in France.
She calls race “a fundamentally stupid idea” and “inherently ridiculous,” as do I, even in the presence of children as young as two and three years old— which is the age when kids of every race and skin tone have been observed expressing the racist bias that has already invaded their soft, small bodies. This perpetuation of racial stupidity across centuries involves “the misrepresentation, minimization, denial, and justification of racial domination.” It’s no accident that we grow up deluded into believing that kindness and hope will someday change the world. Our ignorance and magical thinking serve to keep oppressive structures in place.
“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power,” writes Fleming. While we are all immersed in stereotypes about social groups, “we do not all occupy the same position in the racial order.”
Case in point: Fleming’s own experience of being shielded from racist injustice in childhood bears a lot in common with a white child raised with no education in the catastrophe of systemic racism—yet the different manifestation of that ignorance is everything. When you’re Black and your mom protected you from knowing too much too soon, you go along not realizing the ways that white supremacy is impacting you. In the author’s case, she came to see that white supremacy propped her up as a model minority, exceptional, better than, separate—devastatingly so, as this severed her from her own intuition, authority, community, and ancestry.
When you’re white and don’t know what that means in terms of a personal, cultural, and national identity built on the lie of liberty and justice for all, you go along unaware of the innumerable ways you’ve been weaponized to advance white supremacy. “The costs of taking a superficial approach to addressing racism are quite high,” writes Fleming, “—and fall squarely on the shoulders of people of color.”
How we feel about racism is practically irrelevant. We can ignore it, deny it, despise it, defend it—none of this makes any difference in the lives of the people directly impacted. But until we—all of us—activate ourselves to expose and reckon with white supremacy where it’s rooted in our minds and bodies, in our intimate relationships, in what we read and who we listen to, and in the spaces where we bank, work, pray, earn degrees, and do yoga, this vile machine of destruction, theft, and incarceration will keep purring along, 100 percent by design. Our ignorance didn’t create this system, but its maintenance does depend on it.
This is the kind of book I want to download directly into my brain, to cure my own ignorance about how white supremacy is ingrained into every facet of American life. Fleming’s research and analysis tracks how racist injustice is maintained in media, education, and our deeply racist political system, among conservatives and liberals alike.
I’d like to take a quiz on how Fleming’s Gaslighting Fallacy of White Supremacy differs from her Whites-Only Fallacy and her Black Supremacy Unicorn Fallacy. And I want to memorize whole paragraphs like this one, so I never forget how strong the conditioning is to fail to see our complicity:
Americans have been socialized to look on the bright side despite centuries of colonial and racial violence, torture, and the oppression of minorities. Our problem is not and has never been overreacting to racial terror. Our problem is the hegemony of under-reaction, denial, minimization. Ours is a society that has always socialized white folks to live in the midst of racial oppression but go on with their lives like normal. At every turn, those who oppose white supremacy have been met with denial, violence, “race card” accusations, or magnificent claims about progress. It seems that in the minds of many white liberals, we should all be celebrating the fact that most of us are not physically in chains. White supremacy wants you to look at four hundred years of uninterrupted racial terror and conclude “Things aren’t so bad.”
Her chapter called “Listen to Black Women” aligns with my own process of becoming less stupid about race, as my activism was remade in every way by internalizing and crediting the voices of Black women. She highlights the “intersectional sensibility” of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, whose leadership “explicitly brings the problems of antiblackness and state violence into dialogue with the marginalization of queer lives and trans lives.” This “sophistication and complexity” draws together the “radical coalitions” that will shift the culture. The chapter “Interracial Love 101” emphasizes the “continuous commitment to unlearn” that is vital to our building actual intimacy across racial bounds. “What we need, quite desperately,” writes Fleming, “is the willingness to cultivate revolutionary love, grounded in knowledge, compassion, courage, and collective action.” Two grueling chapters on Obama and Trump offer plenty of incentive to shed illusions about our current terrible mess and how far we are from getting through it.
In the “Fake Racial News” chapter, Fleming holds mainstream media to the fire: “When it comes to the fine art of not giving a fuck about black people and other people of color, the New York Times really is in a league of its own.” This claim, as with all the others, is backed up with research and egregious examples of this newspaper and other widely respected news sources, including the New Yorker, “providing a platform for white nationalists and presenting white supremacy as ‘just another side.’” Each example offers searing proof of just how far white supremacy, and only white supremacy, has progressed in this country. The only way we will halt its momentum is by catching it in the act—and that means knowing its ways: where it lives (in us) and how it moves (relentlessly). This is something we haven’t tried before as a collective. Drop all defensiveness, abandon hope, and as DeRay Mckesson says: “Watch whiteness work.” Two more things we haven’t yet tried en masse, which Fleming also mentions throughout the book: the value of a mindfulness, meditative, and spiritual practice to heal trauma, prevent burnout, and keep the mind-spirit-body connection flowing, and the urgency to get this information to young people so they grow up wiser and in touch with their own power, responsibility, and collective potential.
Among other things, that means bursting white kids’ bubbles, quick—the one that so many adults who benefit from whiteness like to believe gradually dissolves as grown-up realities (such as Blackness and the truth about Thanksgiving) can’t be kept out any longer.
Every time a white parent laments that a book like mine will end their child’s innocence (the way a book like Fleming’s will end theirs), I remind them that they, and we, and I, and you were all born into a system that has set up white children to be anything but innocent. At best, white kids can expect to become accidental oppressors, enriched even as they are de-souled.
So long as we offer white children no choice but to advance white supremacy actively or passively, we leave the entire burden of navigating, dismantling, and staying alive within white supremacy on the shoulders of Black and Brown children. That right there is white supremacy at work. Or rather, that is white supremacy pouring itself a pitcher of martinis at 5 pm, after another successful century of work.
We cannot afford to be that stupid. In fact, we never could.
Anastasia Higginbotham is the creator of the Ordinary Terrible Things series of children’s books, which includes Divorce Is the Worst and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.
Territory of Light By Yuko Tsushima
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 192 pp, $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Domenica Ruta
A single mother moves with her young daughter into a new apartment suffused with light, but it is in the vacant apartment downstairs where she lurks in the middle of the night that her heart finds fleeting peace. In this transcendent novel by the late Yuko Tsushima, vacancies both real and symbolic become the space where human emotions not permitted to exist elsewhere are cast and poorly contained. The top-floor apartment, with its blood red floors, abundant windows, and symbolic promise of renewal, is at once a physical incarnation of a desperate woman’s direst hopes and fears.
Set in 1970s Tokyo, Territory of Light is ostensibly based on the author’s lived experience. Tsushima never names the female protagonist, leaving her to be known only in terms of the husband who abandoned her, Fujino. She works as an archivist at a radio library. Her husband, a fickle aspiring actor and producer, urges his castoff wife to move in with her widowed mother, but a combination of pride and shame make this option out of the question for her. Her first steps toward independence are tenuous, as she relies on her husband to help find a new home for her and their daughter. “I was enjoying the feeling of being swept along by a man … All I had to do was follow his instruction.” But the comfort of their looking together becomes farce as they tour apartments that are increasingly more expensive and untenable. Just then, an auspicious apartment on the fourth floor of an unremarkable office building becomes available.
“Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother.”
Territory of Light is a story of floods and fires, bedwetting and vomit, a story composed of elements both earthly and ethereal. A small leak somewhere in her new building becomes a flood on the floors below, and she is unfairly held responsible. Another single mother she meets in the park is the cause of a fire that destroys a building in the neighborhood. Later, the mentally handicapped son of a different single mother falls to his death while playing alone on the deck; trouble is always adjacent to the protagonist’s life like this, as though an otherworldly warning, a rebuke saying: in a parallel life, this could be your fire, your flood, your child dead. Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension so richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother that lines of metaphor dissolve leaving only the shadow of dread on every page. Not all is existential and elemental in the life of this woman and her little daughter. The realities of life as a single mother are all too real; her loneliness and isolation and feelings of resentment toward her toddler grow in proportion to her lack of sleep.
Every week, the morning of my one day off plays out the same way. “There’s milk, sliced bread, whatever you want, just help yourself,” I tell her, not opening my eyes. The lull that follows allows me to drop trustingly off again, until my daughter breaks into more tears: I spilled the milk, I wet my pants. The glass broke … And yet I never learn: I go on sleeping in on Sundays. I go for every minute I can get. I continue to meld my body into the bedclothes, believing the tiredness will vanish if I give it just a little longer.
But she gets up, day after day, sometimes cursing her daughter, sometimes keeping her home from school in her exhaustion. She leaves her alone to go drinking at night. In desperation for adult contact, she gets attached to a college boy, the former student of her ex-husband, only to be humiliated and rejected by him as well.
Where is her husband in all this? The narrator is left to speculate. He calls her at work sometimes, angry she cannot give him more attention over the phone, while her boss listens in at their open plan office. Then her husband disappears for months without a word. She hears he has taken up with an older woman; she feels no jealousy. Every person in her small life—her mother, her former friends, even the director of the PTA who sleeps with her one pitiable night—urge her to reconcile with her husband, as though she were the one who left the marriage. Even a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all. The narrator steadfastly rejects this and files for divorce, where she is treated by the double indignity of a mediator who places all responsibility and blame on her, and an ex-husband who cannot even show up to sign divorce papers.
Life marches on. Time in this novel has the feeling of a slow, oppressive progression and stagnation all at once. Broken into twelve chapters and published monthly in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo from 1978- 1979, Territory of Light chronicles the first year of Mrs. Fujino’s and her daughter ’s life on their own. This translation, by the lapidary Geraldine Harcourt, has the compression of poetry, the crackle of hyperrealism and the gloaming tension of a winter nap in late afternoon. In the end, the narrator decides to leave the top floor apartment that was her cocoon into independence. This setting, once so full of promise, looks different now, its “reddish light so bright it was almost suffocating.” She moves with her daughter to a more ordinary residential building with much less light, but more hospitable to children. No more vacancies hovering just below the surface; this new home comes with a cranky downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged woman who, the old tenants warn, yells at them through the walls. The narrator is undaunted. There will be new troubles, and new opportunities, as well. A feeling of hope and triumph can radiate from nowhere special.
Domenica Ruta is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir With or Without You, a darkly hilarious mother-daughter story and a chronicle of a misfit nineties youth. Her most recent book is Last Day: A Novel. She lives in New York City.
ICYMI: Photography Documenting Activism Images by Ellen Shub and Commentary by Ellen Feldman
How is it that so many activists who are bound to the struggles and protests of an age remain so damned optimistic? It wasn’t I who wanted to start this photo essay’s comment with Rich’s image of hope amid darkness; it was Ellen Shub, a photojournalist who has been documenting social justice activism in America since the 1970s.
Shub was “initially drawn to covering events around reproductive rights, the battered-women shelter movement, and around violence against women.” But her work expanded to cover many of the social movements of our time. From anti-apartheid to anti-nuclear actions, from civil rights to climate change demonstrations: Shub was there.
An award-winning and widely-published photojournalist, particularly on women’s issues, Shub is both social activist and artist. “My artistic goal is to create images that capture the emotional power and intimacy of the moment and their historic significance,” explains Shub. And she succeeds: her work has appeared in newspapers, films, books, and journals about feminism (including WRB, 2017, and Our Bodies Ourselves); is housed in museum collections; and has been widely exhibited. She is currently seeking a permanent home for this tremendous body of work documenting “people who have sought through their actions to create change, improve the human condition, and transform the course of history.” The spirit of hope remains at the heart of her enterprise: “I have always believed that a more equitable, peaceful, just, and sustainable world is possible, and that photographs can help engage and move people to make this possibility a reality.” To see the range of Ellen Shub’s work, visit https://ellenshub.photoshelter.com
Ellen Feldman, WRB’s photography editor, is a photographer, curator, and book artist. Her most recent publication is We Who March: Photographs and Reflections on the Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Websites: www.ellenfeldman.net and www.WeWhoMarch.org
All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women Edited by Enid Shomer
Durham, NC; Blair/Carolina Wren Press, 2018, 224 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Brook J. Sadler
Sex sells. This truism is evidenced in ubiquitous advertising, popular media, and the insidious leviathan that is pornography. Yet the more “open” we become about sex, the more banal and predictable seem to be the dominant images of it. Sex and sexuality are reduced to an almost vivisectional display of bodies and body parts that would appear perverse if we weren’t so thoroughly acculturated to it. The intensity of sexual experience is reduced to physical grappling, akin to an extreme sport or a cardio workout. Sexual relationship is reduced to a caricature of conquest, resistance, and submission. The proliferation of sexual imagery objectifies both men and women—addressing bodies as things available for manipulation, not persons who are the subjects of experience. The sexual imagery we as a culture produce and consume is largely rote and unimaginative, following phallocentric scripts that enlist and reinforce masculinist assumptions about power and pleasure. Thus, at the same time that we are saturated with representations of sex, we are increasingly impoverished by these images, deprived of the genuinely erotic.
In this cultural context, a book of erotic poems appears as an act of protest, an attempt to reclaim the sensual, mysterious, and deeply human experience of sex. A book of erotic poems by women, coming at a time when female sexual autonomy is publicly represented largely by women’s speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, amplifies the implicit protest: Women’s voices can not only resist sexual domination but redirect us toward a life-affirming view of sexuality. In the introduction to her new anthology All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women, Enid Shomer makes only the briefest mention of a political point, noting that the women’s movement has made possible a “rising tide of erotic literature” by women. With the political context laying low, Shomer expresses the hope that the book may be a “monument to the primal power of sex.”
The monument Shomer has assembled is constructed of 114 poems by 70 poets. There is not a dud among them. If the glossy images and repetitive video tropes of commercialized sex have made it into something vulgar or dull, here the evocative, inventive power of words is made clear: In these poems, most of which are fewer than 30 lines, the erotic comes to life in simple typeface. Shomer’s collection exemplifies her stated view of poetry’s ability to both “celebrate” and “solemnify” significant events. These are poems that enliven the mind and spirit, arouse the senses, and honor the emotional complexity of the erotic. I don’t know if poets make better lovers (I doubt it), but reading this little book might make you wonder, if not about the erotic abilities of poets, then about the connection between linguistic expression and erotic experience.
The leading poem of the book insists upon this connection: A woman reading “licks her finger, little flick / of tongue and fingertip” to turn the page, and in this moment, an erotic possibility surges. She feels a syllable “bobbing on the tongue,” and her attention is turned from the page to fantasy and (presumably) masturbation as she “lays aside her book.” There, the poem ends, inviting its reader to follow the poet’s subject into the private moment that lies beyond the final line (Kathleen Flenniken, “A Woman Reading”). Shomer could not have made a smarter choice to open the collection; here, language is both physical—on the page, in the mouth—and mental, a concurrence of literal and imaginative meanings. As is the erotic.
The variety of meanings that comprise the erotic experience of women is loosely organized by Shomer into three sections. In the “The Discovery of Sex,” we become privy to girlish experimentation, adolescent curiosity and risk-taking, and adult delight in the joy, beauty, and power of pleasure and of possessing a female body. “Discovery” addresses both the individual experience of first sexual encounters and the deepening realizations of the value and potency of sexual relationships. Elizabeth Alexander ’s “At Seventeen” captures youthful lust: “I want to do it, want to snort and root / and forage in your skin and apertures.”
Sharon Olds observes “his face cocked / back as if in terror”— the reality of male orgasm coming as something of a shock in her “First Sex.” This section closes, suitably, with Jane Hirshfield’s discovery that when the conversation and wine have drained off, what is left is the “sediment dark / at bottom between us, desire” (“Desire”). The second section, “The Ordinary Day Begins,” places the erotic in the context of other daily concerns, domestic life, and long-term relationships. In this group of poems, sex is a familiar experience, though it still has the power to startle, uproot, unsettle. In Molly Peacock’s “The Purr,” arousal is a “hum / in me, the sound something numb come alive makes.” It is a “mysterious thrum // that science can’t yet explain.” That sex has a power which exceeds explanation is a recurrent theme. The exorbitant significance of sex as an event is highlighted by Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “The Best Seven Minutes of My Life,” where “all the ways to live and love” spill forth “in seven / minutes of wonder, and wounding, or less,” proving that sex, like poetry, can be a relatively short form, but nonetheless potent.
Buried in the ordinariness of life, the erotic sends up its surprising shoots: “Sometimes my desire scares me,” writes Stacie Cassarino from the kitchen (“In the Kitchen”). And Amy Gerstler playfully observes, “When we fuck, stars don’t peer down: they can’t. / We fornicate indoors, under roofs, under wraps.” Great sex can take place without a romantic view of the stars, on any number of “couches, cots, and benches” (“Housebound”). The erotic is clearly capable of infiltrating quotidian spaces, as when Dorianne Laux describes a “fullthroated,” orgasmic scream while having sex “on the floor of your office, the dirty carpet / under my back” (“2AM”). Erotic energy cannot be contained but persists even in the most un-sensuous of locations, amid the most stultifying routines.
In the book’s third section, “When This Old Body,” there are poems that address aging, as one might expect. For example, Ellen Bass marvels at the public and passionate kisses of a middle-aged woman in “Gate C22.” But more than reflections on the aging body, these poems coalesce because of a deeper resonance; they share an earned wisdom. Maya Angelou acknowledges the magnetism of the female body with pride in her “Phenomenal Woman,” who, just by walking into a room, makes the “The fellows stand or / Fall down on their knees.” In a forceful womanist poem, Lucille Clifton rejoices in her “big hips,” her “mighty hips” (“homage to my hips”). Katherine Riegel owns up to caring “less/and less about appropriate and more and more / about wanting, about moans and sighs” (“To Endings”). In her “After Love,” Maxine Kumin sharply observes that sex is a temporary reprieve: “Afterwards, the compromise.”
In truth, the range of erotic experience, observation, and wisdom traversed by the poems in this collection is so great that it seems a disservice to attempt to sample it. But it may help to summarize it. The key word in Shomer’s title is “know.” What is it that women poets know about the erotic? They know that erotic experience is a kind of absorption: the self is absorbed in its body, in the body of the other, in the present moment, and the lovers are absorbed into the world. This absorption requires a heightened awareness, focused attention, and a fundamental openness, a willingness to live “with reckless plenitude,” as Stacie Cassarino says (“Summer Solstice”). They know, too, that the erotic involves an unscripted, yet intelligible form of abandon. Sex is primeval; it is animal; it is instinctual; its pleasures are pleasures of the flesh. Animal imagery abounds in these pages. Barbara Goldberg clinches the point: “Anima, animus, we / descend into our evolutionary niche, / wild, demonic, from the bliss of it” (“Capitulation”). Yet we are human animals, and our erotic abandonment must take a human form; hence, its fundamental intelligibility, its aptness for linguistic representation.
Frequently, these poems summon the words “think,” “know,” and even “truth,” direct testament to the essential link between human sexuality and knowledge. Importantly, among the things that women know from erotic experience is men, as Alice Friman makes clear: “Husband, I tell you, there will be no end / to my knowing” (“Watching You in the Mirror”). The claim is expansive and the tone ominous, as women’s knowledge has always been perceived as a threat. There are additional revelations, surprising for their candor. Molly Peacock asks in her title “Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm?” and replies in the first line, “When I get nervous, it’s so hard not to.” The subsequent lines unfold with a lyric acuity to be savored. “The Sad Truth” of Ellen Bass’s poem is that though her lover is a woman, she sometimes misses a penis: “I miss / feeling it nudge me from behind in the night, / poking in between my legs. And the way it goes / out ahead, an envoy, blatant and exposed / on the open plain.”
Women know that moral ambiguity often accompanies the erotic. In “Attraction,” one of Shomer’s own poems, a woman knowingly succumbs to a seduction: “I put away objections / as quietly as quilts.” And in “Navy,” Barbara O’Dair walks a tenuous line between self-loathing and slut-shame, and defiant pride. She glories, “He jackknifed me over the bathtub faucet, / Fucked me four times that morning, / Fat and beating, like a fish.” Female desire should never be reduced to simple submission nor to any overly prettified, sentimental, or romanticized notions.
Though ambivalence and ambiguity surface in several poems, other more troubling aspects of female sexual experience are not fully represented. Few (if any) poems confront the real dangers of sex faced so often by women—the possibility that physical intimacy will lead to rape, assault, male aggression, social stigma, physical pain, unwanted pregnancy, or disease. Had such issues been included, the monument Shomer has constructed would have been very different—less celebratory, more documentary. Although we need poems like this—Cynthia Huntington’s complex poem about abortion, “Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese,” comes to mind— the decision to exclude them allows the book to enact a fully positive embrace of women’s sexual desire, a much-needed outlook. One of the things that makes reading this book such a pleasure is the way it functions as an antidote to the omnipresent news of misogyny and the bleak picture of the ways sex so often endangers women in our patriarchal culture.
All We Know of Pleasure demonstrates that we need language to disclose the erotic. The act of looking at bodies and their parts remains brute until it is transformed by the language of desire, sharpened by metaphor, held close by narrative, articulated from the perspective of real, feeling persons. Thus, as Deirdre Pope suggests in her “Desire,” it is not necessarily an anti-feminist act to focus on the parts of the body, to delight in their separateness: “clit // breasts // lips.” So often in these pages, bodies and genitals are described with a poetic appreciation that invites us to perceive in new ways our own experience of bodies as sites of meaning. Peacock speaks of “your scrotum / hung like an oriole’s nest,” imbuing the sexual encounter with a memorable tenderness and particularity (“The Purr”). When Bass writes of her lover, “I cherish / her sex—the puffy lips of the vulva / like ripe apricot halves,” the image communicates both the sweetness of the fruit and her loving regard (“The Sad Truth”). Even when the body is made analogous to the inanimate, the intrinsic subjectivity and individuality of persons and their bodies is never lost. The quality of the female gaze is displayed as agential and humanizing.
All We Know of Pleasure not only illuminates the need for intelligent erotica and for female-made representations of it, it also demonstrates how much we need the erotic, and all the subtle and vital freedom, joy, and togetherness it can deliver. In a culture overrun with the trivial and dehumanizing, Shomer has made a book that feels necessary.
Brook J. Sadler, Ph.D. is a professor of philosophy and a poet, teaching in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. Her writing appears in numerous academic books and journals, literary periodicals, and at the Enid Shomer Ms. magazine blog.
Brute By Emily Skaja
Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf, 2019, 72 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Emily Luan
Brute is a book of exits. Of maps and doors, openings, roads, and passageways; of holes—holes in the sky, the gloved hand of a man, “ship sails / holey with mothbite,” permanent marker on a wall that reads “UNFUCK YOUR HOLE LIFE.” As the speaker navigates the landscape of trauma that follows an abusive relationship, she seeks the negative space of loss and leaving in order to understand how she too can depart from the past that haunts her. In the journey of this debut poetry collection, Emily Skaja renders the experience of abuse as cyclical, with edges rounded and closed. So, she asks, what becomes of us if we are left? Who do we mourn? How do we run from the enclosure? Skaja allows us, generously, to see a path—not out, but upward.
Skaja, the recipient of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award, is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the associate poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review. While we learn in the first poem, “My History As,” that the history of this collection is set in a house in South Philly, city streets quickly fall away to wilderness. These poems seem located in the woods, by a river, or in the body of a bird. The “narrow house,” we imagine, is the only manmade structure for miles, and the birds— omnipresent from beginning to end—the only sounds. The natural landscape positions the poems in a psychological space of trauma rather than in the literal situation of abuse or, one could say, it positions the poems in the psychological space within the situation of abuse. The speaker is isolated among the trees, who are her only witnesses, and the birds circle above in a maddening symbol of purgatory. In the woods, the line between the fantasy of escape and comfort in the natural world dissolves, just as the speaker contemplates the blurred love and hurt of living with her abuser. “It was a house I was always / walking back to” Skaja writes, “I wanted the bruise / & the voice that was sorry.”
The landscape of Brute places the narrative of the collection not only outside of physical space but outside of time. The events warp into the intimate vacuum of pain, which the speaker holds like a bird and slowly turns in her hands. For one, we can read time in the book as the familiar long dark tunnel we stumble through, looking for light in incessant darkness. But we also see the speaker ’s preoccupation with the idea and fear of stagnancy, where time stills. In “March is March” Skaja writes, “I force myself to take time like a pill that stops my pulse / but just for a minute. Time collects around 4:30, refusing to move.” The speaker goes for “long walks in a circle,” unable to move forward or out of the house that contains her. “When he leaves I stop / washing the cups,” she says—a terrifying fact, as it deems forward movement impossible or unlikely in the aftermath of being left. She must leave him to move forward, but he becomes a kind of cog that keeps her life turning. We filter through this everturning hourglass with her. We begin to wonder— what becomes of us if we are left?
There’s also a move to “separate / The Time Before from The Time Now,” to understand how one begins in empowered girlhood—“where is that witch girl / unafraid of anything”—to a present tense of diminishment and loss. To answer this question, Skaja speaks to various female figures to trace a map of hurt through history. In “Dear Ruth,” she writes, “Ruth, you are the holy thing I look to… Help me understand, help me reverse / the pilgrims’ stories.” We begin to see the speaker looking upward, trying to bend a pattern of holes into a kind of holiness. The speaker looks for girl saints, “girl tribes of the hinterland,” finds a mirror in Julian of Norwich, Penelope, Pièta, Eurydice, Eve, even Carly Simon. And then Skaja places herself in this lineage. “Emily as grave pillar as salt-lick” she writes in “I Have Read the Whole Moon,” and in “Indictment” and “Dear Emily” we find epistolary poems to the self. These letters and allusions convey sorrow in recognizing the patterning of the plight of women, but we also see Skaja’s attempt to rewrite the female mythic landscape, to resist and reverse the narratives passed down to us.
The compulsive mining of this history of wronged women is rooted in a disturbing question, one that rings throughout the collection: If we as women keep finding ourselves here, buried, is it our fault? And. will we ever get out? In “Elegy with Sympathy,” we see the height of this inquiry:
I learned early that the flood was a sentence. An earned blight. There isn’t going to be a eulogy for this. No hymn songs. No innocent dirt. For all the changeling girls who couldn’t pull the splinters out, whose wings did not form. Is it a system—if the water wants to drown us—is it? If I say it’s the water’s fault?
Here, the flood that marks the line between before and aftermath is the inevitable conclusion, is the wave that erases holiness from the girl. The biblical allusion doubles as a question about the speaker’s suffering—whether or not it is earned, or if that’s just the story taught to women. We see how a man’s manipulation and violence can turn a woman’s distrust inwards. We watch the speaker indict herself again and again. We see how honestly she asks “Is it a system—is it?” and that honesty is deeply painful to read. In “[For Days I Was Silent]” Skaja writes, “Tell me— / At what point could I have been trusted— / Not to let him into the house.”
But through this questioning runs a clear retrospective voice that tells of the real emotional work that has been done to, as Skaja writes about Brute, “create a new person out of the ashes of the old one.” Sometimes the voice is angry, ringing from the fire, insistent on reclaiming what was taken from her. Other times the work shows through in Skaja’s willingness to stay in complication, to say plainly “I can’t leave out / how I hit that man in the jaw, / that I wasn’t good at mercy” and to wonder “What is this impulse in me to worship & crucify / anyone who leaves me.” We enact violence to others and to ourselves when we are wounded, a fact difficult to see when we are in the flood. Skaja reminds us of how profoundly human this instinct is.
The role of elegy in the book, too, shows us a progression towards reinvention. Eight elegies run through the collection like a spine, all of which seem to be for a girl who took her life at an early age. They become a counterweight to the speaker’s grief of abuse, a further investigation of what it means for someone to be “gone” or to leave another person, and these poems act as a kind of hymn song for the girls “whose wings did not form” to recognize their suffering. Death also provides a concrete loss to mourn in a way that the ending of an abusive relationship does not (I’m thinking here of Freud’s definition of mourning in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” where the grieving over a love object is productive and allows us to move forward from loss). The speaker turns to the “you” of these elegies in a time when she too feels buried, underground, to seek solace and to attempt to ascend. Again, we see the gesture from holes to holiness. And in the penultimate poem of the collection, “Elegy with Rabbits,” we arrive: “I am not buried with you in the winter ground,” she says, “When I look back I see my skin shedding gray & red as it tunnels behind me.”
Feathers and birds appear everywhere in Brute, even in the darkest moments of the text. At times, the image is developed as a metaphor for longing; other times for being hunted. “Help me. On my knees I ask to be turned into a gull,” the speaker says in “Elegy with Feathers.” In another poem, she drops her hands into a sink and “they come up feathered.” But as the repetition intensifies, the refrain becomes an insistence on flight. A harp is made from the wingbone of a vulture; the speaker holds the skull of a vulture to her cheek.
In the last poem, an epistolary to Eurydice, she denounces the predator—“There comes a point when you have to hold the man responsible for what he did. / I have decided it’s degrading to say I let him.” In this moment, speaking into the past, the narrator walks from the cellar and out from the trees. We’ve emerged from the thicket of trauma and are back in our bodies, looking around. The landscape turns from wilderness to reality—trash in the streets, the flood merely a stream in the gutter. It’s not beautiful but it isn’t ugly either. And she doesn’t grow wings; instead, she puts on a coat. Flight doesn’t always mean rising—sometimes it just means going forward.
Emily Luan is a Taiwanese American poet. She is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Rutgers University-Newark, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, PANK, Grist, Epiphany, and elsewhere.
Jennifer Baumgardner, Women's Review of Books editor in chief, gives a preview of what's in the current issue:
Detroit by the Numbers The World According to Fannie Davis By Bridgett M. Davis
Reviewed by Shirley Nwangwa
Unity of the Whole Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels
Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan
Never Surrender, Dorothy! The Entire Oeuvre of Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed By Stacey Lathrop
A Whole World of Mythology Swallowing Mercury By Wioletta Greg; Flights By Olga Tokarczuk
Reviewed by Beth Holmgren
Heart to Heart Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth By Sarah Smarsh
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
Photography Documenting Activism Images by Ellen Shub and Commentary by Ellen Feldman
Production VS. Reproduction This Woman’s Work By Julie Delporte; Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos By Lucy Knisley
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
White Tears White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism By Robin DiAngelo
Reviewed by Haley Riemer
A Fish Still Alive Everything Under By Daisy Johnson
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
Tough Love To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice By Jessica Wilkerson
Review by Barbara Bamberger Scott
The Witness Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive By Stephanie Land
Reviewed by Carol Blair
Magic in the Wind She Would Be King By Wayétu Moore
Reviewed by Amy Watkin
Animal Shelter The Summer of Dead Birds By Ali Liebegott
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
To Serve a Genius Puro Amor By Sandra Cisneros
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
Poetry by Vicki Reitenauer
Listen Up Requiem for a Movement
An essay by Lise Weil
Jennifer Baumgardner, Women's Review of Books editor in chief, gives a preview of what's in the current issue:
Erotic Truth, Poetic License All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women Edited by Enid Shomer
Reviewed by Brook J. Sadler
Gaza Girl A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story By Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib
Reviewed by Hagar Scher
Being Loud Without Saying Anything Liveblog By Megan Boyle
Reviewed by Laura Winnick
Q&A An Ear for Women: Interview with Megan Marshall
By Joanne B. Mulcahy
Out for Blood The Managed Body: Developing Girls and Menstrual Health in the Global South By Chris Bobel
Reviewed by Karen Houppert
Interview Eavesdropping for a Better World: A Conversation with Mira Jacob
By Tahneer Oksman
Julie Doucet: Frazzled and Frenetic Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet By Julie Doucet
Reviewed by Julie Baumgardner
Bold Lives Matter The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation By Jodie Patterson
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
What’s New, Pussycat? Milkman: A Novel By Anna Burns
Reviewed by Katherine Ouellette
Poetry By Diana Woodcock and Irene Willis
Stupid, Evil, Queer Last Night in Nuuk By Niviaq Korneliussen
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
Kathryn the Great Labrador By Kathryn Davis; The Silk Road By Kathryn Davis
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Flight Brute By Emily Skaja
Reviewed by Emily Luan
La Hija Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir By Cherríe Moraga
Reviewed by Valerie Morales
Listen Up Was it Good for You?
An essay by Laurie Stone
Unsettled Territory of Light By Yuko Tsushima
Reviewed by Domenica Ruta
The Serpent Under’t My Sister, the Serial Killer By Oyinkan Braithwaite
Reviewed by Kait Heacock
Poster Girl With No Poster No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir By Ani DiFranco
Reviewed by Hannah Wallace
This Morning, the Cardinal The Accidentals By Minrose Gwin
Reviewed by Margaret Randall
Just a Number Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life By Louise Aronson
Reviewed by Karen Houppert
Stark Raving Mad Banshee By Rachel DeWoskin; Choke Box By Christina Milletti
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
A Little Life My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism By Nancy K. Miller
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
Revelations How I Tried to be a Good Person By Ulli Lust; Hot Comb By Ebony Flowers
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Pain Please Read This Leaflet Carefully By Karen Havelin
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
Brain Trust What Not: A Prophetic Comedy By Rose Macaulay
Reviewed by Rachel Hill
Poetry By Vicki Reitenauer
Liberation from Stupidity How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide By Crystal M. Fleming
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
First Person Plural Bough Down By Karen Green; Frail Sister By Karen Green
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
Armed Tentacle By Rita Indiana, Translated by Achy Obejas
Reviewed by Rachel Hill
My So-Called Dystopian Life The Farm By Joanne Ramos
Reviewed by Katherine Ouellette
Say My Name, Say My Name Oksana, Behave! By Maria Kuznetsova
Reviewed by Lorraine Berry
Listen Up Old Mom An essay by Sarah Dougher
Defending Intersectionality ... Or Not Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality By Jennifer Nash; Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism By Barbara Tomlinson Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
War Torn What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Bee Best Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success By Shalini Shankar
Reviewed by Carol Blair
Invisible Woman When I was White By Sarah Valentine
Reviewed by Kayla Bert
Questions and Answers Feelings: Q and A With Berenice Malka Fisher
By Kait Heacock
Feed Me Supper Club By Lara Williams Reviewed by Rachel Hill
Feature This Book Changed My Life
Compiled by Kayla Bert
Homesick The Yellow House By Sarah M. Broom
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
Mosaic of Memory Everything Inside: Stories By Edwidge Danticat
Reviewed by Shirley Nwangwa
Poetry Music Class By Andrea Cohen Brujería By Diannely Antigua
Millenniality Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion By Jia Tolentino
Reviewed by Laura Winnick
Ms.Topia Native Tongue By Suzette Haden Elgin; The Women’s War By Jenna Glass
Reviewed by Jessica Jernigan
Don’t Believe the Hype Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life By Jane Sherron De Hart
Reviewed by Linda Gordon
Are We There Yet? (No.) Three Women By Lisa Taddeo
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Feature Dead, Then Read By Laurie Stone
Listen Up The Hardest Word: Q and A With Eve Ensler
By Jennifer Baumgardner
Women's Review of Books issues are now available for purchase as digital downloads!
Black Lives Mother Breathe: A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
Attention Whore The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls By Mona Eltahawy Reviewed by Rachel DeWoskin
A Bird in the Hand Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me By Adrienne Brodeur Reviewed by Cathi Hanauer
Dreams on the Rise The Promise By Silvina Ocampo; Forgotten Journey By Silvina Ocampo Reviewed by Ana Castillo
Voice Less Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives By Jane Brox; Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking By Susan Cain; Unspeakable: The Things We Cannot Say By Harriet Shawcross Reviewed by Linda Simon
To be Alive The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth By Ken Krimstein Reviewed by Judith Chelius Stark
Geek Equality Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry By Suzanne Scott Reviewed by Linnete Manrique
The Children’s Hour The Old Drift By Namwali Serpell Reviewed by Jessica Stilling
Poetry by Sharon Olds, Commentary By Katha Pollitt
Pen and Tell Her Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival Edited by Diane Noomin; Commute By Erin Williams Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Tied, Bound On Division By Goldie Goldbloom Reviewed by Karen Houppert
Questions and Answers Home Turf Q and A with Samantha Allen By Kait Heacock
One Fragile Hull Toward Antarctica By Elizabeth Bradfield Reviewed by Christine Byl
No? Consent By Donna Freitas Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
A Love Letter, a Homecoming, a History Ordinary Girls By Jaquira Díaz Reviewed by Larissa Melo Pienkowski
The Gathering New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent Edited by Margaret Busby Reviewed by Mariam I. Williams
Master Mind I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying By Bassey Ikpi Reviewed by Heather Hewett
Listen Up Siempre con las Pibas By Noelle McManus
Women's Review of Books issues are now available for purchase as digital downloads!
The Women's Review of Books receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
An essay by Laurie Stone
The other day I read a story by Paul Bowles in Points in Time (1982), set in Morocco, where Bowles lived. The story takes place 150 years in the past and concerns a young Jewish woman who marries into the family of a Muslim man, smitten by her beauty. In order to marry him, she must convert to Islam. Shortly after the marriage, she realizes she has made a mistake. She is made the servant of the other female members of the family and told she cannot leave the house. Bowles writes:
When she remonstrated with Mohammed [her husband], saying she needed to go out for a walk in the fresh air, he answered that it was common knowledge that a woman goes out only three times during her life: once when she is born and leaves her mother ’s womb, once when she marries and leaves her father’s house, and once when she dies and leaves this world. He advised her to walk on the roof like other women.
She decides to leave, anyway. Her husband is shamed, and she is captured as an infidel and beheaded.
The story made me think about many things, including the beauty and threat of circulation as a concept and about the many calls we are hearing, many in contradictory contexts, for things and people to be removed from circulation. Among them are objects, such as the Confederate flag, called on to be removed from public spaces and relocated in museums. Calls for the work of certain male artists accused of sexual aggressions, such as Roman Polanski, to be deposited in archives and banned from public viewing. Calls for certain male performers, professors, writers, and editors, accused of offensive statements and behaviors, such as Lorin Stein, fired last year as editor of Paris Review for sexual harassment, to be removed from their jobs.
The desire to nail whatever bastard you can get your hands on as puny reparation for thousands of years of unpunished male violence has been driving #MeToo usefully and buoyantly since the election of Trump. #MeToo is not exactly a movement, and it’s not exactly organized. It has generally been depicted as Feminism: The Reboot, as it has gone about raising consciousness, like a giant leaf blower gathering dessicated scoundrels. These are the men, protected by handlers and money, who say to women, “Let me feel you up, let me fuck you, and, though I will make you feel like a worthless worm, I can make you rich and successful.”
This is ordinary sexism, a word too small, it seems, for the colossus of hate mongering and abuse it must carry on its bony shoulders. The women’s movement had been documenting the uninvited gropes and threatening mind games of male humans for fifty years, but it took a stolen election by a massive criminal with proud contempt for women to make feminism—or a version of feminism—palatable even to men. As each rodent has gone down, he’s squeaked, “This is business as usual. You’ve changed the rules! I call foul.” For the first time in a concerted way there are hairy consequences.
#MeToo has managed to reveal slime-as-usual practices in worlds that have pretended to be prettier than they are, among them the academy, broadcasting, and publishing. But #MeToo risks diverting its momentum with fuzzy thinking, and I want to focus on this here, in hopes of expanding its attention beyond the terrible things done to women of a sexual nature to other terrible things. In hopes of moving beyond the acts of individuals to the gender biases in institutions, among them religions.
#MeToo is thrilling when it exposes criminals and predators. It is chilling, however, when the target of a #MeToo campaign—for lack of a better term—has committed no crime or readily identifiable harm and has, rather, caused offense, or rattled some people, or triggered them, or made them feel an emotion they didn’t want to feel. Sometimes the emotion is arousal, but let’s put that aside for a moment. We need to look more carefully at category mistakes and keep in mind whether a call for punishment or decirculation in the name of feminism actually expands—or crimps—freedom for women. Here are some categories that ask us to think about circulation. The list is not exhaustive.
Objects that symbolize harm and spread harm. Confederate flags and Confederate monuments come to mind. These objects, celebrating the haters of the past and authorizing the hatred of racists now, have no place in public space, the way swastikas have no place in public space. What to do with them once they are collected? That’s the messy question. Document and destroy them? Install them in museums, as if museums and archives are places where objects and ideas can go to die? As if museums can speed the process of detaching these artifacts from social relevance? They can’t. Museums and archives are not going to drain the poison from cultural wares, nor should they be tasked with the job.
Counter examples are concentration camps and slave quarters as museums, which preserve the history of the oppressed rather than memorializing the accomplishments of those in power. Perhaps in our cultural moment we want histories that only express points of view from under the boot. Here’s to new kinds of museums with no obligation to established power that will want to assume this responsibility.
People who have committed crimes of violence against females and continue to make art.
In 1977, Roman Polanski was charged with rape by use of drugs of a thirteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty to a lesser charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse” and fled the US. As repulsive and cruel as these acts are, my feeling is this: punish the artist and leave the art alone. Banning art does not look good on a movement, ever. (Theoretically, even if a Confederate monument existed you could classify as art, it, too, might call for a particular form of display and explanatory label text. To my knowledge, this object does not exist.)
When you learn discomfiting facts about a person, you can’t look at their work the same way as before. It messes with your head, and you may feel so turned off, you don’t want to engage with it further. You could also find yourself turned off by work made by a person who did not do bad things. For example, I have always loved the work of Ricky Gervais, but right now he’s on my shit list because he makes a loud point of referring to the worst people he can think of as cunts. Ricky thinks there is nothing more debased in existence than female genitalia, and to that I say, “Go fuck yourself.” Still, I will probably watch his next Netflix performance, while publicly expressing my problem with him.
If you continue to engage with the work of an artist who has done bad things, what you have learned will produce a new reading of their work. It has to. At the same time, you can’t judge the work itself only by the qualities of the person who made it. Bad people make good art. Turning away from a work of art or the artist who made it is a personal choice. Advocating for its removal from circulation is a social choice. The motive is partly to punish the artist. Don’t let them earn more money and acclaim, since they are bad, the thinking goes. Some also argue that a work of art made by a person who does bad things contaminates the culture. This last notion is more contaminating of a culture than any work of art could be.
Art, for the most part, is more complex and mysterious than the person who made it. That’s why it needs to remain in circulation. Take Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a film you could see as a feminist document in a certain light, a film in which John Cassavetes combines the solipsism of the New York actor with the ordinary inobservance of the coddled husband to produce a man who believably pimps his wife to the devil to get better acting parts. Polanski’s wit steers this film, perhaps because he knew he would have done the same thing as Rosemary’s husband, perhaps because he also identified with the targeted and isolated Rosemary. No more Rosemary’s Baby produces a duller, more shriveled world.
Some people argue that removing the art of men who do bad things to women will make more space for the work of women artists and minority artists. Nice sentiment, but that’s not how art works in the world. There isn’t a fixed-sized art pie, i.e., a smaller piece of production for you guarantees a bigger piece of art pie for me. Art moves in and out of fashion, sure, and the work of male artists has been more supported than the work of female artists, but removing the art of men is not going to help female directors get jobs, and it will not benefit the cause of freedom for women.
Firing men from jobs who do bad things to women or who promote men who do bad things to women.
I say fire away—if the men are criminals or prove themselves unfit for the job. Ian Buruma fits this description. He was fired last September as editor of The New York Review of Books for publishing a self-serving defense (with unchecked false statements) by Jian Ghomeshi, a man publicly accused of physical and sexual brutality by nearly twenty women, including one charge of overcoming a woman’s resistance by choking. Ghomeshi was acquitted at his trial, but Buruma made the wrong bet about the times he was living in, believing that Ghomeshi would be seen as a victim of social media rather than a serial abuser who got off without a jail sentence.
This is what Buruma said to Isaac Chotiner in a Slate interview about his reasons for publishing the Ghomeshi self-defense: “I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation. How can I be? All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime. The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern. My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.”
I have to say, the comment that grabs me by the pussy is this: “The exact nature of his behavior ... I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.” Whoa. Why is it not your concern since you gave him space to lie about it in your paper? All the things Buruma cares about are valid to care about regarding moral opprobrium and term limits on shunning, but not caring about what the man actually did and the women he did it to? Bye, bye.
Deposing men who do creepy and humiliating sexual things to women that are not crimes.
I have devised this category for Louis CK, although others no doubt belong here as well. In November 2017, Louis admitted to asking women who came to his hotel rooms if he could masturbate in front of them. He gained their consent. These women wanted to work with him professionally, and the ones who stayed felt they had to watch him jerk off as part of the deal. Louis said in a public statement he was sorry. After his admission, he was fired from his current jobs. A film he was in was shelved. And past episodes of his TV show, Louie, remain unavailable for streaming.
Last August, he made an unannounced appearance at a comedy club in New York City. The next day, on Facebook, a female writer weighed in that he had not sufficiently redeemed himself to get back on stage. I was struck by the peculiarly Christian concept of redemption coming into play in a case like this, and I was reminded of the long fissure in the women’s movement dividing women who see their role as moral reformers and women who advocate for the sexual liberation of all people. I place myself firmly in the second camp. About the matter of redemption, as far as I am concerned, human beings don’t fall and therefore do not need to be redeemed. We are not on a path with an ideal narrative arc of right living. We are not on a path, period.
Causing someone to look at your penis is a form of flashing. In private, though, it’s something people do all the time in ordinary sex, so the category of taking out your penis in your own hotel room isn’t actionable in itself. The room was not a public space. Louis flashed women who wanted to be in his orbit. They didn’t work for him, so legally it’s not sexual harassment. He wanted to see them squirm or submit as part of his excitement. He was a shit.
How long does he remain out of circulation? Is he ever allowed to earn money again as a writer and performer? Some people have argued his future earnings should fund the women he grossed out and other art projects by women. Maybe he will direct some money that way, out of a sense of obligation or positive public relations, rather the way after the Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, Exxon paid for animal rehab facilities there.
Some people have argued that Louis’s appearance at the comedy club wasn’t announced, and that those in the audience therefore had no choice but to see him—another instance of whipping of it out, as it were. It was argued that his premature return trivialized the harm he had caused the women he coerced and, in a sense, all women who have been harassed.
Indeed, you can see his appearance as a form of aggression, but there is also a tradition in comedy clubs of unannounced sets by stars trying out new work. In clubs, too, if you don’t like an act, you can walk out and come back. You’re not in lockdown. What people who complained meant is they wanted a trigger warning, even though comedy is the thing that lampoons trigger warnings and other forms of pre-emptive protection. Comedy is the thing that is supposed to take you hostage and unteach you how to feel. If you feel comfortable and safe in a comedy club, you are at some other kind of performance.
I don’t find sexist humor funny because the power position in comedy is the place of no power. Louis knows this some of the time. The way we all do. He can switch moods in startling ways, slipping between hilarity, embarrassment, failure, and yearning. Will he have anything to say that can move us if he passes over what happened to him? I think he could turn his experience into a subject for comedy if he were willing to struggle with it. How was he feeling when he flashed his cock at unsuspecting women? What did the looks on their faces tell him? How does he feel about the impact of all this on his daughters? To make this funny, he would have to put himself in the position he placed women in without portraying himself as a victim. A man like Louis, who thinks very hard about comic sources, should be able to get it done.
Louis is an artist, who wants to work. His art is interactive, and he’s got to show up somewhere, at some point. Some people have argued, No, he doesn’t have to show up anywhere. He has occupied enough real estate in the zeitgeist. I say to that, Well, I don’t want to see a single person in the GOP and most Democrats appear in public, but I don’t think you are going to help me with that.
You want to tell Louis about the pain his actions have caused? Tell him. Maybe he will hear you. You don’t like him? Don’t go see him. If you don’t like the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, don’t see them, either. If you don’t like the people who fund their work, boycott them and protest outside theaters. You may be a minority voice, but it’s the way cultural change happens, not through banning artistic expression. How to help women speak publicly against abuse without being consigned to the role of scold or gravitating toward it? Through comedy, would be my bet.
Firing men from jobs in the name of feminism who blunder publicly in ways that are difficult to categorize.
On November 26, 2018, the day film director Bernardo Bertolucci died, the film critic David Edelstein posted on Facebook: “Even grief goes better with butter.” The quip captioned a still from Last Tango in Paris, depicting Marlon Brando atop a prone Maria Schneider. It’s from the scene in which Brando’s character anally rapes Schneider ’s character, using butter as lube. Schneider’s face is anguished, and her fists are balled up.
On November 27, the NPR show Fresh Air, where Edelstein worked as a contributor, issued this statement: “Today we learned about film critic David Edelstein’s Facebook post in response to the death of film director Bernardo Bertolucci. The post is offensive and unacceptable, especially given actress Maria Schneider ’s experience during the filming of Last Tango in Paris. The post does not meet the standards that we expect from Fresh Air contributors, or from film journalists associated with WHYY NPR. We appreciate the apology David posted, but we have decided to end Fresh Air’s association with him, and have informed David accordingly.”
Here is some background on Edelstein’s use of the word butter. Because in the film butter is used as lube, butter became a sex joke from the movie’s 1973 premiere on. I saw Edelstein’s post and thought, Wow, that’s really tone deaf and dumb. I remembered reading about Schneider ’s 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, where she described her treatment by Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango. Writing in The Washington Post on November 26, 2018, Elahe Izadi lays out what happened during filming and the repercussions of those events, drawing on accounts by Schneider, Brando, and Bertolucci.
I summarize. Brando and Bertolucci were having breakfast before the filming of the rape scene and together devised the notion of using butter. They didn’t inform Schneider, who was 19 at the time. The rape was in the script, but not the butter. She did not know she could have called her agent and refused to perform something not in the script. She says her tears in the scene were real. After the movie, unprepared for the degree of public scrutiny she experienced, she used drugs and attempted suicide. She died of cancer in 2011.
In 2013, during a filmed interview, Bertolucci said he purposely withheld the use of the butter because: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” He said Schneider hated him for the rest of her life and that he felt guilty toward her. In interviews Brando also said he had felt humiliated by Bertolucci. It was cold during the shooting of his one, full frontal nude scene, and his parts shrank. The scene was later scrapped. Schneider said she thought Bertolucci was in love with Brando and that originally her role was supposed to be played by a boy. Amid the ferment of #MeToo, Bertolucci’s manipulation of Schneider was revisited and widely condemned.
The association of butter and anal sex is not a problem for me now or in the past. Anal sex is about sex. The problem for me is not that a fictional scene depicted anal rape. The problem is what we now know about Schneider ’s experience at the hands of Bertolucci. This is what bears on Edelstein’s remark. Another thing. The reason butter became a sex joke has to do not with the anal rape of Schneider’s character but with a later scene. Brando’s character says to Schneider’s character, “Get the butter,” because he wants her to finger him anally, and she does. When I saw Last Tango in 1973, people had more to say about the second scene than the first, and this speaks to the times. A girl gets raped, oh yeah, that happens. A guy gets penetrated, even though he asks for it, well that spurred all kinds of anxious and titillated homocurious responses. It was also as if a generation of boys and girls, raised to have vanilla sex, were invited to a better party.
After Edelstein posted his quip, people on social media instantly let him know the joke was a bomb. The reason it bombed is that it made Schneider the target. It trashed her, given her experience with Bertolucci. It trashed all women who have been slimed sexually and emotionally by older men in the name of art. It insulted all women who have been slimed sexually and emotionally in the name of nothing but freewheeling sadism. So that would include all of us.
On November 28, Andrew O’Herir wrote a piece in Salon about Edelstein’s firing, in which he outlined attacks on the film critic, most influentially and sternly by actor Martha Plimpton. Plimpton reposted Edelstein’s bad joke on Twitter, calling for his firing and saying she had avoided any mention of Bertolucci’s death “precisely because of this moment in which a sexual assault of an actress was intentionally captured on film.” In fact, as Elahe Izadi makes clear, Schneider alleged no actual rape or “sexual assault” in her account. She felt violated by being excluded from decisions about the rape scene, and she felt the manipulation Bertolucci had engineered. O’Herir asks, “Does it make it all better if we conclude that Edelstein was making light of a fictional rape, or a fictional incident that might be rape? Definitely not, as he has acknowledged. Furthermore, it’s baffling that a person so deeply immersed in movies and media either didn’t know or had forgotten about Schneider’s comments, and Bertolucci’s subsequent half-apology.”
After Edelstein deleted his original post, he wrote again on Facebook on the same day:
Regarding Bertolucci’s death, I made a stupid joke here on my FB page that turns out to have been beyond stupid—grotesque. The first and only time I ever saw Last Tango was in 1977. I remembered the scene in question as part of a consensual, increasingly s&m relationship that ends with the woman being forced to shoot the man. I didn’t remember it as a rape and I didn’t know the real-life story about Maria Schneider. The line was callous and wrong even if it HAD been consensual, but given that it wasn’t I’m sick at the thought of how it read and what people logically conclude about me. I have never and would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality.
Let’s pause for a moment. Isn’t there always a way to make a joke about something if you can figure out how to frame it? I think there is. The sanctimony of Edelstein’s mea culpa has the same tenor as the sanctimony in rebukes of him. How about we ditch all sanctimony. It’s not that feminism can’t take a joke. It’s that jokes involving feminism beat up people who have already been beaten up. There could have been a way to make excellent cracks about Brando’s cold-weather weenie and Bertolucci’s crush on him and include butter, had Edelstein thought in these terms. In that inattention lies the ease of trivializing everything that is not you, in Edelstein’s case a straight white male, and it’s breathed like air.
In a saner social moment, when taking offense was not actionable, Edelstein would have received a reprimand and been offered clear guidelines about the acceptable content of his posts on social media. His firing is an example of what I have taken to calling “sensitivity harassment.” Words can hurt, but to censor them and fire the people who use them has a far more chilling effect on our society than social interaction with these moments. What should be the reach of organizations to police the speech of employees when they are not on the job? How do you feel about a dismissal on the grounds of unspecified moral standards? How do you feel about an organization speaking for feminism when its real aim is to cover its ass for fear of pushback or simply to clean house of an otherwise bothersome employee? What specifically feminist positions and understandings does NPR expect from its contributors? I would really like to see these spelled out.
What offends you is always going to be my endangered devotion, and vice versa. You believe in God and want me to believe in God, for example. I believe religions promote gender discrimination. I don’t even want the power to make you stop believing what you believe for this reason: Repression and moral opprobrium from all political stances serve power and money. Power wants a populace that is frightened to dissent, whose members are in seeming lockstep agreement, and who will police each other so repression becomes internalized and reflexive. Then you have people you can control and sell ideas and things to. My first concept for this piece was to convene a round table of views on Edelstein. A surprising number of people I queried told me they did not want to risk placing themselves in the line of social media fire.
A society becomes changed not by fiat but when outmoded ways of thinking are tossed into dusty corners and forgotten, like the lives of millions of women and girls in the actual world, who have been destroyed because their existences caused offense. Nothing can be cleansed, and among things considered contaminants might be your ideas or mine. The ideas of feminists are among the first things to be erased when waves of social cleansing are enforced. That’s why, from a practical perspective, it’s a terrible idea for women and feminists to line up with censorship.
Everything exciting and challenging in the world is a mixture of terror and pleasure. Some sort of sexual feeling or erotic response or negative erotic response is part of every interaction we have with other people of all ages and even other animals throughout our lives. Let’s not pretend otherwise as a way to simplify our conversations about abuse, rape, harassment, and other unwanted attention that takes a sexual or erotic form. Seeking safety may be the most dangerous thing we can do. There will never be a solid, agreed upon notion of safety, and I don’t want to be protected from what you think it’s bad for me to know or do.
When you hear about another white, tone-deaf man losing his job because he caused offense, you do not need to care about the man. You need to care about the issue of circulation and things being denied that right. The circulation of the female body in public space, unguarded by male protection and permission to move, is among the most transformative social actions in the world.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and criticat- large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, is a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations By Mira Jacob
New York, NY; One World, 2019, 368 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Interview by Tahneer Oksman
In 2015, Mira Jacob published her first book, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, a sprawling, elegantly written novel about a young woman wrestling with grief, love, and the complicated ways our family histories and backgrounds never stop influencing how we see and experience the world. Four years later, Jacob returns with a second work, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. The genre and format of this new book is radically distinct from her first; with Good Talk, Jacob has composed a visual memoir chronicling her life. Told in forty-three short chapters that shift back-and-forth between various backstories and the present, the book is made up of episodic snippets detailing everything from her Syrian Christian parents’ courtship and immigration from India to Albuquerque and her early experiences with peers, educators, and members of her family and community in New Mexico, to her journey towards becoming a writer living in New York City and meeting, marrying, and having a child with a white, Jewish filmmaker.
Jacob’s story is bookended with the candid, sometimes humorous, and often painful conversations she has with her observant, evercurious son, who is six years old when the book opens in 2014, against the backdrop of their Brooklyn neighborhood. In the wake of his progressively sophisticated and often difficult-toanswer questions (“What did Michael Jackson like being better, brown or white?”; “Are white people afraid of brown people?”; “Is daddy afraid of us?”), Jacob finds herself increasingly aware of what she describes as “the growing gap between the America I’d been raised to believe in, and the one rising fast all around us.” With the 2016 election before her, and her husband’s parents standing steadfastly behind a Trump presidency, Jacob invites her readers to witness her multiform attempts to contend, through conversation and dialogue, with the painful contradictions that surround her.
On a cold day in early January, Jacob and I talked, over tea, about this new book of hers that is, at its core, a frank address, from parent to child, expressing hope and helplessness in the face of a baffling, uncertain future.
Women’s Review of Books: With Good Talk, you’ve turned from fiction written in prose to visual memoir, with illustrations of you, your son, and other family members and friends in conversation, superimposed over photographic backgrounds. Could you talk about this collage-like structure and how it came about?
Mira Jacob: Partially, it was the conversations themselves that chose the format. My son was asking me a lot of questions about being brown in America, and I didn’t know how to answer him. It was really weighing on me. I kept trying to write an essay about it, but I froze up every time. We were already ramping up to the America in which no story could ever be bad enough, no feeling could ever be scary enough, where everything was something to be disproven. As many times as I tried to position us, I felt the gaze of the disbeliever. And I was exhausted by trying to navigate the space between what is hope and what is horror in this country, and trying to make that okay— specifically, for white eyes. It’s frustrating. I feel like I live in [that place between hope and horror]. I have been in that place for a long time. This is where a lot of us live. [The visual format] felt like a shortcut. I ended up drawing us with a Sharpie on printer paper and cutting us out. I cut out dialogue balloons. I put them on top of a Michael Jackson album and photographed it. Poof. I didn’t have to explain anymore.
WRB: What was it like to move from fiction to memoir as you were also moving into a visual format? How did these new modes of creating shape the story you were trying to tell?
MJ: I didn’t know I was making a memoir when I started. I kept calling what I was working on a “thing” in my mind. When I hear the word “memoir,” I get scared, thinking my life is not interesting enough.
I kept making these visual things, thinking, I’m going to tell these little stories from my life. These are just conversations. I made strict rules: I told myself, you can only set things up. You cannot talk about the feelings you’re having. You can only set up the scene and play out the dialogue and see how that goes. But I’m a metaphor junkie. A metaphor is basically taking an emotion and making it concrete for another person. When you can’t rely on your flowery senses, when you can’t rely on your metaphors, what do you develop in that place? I had to lean hard on action. On dialogue.
I realized later that I was going to have to talk about my feelings at some point. But the helpful part of realizing that later on was that I hadn’t exhausted myself before I even started.
WRB: While the book opens with, and is framed by, these conversations you had with your son, it also goes back in time to tell the story of your own coming-of-age in New Mexico, moving to New York City to become a writer, and falling in love and partnering up. How did you arrive at such an unconventional narrative scheme?
MJ: The book stemmed from an identity crisis—my identity crisis—which was brought on by America’s identity crisis. I wrote it chronologically, for lack of a better thing to do. Then I realized that I needed to build a through-line. The conversations with my son build momentum throughout the book.
When you frame a story around conversations, the reader has the delicious experience of eavesdropping. Even though these conversations might implicate readers directly, they’re still coming to it sideways. There’s a lot of freedom in that for me because sometimes I could just lose sight of the reader’s needs. I could just say what was happening. I could not feel an allegiance. I could feel like I didn’t have to make things accessible.
WRB: The book exposes tense, challenging interactions between you and your closest family members, including your husband and in-laws. The issue of exposure is something all memoirists have to grapple with to some extent. How did you approach this problem?
MJ: The years that I was making this book were the most terrifying and lonely couple years of my life. To expose your spouse means you’re actually pulling away to allow yourself the distance that you need to write what happened.
America is always already pulling at us. America has a fantasy about interracial couples, which is that if you’re married to someone from a different race it’s because you understand everything about each other, and you’re in sync. It’s a load of shit. It doesn’t take into account how complex life is. So, then the counterpoint to that idealized version becomes a deep distrust of interracial couples—this idea that one partner or the other doesn’t value themselves or their race. It’s fucked.
My husband is also a private person. He has his own creative life as a documentarian. Sometimes conversations got heated. But always, after, he would come back with, “You just need to write it. You just need to tell the truth. You can’t dodge what you know out of some loyalty to me. You have to write it, and then we can figure it out.” That was a gift.
WRB: In the book you include a direct look at prejudice—specifically colorism—within the East Indian community. Why did you think it was important to include this perspective?
MJ: When we talk about racism and prejudice in this country, it’s always about whiteness. Anyone of color becomes a monolith, like it’s “us against them.” But every brown is different. Every one of us has our people saying privately, “we’re better than them.” That’s how tribes function. I wanted to see what it would be like to look at my own tribe and my place in it, at times in which I had compromised and times in which I had not been my best self. And at times in which I had felt unloved and unseen.
People seem to experience “woke-ness” as an idea that there’s a place to get to, and when you get to that place then you’re on the right side of things. I find that exhausting. There’s also this idea that as a person of color, I’m always going to be on the right side of things. And that’s absolutely not true. The idea that you get to a place where you no longer have to interrogate yourself, where you’re on the “right side” of racism, of colorism, it’s a baffling falsehood. It’s laziness. You lose the chance to grow and change.
WRB: Did you have an audience in mind for your book? What kind of response have you seen until now, from the short pieces you’ve already published online on BuzzFeed, Instagram, and in other venues?
MJ: I’ve been surprised by how many people have found me and written me to say, “You just told the story of my family.” There is a world of unspoken “us” that gets lost in conversations about race. When I envision the audience for this book, I envision people who are seeing conversations take place around them and saying, “What’s next?” For me, all of this stuff has a lot more nuance than we are allowing ourselves in this moment. I don’t want the byproduct of these years to be that we stop being interested enough in each other to allow for the possibilities.
I know this book is going to make a lot of people upset because I’m not tying things up with a righteous tirade. Right now, we want our discussions of race to end with righteous anger because there is so much to be angry about! And some people will think the lack of that means I’ve let my in-laws off the hook. But the truth is more complicated. I’m horribly wounded. I feel betrayed. Also, I love them. I’m holding all of these things in my hands at once. I’m holding all of them together because my boy is made up of all of us, and I’ve got to find a place for his body in this country.
WRB: Your book ends with a letter to your son, titled, “The Talk We Haven’t Had.” The timing is early 2017. Why did you decide to end the narrative in this way?
MJ: I think what people so often look for in a book like this is a solution. People want the story to end well. I don’t have that kind of ending. The best ending that I could have was the most honest one, the one that was written for him above all others, the one that said, “I see you; I love you. We’re in this together. We’re in it.”
Tahneer Oksman is an assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College, the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor of the anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019). She often reviews graphic novels and illustrated works for the Women’s Review of Books.
Interview with Megan Marshall By Joanne B. Mulcahy
Growing up, professor and biographer Megan Marshall practiced the piano or the harpsichord every day, a discipline that prepared her well for life as a writer. Marshall listens for rhythm and melody in language, her own and that in the letters and diaries of the women whose lives she explores. “A biographer,” she has written, “is like a good accompanist.”
In her most recent book, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, she literally accompanies her subject, integrating her experience as Bishop’s poetry student at Harvard in 1976. Meanwhile, Marshall’s two previous prize-winning biographies innovate in other ways, expanding our framework for reading history and women’s experience. In The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Marshall deftly blends the stories of the brilliant sisters who helped shape American education, the arts, and the Transcendentalist movement. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her next book, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, which chronicles the story of this towering intellectual and social reformer.
An earlier book, The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy, investigated the challenges women faced in balancing family, work, and independence following the second wave of feminism. The questions she posed, which Marshall felt were initially misinterpreted, have only gained relevance. That probe sent Marshall into libraries and archives to explore how women had historically sought balance, a quest that solidified her interest in biography.
Joanne Mulcahy: You’ve been called one of the great biographers of women. What led you to that path?
Megan Mashall: Part of it was a fascination with women’s stories that goes back to my grandmothers, to whom I was very close. My mother’s mother lived through the San Francisco earthquake, and I loved hearing how she ran outside to find ash from the fires sticking to her bare feet. I loved her stories about life as a schoolgirl in Oakland, too. She was left-handed and her teacher tied her left arm to her chest so she would learn to write with her right hand. That fascinated me. I liked casting my mind back to the past.
My other grandmother was a children’s librarian and a storyteller. She was a font of narrative. I spent one afternoon a week with her in the library while my mother was at work. I became entranced with biographies for children. I remember reading about Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie, and the childhoods of these ultimately great women. I’ve always loved writing the childhood sections of my books. That’s where the reader can begin to identify. We all were children. What shaped this person?
I was a big fan of the “Little House” books, which are great models for historical narrative. They include so much detail of daily life, descriptions of landscape, and cliffhanger endings. While I was writing The Peabody Sisters, I read those to my daughters, and it helped to have Wilder’s voice in my head. I heard about the Peabody sisters in a history course at Harvard—one of the first women’s history courses taught there, and the only history class I took. In the 1970s, the history department faculty was all male, and the student body was 3 to 1 male [to female]. Whenever I “shopped” a history course at the start of a semester, the whole scene was too intimidating. I never got through the door. I wasn’t as brave as the women I’ve written about! But as an English major, I read biographies of Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. If I were a student at Harvard now, I might major in history—the department is full of fabulous women historians. It’s true almost everywhere now.
JM: Because women’s lives have often been misinterpreted, do you feel you have to write against previous biographies?
MM: It’s different in each case. The Peabody sisters and Margaret Fuller were trivialized in some biographies, though not all. In their time, some perceived them as busybodies, or too egotistical or ambitious. That’s what I’m writing against more than later biographical interpretations. Some people found Fuller imperious, but how marvelous that she had so much confidence! I’m not a presentist, but I try to show what life was like for these women from their own points of view. That was an important challenge with Elizabeth Bishop, too. She was an extremely private person, and not well understood in her lifetime. Working from the subject’s interior is key, and writing that way has effects beyond shaping character. People sometimes tell me they never understood Transcendentalism until they read The Peabody Sisters. I never set out to define Transcendentalism, but I think readers experience what it felt like to have those ideas, to think them, along with my subjects.
JM: Could you talk about empathy in writing biography? Did you like all of your subjects? How do you approach them in a fair and balanced way?
MM: I really do like all my subjects! Sometimes they scare me—how can I grasp the lives of women who were so much more accomplished than I am? Elizabeth Bishop was difficult as a teacher. But I got to know her by reading her letters and immersing myself in her poetry, and I couldn’t help but admire and even love her. I’ve been lucky that the letters and journals of all my subjects have such authenticity. Fuller and the Peabodys were part of the Romantic era, when selfexamination and self-expression were highly valued; those were pre-Freudian times, and they wrote down things that people today might not. Bishop wrote honestly too; some of her friendships were most intimate on the page. Some people have asked, “Don’t you feel guilty reading these private letters?” But for the Peabodys and Fuller, letter writing was closer to publication—they shared their letters. Bishop was a great fan of literary letterwriters, saving hers to and from Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore and May Swenson. These letters were saved for a reason. I don’t feel guilty but I do feel a responsibility to use them respectfully.
JM: It’s an ethical question for biographers, the use of private documents.
MM: Establishing context is really important. I was concerned about Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to her psychoanalyst because certain aspects could easily be misunderstood. Once I realized how central they would be to my narrative, I wanted to find out about the psychoanalyst, Ruth Foster. Nobody had previously identified Foster—she’d died relatively young—but I finally found her. She’s a fascinating person who was heroic in her own way, a woman choosing to train for an innovative profession in the 1930s. She was from an upper-class Boston family, whose parents refused to send her to college. When she came into her own money, she pursued psychoanalysis against her family’s wishes, becoming estranged from them in the process. She treated artists and poor black families in New York, which they hated.
JM: I want to go back to an earlier book, The Cost of Loving, where you looked at what women who pursued professional life sometimes sacrificed in relationships. There are many connections between the ideas of independence in that book and your biographies of independent women.
MM: I’ve always been interested in how the desire for independence conflicts with social constraints on women’s lives. As someone growing up slightly younger than the leaders of the second wave of feminism, I was struck by some of the choices I sensed we were going to have to reckon with but weren’t prepared for. I felt a real urgency to address these issues, thinking “I have to finish this book soon, or it’s going to be too late.” But in the end, the book came out too early and was misunderstood. Susan Faludi called it part of the “backlash.” That wasn’t my intention at all—I wanted to encourage women to face some inevitable complications.
After the really wrenching disappointment over that book—no feminist wants to be accused of backlash!—I decided it was impossible to hit the zeitgeist. I thought back over the interviews for The Cost of Loving. Many women in their thirties kept telling me they were the first to face these conflicts. That didn’t seem possible. I started looking for a way to write about these choices through the eyes of women from the past. I envisioned The Cost of Loving a hundred years earlier. In the women’s history class, I had learned about Mary and Elizabeth Peabody as reformers, founders of the kindergarten movement. Then a friend who worked as an archivist told me there was a third sister, who married Nathaniel Hawthorne. The three Peabodys seemed to bring together everything that interested me. As I fell in love with their letters and diaries, I got farther from the idea of applying questions about the 20thcentury to women of the past. My childhood love of life stories kicked in. This was also the golden age of women’s biography, inspired by the second wave of feminism. Reading Nancy Milford’s Zelda and Jean Strouse’s Alice James and Paula Blanchard and Bell Gale Chevigny’s biographies of Margaret Fuller—all of that spurred me on. Then I had to figure out how to write about three people, which was very hard.
Writing biographically left questions about women and love and ambition as undercurrents, but the research helped me answer my own questions. I was married and raising kids while working on the Peabodys, and I learned from them about patience and commitment to family. Even before the sisters started having children, they were taking care of parents and siblings and friends through illness and hard times. They had a respect for what had to be done, even while doing extraordinary things. This was quite different from the Margaret Fuller style of “let’s throw caution to the winds and follow our hearts,” which became an attractive story for me in a later phase of life. We can’t all live that way, but we can all be inspired by “Let them be seacaptains!”
JM: I keep coming back to an idea from the biography of Margaret Fuller, the “fullness of being” that combines private and public life.
MM: Fuller did ultimately find fullness of being—in Italy, as a writer, revolutionary, lover, mother. For me, this has always been challenging, which may be the message of all my books—a comforting message, I hope, because we’re all in it together. There were long stretches of time when I felt hopeless about finishing the book. But I think The Peabody Sisters turned out to be a much better book thanks to all the experiences that came with being a mother, and that caused me to look to the Peabodys for inspiration and solace.
JM: You mentioned the timing of The Cost of Loving. How is this combining of public and private life for young women now, for your daughters?
MM: I don’t think it’s any easier. When I was writing and taking care of the kids, I stopped earning for some years. I don’t know if that’s possible for men or women or a couple with children anymore. People work around the clock. I was in Japan recently as a visiting professor. Some of the young parents I met there brought home for me how practically any other country has better childcare than we do. It’s guaranteed by the government in Japan, along with much longer maternity leaves. Here you’re facing a false set of choices that seem very personal or about your belief system. That’s all hogwash but very painful hogwash.
JM: In a piece in Literary Hub about your Elizabeth Bishop biography, John Kaag wrote that women writers take greater risks in using the first person. We can be seen as self-indulgent. I wonder how readers have reacted to the memoir part of the book. Do women take greater risks with the first person?
MM: Most readers have loved the memoir passages, which is what I’d hoped for. They can identify with me as the novice poet, and then get into Bishop’s life. Mostly it was male reviewers who were critical. There may have been a generational difference in response, too; younger readers may be more willing to accept a hybrid form.
About a month after the book came out, I read a review of a male biographer ’s book. The reviewer commented matter-of-factly, “His previous books have incorporated memoir into biography,” and went on from there. It was a statement of fact, no judgment. I can’t say that’s because the biographer was a man and I was a woman, but I was struck by that. Maybe it also had something to do with my writing about a female subject. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but it seemed to me that the male reviewing establishment was saying, “Well, she’s come this far but no farther.” I’d surprised them by winning the Pulitzer—Margaret Fuller was only the fifth biography of a woman written by a woman to win the prize in a hundred years. More than the criticism, I was struck by the tone, which was disrespectful and weirdly personal. You’d never think they were reviewing a book written by an experienced biographer.
I was so connected with that book that I took the criticism personally. But I am going to continue to follow my subjects’ examples and keep setting myself new challenges in the way I approach biography. One of the best things about writing is the way that books have a life in the world that you can’t predict—I think that’s the way books are most like children. At one point I thought, “I hope nobody sees The Cost of Loving for a while.” But the most amazing thing happened. When I came up with the idea of including my own experience as a student in my biography of Elizabeth Bishop, I worried it wouldn’t be possible. I’d thrown away all my poems from the class. Out of the blue I got an email from Millie Nash, a student in that class. She’d been visiting her daughter in Nevada, and at a library book sale, she came across The Cost of Loving. She couldn’t believe it was written by the same person who was in her class, because it came out so soon after we graduated. She asked the librarian to make sure the author was the Megan Marshall who’d written The Peabody Sisters. Millie bought the book and loved it so much she tracked me down. She thought it was amazing I’d had those perceptions early on. The book spoke to her about the issues she’d confronted as a professional woman and mother. I said, “Interesting that you should write. Do you happen to have anything left from our class?” Millie turned out to be an incredible keeper of documents: her own journals, all my poems from the workshop, and a correspondence and friendship with Bishop. I could never have written the book without her. So The Cost of Loving gave me a great gift in the end.
JM: Biography is archaeological. You dig up the shards and then figure out how they fit together. They may seem to be forming a square and then you discover a letter that changes the shape entirely.
MM: Yes. This is part of what the book on Elizabeth Bishop is about—the biographer and subject are in a kind of duet.
JM: Is there a difference between writing a feminist biography and simply a woman writing about a woman?
MM: I prefer to say that I write biography from “a feminist perspective.” The subject needs to take the lead, and most of my subjects didn’t have “feminism” in their lexicons. My feminist perspective causes me to pay attention to certain aspects of a life and influences the topics I look out for. But writing a “feminist biography” sounds as if the book will have an argument, and I prefer to let the life speak for itself. I’m choosing and shaping, and making my subjects heroic, each in her own way. But it is better for a reader to learn feminism from reading about a woman’s heroic life—often it involves struggling against constraints on women’s lives. Of course, a male writer could write a biography of a woman or a man from a feminist perspective. But there are also important (heroic!) aspects of “simply” being a woman writing about a woman’s life. That is a feminist act in itself. A woman writing is a bold person, and choosing to write about a woman is bolder still.
Joanne B. Mulcahy has taught at the Northwest Writing Institute of Lewis and Clark College for thirty years. She is the author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and is currently writing a biography of 20th-century artist Marion Greenwood.
A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story By Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib, translated from the French by Mike Mitchell
Los Angeles, CA; Doppelhouse Press, 2018, 224 pp., $28.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Hagar Scher
As a young girl growing up in Israel and Canada, I was fascinated by stories of World War II resistance fighters. I was particularly drawn to the story of Hannah Senesh, a young Jewish woman who joined the British Army and was parachuted into Eastern Europe to assist anti-Nazi forces. Senesh was eventually captured, tortured, and killed, and her story had a major impact on me, fueling my adolescent self-absorption. I spent hours imagining the choices I would have made had I been alive during World War II in Germany and Austria, where my grandparents grew up. Would I have put my life at risk to condemn injustice and save others? Or would I have made myself small in the hopes that doing so could keep me and my loved ones out of harm’s way?
Palestinian journalist-activist Asmaa al-Ghoul’s A Rebel in Gaza is a stirring account of bravery and resistance in our time. Her slender memoir paints a picture of a woman who has stuck to her convictions despite harassment, ostracism, verbal abuse, surveillance, physical violence, and death threats. Al-Ghoul’s unfiltered and vivid dispatches are themselves an act of courage, shedding light on the savagery of the Israeli siege of Gaza and decrying the rise of Islamic extremism and antiwoman repression in her beloved home.
“I wanted to be at the heart of stories of everyday life, of those that avoid the headlines, to present an account that might shock readers accustomed to the usual political clichés,” al-Ghoul writes in her foreword. “It is the heart that translates life and lays it on paper.” Written as a series of short, chronological chapters, A Rebel in Gaza pulls no punches in exposing the brutal everyday realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has terrorized the people of Gaza, but a large part of the book’s power resides in al-Ghoul’s refusal to relinquish joyous memories. She recalls the delight of sleeping over at her grandmother’s house, “especially when it was raining and the cooing of the pigeons woke me in the morning.” She writes about the hawker who sold barad, a luridly sweet and yellow lemon slush that figured prominently in my childhood as well. “Even when there was a curfew, during the occupation, the barad-vendor managed to get around the little alleys, out of sight of the army—and did we run to him!” She celebrates moments of happiness like getting her poem published in a Ramallah newspaper when she was just sixteen and winning a prize for a play she wrote, leaving her parents “shouting for joy.”
Al-Ghoul, who currently lives in exile in Europe, writes beautifully about the formative experience of coming up in an unusually crowded and confined space:
No one can relax in Gaza. The territory imposes terrible psychological pressure on people. Your family never takes its eyes off you, everyone’s talking all the time and interfering in your affairs … But despite all that, the greater pressure in Gaza makes you feel that people are watching out for you. They miss you if you’re away, and you miss them. Abroad no one is really concerned about you nor expresses such warmth toward you. I’ve been to America, Germany, France, Spain—all well-meaning countries, but they are oozing with indifference … Gaza wounds me and makes me suffer, and yet it is Gaza that draws me to it more and more every day.
I was born in Israel, and although I visit my parents, my siblings, and their families almost every year, I haven’t lived there since I was a teenager. For three decades, I have been a mostly silent participant in political conversations between people who have never lived in the region. I’ve gotten used to feeling sad detachment or hot resentment when people make strident proclamations, denouncing one side or the other, espousing clear-cut solutions that are anything but. The messy, muddled realities of everyday life which al-Ghoul insists on capturing cut to the heart, but they also lay the groundwork for her intersectional insights on the religious and nationalist politics of the Middle East. Her book feels like an invitation to connect at a level that transcends or, more accurately, runs deeper than our divides.
From girlhood on, al-Ghoul is chided for being “too strong-minded.” She recalls instances of being “smacked” for chanting the hypnotic call to prayer along with the muezzin, for not clearing the dinner table, for annoying her teachers in class. She writes eloquently about the times she has been harassed, questioned, and detained for refusing to wear a headscarf. Like many women and people of color, she begins to recognize a pattern, to see how each time she expresses her intelligence or questions authority or just moves through the world with physical confidence, she’s met by forces that seek to diminish, confine, and wound her. She writes:
I have also been told that in the history of humanity woman is the basis of life, the mother of the universe. Men have always feared her power and have disguised their “fear of her” in their “fear for her.” In order to protect themselves, they have confined her to the house and reduced her role to a strict minimum, making their religions perpetuate this structure of domination which wasn’t originally part of them.
Al-Ghoul’s relationship to her faith will strike a chord with all of us who feel alienated from and marginalized by dominant religious structures. When her family moves to the Emirates for her father’s job, she finds herself increasingly at odds with the “hard-line Islam” she is being taught in school. “Fortunately, I had my father to offset this,” she writes. “He would tell us marvelous stories about God, he would make us laugh, he didn’t force anything on us. ‘God isn’t the way they say,’ he told us, ‘He is the Merciful, the Compassionate. A person who gives up their heart to God is a Muslim, whatever their religion.’”
When the al-Ghoul family returns to Gaza in 1998 after eight years in the Emirates, she finds that her beloved seaside home is stricter than it was during her early years, “a society in the image of the Gulf.” She bears witness to the “so-called crimes of honor” that become more commonplace, backed up by legislation that upholds reduced sentences for men who murder their female relatives under suspicion of impropriety. In a particularly heart-wrenching chapter called “A Shameless Hussy?,” al-Ghoul recounts the story of her vivacious friend Imane’s conflict with her conservative father, a member of Fatah. When Imane’s father forbids her from attending college and she refuses to capitulate, he locks her in the bathroom as punishment. There, she drinks a deadly dose of cockroach poison.
Al-Ghoul uses these stories to make a crucial intersectional observation about the experiences of women in conflict zones.
The truth is that there is a profound correlation between “resistance” and “honor.” The “depraved” morals introduced by the occupiers are indeed seen as a permanent source of corruption for our society, which, as everyone knows, is “decent, moral and God-fearing.” The harsher the occupation is, the more resistance to the occupation expresses itself in a pathological hardening of attitudes in the manner of “honor”…. Resistance and honor are a regression which always means: the oppression of women.
Along with the many free thinkers in her family, al-Ghoul credits her love of books for allowing her to rise above rigid and regressive belief systems. Throughout her memoir, she name-checks writers who shaped her beliefs, including Milan Kundera (who “describes closed societies which repress beauty in all its forms”); Egyptian author Mustafa Mahmoud, a proponent of Marxism and moderate Islam; and Gamal al-Ghitani, who wrote the profound words “the migraine of liberty is better than the cancer of oppression.” Her ability to see through false dichotomies is evident in al-Ghoul’s writing and journalism, which is often perceived as a threat by the political establishment on both sides of the barbed wire:
Every time criticism of Israel was published … there was a massive and immediate counter-attack— as if there were a battalion of Israeli students keeping an eye on things around the clock. In Gaza, every time someone attacked the Islamist movement in one way or another, every time we called for a demonstration, dozens of people would rise up and respond as one, insulting and threatening us. The same mindset! That of powers that imagine they possess the truth and intend to silence any criticism.
A Rebel in Gaza is a beautiful and passionate dispatch from someone with profound insights into a region that remains ripped apart by statesanctioned violence and religious extremism. Like countless others in our time, al-Ghoul is exiled from the place that has shaped her into the extraordinary person she is, from the land that inhabits every corner of her heart and memory. Her book is a shot in the dark from someone who is no longer able to live in Gaza, but more than that, it’s a testament to the power of lived experience and to the importance of sharing stories if we are to shift our collective consciousness. I grew up less than 100 miles from Gaza, but I had absolutely zero concept of the place. Asmaa al-Ghoul has changed that:
We are the nation that takes the hardest knocks and that heals the quickest. We sometimes have wounds that go right to the bone, but we’re back on our feet the next day thinking about an outing, make-up, love…. We want to live our lives as we have lived through death—to the extreme. Gaza has always been rebellious. No one has ever been able to govern it for twenty years. It’s a crazy city, obstinate, addictive, I am her daughter, and I look like her. I am the one who won it, that war, and these are my children, the children of Gaza, because we’re still alive and I’m wearing a red dress.
Though our lives were shaped by two cultures at endless war with each other, al-Ghoul dares to build bridges, to pierce through propaganda, stereotypes, and bigotry, and to provide multicolored snapshots of a conflict that’s too often presented in superficial black-and-white sketches. Her stunning book celebrates women’s role in resisting hatred, in affirming life while oppressive patriarchal regimes perpetuate war and death. It’s a powerful self-portrait of a woman who refuses to cave, who, in fact, chooses to put on a ruby-colored dress and stand out from the crowd: a rebel from Gaza and for a more just world.
Hagar Scher is a writer and editor who lives in the Bay Area.