Severance By Ling Ma
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 304 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Recently I drove for twenty-five minutes along a path I take every day, multiple times a day, in Los Angeles—the route from my child’s preschool to our house—and as I pulled in the driveway, I realized with terror that I had no memory of having just driven. Either I was a) having a stroke b) experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s or c) a humanoid robot who repeats the same pattern every day (make breakfast, make lunches, drive, laundry, drive, make dinner), the protocol downloaded into my operating system with no need to activate my awareness.
I worry that it’s number three, because I do weird, autonomic things all the time. Once I swallowed my dog’s dermatitis medication after getting distracted for a moment before dosing her, losing the thread, and just taking the pill on autopilot. That led to a hysterical call to poison control. The other day, I was picking a bug off the table at a picnic and, distracted again with bug in hand, I ate it. It reminds me of this food research experiment where some people eat soup from bowls that are secretly refilling, and people just keep eating and eating with no consciousness of feeling full or the fact that they are endlessly slurping soup. It all makes you wonder about how much of our life is automatic.
The idea of mindless habits is a repeating motif in Severance, a gripping, sardonic, and kind of creepy debut by Ling Ma. The novel centers on Candace Chen, a young Chinese-American who moves to New York City after college. Even though she is a typical millennial bolstered by a trust fund after her parents’ death, she decides to take a job in book publishing, as a coordinator for the cheap printing of books in third-world countries. Candace works in the Bibles division, where she packages the same content over and over (and over) for different markets. Despite her more generationally accepted previous non-job as a photo blogger, Candace snuggles comfortably into her corporate cubicle, the mindlessness offering her a respite from the grief of orphanhood. “Once I started, I was good at losing myself.... The morning passed in a blur. I answered emails. I measure spine widths to the exact millimeter.... I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”
Then a mysterious epidemic hits the city. Shen fever—named for Shenzhen China, where it originates—is an illness that causes the victim to repeat tasks from their daily lives, ad infinitum. They forget to eat or take care of themselves, enslaved to their own habits and routines. People drop like flies, the subway grinds to a halt, but Candace stays at her job, doggedly sticking to her routines in a rapidly deteriorating urban landscape until she is finally forced to leave. Like every good apocalypse story, she joins a cultish group of survivors who are trekking across the country to set up camp in a suburban shopping mall. And also like a typical apocalypse story, the survivors turn out to be more dangerous than the disease.
Even though the fevered aren’t horrifying flesh-eaters, they bear a more than passing resemblance to zombies, with their decaying bodies, dead eyes, and slow, one-track mind. Zombies are a stand-in for what our culture fears most. In past narratives, that’s been black people, atomic war, communism, and genetic engineering run amok. In this book, the zombie-types seem to represent mindlessness itself—our distracted culture, our impersonal lives, our routines. Ma writes about the look of the infected: “[The eyes] were open but unfocused.... The closest approximation for this gaze is when someone is looking at their computer screen, or checking their phone.” Candace comes upon a fevered family where a mother endlessly sets and resets a family dinner table, a husband and son lick their empty plates clean, and the daughter reads A Wrinkle in Time and chews her hair. (If this were to happen to me, I would be endlessly driving around L.A. like a Lyft driver from hell, murmuring “use your words.”) The behavior is reminiscent of Alzheimer’s, a disease to which Candace’s mother succumbed. After her brain became “flea-bitten,” her mother obsessively called Candace to remind her to use the Clinique 3-step skincare regimen: Liquid Facial Soap Mild, Clarifying Lotion 2, and Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion. “What you do every day matters,” she told her daughter, presciently.
Speaking of Clinique, Ma deploys a mindspinning list of name brands in the narrative— Candace buys cashmere at Uniqlo and Cleansing Beauty Oil at Shu Uemura, watches a sad fevered Juicy Couture employee endlessly folding and refolding sweaters, and takes refuge in a L’Occitane store in the mall. The blank-eyed consumerism reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, wherein all characters were so mesmerized by luxury brands that they didn’t notice the killer in their midst.
These zombies are also a stand-in for our guilt about our economic dependence on cheap labor and goods from poor countries. Shen fever originates in factory China and spreads to the world through the shipment of their products, a satirical poke at our cruel system of replaceable and invisible workers. Interestingly, the very first mention of zombies in America was also related to grueling work conditions. In 1929, William Seabrook wrote The Magic Island about Haiti’s voodoo culture. The author was touring the Haitian American Sugar Company, where he was introduced to four “zombies.” He writes, “The supposed zombies continued dumbly at work. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. The eyes were the worst.… They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing.” Instead of seeing the workers for who they actually were—slaves employed by American sugar companies, working relentless hours, living in squalor—he saw the undead. Thus, out of slavery and misery a mighty zombie genre was born! In Severance, the factory workers making a special preteen bible with semi-precious gemstones are unable to complete the job because their lungs are filling with rock dust. Once the fever hits, the world economy stops.
This might be a narrative about the tedium of work, but it’s also a loving tribute to work. Candace’s parents fled China so her father could pursue his career goals in America. Ironically, when her mother left home, she lost her fulfilling career as an accountant and found herself an underemployed non-English speaker in Salt Lake City, doing menial labor such as hooking synthetic hair onto wigs for eighty dollars a week. She mourns who she was in China, and poignantly fantasizes with a young Candace about what it would be like if she worked in “personal wealth management” and her child did all the cooking and cleaning. On her death bed, she tells Candace that the most important thing is for her to be “of use.” Candace heeds her mother’s advice and throws herself into performing at her job, even if it’s dull and endless. It takes her mind off things.
Severance is also a love letter to life in the city—its humming energy, the hive mind of its worker bees. Ma writes,
“To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in the city is to consume its offerings.”
When she first arrives in New York, she takes daily walks from one end of the city to the other, taking photographs for her blog, NY Ghost. She is pretty sure her photos are clichéd, but she enjoys the rigorous routine of having somewhere to go and something to do: “The thing was to just keep walking, just keep going, and by some point, the third or fourth hour, the fifth or sixth, my mind drained until empty.” Candace stays in New York until she is seemingly the only human left, and then she heads to another metropolis, ready to make herself of use again.
“Severance” is an interesting title for this ambivalent book, because it’s an ambivalent word in itself. It can be a needed wake-up call from a dead-end situation, a golden parachute that delivers you to your next adventure. Or it can be a forced cutting off from your previous life that can leave you feeling rootless and pointless. The only time I have ever received “severance” was during my own New York apocalypse after 9/11. The city was inundated with the smell of melted steel and pulverized rock, flapping papers with smiling faces tacked to every building surface and votive candles in front of every firehouse. I was an editor at a trendy online magazine with a bunch of young and talented types. The dot com bubble had burst and the money was draining from the operation. One by one, workers were let go until it finally came to me. I had never been unemployed before, and I immediately felt unhinged. I became obsessed with becoming a cheese-monger and gained ten pounds. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to be walking faster than me on the streets—I couldn’t keep up. I had gotten out of sync with the city, and I didn’t really feel normal again until I got another job several months later, at another magazine. I was of use.
Everyone always harps on the importance of mindfulness these days. I have no fewer than seven guided meditation apps on my phone, and I swear my third grader learns more about meditation than multiplication at his school. But perhaps there are some benefits to mindlessness—the routines, the path more traveled. My kids were at their grandma’s house last week. I got in my car, not sure where to go.
Jessica Baumgardner is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She reviewed The Perfect Nanny and The Perfect Mother in the May/June 2018 issue of the Women’s Review of Books.
Five Attempts An essay by Elena Ruiz
“I am absolutely one of those people who learned, through graduate school, to address a white readership in my writing … The advice that steered me toward the process of revision was coming from life experiences that were not familiar with the thoughts and ideas that arise when you are moving through the world with brown or black skin.”
—from “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” keynote by Aisha Sabatini Sloan at NonfictioNOW, in Reykjavik, Iceland, June 2017
As a first year student at Pratt Institute, an art school in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took a journalism class where students wrote for the school paper, The Prattler. Our theme for the first issue was “Fierce and Femme.” In order to share the abundance of fierceness required to succeed as a black woman at an academic institution, I sat down to write this essay, “Five Attempts.”
Thinking about how to configure this essay, I asked myself how I was going to make a predominately white audience understand my experience as a black woman at Pratt. I took inspiration from Aisha Sabatini Sloan, whose keynote last year pointed out how even trying to communicate this way obstructs voice and vision. As an act of reclaiming black readership and black revision, I am writing without a white reader in mind. With that being said, I offer five attempts to summarize my experience as a black woman at Pratt, for a black audience.
I. My journalism professor asked the class what first came to mind when hearing the word institution. Our heads tilted upward in thought, but everyone feared the direction of the conversation if they were to be honest. Finally, one of the students broke the tension, “I feel as if the word institution usually holds a negative connotation.” My professor’s face contorted with confusion.
“Prison,” I interrupted, and looked at my professor. She appeared shocked.
“Prison?” she scoffed. She actually scoffed. “Really?” I felt the anxiety of being around white people I suddenly must explain myself to and I shyly explained that institutions are usually seen as a system built to perpetuate oppression. I wondered why that wasn’t the first thought she had. Then it hit me: this is not a reality that upper middle class white women must acknowledge or think about on a daily basis. It was after this class that I came up with my favorite phrase to summarize my experiences in institutional academic settings: I always knew I was black, but I never felt black until I came to Pratt.
I was alone in the revelation. There is a moment when even your white supposed ally with a “Resist” T-shirt and a “Black Lives Matter” sticker can’t help you explain why your teacher ’s ignorance is doing the entire class injustice. I was at college, finally immersed in what had always been described to me as “the real world,” and found the same old world where the systems of oppression succeeded at infiltrating institutions, like this one of “higher learning.”
II. When I first arrived to college, I was on the constant prowl to find other students and teachers that looked like me. Unsurprisingly, my first acquaintances were cafeteria workers and security guards, as people of color dominated these parts of the staff.
At the one Black Lives Matter meeting I attended, a student brought a pie chart on CollegeFactual.com displaying diversity percentages at Pratt. Black people made up 4.2 percent of the student population and 11 percent of the faculty. Where was I supposed to see myself? In the classroom—or serving other students?
III. It seemed that my professor had finally come to her senses when our next journalism assignment was to visit and write about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” I was excited. My writing is inescapable from the politics of womanhood and blackness, so the art rang close to home. I was ready for my white classmates to get a glimpse of my truth through the work and eager to begin our class discussion on the lawn afterward. After seeing this exhibition, we would have to address the divinity of the black woman as displayed in the exhibit.
As we made our way outside, I awaited a fruitful discussion on the complexities expressed in the show. Were they going to address Blondell Cummings’ dance “Chicken Soup” in which she mimicked the action of shaking a skillet the same way I had seen the women in my family cook?
My professor led the conversation. She asked about the different ways that writing can be implemented in museums to enhance an exhibition. I offered that the exhibit was as an epic and complex rendering of the black woman experience. My classmates and professor nodded but remained silent on the topic. While the class moved on to the next discussion prompt, I looked at the photo I had taken of a Carrie Mae Weems’ portrait from her series “Ain’t jokin.” In it, a black woman peers to the side of a frame that a white woman stands behind. The caption reads, “Looking into the mirror, the black woman asked, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?’ The mirror says, ‘Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!’”
IV. During a meeting to discuss my goals as a writer, I explained to my teacher the importance of writing for my communities: “I want my writing to be accessible and comprehensible for the common person. I feel like my future work might move from the book to the screen; videos are far more accessible to lower income minorities who already feel failed by the school system.”
She replied that she didn’t understand why books would not be commonplace in the hood. I responded to her, “Sometimes the last thing a kid wants to do at the end of a day is pick up a book after having adult responsibilities or suffering familial trauma. In my experience, if the school system is already failing to address the child’s home life, and the school is the only place providing the child with books, the page is one of the last places they’re going to turn to for help.”
Speaking of adult responsibilities, many days at Pratt I assumed the position of the instructor and taught my elder the most successful ways to gain the attention of under-resourced black children. I was not (necessarily) talking about myself, but upon retrospection, I should have spoken personally. Perhaps if I had made it clear to the professor that what I was offering was not just a powerful way to teach and address the “other”—i.e., “under-resourced black children”—but the way to speak effectively to me, her student, it would have made more of an impression.
One time the teacher even said in class, “I can’t believe you guys are thinking this critically as freshmen; maybe you should teach the class.” Although she was being sarcastic, I thought about how much more successful of a teacher I would have been. There are some skills a credential can’t provide, such as how to navigate an environment created to fail you, how to refrain from exuding your ethnicity like the bright light it wants to be, and the exact moments when to assert (or hide) your blackness in an unfamiliar territory.
V. Every time I’m in a difficult point of life, I cross paths with a black female writer and embarrassingly cry to her. When Aja Monet visited Pratt as a guest speaker for the writing department, I was teased by powerful black energy. After her reading I sobbed—about my feelings of isolation and about my lack of connection to the faculty. Monet reassured me of the power of the black woman, and held me in her arms compassionately. She encouraged me to use my frustrations as fuel for change. So, I use each day at Pratt as fuel for transformation and growth; I make thread to support my future self; I keep spinning and cocooning, cocooning, cocooning.
Elena Ruiz is the lead singer of the rock band The Jamming Nachos, and a creative writing major at Pratt Institute who uses both music and writing to build community awareness and evoke change.
The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy By Anna Clark
New York, NY; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 320 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
This is the story of how the city of Flint was poisoned by its own water,” writes Anna Clark early in her richly detailed and unsparing book The Poisoned City. It’s the story of public trust in city officials, and how people’s lives were damaged thanks to the failure of government to protect its citizens—most of whom were poor and black—and how that public trust vanished. Lives were upended. Children suffered irreversible harm. Twelve people died. It is an American tragedy, and a haunting cautionary tale.
As Clark reports, back in April 2014, the city of Flint opted to change its water supply to a new public water system, allegedly to save money, even though the new pipeline would literally parallel one that already existed. In the interim, while this system was being built, state officials decided to use water from the Flint River. Disaster ensued.
Many saw the indelible images on TV and social media—desperate and angry Flint residents holding up murky and brown-tinged water in plastic bottles that Michigan officials adamantly claimed was safe to drink. But Clark takes us behind those disturbing images to the far more disturbing facts of how it happened: State officials switched the water supply, and then broke federal law by not checking for corrosion. The water was corrosive, and flowing through the city’s aging lead pipes; without proper treatment, that corrosion caused the pipes to rust, flake and leak. Lead and other toxins leached into the water, contaminating it and exposing an entire city of 99,000 people to potential harm. Residents complained and complained that the water tasted, smelled and looked funny, and worse yet, people were getting sick—nausea, hair loss, rashes. Even people’s pets were dying.
Meanwhile, officials from the state environmental department and other local officials stonewalled and outright lied for eighteen months, refusing to take residents’ complaints seriously. People were told their problems were “isolated,” or due to individual plumbing; parents were advised to consult their doctors because ailments afflicting their children were not due to the river water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even sipped the water for TV cameras, claiming incredulously that his family drank it. This while the State of Michigan installed new water coolers in its Flint offices and imported cases and cases of bottled water so that state employees would be spared from drinking the city’s tap water; this while General Motors decided the water was too corrosive for its car engines and opted to switch back to Detroit water for use in its factory.
Clark is a young, accomplished journalist who lives in Detroit, grew up in a small town along Lake Michigan, and has done advocacy work for several years in the city. She’s the right writer for this tale, and with her rich narrative skills, the story reads like an environmental thriller, its villain in plain sight. A stunning account of a manmade disaster, the book traces with breathless pacing the build-up of problems caused by this insidious monster, water, a seemingly innocuous element used by all. Clark takes us through the journey of how the culprit’s hazards went from discoloration (“dark as coffee”) and foul-smelling odors, to carrying E. coli bacteria, to containing a carcinogenic disinfection byproduct, to causing Legionnaire’s disease, to the worst and most egregious crime of all, lead poisoning.
Clark delivers the story of a major tragedy we thought we knew with rich and in-depth detail that makes us realize how much we didn’t know. Her narrative is coupled with well-placed context that fleshes out our understanding of various histories—for instance, lead itself and its role in our modern lives, the Flint River, environmental activism, and the adoption of federal laws to deliver clean water to Americans.
“Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance.”
One of the most compelling aspects of The Poisoned City is how it situates this crisis through the lens of systemic racism, one “built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry, and the suburban area surrounding it,” as stated by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s 2014 report on the water crisis. Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance. Clark also powerfully shows how emergency management—when a governor foregoes democracy to appoint an unelected individual to have decision-making power over a city—has “unmistakable racial overtones,” as the communities affected like Flint and my own hometown of Detroit are nearly always majority black.
“The people of Flint had no say at all in what came out of their showers and kitchen sinks,” writes Clark. “Certainly not with four consecutive state-appointed emergency managers in place when critical changes were made to the city’s water supply ... there was no accountability for poor decisions made under the EMs tenure.”
As with any extraordinary tale, there are heroes at the center of this one. Brave community activists who protested and organized, as well as journalists and concerned scientists all did their parts to force the real story to emerge. Yet, two heroes in particular shine through in Clark’s book, both women who worked doggedly in search of the truth.
LeeAnne Walters is one of those bright lights and Clark renders her story with powerful effect. Walters set out to prove the toxicity in her Flint home after she noticed that her family had developed rashes, including her husband, her teenage son and daughter, and her three-year-old twins (who had streaks of red across their hands, feet, and buttocks). After a pool party for her daughter ’s graduation, Walters noticed that everyone who emerged from the water had “angry red blotches on their skin.” Then came hair loss and abdominal pains. She knew it had to be the water. So, Walters and her daughter brought plastic bottles of the murky stuff to a meeting at the City Hall dome, and showed them to the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose. His reply? “That’s not your water.”
Infuriated by the insinuation that she was lying, Walters persisted. It took a doctor ’s note about her son Gavin’s compromised immune system for the city to test her water. Turns out, lead levels in her water were seven times higher than federally acceptable levels. Gavin had such high lead levels in his system that he developed problems with his speech. Essentially, he had been poisoned. Yet the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality denied that her family’s ailments had anything to do with the river water or city pipes. Eventually, Walters would go above the state agency to the EPA’s District office in Chicago, connecting with a conscientious regulations manager who himself put her in touch with an activist civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech. As Clark writes, “The alliance of these three would make a citizen scientist out of LeeAnn Walters.”
Soon, Walters uncovers the lie told by a state official to the EPA that Flint’s river water had been treated with corrosion control, by tracking down public documents to the contrary. She later shares with a journalist a copy of an eight page report, “High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan,” written by that EPA regulations manager, that details her home’s contaminated water. As a result of Walters’s efforts—and, as Clark elucidates, the fact that she was a sympathetic “face” of the crisis, as a white woman married with children—an unconscionable disaster that had stayed local for an entire year became a national story.
Another clear champion in this story is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a 38-year old pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who treated some of the city’s poorest families. With the help of a research assistant, Hanna-Attisha sorted through 1,746 test results of blood-lead data for Flint children and 1640 records for children living in the same county, but outside Flint. She made sure there was no room for error before she held her now famous press conference to deliver the news. Hanna-Attisha stood in her white lab coat facing the press at Hurley Medical Center and delivered the facts: Since Flint had switched is water source, there was more lead coming out of Flint’s taps and much more lead in the blood of the city’s children. In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under five with high blood-lead levels had doubled. And in the poor areas with large African American populations, the levels had tripled. She said as many as 27,000 children were vulnerable to persistent lead exposure. “These results are concerning,” said Hanna-Attisha. “And when our national guiding institutions tells us…that lead poisoning is potentially irreversible, then we have to say something.”
Thanks to Hanna-Attisha’s own citizen science, the state finally admitted the water was poisonous. Citing the doctor ’s study, county commissioners at last declared a public health emergency. Even Governor Rick Snyder finally reversed his claims and conceded the truth. The fallout continues to this day, writes Clark, with Flint residents still using bottled water as they await the replacement of all lead pipes, a project due to complete in 2020.
Two decades ago, Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, detailed the abandonment and government neglect of American northern cities. Anna Clark’s book is equally important for detailing the urban crisis of this century. In the epilogue, Clark warns: “Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities. Another is segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding: this is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes.”
“The cure,” she writes, “is inclusion.”
Bridgett M. Davis is the author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019. She is Professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, and Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness By Austin Channing Brown
New York, NY; Convergent Books, 2018, 192 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
I would like to preface this review by saying that I’m a white woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman, or any woman of color. I learned much, however, from reading activist and author Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. What I learned includes a deeper understanding of the term “emotional labor.”
Emotional labor is many things, such as when you have to manage your emotions for a job. It is also when you are expected to be responsible for someone else’s emotions—for example, the responsibility of explaining big and painful lessons, ideologies, and sociological ideas to those who don’t experience them without causing the “student” upset or distress.
White people expect a lot of free emotional labor, and most don’t acknowledge it as labor at all. Sometimes it’s a Facebook argument that goes on for too long or challenging everything a person of color says, by relentlessly asking for proof or examples. The impact on people of color who are providing this free labor has been discussed on Twitter, where there are threads and threads dedicated to it, as well as in articles on Everyday Feminism and Huffington Post. Largely in digital spaces, the question of just how much emotional labor marginalized people are supposed to give is currently debated. Is it more appropriate for dominant-cultured people to do their own research? Why is there any expectation at all that marginalized communities should teach people of privilege?
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is an act of emotional labor. Channing Brown bares and bears much in this memoir, putting herself in a very vulnerable place. She breaks down big ideas about white supremacy (often unnamed and therefore unaddressed) through painful personal stories. She exposes herself in every way she can in the service of shedding light on racial dynamics in the US.
The memoir opens with a chapter called “White People Are Exhausting,” in which she describes how white people usually expect her to be a white man because of her name. She writes that her parents chose her first name in part so that people would think she’s a white man on paper—“One day you will have to apply for jobs,” her mother tells her, “We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.” People definitely assume she is white and male, but it doesn’t always work out in her favor. Brown recounts an early incident—she’s seven—in which a librarian implies that she is lying and using someone else’s library card. Brown writes of her growing understanding of this racism:
People’s reaction to my name wasn’t about my gender. It was also about my brown skin. My legs stilled. That’s why the librarian hadn’t believed me. She didn’t know a name like Austin could be stretched wide enough to cloak a little Black girl.
How white people are exhausting extends to small, innocent/ignorant (i.e., they don’t realize are hurtful) comments that add up to a big drain on her energy, such as “comments about my hair. Accolades for being ‘surprisingly articulate’ or ‘particularly entertaining.’ Questions about single moms, the hood, ‘black-on-black crime’ and other hot topics I am supposed to know all about because I’m Black.” Brown describes her usual interactions with white people as being massively generalized: Brown isn’t so much an individual as a stand in for all Black people. White people are never similarly treated, she writes. Still, when she has a racist encounter and reports it, white friends and allies are quick to dismiss it as a misunderstanding or a one-off bad apple—not behavior that should be attributed to white people, just that white person alone. In the same chapter, she describes how white people attempt to exploit a relationship with her. They want to use her to prove they are diverse, use her to prove they aren’t racist, use her to learn about Blackness. But of course, they don’t really want to learn about Blackness, because that challenges whiteness.
These are the ways of “Nice White People,” which is the title of another chapter. The big problem with nice white people is that they believe there is no racism inside them. They think racists are easy to spot, because of their Nazi flags and tiki torches from Pier 1. But, Brown argues, that’s not how racism works. “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”
Tellingly, when Brown challenges nice white people’s actions or attitudes, they get defensive and angry and seek her to affirm that they aren’t racist. They deploy the standard “I’m not a racist, ask my Black friend” sort of comment. Brown is pointing out racism, not attacking their intrinsic value, but nice white people can’t see that. They take Brown’s emotional labor and throw it away.
Guilty nice people may be worse. They see her as a cleanser figure and confess all their racist sins. Again Brown, and countless others, lose their individuality as they are transformed into tools for white people to feel better about themselves. They shove their burden onto Brown and others, expect them to hold this weight on their shoulders. Phew, now they feel better—the burden is lifted!
I’m Still Here has many moments of heartbreak, ranging from her favorite teacher worrying that two Black girls sitting together was “disruptive” to the class to having to deal with ignorant people saying random idiotic things about affirmative action. Maybe the worst example she gives of everyday punishment, though, is a trip she takes in college to learn more about Black history; the trip is called Sankofa. In it, twenty Black students are paired with twenty white students for a three-day journey in the South. The first stop is a plantation in Louisiana where the guides tells of “happy slaves” who sang while working in the fields. Later, the guides—having espoused inaccurate, romanticized versions of slave life—invite the students to pick cotton. “Black students,” she writes. “Picking cotton.” The Black students are enraged; the whites are confused, especially about the rage. After this, the group heads to a museum dedicated to lynching. Brown looks at bodies that look like hers hanging from trees. Bodies that had been beaten, brutalized, and burned. Tears are shed.
Unsurprisingly, this trip exposes a racial divide between the white and Black students. White students immediately distanced themselves from the museum’s images of white people gleefully pointing to the hanging Black bodies. They want to push those events as far away from that moment as possible: It’s not their fault, they weren’t there, they are different, this has nothing to do with the white students, they argue.
Meanwhile, the Black students are overwhelmed by feelings of connection to those who were lynched. To the Black students, this was a palpable reminder that their ancestors lived in fear and Black people still live in fear of white violence today.
While Brown helpfully narrates examples like this to illustrate concepts like white supremacy, white dissociation (i.e., innocence), and white fragility, she isn’t only writing to whiteness. In fact, she writes about why loving her Blackness had to be learned, how that happened, how crucial it is, and how trying to be a “white culture whisperer” alienated her from her community, leaving her lonely.
I want to reiterate that this memoir isn’t a bashing of white people. I experienced it—and Brown intended it—as an act of love, a term that she focuses on quite a bit throughout the text. As a Christian, Brown has had to reconcile her faith with reality. How can God be a loving entity when there is so much hate geared towards her and those who look like her? How can she love those who hate her for existing? She explores Christianity and these conflicts deeply in this book, and I will leave it to you to read how she resolves them.
Austin Channing Brown’s act of love was tough to read but also so very kind. Her accessible style is intimate and effortless. She uses simple, concrete language so that anyone can understand her complex ideas as well as empathize with experiences not their own. Her book was an act of emotional labor—and I honor the strain that it must have taken to bring I’m Still Here into being.
Erynn Porter is assistant editor for Quail Bell Magazine and the creative nonfiction editor for Blanket Sea. She lives in Manchester, NH, and has written for Bust, Bitch, and Brooklyn magazine, among other venues. See more of her work at erynnporter.com.
The Terrible By Yrsa Daley-Ward
New York, New York; Penguin, 2018, 224 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Erika Gallion
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s new memoir, The Terrible, posits that “there is no word to describe the feeling of disappearing and being there at the same time”—and then creates a rich vocabulary for that feeling. Ward is an acclaimed poet whose visceral 2014 collection, bone, was self-published via CreateSpace. It became a best-seller and, in 2017, was repackaged by Penguin with a foreword by Kiese Laymon. Born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, Daley- Ward grew up in Northern England with her maternal grandparents, devout Seventh Day Adventists, and went to a majority white school. Daley-Ward came to poetry as a way to process her inner life, and she expands on that journey of selfdiscovery in The Terrible.
The memoir is structured in four sections. First, is her childhood in Northern England, in which she confronts childhood-ruining concepts such as racism, addiction, male violence, and the hyper-sexualization of girls. During her depression-plagued adolescence, she battles with body image, disillusionment, continued experience with excessive male dominance, and the beginnings of sexual power. In the third part, her early adulthood features experimental drugs, sex work, her brother’s loss of innocence (which so closely mirrors her own), “a pure romantic love, her mother’s death, and surrendering to the darkness,” and, finally, Daley- Ward reckons with The Terrible—her mental illness and trauma made tangible—and eventual acceptance that The Terrible both disrupts and defines her.
The first reference to The Terrible occurs before the prologue begins, in a short opening note: “in love with how it happened so far, / even the terrible things. / and God, there were terrible things.” The last line exists at the bottom of the page, distant from the previous two lines, and is flipped upside down, creating a mirror-image before the book begins. Daley-Ward sets the tone of her memoir here, showing the dual nature of her battle with depression—the beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.
Many of the beautiful moments lie in Daley- Ward’s relationship with her baby brother, “Little Roo,” to whom the book is dedicated. In the prologue, Roo and Daley-Ward see a unicorn in their garden: “Sometimes, when the world around us grew indistinct, when facts would blur into less certain truths and frightening things looked set to occur, the two of us could see clearly into the Fourth Dimension.” These magical capabilities offered a reprieve for the two siblings, sustaining their hope amid the terror of their reality; as long as the two of them could see that unicorn in the garden, The Terrible starting to form would not win. Readers witness Roo and Daley-Ward struggling against their own versions of The Terrible, and see the siblings’ attempts to comfort each other as well as their inability to bridge the gap of one another’s pain.
As in bone, structure, spacing, and repetition play important tonal roles here. Daley- Ward purposefully plays with the visual representation of her words on the page, producing further metaphorical language in negative space. For example, in her poem “a test—things our bodies have been,” Daley-Ward makes an alphabetical list, each word existing on one line, creating a slim corpus of words edging the page. The Terrible uses similar tactics—her prose broken into stanzas or repeated via enjambment and spacing. Daley-Ward also uses subtitles through her memoir ’s sections, as if titling poems; in section one, pages are titled “Aa” and “Bb,” perhaps indicating her age and learning to read and speak. Later, Daley-Ward uses numbers (ages) in the same way, indicating a linear passage through the memoir. The Terrible varies between verse and prose, employing poetry (and in one instance screenplay) to build distance around the especially traumatic moments of Daley-Ward’s story. Her ability to traverse different genres amplifies the movement of the memoir, accelerating the story and disrupting readers’ grooves to intentionally ask for a closer reading.
“Beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.”
In sections one and two, Daley-Ward introduces readers to the racism and misogyny that bring forth The Terrible and force her to deny it. As a young girl, her mother tells her that her stepfather will be tempted to commit sinful acts because of her sexually maturing body. Meanwhile, her grandfather asserts that men are biblically above women and that male violence is inherent—male prerogative—so she must avoid triggering it. Later, at school and in her modeling career, Daley-Ward is encouraged to view her black body as a negative to be overlooked and forgiven due to her “cool” attitude and acceptable personality.
When Daley-Ward’s grandparents and mother begin taking notice of her gray moods, she is mocked, so she commits to hiding her pain. “I learn what not to feel,” she writes. Little Roo, too, is learning not to feel, a slippage that Daley-Ward notices early but is incapable of addressing. Nor can she address her hatred of her reflection and her obsessive eating habits; she believes that by following instructions laid out to her via the Bible and Disney, she will bloom into a likeable beauty.
As Daley-Ward grows, she gains “powerfear,” the name she gives to her ability to tempt men by playing in to her sexual appearance. Powerfear plagues nearly all sexual relationships Daley-Ward recounts in The Terrible. In one powerfear-fueled moment, Daley-Ward abruptly has sex with a window cleaner at her mother’s house: “He gets it out right there and then / and slides on a yellow condom. Yellow, she thinks. Ha, / yellow, she thinks. / My favorite color as a kid. / Yellow, she thinks. / Shit, I used to be a kid. / Yellow; / am I still / a… ”
Awareness percolates under The Terrible, which contaminates something as innocent as the color yellow with something to be scrubbed off in two sessions of bathing. Daley-Ward is masterful in how she depicts her constant distancing from awareness that The Terrible is real and has control. She turns to drugs to lift her out of “the terrible here and now.”
In section three, Daley-Ward meets William, falls in love, and finds a new narrative for relationships: “He stays. I can hardly believe it. It feels like the bottom will drop out of our thing. Any / Moment / Now. When he sleeps, I stare at his eyelashes in the dark and hope he never leaves. Sometimes I hold my breath to give the thing some weight. Some promise.” In the safety of this relationship, Ward faces The Terrible in a new way; instead of escaping, she looks: “There is something underneath my seams. What’s new?”
Things don’t miraculously resolve, and by the fourth and final section Daley-Ward is an adult coming back to visit troubled Little Roo. She tells him: “unicorns don’t exist / I say. Roo / says / ‘yeah they do / remember the garden?”
There is a satisfying reckoning as she ultimately faces The Terrible. “You may not run away from the thing that you are/because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep / inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it. / Wherever you are, it catches you up.” Daley-Ward names this lonely pain, over and over again: The Terrible, this undeniable force in her life. She has bled out, silenced, and loathed The Terrible, but it thrives. The Terrible gives her poetry and darkness; The Terrible encourages her to distrust and to be alone. How can one combat The Terrible?
Yrsa Daley-Ward grabs The Terrible by the face and insists: “There will be more love.”
Erika Gallion is a writer and reader originally from Ohio and currently living in Los Angeles. She works at UCLA as an Academic Advisor.
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over By Nell Painter
Berkeley, CA; Counterpoint, 2018, 352 pages with color illustrations, $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Who can talk about the rock star historian Nell Irvin Painter without explicitly addressing the obvious, which is that her last name is Painter? This is her last name. Painter’s beloved husband has a different last name. When I was briefly a fleck of crystal in Nell Painter ’s orbit, when I taught Creative Writing at Princeton, where Nell Painter was permanently endowed, I could tell Nell was a painter by her palette—skin to hair to coat to shoes to portable accoutrements. Of course, Nell Painter, with her portentous name, would use the freedom of retirement from History as a first career, and choose to launch a second career by going to Art School.
Nell Painter goes to Art School with gusto, and while there, she rediscovers an appreciation for her own hand. Art school awakens her long-held affinity for drawing. Painter possesses sketches she made in her early twenties, in the early 1960s, when her color-sight was awakened in Ghana, where she moved with her parents during the early days of the Black Liberation era. Looking back, Painter recalls how Ghana changed her, before her career in history, but in a patently artistic way:
In Ghana I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was Venetian red, the trees and grass Hooker ’s green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Cadmium red bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions barricading the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.
Painter ’s keenly trained eye and intellect prompt her to recognize the specific and the theoretical. Painter brings these strengths to her Art Education. Strong and spry and expectant, Painter finishes six years of Art School, completing two brand new degrees, by the striding age of seventy. An alert observer, Painter renders her experience with humor, with skepticism, with anxiety, and in many voices.
Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. Even though Painter’s prodigious accomplishments in History do not make People magazine, her status in American History has for decades been neon to academic faculty, feminists, historians, and cultural critics. After a huge career, her decision to attend Art School reads in some ways like turning away from a well-traveled road and into the wilderness. Painter is pointedly clear about her attraction to engagement with art: “Art stopped time. Art exiled hunger. Art held off fatigue for what would have been hours as if hours had not really passed.”
Writing deftly about the work of switching gears, and how to rev up to making art, Old in Art School decodes and details the substantive study and artistic processes Painter had to master in her sequence of studios, first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, in Newark, and finally, at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Old in Art School succeeds as a story of a budding artist, and also as guidebook: you can design your own art education by following along with Painter ’s readings and reflections on artists in the canon; women artists who Painter appreciates, and elevates, and sometimes befriends; artists who become important to Painter’s interests and to her cultivated eye. From Rembrandt to Faith Ringgold, from Matisse to Alice Neel. Painter also enumerates inspirations and omnipresent impressions. She is in Art School encountering “art works” addressing Barack and Michelle Obama, some of them simply, duly noted, and others worthy of pause and commentary. Most artists also engage with other artists to create a fertile and inspiring context in which to work, and keep time: for Painter, Cassandra Wilson and Abbey Lincoln help create ambience—both women crooners and philosophers who speak to artists and writers and intellectuals of a certain type, like Nell Painter.
At the very beginning of Nell Painter’s Art School career, a fellow student asks her how old she is. Painter, then 64, remarks that there was no hello, no other leading questions, no “Are you a teacher?”, no preliminaries. Just: “how old are you?” Blunt interrogation. It’s no surprise; Art School is known as a cauldron of interrogation—and critique. Painter also approaches her Self and the experience of Art School as a process of interrogation. She describes how she did not quite see herself as old—she was, in fact, starting anew—and yet throughout the narrative, which contains a number of dips and turns, Painter is (mildly) plagued by questions about her age. Painter ’s experience of seeing herself as other people saw her, namely as “old,” relates to DuBois’ assertion that we see ourselves as other people see us, as well as how we see ourselves.
Nell Painter cuts no corners in Art School; she is as thorough as she has been in history. She makes volumes of art work; she tries to fit in. She finishes all her assignments and exercises with gusto and consistency and expectation. She even sits on the floor, and commends herself heartily for being “old,” yet being able to get up and down off the floor at will.
Painter prides herself on diligence and vigor, even as other Art School students, and Teacher Him and Her, and Visiting Artist They and Them are telling Nell that she will never be “A Real Artist.” For one, they suggest she in fact is too old, and they also argue that she probably doesn’t have the talent or the sense of struggle to make the legendary sacrifices that making art demands. Budding Artist Nell listens to this drivel, and resists, and listens again. The degree to which Painter even temporarily succumbs to the wash in negativity her peers and teachers “offer” is probably the least compelling aspect of this otherwise nearly rollicking memoir. Enlivening it is a counter-chorus of many other voices, channeled through Nell Painter’s insight: Nell’s parents, their old friends, Nell’s history friends, Nell’s new artist acquaintances, Nell’s family with their roots in the Bay Area. Hilarious, the voices Nell hears; too funny, the Names she gives them.
Painter insists that her age elicited reactions during Art School that ranged from cool dismissal, to critique of her vision with insinuations of the antique. Painter experienced, and accepted, the self-doubt generated by the relatively harsh atmosphere of the Art School “critique.” Painter’s young classmates often looked at curiosity as if it were a relic, an artifact of a time to which they did not belong. In Art School, Painter is confronted by her 20th century-ness, and her stalwart curiosity, as dated conditions. At one point, Painter bluntly states that curiosity represents a great strength. She notes her frequent use of 20th century terms, and wonders whether her ideas were rejected as too 20th century. Painter explores her own attachment to meaning, and learning that’s very 20th century. In the 21st century, presumably, you can be unabashedly attached to just how things look; coherence be damned. Whether the painting or artwork exhibits substance, or skill, or coherence has become passé as a mode of analysis.
Describing one of the artists outside Art School with whom Nell Painter consulted, the narrative is driven by inquiry and curiosity:
Noting my interests in the world, he lent me R.B. Kitaj’s Second Diasporist Manifesto … its untamed monomania blew me back … I settled into its omnidirectional nuttiness … Kitaj knew his book was all mixed up, and he dove deeply into piebald obsession. Kitaj’s weirdness, even though it cost him his reputation as a painter for many years, inspired me.… I had known all along I wasn’t the only one juggling history, group identity, individual proclivities and visual art.
Fully aware that the artist is responsible for motivating herself to make work, Painter ’s intellectual strengths, deep knowledge, visual capacity, and determination all combine to give her wide access to all you have to pull together to make art from this chaotic, fractured world of disciplines and genres, histories and oppressions, travesties and triumphs.
Painter is ultimately able to arrange more situations of artistic discussion where she experiences nurture and gains motivation from critiques that are offered or that she can request, but these nurturing experiences are outside the Art School milieu. Particularly at the graduate level, Painter finds the most engagement and perception with outside artists. Perhaps people closer to her own age. Art School, in other words, is loathe to let go of its breakdown strategy. Speculation about the reasons and/or necessity for Art School cruelty have gone on since the advent of Art School. Perhaps the meanness is supposed to ensure that artists are tenacious enough to hold onto the very vision that Art School portends to critique out of them.
Nell Painter persists. She finishes graduate Art School, but the journey is complicated by a whole series of drama and grief, both quiet and startling. Which brings us to one of the most compelling voices in Old in Art School: Daughter Nell. For most of her six-year experience in undergraduate and then graduate Art Schools, Painter is caring for one or both of her parents.
The dissonance and tension between making art and tending aging parents could not be more stark, and is riveting as a storyline. In happier, more youthful times, Nell Painter and her parents were intellectual activists during a fomenting era in America. Especially among studied, Black, proud intellectuals, Painter and her parents have upright, ‘60s and ‘70s bona fides. They followed DuBois’ theorizing and lived for a time in Ghana, during the Liberation experiments. Nell Painter knew Maya Angelou in Ghana, when Angelou was young and had a last name not yet made famous. The Irvins moved from Ghana to the Bay Area, where La revolution continua, and where Budding Historian Nell went to undergrad at Berkeley. After Berkeley and a Master’s degree from UCLA, she relocated to the Ivied East, and in the ensuing decades there built an esteemed career as an innovative, incisive, and wry academic Historian.
In the book, the most intense period caring for her parents occurs after her mother has already transitioned. In his eighties, Nell’s father asks to be moved from the Bay Area where he had lived, been married, raised Nell, and been widowed—all pieces of a life over the course of seventy years. He wants to move to New Jersey, where Nell can watch over him as he begins his long transition away from this world. For much of the story, even before this last move, her father lay in what Painter describes as a “bitter bed.”
Her father’s depressive saga parallels woefully the (slightly) foreshortened life of Painter’s spunky and beautiful and resilient mother. Nell’s mother, Dona Irvin, predeceased Nell’s father. She published two books in her “old age,” one on the history of Black Methodist churches, called The Unsung Heart of Black America, and the other, I Hope I Look that Good When I Get Old, a guide for aging gracefully that Nell Painter references in the context of her motivations at her own age.
In part because her parents are characters in her memoir, “old” seems too final a choice of word for this determined, intentional adventure in the present tense. Painter is not convincing as an “old” person. Since there is nothing after “old” in our culture—except silent and immutable death—“old” must be defined differently than the can-do years represented by a fit person in her sixties and early seventies even. The many men who keep themselves in power are that age. They do not question their fitness or their age. They do not question themselves at all.
How is “old” defined anyway? Over sixty? Over seventy? Retired? Slowed down? White hair? Can’t do this or that? Can’t sit on the floor, or can’t get up? Full career already done? Many aspects of “old” do not apply to Nell Painter, who has not slowed down. She has had one full career, and has embarked upon another. How old is that?
The memoir is touted as Nell Painter’s eighth book. The list of publications that makes this Painter’s eighth book does not include Soul Murder and Slavery, which has monograph intellectual heft, if not monograph length, and is my favorite example of Painter ’s daring. Most famously, Painter authored the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, which was a visual book. Authoritatively named and unassailably daring, The History of White People started with a question; it is worth reading the memoir just to learn about the stunning process that spawned the book. Creating Black America is another of Painter ’s sweeping, landscapechanging book projects. Old in Art School is subtitled, in a nod to academic form, a Memoir of Starting Over. Rock stars do not start over; they just turn up the amp.
Now, Nell Painter has two bodies of work: her hefty and scholarshipaltering oeuvre of conceptual histories—and, her art. For those perspicacious and hungry enough to follow her artistic progress, there will be the continuing progression of her inventions, including the presumably continuing Odalisque Atlas, or the visual volumes of Art History by Nell Painter, or the completion of her series One Hundred Drawings for Hanneline, or maybe more of her series of maps, torqued away from geography and into the pulsing heart of concept. Nell Painter lives and works and paints in a studio in Newark, NJ. She is a woman of an age, and a woman of strong will. The history will never disappear. And the paintings multiply.
In the end, Painter argues that visual art set her free. This is a bold, sweeping, and unequivocal statement for Painter to make. Although trained as an artist, Painter maintains the specificity and precision of a historian, and she does not speak of freedom lightly. Writing clearly and coherently, about a subject [Art] that cottons to chaos, Painter lets us watch as she tries to pin down aspects of her visionary freethinking. She translates that freedom into concrete invention: Painter now makes collage, and shape shifts, and projects, and paints, and grows exuberant in the infinity of color. It’s expression that is distinct from her visionary contributions to history, that practice of standing rigidly upright rediscovering and reinterpreting established facts. Nell Painter’s trained curiosity carries her through; her art knows no hindrance to crossing chronologies or continents, to shift and reshape time, all on one canvas.
Art takes vivid liberties, whereas history is tied to the archive, and exercises no freedoms therefrom. The connection, then, between art and art history and history did not accrue on the side of art. Freed from the archive, Painter communicates in language which is bodacious and, in moments, color-saturated. Real color, not race color—starts to blossom in the book early. Painter refers to our fantasy of democracy as viridian green, that dark shade of spring. She announces a “Pyrrole orange flash of insight.” The grief colors that come with the loss of a very close friend are “muddy gray mashing down” and “green-tinged brown on an unwashed palette.”
You almost have to go to Art School to let go of the binary of raceassociated black and white, but Old in Art School gracefully offers us that blessing. Colors are infinite and inspiring. If you read Old in Art School, you will learn, from Nell Painter, what it means to speak in color.
A.J. Verdelle is the author of The Good Negress. She teaches creative writing in the English Department of Morgan State University, and teaches fiction and revision in the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, MA.
Sick: A Memoir By Porochista Khakpour
New York, NY; Harper Perennial, 2018, 272 pages, $15.99, paperback
Reviewed by Julia Berner-Tobin
The best memoirs about trauma are never just about the injury itself. Ghostbelly (2014) is about stifling Western attitudes toward birth, death, and mourning told through Elizabeth Heineman’s struggle to grieve her stillborn son. When Breath Becomes Air (2016) ponders mortality and time explored through the story of Paul Kalanithi’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Jana Leo's Rape New York (2011) is about racialized city planning, architectural theory, and the criminal justice system anchored in the story of Leo’s own rape.
But Porochista Khakpour ’s new book, Sick, is about Porochista being sick. It details the mysterious and severe physical pain she endured after years of wrong calls before finally receiving a correct diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease. It’s about her body—where it went, who it slept with, what it felt when it came in contact with ecstasy, benzos, a cigarette; about her eyesight that comes and goes and creates “hyperglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDSgodknowswhatIhave” stars in her vision when she stands. How her spine goes into shocks when it’s at rest. Excerpts from emails to friends provide revealing details: “I have increased salivation and gum bleeding, weird heart rate and blood pressure and dizziness and disorientation ... if candida was detected in the blood, then is this sepsis?”
It’s feverish and frantic. Each chapter is just long enough to establish who she was dating, where she was living, and what she was taking. There’s New York, LA, Santa Fe, Germany, Chicago, Jacob, Alexander, Ryan, Jerry, Cameron, Xanax, Paxil, Celexa, Ambien, Neurotonin.
But each place, person, or drug fails to make her better. She has always been sick. She writes, “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in some sort of physical pain or mental pain, but usually both.” Khakpour was born in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War following just a few years later. To escape the turmoil, her parents moved their family to the US when she was five. They lived close to a suburb of LA nicknamed “Tehrangeles,” but she never felt at home in California and found her own escape in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. There, like so many New York liberal arts freshmen, she immediately started smoking cigarettes, dressing all in black, and using drugs.
“The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control.”
The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control. Here her writing is sharp and personal, switching to second person so there’s more space to enter into these moments. “Drugs make holes so they can fill them for you later,” she writes. Then, later “If you know a part of you is always dying, taking charge of that dying has a feeling of empowerment. My body goes against me often, so what if I put it through that myself?” Her descriptions of getting ahead of some of the inevitable pain—emotional or physical—is relatable.
The emotional pain caused from being sick is tied in with emotional pain caused by her many boyfriends, the characters who serve as witnesses to her body’s ups and downs. I’m a fan of romantic novels, so I was surprised at myself for wanting less of these lovers, with whom we rarely get beyond the surface-level. They bleed into each other, distinct more for the time they came into Khakpour ’s life than their own discernible characteristics. Though she does reflect on how her identity as a sick person defines these relationships and raises the stakes—“I liked that there was danger involved with me, that I was someone people could lose”—she could’ve delved deeper into the role of the caretaker: how those people can make and fill holes in a sick body just like drugs, and how caretakers can define themselves by the job of keeping their loved one from falling apart. Khakpour provokes many interesting questions like this throughout Sick, but they’re often asides, given a back seat to the details and facts of what happened, when.
I loved this book before I started it. I loved that the whole thing is dedicated to the story of her body. The premise is so brave, and I felt in awe of her fearlessness at the start. All these things happen to her physically, but there’s still a thinking person, a writer, attached to this body that is falling apart. So tell us, writer, what that’s like. I opened the book wanting—I knew my (often falling apart) body had never been given someone else’s story to find itself in; I wanted this to be it.
I found many points of connection. At thirteen, after months of feeling strange and horrible I, like Khakpour and many other women, was given a misdiagnosis of anorexia when there was much more wrong with me. Next, again like Khakpour and many other women, the diagnosis was psychological issues. Then finally, correctly, I was given a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease at fifteen. After the diagnosis there were years of medication, trying different combinations of steroids and immunosuppressants that gave me their own range of difficult-to-deal-with and at times nearly impossible symptoms. Like Khakpour, I felt my personality change with drugs, steroids giving me anxiety and strong mood swings, emotions I was confused by. But the drugs allowed me to go to school and graduate on time with grades that were good enough. Now, like Khakpour, after what I hope is the worst of it, I pretend my body isn’t sick at all, taking medicine only sporadically, drinking, smoking, and eating what I want. And this behavior does make me sick, but sometimes the indulgence is worth the sickness.
I know it’s an unfair thing to bring to a memoir, my desire to unlock or loosen the disassociation I feel with my own sickness, to read a book in the hope it will make me take better care of myself after some enlightenment brought about by connecting to someone else’s story. But it only feels so unfair to me because she was so sick, because she wasn’t taken seriously or listened to, I feel I have to. I don’t want to critique her because women are critiqued for their pain too much.
I worry that it’s also unfair to ask for a narrative arc from a body that’s defined by holes and stops and starts and wrongness. Khakpour addresses it herself in the epilogue, she explains that Sick “didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my petty arcs, my character development.” But what was there was not enough to hold onto or dive into or find myself in.
I left Sick on the table when I was out with a guy friend and he said, “God, we need to get you something else to read, not this depressing stuff.” I felt immediately defensive. “Everyone loves reading about depressing stuff,” thinking of A Little Life; Sing, Unburied, Sing; H Is for Hawk—all enormously bleak and critically acclaimed. “What do you mean?” And he looked down at the cover with the pills and her face with an oxygen tube in her nose, and said, “not this kind of depressing.” He meant physical pain and disability aren’t the kind of stories people want to hear. But I did.
This book reads like she worked through real personal trauma in its writing. I felt her catharsis at its finish, and that is the payoff. And it’s not unsubstantial after seeing her go through what she did in these pages. A section of self-analysis spoke to the feel and intention of the memoir itself. “I wrote ... as a person who could not be helped, who knew this, who could live with just being heard, a sign of being alive somehow, perhaps.” Her individual suffering is now out there in the world, and that changes it, and I’d argue (from the way the writing speeds up at the end) releases it. So reading this was never about me and my sickness, it was about me as a witness to what happened to Khakpour and her body. Sick was her catharsis. Her individual suffering is now out in the world. I can feel that release, and the satisfaction of unburdening some of her pain.
In the spring 2014 issue of VQR, Leslie Jamison wrote a much-discussed essay called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, she argues that a “cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?” And that is what Sick is. It’s an account of pain for the gift of an audience. She didn’t have a listening audience throughout her illness—instead, she faced consistent deafness from the medical community, and often her friends and family—so she found her listeners by writing this memoir.
Women aren’t supposed to write about their pain unless it’s sexy. Pain because of a lover is sexy, madness-pain can be intoxicating—but pain because of an illness is unwelcome, perceived as imagined, irritating, gross. Khakpour wrote about it anyway. And in a publishing landscape that says no to many stories about this other, unsexy kind of pain, the existence of Sick is a really big deal.
Julia Berner-Tobin is the managing editor of Grove Atlantic.
Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory By Griselda Pollock
New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 2018, $60.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
What desire shapes our scholarship?” Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock poses this question in the preface to her tour de force study of Berlin-born artist Charlotte Salomon’s masterpiece, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Salomon, who was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1917, exiled to France in 1938, and gassed to death in Auschwitz in October 1943, when she was five months pregnant, created her uncategorizable magnum opus—ultimately consisting of 769 paintings and fifteen additional pages of painted words selected from over 1,000 gouaches—from late 1940 to early 1942. Pollock describes Salomon’s work as “one of the most challenging, enigmatic and demanding artworks of the twentieth century”; her record of sitting for years with the incredible story told in words and images proves it. As she explains in a note appended to the preface, “A Word of Personal Explanation,” she spent more than fifteen years preparing to write this book, lecturing, researching, and touring, interviewing and discussing, thinking and writing. After two earlier failed attempts at addressing, in a full-length monograph, an artwork that “transgresses our existing categories of knowledge” and an undertaking that “calls for another mode of writing,” Pollock has finally completed Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory.
Pollock is not the first to find herself taken in for prolonged periods by Salomon’s legacy. As her contemporary, Jacqueline Rose, writes in Women in Dark Times, “You do not exactly look at, or read, Life? or Theatre? You enter into its world.” Other critics, scholars, and historians to submerge themselves in this incredible work, and its attendant, eventually annihilating, historical moment, include the historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. Her influential 1994 biography, To Paint Her Life—what she describes as a “personified history”—was the culmination of over ten years of research. Felstiner ’s book itself was partly made possible by Judith Belinfante (director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam from 1976 to 1998), and her assistant, Eva Orenstein. Having acquired Salomon’s archive for the museum in 1971, the pair spent almost two months laying out all of Salomon’s pages on the floors of an empty house and trying to make sense and order of the hundreds of paintings, some double-sided and many including overlays. While the exact structure of the visual narrative will always remain indefinite (and, to make things more unwieldy still, particularly when it comes to exhibitions, many of the images reference suggested musical accompaniments), it is largely due to these women’s efforts that scholars, artists, novelists, filmmakers, and lay-audiences can find themselves in proximity to the work.
In 2017, in the wake of its burgeoning accessibility, Overlook Press published the full narrative in English, and Salomon’s achievement has spawned a number of inspired texts. These include movies (two by Dutch director Frans Weisz), plays, art and literary criticism, additional historical inquiries, and a 2014 prize-winning novel, titled, simply, Charlotte, by French writer David Foenkinos. But Pollock does not regard all afterlives of Life? or Theatre? to be worthy of her analysis. (“I couldn’t read it,” she says of Foenkinos’s book.) Partway through the novel, Foenkinos’s narrator encounters Salomon’s artwork in Berlin, and he experiences “the feeling of having finally found what I was looking for. The unexpected climax to all my vague longings.” Pollock’s intervention is a direct response to those, like Foenkinos, via his narrator, who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis”—those readers, in other words, that confuse artistry for confession, that overlay Salomon’s life—and death—upon her art, obscuring its constitution, the exceptional coordination of philosophies, constructed affects, and aesthetics that is Life? or Theatre?
Pollock insists that “Life? or Theatre? is not a narrative of what happened.” She connects this slippage between biography and work, a common and often gendered blunder that, for instance, leads many to refer to women authors and artists by their first names and to read their works primarily through the lens of biography. “I can see why it is so much easier to ask and then imagine
“Pollock's intervention is a direct response to those who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis.”
‘who Charlotte Salomon is’ than it is to seek to know ‘what Leben? oder Theater? is,’” Pollack concedes. How then does one approach this complicated and important work that is so entrenched in its own history, a great artwork whose existence is as improbable as its craft is astonishing?
Pollock’s rich, provocative, and complicated study is built from a prologue and introduction followed by twelve chapters, each of which employs an individual image as a starting point to tackle this important modernist work from different but connective angles. She looks not only to the individual pieces in themselves, the works of art, music, philosophy, film, and literature that they dexterously reference, the architecture of each word-image construction, but also to the way the narrative as a whole coheres, the different visual and lyrical rhymes and rhythms that cycle throughout the prodigious, densely packed text.
One chapter, for example, opens with a spectacularly bright and fluid image depicting Salomon’s protagonist, Charlotte Knarre, painted in several different configurations while working at her easel. Pollock notes the signifiers referenced in these images—Van Gogh’s boots and sunflowers, Cézanne’s fruit and water jugs—and she draws parallels to a series of images depicting Knarre doing artwork at a desk, details culled from a variety of scenes. The images are brought together in service of this exploration of becoming an artist in these particular circumstances, of a Jew coming of age and diving into her calling, first during the Weimar years and then in the midst of the rise of the National Socialist Party. “What was it to be Jewish and a woman entering the field of art at the moment at which modernist art—identified with Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Modigliani, Chagall, Nolde and Picasso ... would be outlawed?” Beginning with these investigations into the work itself, Pollock is able to extend outward, to examine, in this case, the two famous art exhibitions, one opening in Munich in 1937, the next opening a day later in Berlin, that set the stage for what the Nazis hoped would be an “aesthetic revolution.” Pollock turns to mirror a Vincent Van Gogh painting alongside a detail from one of Salomon’s paintings, allowing us to see, in this conjunction, not only the ways that the referenced works of art can help us read Salomon, but, perhaps more compellingly, how Salomon can help us reread these canonical figures of art history. As Pollock describes,
That an artist ... could appropriate as a possible position for her own creative defiance not only the inventiveness of Van Gogh’s psychologization of space but also the tenacious restaging of remembered places figured through an untrained but intuitively creative freedom with color and drawing helps us create different questions to ask of modernist painting and to map out different pathways through its many possibilities.
In Pollock’s hands, Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? becomes more than a work of Holocaust memorialization, or a testament to Jewish life in Germany during those troubled times (what Pollock calls “before Auschwitz”), or a personal history put down on paper. Instead, she unframes the work, to unmask its dynamism, to call attention to its force as an uncategorizable, deeply complicated construction. “The artist invented a form of art,” she persuasively argues.
Salomon’s work is built around an uncannily disastrous narrative. The text is the story of Charlotte Knarre’s learning, in the wake of witnessing firsthand her grandmother’s death by suicide, that a number of deaths in her family history also happened in this way. Though she had been told as a child that her mother died of influenza, she finds out, while living in exile in France with her grandparents, that her mother and the aunt that she was named after both also died by suicide, among others in the family. In fact, the work opens with the young painter imagining these early scenes for herself. “Salomon invented a theatre of memory,” Pollock writes, explaining that these were “not memories of, but memory for, those otherwise unremembered.” Pollock sees the work, in the end, as situated somewhere between what she calls “the Event and the Everyday,” bounded by “a philosophy of life-affirmation through creativity and music and an interrogation of the fragility of gendered subjectivities within the domestic realm.” The two are inextricably entwined, and Pollock imagines this interrogation as the occasion through which Salomon-the-artist potentially learns to see through the cracks of a henceforth mysterious, and disguised, family history, a space where it becomes possible to grasp the ways in which individual stories conjoin (in complex and often difficult-to-bear ways) with broader familial, political, and cultural narratives and networks.
About halfway through Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, in the space of a chapter focused on what Pollock describes as “after affects,” a chapter focused on the images in Life? or Theatre? in which the artist reimagines, in graphic detail, her own mother’s death by suicide, Pollock suddenly and unexpectedly engages with the desires behind her own scholarly endeavor. “I have been drawn to Leben? oder Theatre? for many reasons,” she writes. “One compelling factor is a long-standing personal and scholarly interest in maternal loss.” Though seemingly buried in her meticulous and painstaking analysis of the text, Pollock’s admission, once revealed, echoes back through the book; it seems she has been reading, just like the artist had once been painting, in order to know what she can never fully know, to explore the inexplicable absences haunting her world. In Darcy C. Buerkle’s vast and similarly affecting book of scholarship, Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide, published in 2013, a work that reads Life? or Theatre? in the context of the history of suicide in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buerkle connects survivors of suicide with those more generally who immerse themselves in what has passed. “Implicit in the question of suicide and the study of the past,” Buerkle writes, “is a desire to answer the question ‘why,’ to identify cause.” Can exploring a particular artwork fulfill our need to approach the persistent unknowing that ultimately haunts us, whether or not we acknowledge its power over us? Pollock’s book suggests that in the attempt we can find a way not out of, but perhaps beyond, our longing to know.
Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She is 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, with Seamus O’Malley, of the forthcoming anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
Intoxication and Its Aftermath By Leslie Jamison
New York, NY; Little, Brown; 2018, 544 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Ariel Gore
Imagine an AA meeting crowded with all the famously drunk living and dead scribes you’ve ever romanticized:
Hunter S Thompson
And on and on . . .
Hello, My Name is Raymond Carver, and I’m an alcoholic. Hi Raymond!
This is the experience of reading The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s sweeping new research-based memoir. Ambitious and scholarly (there are more than 50 pages of notes following the text), The Recovering grapples with that tangled relationship between writers and their drinks. It’s part memoir, part literary biography, and part profile of the enduring power and somehow transcendent properties of “the program.”
The book begins with Jamison’s own decent into alcoholism. At 21, after graduating from Harvard, an insecure Jamison (with a heart condition and a penchant for cutting) moves to Iowa City to attend the famed writers workshop. “In Iowa,” she writes, “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones. I love-groped my way through the future canon. I was drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos that had animated the old legends. I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather, volatile and authentic.”
“Iowa” culture, we learn, is intergenerational and alcohol-fueled—there is the fiction bar (a double-wide trailer), not to be confused with the poetry bar (neon Schlitz sign) and many, many pot-lucks with whiskey and wine. The promise of drugs and alcohol for the writer is that inebriation will put us in touch with the truth—even bleak truths—and keep us enthralled enough to write significant prose. Writers drink, at least in part, with the idea that drinking is going to help our work: We’ll be able to go deeper, write faster, stay up later, and maybe—that last shot promises— reach some kind of mystical breakthrough. (The cultural connection between drinking and writing is so deeply ingrained that the alt country band Freakwater felt it necessary to issue a public service announcement in the mid 1990s: “Everyone who gets drunk,” they twanged, “will not write a good book.”) After five years, it becomes clear even to Jamison that drinking-until-sheblacks- out-every-night-even-when-it-clashes-withher- heart-medication isn’t exactly sustainable—and might not even yield her a good book. At this point, Jamison turns, like millions before her, to Alcoholics Anonymous.
And so it is that the tension of the narrative comes to includes the narrative itself: “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” she writes. While the scope of The Recovering is broad—and ambitious—enough to include all kinds of experiences with addiction, the book focuses on the connection between “whisky and ink”—on the subset of alcoholics whose drinking has been wrapped up in some way with their creativity, so that the terror of sobriety includes the fear that they’ll never work again. In some ways, that tension becomes the thread of suspense, too. We know going into The Recovering that Jamison has survived, and that, at 35, she must be secure enough in her sobriety to tempt the fates with a 544-page tome about it, but ... Will it be any good?
Evidence of this very anxiety riddles the literary landscape, as Jamison makes clear with deep profiles on various famous and obscure writers. For example, when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was drinking beer and snorting coke like a fiend. It was, Jamison points out, “a nightmare written by an addict terrified of sobriety.” “I was afraid,” King acknowledged years later, “that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging.” Denis Johnson, another drunk writer Jamison brings into her AA-meeting-of-a-book, remarks it is “typical of people who feel artistic” to dread sobriety.
The picture Jamison paints of herself at her most addicted is less evocative of the romantic, truthfacing scribe capturing unhinged sparks of luminous chaos than it is, well, a portrait of someone clearly gifted, but kind of self-absorbed and irritating. During a particularly drunken summer in Bolivia, Jamison’s then-boyfriend comes to visit her. She unceremoniously dumps him in a humid motel in a small Amazonian village. When he gets back home, he writes to say he got sick on the way. She responds with an email “that spent about three sentences saying, I hope you are okay. Drink water. I am imagining your fever, and about twenty-three sentences saying, I really think I have a botfly maggot living in me.”
Maybe she didn’t have so much to lose, either. But the creative results weren’t instantly inspiring. Midbook, Jamison laments, “Sobriety was shaping up to hold precisely the blankness I’d feared it would.” Not a nightmare so much as a bore. And this dullness, this common feeling, was her nightmare.
As an aspiring author, Jamison had been taught uniqueness that made her stories interesting. “Cliché” is not a word any writer wants to see scrawled in the margins of her prose, thus AA is a sort of hell for the editor or writer. It’s full of clichés:
“Every recovery begins with one sober hour.”
“Let go and let God.”
“My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking.”
“You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
“Have an attitude of gratitude.”
It’s enough to make your head explode—or send you running straight from the metal folding chair of the church basement to the cracked barstool in the brick-walled tavern at the end of the alley. “The insistence on simplicity seemed like part of AA’s larger insistence that we were all the same,” Jamison writes, “which was basically a way of saying fuck you to my entire value system.” It’s almost unbearable to sit through those clichés and those endless stories, but (amazingly) you can bear it and, eventually, it works. In recovery, Jamison slowly learns the value of the “we.” Because unlike literary theory, part of recovery theory rests in helping us see that we’re just like everybody else.
The Recovering is impressively and deeply reported. It’s expansive. If you start reading on the first day of your sobriety, you’ll likely be through the hard part when you reach the end. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise when, towards the end of the book, Jamison mentions that “creativity and sobriety” are the topic of her doctorate research. She submitted her Yale dissertation, “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature” in May of 2016. Given her capacity for rigor, I was surprised at how little of the narrative focused on gender, but Jamison’s portrait of the writer Jean Rhys—drunk even when her infant son died in the hospital—does remind us that our romantic cultural image of the soused writer is indeed gendered. Jamison writes, “If the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon— the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth—his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care.”
Jamison’s analysis of race and socio-economic standing goes deeper. As an intellectual-class white female, Jamison can see that the culture treats her as a victim while women of color and poor women— and men of color and poor men—are feared, demonized, and brutally punished. But when she writes about a woman named Marcia Powell who, as “prisoner 109416,” was literally cooked alive in a cage in the desert where she had been sent for a minor disciplinary infraction, the implied empathy and solidarity doesn’t quite land. Marcia Powell had been originally sent to jail for solicitation— prostitution that had been supporting her meth addiction. Powell died in 2009, the same year Jamison got sober for the first time. Jamison writes,
While she was in a cage in the middle of the desert, I was getting welcomed into church basements, handed poker chips, bombarded with phone numbers … in the world where Marcia Powell died in the desert, where Melanie Green faced a grand jury for being a pregnant addict, where Jennifer Johnson was initially convicted of delivering a controlled substance to her own child, where George Cain got a gun pulled on him in a doctor’s office, where Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed—in this world, the story of my drinking is not a private story.... My story included a woman who died in a cage in the desert, or her story included me, and not just because of my guilt—the guilt of my privilege, or my survival—but because we both put things in our bodies to change how we felt.
It’s easy to forget that Prisoner 109416 and I are part of the same story, because we have been granted the right to tell very different tales about our pain.
She is more successful in her gorgeous recovering of many of those fabled blitzed scribes who’ve spent time in Iowa City. In her hands, Raymond Carver becomes one higher power that redeems the cliché of the drunken writer, for Jamison and, by extension, for the reader. She reveals that after that most famous denizen of the Iowa Writers Workshop world got sober, Carver viewed his own writing as something that happened despite—not because of—the chaos of his addiction. Her stories of another star of Iowa, Denis Johnson—she calls Jesus Son “our bible of beauty and damage”—also points to the inevitability of alcoholism and recovery. “It seems there are two kinds of American writers,” a young fan wrote to the author Denis Johnson in 1996, “Those who drink, and those who used to.” In this book, though, we learn that Johnson had only written a couple of stories and a handful of poems in his decade-long bender; Jesus Son itself was written after he stopped drinking.
Jamison has looked at being an author from both sides now. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, written before she got sober for good, tells the story of a young New Yorker who goes looking for an estranged aunt and finds the woman drinking herself to death in a trailer in Nevada. The Gin Closet was well reviewed, but it was her second book, The Empathy Exams, essays largely written after her sobriety, that established Jamison as a rising literary star. Her special brilliance wasn’t linked to the alchemical transformations of booze.
As for fearing repetition and clichés, in recovery Jamison ultimately posits that, “our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” This “we,” after all, unplugs us from the narcissism and the self-loathing of being a drunk— as well as that of being a writer. Throughout all of the scenes in Iowa, we see writers who thought that they were connecting when they drank, but it was in waking up from their delusions of grandeur and failure that they recognize a true “we.”
Herein lies the brilliance of The Recovering: By braiding multiple experiences and teasing out the differences between them as well as allowing for the chorus of their similarities, Jamison creates, astonishingly, a story we really haven’t heard before. One in which we come to understand that our stories are valuable both because we’re unique, and because we’re just like everybody else.
Ariel Gore is the author of ten books including, most recently, We Were Witches.
The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer
New York, NY; Riverhead, 2018, 464 pp., $28, hardcoverr
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
In March of 2012, novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” The title, of course, is a nod to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the essay itself calls out the literary establishment for the sexism inherent in everything from book covers to word count. Wolitzer opens with a pointed question: “If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
As evidence, she pointed to “the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book.” Further in, Wolitzer contrasts wistful “women’s fiction” book covers featuring “a pair of shoes on the beach” with “the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, or the jumbo lettering on The Corrections.” These latter covers, according to a book publicist Wolitzer spoke with, “tell the readers, ‘This book is an event.’”
The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer’s eleventh novel, is an event, with the jumbo lettering and bright, bold cover (nesting triangles that look somewhat like a Judy Chicago place setting) that a novelist like Wolitzer covets—and deserves. Female protagonist? Check. Graceful, nostalgic tone? Sure. Relation-heavy nature? Yes. Ambitious, sprawling, somewhat problematic attempt to incorporate the past six decades of the tumult and triumph of American feminism? Indeed. (Try that, Eugenides!)
The Female Persuasion is a kind of 21st century bildungsroman. We begin in 2006 and observe our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, a determined, bookish freshperson at an average East Coast liberal arts institution, as she transitions through her twenties: that complicated phase that many psychologists refer to as “emerging adulthood.” Greer and her best friend Zee have a chance encounter with Faith Frank, a famous seventies feminist, in a public restroom. Faith gives Greer her business card, and the trajectory for Greer ’s post-college life, and a complex mentor/mentee relationship, is set in motion. This small transaction and its ripple effect is something that Wolitzer does a great job with, as the book regularly comes back to the small encounters, actions, and choices that have outsized impacts on our lives. The book is at its best when exploring the power of these relationships, clicks, and connections: The “small realizations leading you first toward an important understanding and then toward doing something about it” and the “people you would meet who would affect you and turn you ever so slightly in a different direction.”
Faith Frank is that person for Greer—a glamorous figurehead, a publisher, a writer, and a public speaker. Faith’s now-classic feminist text is called, in fact, The Female Persuasion. Greer is enamored of Faith, and after graduation, she heads to New York City to work for her—but not for Faith’s long-suffering-but-beloved feminist magazine Bloomer (for Amelia Bloomer) as she’d anticipated. Bloomer has lost funding, going the way of so many print publications in a digital age. Faith is starting a new foundation, one that puts women’s issues at the forefront, and seeks to address everything from workplace harassment to pay inequity to gender-based violence by way of pricey “summits.” It’s called Loci (as in “the center”) and the devil isn’t just in the details—it’s in the funding. In one of many shrewdly contemporary plot developments that Wolitzer employs, we learn that Emmet Shrader, a widely loathed VC millionaire (billionaire?) is underwriting this new feminist enterprise. Though Shrader assures Faith—they go way back, we discover—that he supports her wildest feminist dreams, strings are attached.
Their relationship frames a core reality: the ways in which women must constantly compromise in order to get what they want—and need. Which compromises are O.K.—and which are betrayals? Faith is no stranger to hustling for good. In the 1970s she was trying to convince businessmen at Nabisco to buy ad space in Bloomer; in 2016 she’s getting rich white ladies to buy pricey tickets to luncheons where celebrities speak about equality. What, Wolitzer suggests, is really the difference? Under capitalism and under patriarchy, the tradeoffs and negotiations are constant. This may be old hat for Faith, but it’s new territory for the idealistic, wide-eyed Greer.
Another key question that the book examines— but doesn’t necessarily answer—concerns these intergenerational feminist dynamics. How women like Faith, who is a “strong, appealing, dignified, older feminist,” grapple with “the galloping changes in feminism” as they strive to work in the present. In the early 1970s, a journalist once asked Faith what she stands for, and she answered, “I stand for women.” This was a good enough answer back then, but “later it sometimes wouldn’t be.” At Loci, her young employees harbor a “sweet nostalgia” for those bygone days, but they—and many others—are also full of criticism for an approach that many see as dated at best, and racist, transphobic, and classist at worst. Greer is concerned about the judgments that Faith receives on “the newer feminist blogs” that call her out for “Corporate Feminism”—but these qualms are not enough to make her leave. Faith deflects, choosing not to look at the critiques and laying the burden on Greer, saying, “I hope you’ll tell me if I start being anachronistic.”
Instead, the quietly ambitious Greer studies Faith closely, and Faith rewards her with increased responsibility at Loci. Greer is an excellent listener and writer, so she is tasked with conducting interviews with women who’ve experienced workplace harassment, and then writing speeches for them to deliver at high-profile events. It is satisfying, energizing work for Greer—for a time. The bulk of the book tracks Greer’s growth both as an employee of Loci and also as a young woman who navigates challenging personal relationships— with her best friend Zee, with her high school boyfriend Cory, and of course, with Faith. As Greer grows more and more into her adult self, she navigates what it means to be seen by someone you admire, and how ambition, desire, and purpose can fluctuate over time.
Wolitzer is a confident writer, and readers will likely find it easy to get swept into the worlds she creates. The book feels light rather than labored, even when grappling with difficult topics. There is an effortlessness to the way she moves through story, casually dropping back several decades before returning to a present moment. Yet she is also precise, a master of closely observed detail as she explores everything from how history repeats, to how misogyny and power replicate and perpetuate. Wolitzer understands that women may make great strides and significant gains, only to be thrown backwards—sometimes by a single election.
And Wolitzer nails the zeitgeist: pop cultural markers ground the reader as we shift back and forth across the decades. A flashback to Zee’s early 90s Bat Mitzvah references her MySpace page, and the gifts of “Lucite picture frames and Barnes and Noble gift certificates.” A section on Faith’s upbringing marks 1965 with White Rain, Bobby Darin, and illegal abortion. A 21st century sandwich has a “stiff Elizabethan ruffle of kale.” We also get hashtags, both real and imagined: Faith’s efforts with Loci get called out on Twitter with the real-life hashtag #whiteladyfeminism as well as the delightfully made-up #fingersandwichfeminisms.
But hashtags develop overnight—novels develop over the course of years. Conspicuously missing is #Metoo, which while initiated more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke, came to social media prominence in October 2017, mere months before the book’s release. One can’t help but wonder how the book would’ve differed had it been written during, or just after, #metoo exploded on the scene, bringing with it the takedowns of high-powered men, as well as the complex and often brutal intrafeminist exchanges. The election of Donald Trump isn’t mentioned, but a doomed energy hangs over the book.
Wolitzer isn’t here to offer easy answers, nor is she trying to make a case for a particular kind of feminism. Her ideas don’t feel new, but the format does, and while I didn’t love the book, I love that the book is. This big mainstream novel is taking on the ideas, phrases, and concerns that have always felt isolated to feminist twitter, women’s studies courses, and contentious comment threads on feminist blogs. There were moments, while reading, when I felt a certain thrill at seeing a name or reference pop up. Because of this, I felt conflicted during the moments when I felt less than thrilled— the moments when, like contemporary feminism itself, the book is flawed. It makes missteps precisely because of its ambition—and isn’t that, well, a familiar feeling? It’s as if The Female Persuasion reached its long, charming arms into those siloed realms, and swept it all together, in one big, messy book. All of it—abortion, equal pay, celebrity feminism, GamerGate, the Women’s March, diversity, workplace harassment, pronouns, #whitefeminism. The end result is often exciting, but frustrating.
This is especially true in the way Wolitzer tries to navigate race, privilege, and whiteness. The book nods to the struggles and limitations of a feminism that is not “keeping up with the times”—but it does not go beyond peppered references to racism, classism, and trans inclusion. In fact, these complex realities are often treated dismissively or jokingly as narrative foils for white characters who are trying to do the right thing. Non-white characters exist peripherally, as do their valid, justified, and ultimately unexplored concerns. Just as Faith is not going to question her own sense of white superiority, Wolitzer is not here to interrogate white supremacy, to really examine the ways in which it’s operating either in her characters or in contemporary feminism.
Characters repeatedly get defensive when called out: neophyte teacher Zee completely misses signs of a serious issue with one of her troubled students, and then gets prickly when her older African- American coworker challenges her idealism. Faith seems exhausted at having to prove her “racial bonafides” and getting “gender pronouns right” during college visits. Both Faith and Greer are surprised when Loci doesn’t turn out to be as magnanimous as they both thought. As a reader, I wasn’t surprised by any of these twists—I saw them coming, and I also saw Wolitzer falling prey to the same naiveté that she develops in her characters. None of the characters truly have to reconcile with their privilege—they acknowledge it, but in a frustrated “I can’t help that I’m privileged!” way, or in the sly, ironic manner that allows one to name the bad thing without having to own the bad thing. Greer’s easy glide into post-college New York life (her Brooklyn apartment, her stylish wardrobe) goes wholly unexamined (especially since Greer ’s parents’ financial ineptitude is a major point of contention early on in the plot). Greer’s disdain for her standard-issue liberal arts college reeks of unexamined privilege, as does Zee’s indulgent anger at Greer for not helping her get a job at Loci.
In the unsatisfying end, it is 2019. Greer has achieved immense financial, professional, and domestic success (we’re clued in to this early on, so this is not a spoiler) when, at 31, she becomes the bestselling author of a “well-meaning feminist rallying cry” that “was not, she knew, original or brilliant.” Despite its enormous financial success, the book “was frequently criticized, of course” for failing to “speak for all women” who exist “so much farther outside of privilege and access than Greer Kadetsky.”
I clocked the dismissiveness of that of course, and how, in the next sentence, we are assured that “many others bought the book and loved it.” While not every book need be brilliant, it felt icky to end on this note of inherited white mediocrity. Greer has become Faith, and has nothing changed? How many Black and Brown women are brilliant, original, firebrands deserving of the spotlight? How many marginalized writers dream of getting published, let alone becoming bestsellers who buy Brooklyn brownstones with their enormous advances (as Greer predictably does)?
In a scene toward the very end, Greer is taken to task by her infant’s teenage babysitter (Kay Chung, 16, who is “small and fireplug-fierce”) who points out the outdated ideas in her brand new book—but it doesn’t feel like enough. Kay admits that she’s “a skeptic about feminism” and rejects “the white, cisgender, binary view of everything.” While this moment briefly decentralizes Greer ’s white feminist mediocrity and offers Greer a mildly destabilizing glimpse into a new generation of young feminists, Kay becomes just another fleeting moment of critique. Her youthful energy is used to undermine her potency: she offers her opinions “as if they were entirely new” and lines like “[a]nd anyway, Kay went on in a chatty voice of amazing confidence, it wasn’t so much about people as it was about ideas” feel condescending. The exchange between Greer and Kay can also be read as Wolitzer’s attempt to preempt this very criticism, by demonstrating the inevitability of tear-downs and call-outs that virtually all feminist writers face. True as this may be, I expected much more from Greer—and from Wolitzer as well.
The Female Persuasion is engaging. It’s compelling. It addresses power, histories, and the complexities of platonic female relationships in a way that is rarely, if ever, presented in mainstream fiction. Like Faith, it manages to feel a bit outdated, a bit lacking, but also warm, and engaging. I hesitated to even share my critique, worried about taking down a fellow female writer whom I truly respect, and who, like her characters, is clearly trying. Like Greer, I am younger, ambitious, and admiring of my feminist heroes. But like the often-dismissed critical voices in the book, I’m not interested in silence-as-solidarity. I can critique without condemning—this is a good novel, and Wolitzer fully deserves a top spot in the literary realm. But she—and other white women writers— can do better. Must do better.
Toward the end of her 2012 essay, Wolitzer quotes the novelist Mary Gordon, who told her “As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.” By that logic, what happens if you include the word ‘female’ in the title? Wolitzer is about to find out. I like to think that Gordon’s quote stuck with her as she settled on calling it The Female Persuasion—it feels like a strategic challenge to those who would try to deprive her a place in the “top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation.” This space, Wolitzer writes, “tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” The Female Persuasion is anything but, and I feel certain it will enter current and future cultural conversations. I hope those conversations can be as honest and nuanced as the ideas in the book deserve.
Kate Schatz is the New York Times bestselling author of author of Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide, and Rad Girls Can.