My Dark Vanessa By Kate Elizabeth Russell
Reviewed by Kimberly Cutter
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison spoke at length about the power and limitations of language. She described language’s capacity to oppress and liberate, honor and debase, illuminate and obscure. Most memorably (to me at least) she said that “unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”
I thought of this statement often while I was reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa. The book caused a sensation in the publishing industry when it came up for sale December of 2018, provoking a bidding war and ultimately selling for seven figures to William Morrow. Inspired by Russell’s relationships with older men when she was a teenager, the novel depicts the methodical seduction of fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye by her forty-two-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, and the life-shattering ramifications of their lengthy affair. Narrated by the character of Vanessa herself—now thirty-two and working a dead-end hotel job in Portland, Maine—the book has been described as “Lolita for the #MeToo era.”
The description is understandable, if unhelpful. Though both Lolita and the #MeToo movement play essential roles in My Dark Vanessa, perhaps the most impressive thing about Russell’s novel is how little it resembles either one. By which I mean to say: If Lolita uses language to seduce us into identifying with a pedophile, and the #MeToo movement uses language to demand social justice (and unfortunately tends to flatten us into one-dimensional victims or villains in the process), My Dark Vanessa succeeds—and is a triumph—because its aim is to illuminate one woman’s experience of sexual abuse in all of its emotional nuance and complexity (to come to know the experience, Morrison might say) and because Russell understands that only clear, fearless, unmolested language will get her there.
So. It’s the fall of 2017. The #MeToo movement is in full force. Vanessa works behind the concierge desk at a Portland hotel, smiling politely at guests and obsessively tracking victims’ allegations and conversations on Twitter while nibbling on the stale sandwich that is her life. Creatively stymied and unable to engage in intimate relationships, Vanessa (who was once an aspiring writer) hovers around the edges of society, consumed by memories of the obsessive sexual relationship she had with Strane during her sophomore year at boarding school and clinging desperately to the narrative that Strane was the great, star-crossed love of her life. But when another former student named Taylor Birch comes forward to accuse Strane, Vanessa is forced to re-examine their relationship—a process that threatens to destroy her sense of self and her most fiercely cherished beliefs.
It’s a terrific set-up. Once begun, the novel is almost impossible to put down. Russell began writing an early draft of the book when she was sixteen and continued to work on it for the next sixteen years (earning an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in the process). But she’s said that it was the powerful sense of alienation she experienced during the #MeToo movement that pushed the book into its final form. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” Russell has said. It was her frustration at seeing these experiences sensationalized and oversimplified, lumped together into a kind of shrieking victim stew, that made her realize the #MeToo movement could serve as a potent catalyst for deeper reckoning and reflection in her novel.
When we first meet Vanessa, she’s in grief therapy for the death of her father, who died six months earlier. (Oddly, Vanessa’s father is never discussed in relation to her fascination with older men, and this feels like an omission). During these sessions, almost by accident, Vanessa begins to narrate—and gradually reevaluate— her relationship with Strane. It’s a slow process, made more difficult by the fact that Vanessa refuses to think of herself as Strane’s victim, or of their relationship as abuse. “It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him,” Vanessa insists. “Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along.”
This, of course, is standard grooming b.s., but like all successful grooming, it speaks to Vanessa’s deepest self—a self that is lonely, smart, curious, romantic, and in desperate need of attention. It’s also enough to keep Vanessa trapped inside the glowing snow globe of her past decades later. Thanks to Strane, all of Vanessa’s notions of herself as special and gifted, potent and brilliant, are hopelessly enmeshed in their illicit relationship— which often felt to Vanessa like true love.
Russell has a remarkable gift for articulating the subtleties and fine-shadings of Vanessa’s emotions, and one of the novel’s great achievements is her depiction of the strange quicksand landscape of trauma (in which desire often shifts to pain or shame and back again in the blink of an eye) and the relentlessness with which that trauma continues to dominate Vanessa’s present. This is a landscape I’ve never seen fully rendered in literature before—an essential, still largely misunderstood aspect of human experience that comes to blazing life in Russell’s hands and, frankly, serves as a potent singlehanded response to anyone who questions the relevance of fiction in today’s reality-obsessed society.
The book is narrated almost entirely in the present tense, and this has the effect of creating a remarkable double-consciousness in the reader, plunging us deeply into Vanessa’s teenaged psyche whenever she remembers the past (so we experience her affair with Strane with the same thrill and exhiliration she does) while at the same time we, as conscious adults, cannot help but recognize and be sickened by the horror of Strane’s manipulation and depravity. We go from watching the fifteen-year-old Vanessa devour the copies of Lolita and Plath poems Strane gives her, delighting in the idea of herself as an incandescent demon nymphet with the power to destroy a man’s life—to realizing, with growing horror, that Vanessa has constructed her entire identity around this idea, and is still trapped inside it. At thirty-two, she still gazes longingly at the topless photos Strane took of her when she was fifteen, still gets lost in phone sex with the now sixty-nine-year-old Strane (who can no longer get an erection for her adult body) as he recounts their early encounters: Vanessa, you were young and dripping with beauty. You were teenage and erotic and so alive, it scared the hell out of me. Her entire film collection consists of May-December films like Pretty Baby and Lolita and Lost in Translation. Strane’s face super-imposes itself on strangers wherever Vanessa goes.
My Dark Vanessa is not a fun read. The sex scenes between Vanessa and Strane are nauseating, and so powerful that, at times, I had to put the book down. But the book is, at all times, utterly fascinating because Russell has ensnared us so deeply inside Vanessa’s psyche. We’re fully in the grips of her obsession; we understand precisely why this relationship matters so much to her, and we have to keep reading—in part to find out what happens to Vanessa, and in part because we need to be released from it as badly as she does.
Russell, of course, is fully aware of the narrative arc she’s crafting, and thanks to the combination of the #MeToo movement and Vanessa’s excellent therapist, Vanessa eventually begins to see her relationship with Strane for the manipulation that it is, and to recognize what her denial has cost her. At one point, she says, “Can you imagine the horror of your body signing up to star in something your mind couldn’t possibly consent to?” Increasingly, we can imagine. We feel how the airtight narrative dome Vanessa’s built around herself keeps her captive and stunted, cut off from her ability to fully feel and pursue dreams and desires of her own. As Vanessa says to her therapist, in perhaps the book’s most heartbreaking scene: “I just feel … I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know? I just really need it to be a love story… Because if it isn’t a love story then what is it? It’s my life. This has been my whole life.”
It has been her whole life—and in a very real sense, the affair also threatens to consume her future. Thanks to the presence of the #MeToo movement, Vanessa isn’t just forced to reckon with her past—she must also decide whether to out herself publicly as Strane’s victim in order to help fellow victim Taylor Birch in her quest for justice. Here too Russell refuses to provide easy answers. Vanessa understandably fears the oversimplification and potentially life-defining “branding” that would come with telling her story in a public forum like Twitter or a magazine article. The reward for speaking out may be justice (or at least support for Birch), but for the individual, the cost can be devastating. For Vanessa, release will only come from the full and fearless articulation of her experience— in seeing it clearly, soberly, and truthfully, with all its shadows and light intact.
Towards the end of the novel, Vanessa remembers a conversation with Strane:
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, driven toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.
Russell’s done something new here. She’s taken the nymphet—a one-dimensional character who’s lived in the shadows for so long, worshipped and unknowable, pitied and demonic—and replaced her with a real flesh and blood human. One who is all too relatable, all too familiar, all too much like us: hungry and heartbroken, hurt and healing. Thankfully, by the end of My Dark Vanessa, she is also, finally, Here.
Kimberly Cutter is a journalist and author of The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc.
Three Poems By Hannah Sullivan
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Hannah Sullivan thought she might write a novel about being a sharp-elbowed young woman in New York—raising an arm for cabs, kissing a girl, and getting a Brazilian waxing before saying ”I love you” to the wrong bastard she will remember for the rest of her life. She mentions this in a YouTube clip filmed after receiving the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018, adding she didn’t think she had anything original to bring to the novel form. So instead she turned the material into the verse chunks that comprise her exhilarating debut collection, Three Poems. Sullivan, a Brit, is thirty-nine and has one of those career carving, back-jacket bios—Harvard PhD, teaching jobs at Stanford and Oxford, awards and short lists up the wazoo—you would have to be dead set against her for. You can’t be. With her buzzing mind and technical brilliance, she deserves what she’s racked up, and her book asks us to think about the freedoms different genres afford writers.
Composing poetry in small bursts and dispensing with the nag of a narrative arc freed Sullivan’s voice of breathless, moment-to-moment consciousness. She could have done the same thing in the form of a novel, which would then have been called “a novel-in-prose-poems,” the way some books are called “a novel in stories.” These days I think we care less and less about the genre attached to a book. We care about narrative momentum and the layering of thought in a scene more than whether a story arrives at an ending somehow imminent in its launch.
Sullivan is right about the ordinariness of her life passages. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” looks back to the time you prove how young you are by notching your belt with forlorn experience you think is adult. The second poem, “Repeat Until Time,” meditates on repetition from the perspective of noticing it for the first time. The third poem, “Sandpit After Rain,” jump cuts between the death of the poet’s father and the birth of her first son. Most stories sound trite when summarized. The power of Sullivan’s writing is in its no-limits subject matter and riotous experiments with language. She freely admits to the autofictive component of her poems, but she’s not engaged with stuff because it happened to her. She’s engaged with what language can generate in the reader, and stuff that happened is what she hangs language on.
She has mentioned Joan Didion’s memoir “Goodbye to All That” and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as prompts for “You, Very Young in New York” and her use of the second person pronoun—an inclusive you (really a distanced variant of I)—that can feel cozy one moment and presumptuous the next. When men use you, they are doing what they always do: unconsciously assuming their readers are male. When a female writer uses you, she subversively implicates the male reader in female experience, and it’s thrilling, especially in the hands of a writer like Sullivan, who likes to push the reader’s face into the bodily.
“You, Very Young in New York” speeds like walkers on Broadway, capturing sudden intimacy that is also anonymous, capturing a time of life when you take vitamins without wondering what will happen if you stop. (Answer: nothing.) Whatever else the poem is about—writers sitting in Starbucks “Picking like pigeons at the tail of the mourning croissant”; a vibrator with low batteries that “rotates leisurely in your palm”; shorting the market; and feeling the tongue dry up as Ritalin kicks in—it’s about a doomed affair that sharpens your movie-scene recall.
In preparation for the potential fuck that awaits, Sullivan’s narrator says, you “take two Advil and lie/On a table in Chelsea holding yourself open, ‘stretch it’ she says,/Irritably sometimes, and ‘stretch’ as lavender wax wells/Voluptuously in hidden places, and ‘turn’ as you kneel on all fours/So she can clean you up behind and, still parting you open, her fingers/Spend one moment too long tissuing off the dead wax with almond oil and/’All done she pats ....” Finally, when the bastard shows up on a rooftop, “he says, ‘you’ve lost weight, you look great’ which is true/(He dumped you) you think of elderberry and magnolia, quietly pulling/At the silver-starred skirt, pulling it over the ripple of your thighs./But when he says one more, for old time’s sake, you say why not/And sit rigidly in a cab, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge beside him.”
Almost any experience can stir philosophical and historic associations for Sullivan. It’s what she’s after. In the second poem, contemplating a still photo from the 1961 movie The Black Cat, she notices an older woman “Squeezing her cat like a tantrum,” knowing “that 1960 was the future and JFK is in office” while a blond kid “in a tapestry waistcoat ... is waiting for the sixties to start, for the violence to be real./He looks like David Bowie on the cover of Young Americans,/Uranium-bright hair, a softly permed disco halo.” The second poem is set in San Francisco, where Sullivan lived while teaching at Stanford, and the third poem is set in England, her home and where she now lives, but the book feels like one long Alice in Wonderland dream of expansions and contractions.
Sometimes her fever of images is show-offy and doesn’t add anything to the moment contemplated. We don’t need to know, for example, that the look of lights going out in a high-rise across the way reminds the narrator of a Mondrian. Other people don’t seem real to her, even her dying father. Being a good writer does not make you a good person, and hats off to that. In the practice of writing, you don’t care about anything but the effect the writing will produce in the reader, and Sullivan bets she can net you by describing the “gristle” she pokes back into her father ’s neck rather than by measuring the meaning of his departure from her life. Sometimes, though, you have to pretend to be more human than you really are, lest the reader find you too cold, clinical, and fancy with your techniques. You have to stop with the writer-y writing in order to trick the reader into thinking you are an actual human with emotions you don’t have when you are writing.
She manages this often and perhaps most brilliantly in the third poem, first dwelling on the limbo plight of a saltwater eel in a suburban restaurant:
It wants to be rid of the tank, the shriek of lobsters,
The monotonous view of leatherette banquettes, The off-duty industry folk, greedily appraising, ‘Let’s do it half sashimi-style, half dry-fried-spicy’, And also not to be rid of the tank, to remain forever Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead, Eddying between two walls of bubbling glass. Learn something about indifference.
A few pages later, in a jump-cut to the Caesarian birth of her first child—a pregnancy that has forever banished the poet from limbo—she sympathizes with her unborn baby’s reluctance to leave his tank:
Under a tangle of capillaries,
A baby is dreaming of his old home.
The Sunday morning swimming pool
Of far-off children.
Then yellow glows in the curtains And his mouth snapdragons open
. . . .
This is the world:
The street-cleaning machine
The slow lob of rubbish
What can narrative offer if it lacks plot? It prints the shape of a mind looking at the world, and from that a pattern takes shape—which might be another word for personality. In all three poems, Sullivan masterfully follows the best recipe for narrative: start in the middle, fail to arrive, remember to love things, make the reader hot, and make the reader laugh. She knows there are no good endings. All endings are bad. That is why it is difficult to end a story, and you have to stop before the end. The standard ideas about endings, she doesn’t buy. Arrival, no. Death, no. Marriage, no. A baby, no. Love gained, no. Knowledge acquired, no. You have to look for the next tank.
Laurie Stone is a frequent contributor to WRB and author of My Life as an Animal: Stories and Everything is Personal, Notes on Now. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in Tin House, Open City, Threepenny Review, and n+1. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Making Comics By Lynda Barry
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
On page 140 of Lynda Barry’s newest book, Making Comics, she includes an exercise called “Instant Book Review.” I used it to write this one. Following Barry’s instructions, my materials were an 8.5 x 11 inch folded sheet of paper, a flair pen, and a timer (your phone’s fine, as long as it’s set to airplane mode). The book itself was not necessary. “If you have it out,” she instructs, “put it away.” Barry is the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art and a professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has run Saturday drawing seminars at UW-Madison since 2012 that attract children and adults, grad students, doctoral candidates, fellow scientists, and all the beautiful regular people, who are Barry’s people. Though she was named a “genius” in 2019 by those who bestow the MacArthur Award, her work is devoted to those who who think they can’t draw, who are terrified and mortified by what they create, and who do not and may never see themselves as writers.
Making Comics begins with the rules of Barry’s classroom regarding attendance, grades, and materials—what kinds of pens, what kind of nonphoto blue pencil (“not easy to find … worth ordering!”), index cards with lines on one side, lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inch copy paper, and a regular composition notebook, the kind you can get at the drugstore for two bucks. “Your composition notebook is the backbone of this class,” writes Barry. “It is a place rather than a thing.”
The book’s cover design replicates a composition notebook, and the place is Barry’s classroom. The contents are page after page of activities and exercises you can do on your own or with people, under Barry’s strict guidance and care. Everything she wants you to try is laid out clearly and reinforced throughout the book; every expectation (“at least 90 minutes”) is specific and firm. “You don’t have to have any artistic skill to do this,” writes Barry. “You just need to be brave and sincere.” She creates pathways for all of us to make pictures and tell stories, using what she refers to in her talks and workshops as “the original digital device”—and she holds up her hand.
Making Comics, like much of Barry’s work as an artist and lay scientist, explores the concept of seeing, eyes open and eyes closed, in our mind’s eye and in the course of an ordinary day. “Notice what you notice,” she offers. See who and what shows up on the page, she tells us, in your own and one another ’s work—and, by all means, see and draw monsters.
Barry’s pursuit of the question “What is an image?” has caused a flood of books, each one so loaded with imagery, stories, and information that Barry once said at a reading that to sit down and read one from cover to cover would be like eating seven bouillon cubes. What It Is, Picture This, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, and now, Making Comics are only her most recent. Ernie Pook’s Comeek, featuring the blessed Marlys and beloved Maybonne (or is it the other way around?) was her first major contribution to comics. Since then, she’s offered, among others, The Good Times Are Killing Me, The Freddy Stories, and Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel. In her spellbinding One! Hundred! Demons!, Barry taught us a Chinese ink brush method of bringing our demons to life on the page and delighting in them, even when all they do is shit on our work. The image is the thing, she tells us again and again, and it’s alive. As a student in Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable course at Omega Institute, I’ve heard her call “the image”—even a demon and especially a monster—a “reason to stay.” By stay, she means here. She also means alive.
Her “Instant Book Review” exercise starts with a frame, which I drew and subdivided to contain the first four parts of the activity. “Inside of the frame is the live area,” Barry tells us. “Outside the frame is just paper. The frame is the enlivener.” I completed each part in brief bursts, with Barry’s prompts. All are meant to call up, so I can quickly jot down, what I remember from the book without looking at it:
What happened? List seven things in three minutes. Go.
What you saw (include what you “saw” in your mind’s eye)? List seven things, three minutes. Go.
A quote or phrase you remember. Thirty seconds. Go.
Make a small drawing of one of the characters from memory. Thirty seconds. Go.
The activity has four more parts to it. At the end of twenty minutes, the entire paper is covered with organized blocks of messy notes and quick drawings that make it clear how engaged “or not” I was with what I read.
Under the question of “what happened,” I noted the page where she tells you to draw yourself engaged in various activities (thirty-seven total)— for example, shooting out of a volcano, escaping from jail, dancing sadly, running from a giant snowball, vomiting. She teaches the Ivan Brunetti style of drawing people: big head, noodle arms and legs, snowball hands, jelly bean body, and basic features. “Kids draw this way naturally,” writes Barry, whose sample self portrait on this page wears glasses and a kerchief tied on top of her head. Her under-eye bags and chin fat, achieved in five tiny lines, make the drawing instantly hilarious. But it’s the lit cigarette she smokes in every selfportrait— even when she is a hot dog, even when she is Batman, even when she is a mandrake—that kills me every goddamn time.
When Barry invites me to imagine myself shooting out of a volcano, then breaking out of jail, then dancing sadly, then running from a giant snowball, then thirty-three more things—in Ivan Brunetti style—the physiological effect is an actual adrenaline rush. I am in danger, I am heroic, I am drenched in feeling, I am having all these adventures—and I haven’t even picked up a pen! My ten-year-old son knew the book had an activity where you draw Batman in sixty seconds, then fifty, then forty, then thirty, twenty-five, twenty, fifteen, ten, and five, and asked me could we please do that one together? So we did, and it was just as fun and funny as we thought it would be. We laughed and cursed when the timer made us stop. My son’s Batmans made me shriek with joy. He said, “Yours are better!” But I thought his were better. Neither of us was into our own Batmans, but we adored each other’s.
Barry anticipates this from students and gets ahead of it. “One of the best places to send a new drawing is into the hands of the person sitting next to you,” she advises, since we tend to be kinder to others people’s work. Throughout Making Comics, Barry illustrates the tragedy of art unloved by its maker by filling this book with her own exact copies of student drawings that she pulled out of the trash. She exalts these abandoned characters, who must have horrified or at least disappointed their creators. In this way, Barry honors both her students’ drawings and their impulse to destroy them.
Dozens of activities in Making Comics involve drawing some part of something and then passing the paper to the person next to you, who adds something new and passes it again—each student receiving and adding to the paper in front of them, letting it go to receive and add to another. Now, everyone is inclined to love or at least tolerate who or what shows up on the page because it isn’t ours alone—we are no more responsible for it being awful than we are for it being thrilling, gorgeous, and alive. In this and endless other ways, Barry gives each drawing “the kind of living chance it needs to survive its creator’s doubt.”
“Hold them so that the drawings can see each other,” she instructs her students, who (I see in my mind’s eye) raise their drawings and allow it to happen—not for critique, not for credit, but because the drawings have things to offer us and to say to us if we can stand to look and listen.
Inside Making Comics are at least a dozen different ways of doing a diary, including one where an animal you draw says the opening line of one of your diary entries from the week before. Another is called “You See It When It Sees You”— though the arrows that arc back and forth above the words of this title let me know it’s also called: “It Sees You When You See It.” In this diary exercise, what you draw gets to say what it sees when it looks at you drawing it. Then you draw what it sees (you) without a mirror, of course. The expression on your face, what you wear, your vibe, the shape of your mouth as you draw. The character can see it all. Of course it can. It’s us.
Then there is the one called “Blind Bones” where you draw an entire human skeleton without looking—using first a yellow marker, then orange, then blue—all within the same frame, eyes closed, a minute each. The effect of these three skeletons, layered and wonky on top of one another creates what Barry calls “a liveliness in the lines”—the effect of not knowing what the hell your hand is doing, and then repeating it. What you see when you open your eyes is a skeleton alive. No kidding. It’s moving. My pounding heartbeat tells me so. This skeleton, like so many of the other breath-giving images in Making Comics is Barry’s copy of a student’s work—who we might assume is not a “genius” though that is both irrelevant and the point. Look at what is happening there! When you notice what you notice. When you keep your pen moving. When you pass the drawing to someone who won’t kill it.
So that’s what happened. Here is what I saw: The outpourings and abundance of an artist whose own drawings did not survive her childhood (not a single one), and who tells us she watched, mesmerized, as one of her uncles, then a recent refugee to the US, obsessively drew monsters. He was later taken away by the cops—she never saw him after that. And here’s the quote I remember: “Have mercy on the unspeakable monster who has no other way to tell you it’s you.”
Anastasia Higginbotham is an author and illustrator. Her last book, Not My Idea, won a 2019 White Raven Award for children’s literature. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth By Cynthia and Julie Willett
Reviewed by Maeve Higgins
"I’m a comic, and it’s my job to name the elephant in the room. Anyone know what that is?” Electrifying words, shakily spoken by a young comic named Kelly Bachman at a variety show in New York this past October. The elephant in question, sitting in a booth and surrounded by young actors, was Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer currently facing criminal charges of predatory sexual assault, criminal sexual act, first degree rape, and third-degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is expected to begin in January 2020. Bachman didn’t name him, saying instead that “Freddy Krueger” was in the room, and continuing, “I have been raped, surprisingly by no one in this room, but I’ve never gotten to confront those guys.… So, just a general f*** you.” Bachman was frightened, funny, and feminist all at once, and I thought of her a lot when reading this book about how comedy has the potential to knock power off its throne. Authored by Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett, a philosophy professor and a history professor, respectively, Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth is quite an academic book, one that “assumes that ridicule operates on a multilayered field of affect and power where agents and their targets possess varying sources of status and social capital.”
We don’t need to study comedy to grasp the inherent power structure on which it operates; we could simply be any one or a combination of comedy’s historical targets, living in a female, queer, fat, black, or disabled body. The thesis the authors have, quoting Hannah Gadsby, is that “there does have to be a revolution of form in order to accommodate different voices.” They set this argument out over five well-researched and entertainingly written chapters, summing it up in a conclusion and a call to action that I found unexpectedly moving. Having performed in countries around the world and almost physically felt the weight of misogyny holding my fourteen year comedy career back at certain points, while also having moved to New York six years ago and witnessed, with some amount of glee, stand-up comedy evolve into something more inclusive and more fun than ever before, I am thrilled that these two smart women, sisters actually, are paying such care and attention to this corner of the entertainment business. They have lofty ambitions for what can be a grubby industry—“this book is about how humor from below can serve as a source of empowerment, a strategy for outrage and truth telling, a counter to fear, a source of joy and friendship, a cathartic treatment against unmerited shame, and even a means of empathetic connection and alliance”—and I am all for it.
“Fumerism” is up for discussion first. That’s a term coined by the stand-up Kate Clinton to capture “the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once.” Pulling on cultural theory (such as essays by Mary Douglas and Audre Lorde, as well as the comedy of Cameron Esposito, Tina Fey, and Zahra Noorbakhsh) the Willetts dive right into crucial questions of class, gender, and race and how these intersections vibe (or clash) with comedy. Do the feminist impulses in these artists and comics lead to a transformative strain in humor? The authors believe so, stating that “comedy can create a new kind of community, one based not on homogeneity or rigid identities but rather on a shared dislocation out of customary lines of identity.”
It took a moment for me to translate this, and when I did, I instantly thought about the lineup for a show I do every Monday night in Brooklyn with two of my friends, Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone. It’s booked by our producer, Marianne Ways, who is a long time in the business and whose taste reflects ours. She books the funniest people working, and she also keeps a spreadsheet of everyone she books, noting their gender and whether they are white or not. In her first year booking our show, 40 percent of the comics (not including us three female hosts) were female or non-binary and 33.5 percent were not white. This is a self-check, to see that she’s being inclusive, and she shares it online so comics and other bookers can see it, along with this note: “I don’t book people simply to fill a race/gender quota. I book people if they are funny and I aim to have a lineup of comedians who vary in many ways and bring different styles and points of view to a show.”
I get quite serious about inclusivity, too, but it’s not a moral thing, really. I spent so many years being the only woman in grotty greenrooms hearing the same old jokes about how weird and stupid women are, that I came to understand that the particular little world of stand-up comedy wasn’t designed for me. So now when I see people taking care in its redesign, I am thrilled—and protective.
At times, I wondered if the creation of “a new kind of community” was already happening in a way the authors are not quite aware of, perhaps because they are real life academics and not some dorks living at comedy clubs. Almost all the comics they studied and reference are over 35 and on TV. I do wish they had come to see shows rather than using Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as subjects. Those guys get so much credit, in the book and in general, but I’ve only ever seen them preaching to the choir. On the ground, in stand-up hubs like New York City, there are plenty of subversive voices just doing their thing on comedy stages: trans people, immigrants, fat people, differently abled people. They’re not waiting for the comedy world to change, they’re too busy building a new one. (It also miffed me when the authors laud the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm, and then credit Rob Reiner, the male director, when the incomparable Nora Ephron wrote the scene and the script.)
It’s not every day that I can read a professorial treatise about my colleagues, but a few arguments were a bit of a reach. There’s a whole chapter about animals and humor, for instance. I read it a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the documented cases of animals having a sense of humor—a macaw with a raucous laugh, a chimp pretending to use her hairbrush as a toothbrush, and mice befriending miners underground—but I just didn’t quite feel convinced that the critters were using humor to subvert the patriarchy.
Still, insights abound. The authors include a fabulous potted history of modern humor by basically whizzing through data collected by cultural historian Daniel Wickberg. They begin with the eighteenth century’s switch from ridicule to wit, provoked by sympathy for others’ oddities, on up through “the quasi-Stoic humor of selftranscendence,” probably developed in reaction to the horrifying absurdity of back-to-back World Wars. This brings us back to comedy as escape, a theme that, despite the arguments against it, never really goes away. I find that the worse things get in Trump’s America, the more raucous we get onstage, without ever mentioning what’s happening to us outside. It’s difficult to explain, I just know that when the news tells us that immigrant kids are being taken from their parents at the border, and late-night TV hosts get stuck in a whirlpool of self-righteousness but immigrant comics don’t speak directly about it, instead they get sillier and wilder and somehow more chaotic.
Finally, a chapter titled “Solidaric Empathy and a Prison Roast with Jeff Ross,” which discusses a roast at Brazos County Jail, surprised me. A roast is a ritual humiliation of a guest of honor, someone powerful, who is pummeled by jokes at his or her expense in front of an audience. Jeff Ross is often the maître-d at celebrity roasts on Comedy Central. It would be easy to dismiss any revelations uncovered by a wealthy white celebrity entering a space where people with none of those advantages are not just held in his thrall, but literally being held. The authors do a beautiful job of narrating what came next: namely, empathy, connection, and lots of laughs.
At the Texas jail, a gorgeous scene unfolds when Ross finds an amateur comic in the audience. She heckles, they banter, a connection is made and seemingly valued by both. In the end, “[b]y seeing prisoners as worthy of a roast, Ross honors those too often viewed by his audience as exiles, anointing them as members of the larger community.” Scenes like this one make a compelling case that there is potential for comedians to be the link between marginalized people and the mainstream. I’m relieved though, knowing myself and my colleagues, that the authors don’t expect us to take full responsibility for this enormous and important job. “We are not necessarily looking for comedians to lead a social movement,” the sisters Willet write. Phew! They just want to point out that in the comedy world, similar to other, more serious, decentered movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and #MeToo, our “absence of iconic top down leaders, foundational political ideologies, and a grand narrative style set the comic stage to address social conflicts differently.” We too can work from a place of pain and trauma to make people laugh, to punch up at those who cause that pain, to ultimately create something better. I guess that’s what Kelly Bachman managed to do, with a trembling voice that rang out clear as a bell, calling time on Weinstein that dark city night. Now that’s a beautiful ambition, one I hope we can live up to.
Maeve Higgins is a comedian and a contributing writer for the New York Times. She co-hosts (with Mary Robinson) the climate justice podcast “Mothers of Invention” and is a frequent contestant on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Her book, Maeve in America, was published last year.
Females By Andrea Long Chu
Reviewed by Madeleine Monson-Rosen
Andrea Long Chu is a wit. Like generations of the same before her, she delights in provocation, in mixing high theory with low ideas, in challenging orthodoxies, conventions, and taboos. She writes beautifully about bad (and good) television in her newsletter Paper View, and her recent essays, in n+1 and The New York Times Opinion page, have elaborated lyrical, but contrarian, analyses of her own experiences of her gender, her sexuality, and her desire. In Females, Chu weaves seemingly paradoxical theoretical argument with radically honest memoir. Part gender theory, part autobiography, Females takes on desire— rather, desire’s negation, rejection, disavowal, and denial—and makes that the basis for Chu’s, in her own words, “wildly tendentious” thesis: “Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.”
For Chu, the disavowal of desire is quintessentially female. She opens the book with an apology. “I am female. And you, dear reader, you are female, even—especially—if you are not a woman. Welcome. Sorry.” That “Welcome. Sorry” amounts to the essence of what it means to be female. “The thesis of this little book” Chu announces, “is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels.” “Welcome. Sorry” functions as an emblem, a dramatization, an enactment of what it means to be female: to make space for others, to submerge your own desires, to apologize for taking up space.
Everyone does this to some extent. “What makes gender gender,” Chu writes, “is the fact that it expresses, in every case, the desires of another. If sexual orientation is basically the social expression of one’s own sexuality, then gender is basically a social expression of someone else’s sexuality.” Understanding oneself as the object of someone else’s desire makes everyone female. Freud is here, of course, and Chu reads penis envy at some length (“Pussy envy is therefore not the mutually exclusive opposite of penis envy, but a universal desire atop which the latter develops as a reaction formation”). But one of the things that makes Females a particularly daring work is Chu’s choice to let her assertion stand on its own feet. Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Eve Sedgwick, and many other queer theory heavy hitters lurk under the surface, and future grad-student readers will undoubtedly make those implicit connections explicit, but here, Chu rests her thesis primarily on her reading of the life and work of Valerie Solanas, and on her own experience of desire and transition.
Prior to Females, Chu’s writing has been iconoclastic. Her New York Times essay, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” challenges the liberal narrative of gender transition as automatically fulfilling self-actualization. “Transition doesn’t have to make me happy for me to want it,” Chu argues. “On Liking Women,” published in n+1, challenges TERFs (transexclusionary radical feminists), even as it gives their paranoia some ground. TERFs claim that trans women are threatening, “gropey interlopers … conspiring to infiltrate women-only spaces.” Chu, a lesbian, ironically agrees. She expects to feel desire for women. Indeed, she argues that the most radical of feminists should welcome trans women, “Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” Here, she also previewed Females’ affection for Valerie Solanas: “The Society for Cutting Up Men is a rather fabulous name for a transsexual book club.”
Valerie Solanas “founded” The Society for Cutting Up Men, publishing the SCUM Manifesto in 1967 (although she also denied SCUM was an acronym). The scare quotes indicate the difficulty in discussing Solanas and SCUM in any kind of definitive way. Solanas sometimes referred to SCUM as an organization, sometimes not. She referred to the SCUM Manifesto as satire, sometimes. She associated with feminists, including NOW co-founder Ti-Grace Atkinson, but rejected feminism. Atkinson attended a SCUM recruitment meeting at the Chelsea Hotel, where, according to Chu, Solanas “unzipped her jeans and played with her clitoris.” Most (in)famous for her shooting of Andy Warhol and subsequent diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Solanas was a marginal member of Warhol’s Factory scene, a maybe-feminist who was, in Chu’s brief biography, “grifting her way around Greenwich Village in the early sixties, poor, often homeless, doing sex work, hanging with street queens, loitering in cheap automats—‘shooting the shit,’ as she liked to say.”
Solanas’s earlier work, the play Up Your Ass, is for Chu the locus classicus of femaleness. In Up Your Ass and SCUM, Solanas lays out her own paranoid, angry, sometimes-delusional theories of gender and difference. SCUM demands the end of men: “there remains to civicminded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” While the SCUM Manifesto perhaps more clearly crystallizes Solanas’s vision, Chu lets Bongi Perez, dirtbag protagonist of Up Your Ass, offer epigraphs to many of the chapters: “BONGI: I’m so female I’m subversive” inscribes the book’s opening. Solanas is, in a way, a sort of Dante’s Virgil for Chu’s argument, leading her, and the reader, through the logic of femaleness.
Solanas, “Valerie” to Chu, “lives in my head like a chain-smoking superego.” Her violent fantasies, hatreds, and desires lead Chu to a profound and uncompromising personal honesty. Indeed, this book suggests that perhaps every work of theory should be accompanied by some radical self-disclosure, in the name of ethics (Chu defines ethics as “commitment to a bit”). That selfdisclosure makes Females persuasive as a work of theory and profoundly affecting as a memoir.
Solanas’s near-universal, and violent, hatred, grounds the second part of Chu’s thesis. SCUM and Up Your Ass propose, in Chu’s summation, “misogyny against men.” For Chu, Solanas inverts the polarity of the gender binary: men are weak, passive, and vain while “women are cool, forceful, dynamic, and decisive.” In other words, Solanas’s work reveals that men are also females. The hatred of femaleness is, for Chu, a cultural wellspring, explaining, obviously, misogyny and transphobia but also eroticism and sexual desire per se. Chu posits this formula: to be female is to be shaped by another’s desire. There is no eroticism without thinking about somebody else’s desire for you; to enter into sexuality or eroticism one must imagine oneself as another ’s object. To do this is to be female, ergo, everyone is female.
Indeed, if everyone is female—and I’m hoping you’re starting to believe that they are—then autogynephilia [the desire for oneself as a woman] describes not an obscure paraphilic affliction but rather the basic structure of all human sexuality. This is not just because everyone has an erotic image of themselves as female—they do—but the assimilation of any erotic image is, by nature, female. To be female is, in every case, to be what someone else wants. At bottom, everyone is a sissy.
Along the way, Chu offers femaleness as an explanatory account of, among other things, The Matrix and its popularity among so-called “men’s rights” activists; another, related right-wing group known as the Proud Boys, who reject pornography and masturbation; porn, and the particular bigotry of the aforementioned TERFs. These readings are more than persuasive.
What makes Females such a pleasure for this reader (who as a grad student in the oughts was electrified by queer theory despite being, herself, straight and cis) is the explanatory power of Chu’s argument paired with the radical intimacy of her personal writing. Chu’s intellectual rigor is matched by her honesty. It is at once profoundly disconcerting and deeply persuasive. It will, no doubt, be controversial. It will, I know, electrify.
Madeleine Monson-Rosen has a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She writes mostly about the intersections of science, technology, and culture, and has contributed to The Millions, io9, and Real Life Magazine. She last wrote for WRB in 2016.
An Interview with Florence Howe By Jennifer Baumgardner
In 1970, at the height of the women’s movement, the Feminist Press was hatched in Baltimore by a literature professor named Florence Howe, her husband, and several volunteers. Fifty years later, it is the longest-running feminist press in the world. In the beginning, it republished classic work that had gone out of print, not because of quality or importance, but because it was written by women—books like The Yellow Wall-Paper, Life in the Iron Mills, and collected writings of Zora Neale Hurston (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive). Soon, the Press began publishing texts for the rapidly growing discipline of Women’s Studies, books like All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave and Witches, Midwives, & Nurses. For decades now, the Feminist Press has been housed at the City University of New York, and its offerings include translated fiction from around the world, new literary fiction, children’s books, and activist non-fiction.
I worked at FP from from 2013 to 2017. At the tail end of my tenure, I sat down with Florence at her Manhattan apartment to talk about her unique contribution to publishing and feminism. Stories tend to shift over time, not in ways that make them less accurate, but what is important to the narrator changes over the years. During our interview, Florence (then eighty-eight and now ninety) described the creation and stewardship of FP almost as if it were an accident, which is also how she recalled her work collecting the disparate Women’s Studies programs into a clearinghouse. Because I sat at her former desk for four years, however, I know how much determination went into not just starting the Press but making sure it survived. Florence’s will is immense, as is her vision. Most interesting to me, though, are the people she coaxed on to the board of directors, like her college friend Helene Goldfarb (also ninety), who remains the president of the board. Both modeled to me how much meaningful work keeps you young in mind and heart.
Jennifer Baumgardner: Give me a thumbnail sketch of your family of origin.
Florence Howe: I was born Florence Rosenfeld in 1929 and raised in Brooklyn. My father, Sam, was a taxi driver. My mother, Frances, had been a bookkeeper before they married and was a stay-at-home mom until the war, when she went to work in an airplane factory. Then she became Rosie the Riveter—they called her Rosie at work. She eventually became a bookkeeper again. She loved being independent of my father’s gambling; she didn’t have to beg him for money each night because she had her own paycheck. He was angry; he didn’t want his wife to work. But he was always proud of me, whatever I did. Typical working-class guy.
JB: What were you like as a young girl?
FH: Oh, I was sure I couldn’t do much except think. I was convinced I was ugly. My mother did that number on me: Isn’t it a pity that she has all the brains, and he—I had a younger brother who was blond—has all the looks? It harmed him, too, but to this day, I don’t think of myself as anything but what my mother called miskayt, which means “ugly person” in Yiddish. Once, I went to a therapist who made me bring in photographs of me and my brother. He said, “If I just showed you these photographs, what would you say about this little girl?” I guess I was dumbfounded. I said, “She was pretty cute.” And he said, “Why can’t you think of yourself that way?” I said, “Well, the miskayt is just too deep in my psyche.”
JB: It sounds like you got a lot of positive feedback for your intellect right away.
FH: Right away. I was told I was going to be a teacher because my mother had wanted to be a teacher. And so it was; that’s the way it went. I was very lucky to escape Brooklyn and go to Hunter College High School. I had a junior high school teacher who said if she coached me in math—which was not my best subject—I could probably pass the test for Hunter College High School. And I did. I was the only working-class kid in the school, at least as far as I could perceive it. The first thing they did was put me in “speech clinic,” because I was “speech-deficient” or whatever. They said I couldn’t speak properly because I had a Brooklyn accent.
JB: How did you do at Hunter?
FH: At the high school, I got Bs, but barely, and the only interchange I had with a teacher was not a great one. Miss Brubaker was my English teacher as a senior, and she was in charge of Annals, which was the yearbook. She said to me one day, privately, “You are the perfect B student, and I love you for it. You never miss an appointment; you’re always on time; you do your work; and you don’t have a creative bone in your body.” We had a gifted writer, even in high school, in that class: Cynthia Ozick. She got the A, and I got the B, and she never did any work for the Annals. She never had to. It was as though her creativity made her the editor—the star.
JB: You went to Hunter College. How was that experience?
FH: That was wonderful. I couldn’t do well at the high school, but at the college I was an immediate A student. I was very popular and into the student government. Before I was even a sophomore, I was head of the elections committee. That’s where I met Helene [Goldfarb, the longtime and beloved president of the Feminist Press board]. She became my kid sister, and everything I did, she did. So, because I’d been on the elections committee, she went on the elections committee. And then, the year I was a junior, I was president of the student government, and the year she was a junior, she was president of the student government. And we’ve been friends ever since. After college and graduate school, I was hired at Goucher, in Baltimore, as a one-year, temporary fill-in for somebody who was on leave. The following year somebody else was on leave, and the third year somebody still was on leave. That year, 1964, I got divorced [from second husband, Dr. Edmund Stanley Howe], and went to Mississippi to teach at the freedom schools. When I came back, I had tenure, which absolutely baffled me. Some people were really angry about this. I couldn’t figure out why I had tenure as an assistant professor.
First of all, no PhD, and I haven’t even applied for it. I think the president of Goucher was a civil libertarian who really cared about what was going on in civil rights. That’s the only sense I’ve ever made of it.
JB: Take me to the very beginnings: that meeting the Feminist Press came out of. What was going on in your life when you decided to call that meeting?
FH: After Mississippi, where students wrote such magnificent poems and even prose, I couldn’t understand why the Goucher students I had wrote such horrible, dull stuff. The only thing I had done differently for the students in Mississippi was include literature that was about black people and about freedom. We read Langston Hughes, for instance, alongside cummings and Williams.
In 1969, students in my eighteenth-century lit class said, “We couldn’t believe that you didn’t have any women on this reading list.” I said, “I don’t know any women [writers].” They didn’t know any women we could read, either. And that’s really what triggered the whole thing. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll found a Feminist Press.” I thought we’d do biographies of women. That was as far as my imagination could go.
It never dawned on me that there had been women writers who had written important books, been stars, been recognized for their writing, and then vanished. I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know that, in a sense, Austen was a contemporary of Wordsworth. When he was at university, she was at Bath—she couldn’t go to university. Even though my fields were British history and the whole history of British literature, I knew nothing about women. I approached Baltimore Women’s Liberation to help me start the press. They turned me down, but then they announced the existence of the press in their newsletter. Every little town had a feminist newsletter back then. And word traveled very fast, even though we had no faxes, no email, no computers. Word really got around.
JB: How did you know the word was out?
FH: I returned from Europe that summer and had a hundred letters about this new Feminist Press—many included donations. Some of it was cash, some of it was checks made out to the Feminist Press. I mean, it was crazy stuff! I did not deposit the money that was sent. I didn’t do anything for a while. I was furious that I somehow had a press coming to me that I had never said I would deal with. At the end of October, I wrote to everybody who had sent me a letter to announce a meeting. I told my students and a few friends, and of course everybody told somebody else. I said, if at least twenty-five people show up, and they agree to meet at least twice a month, we’ll have a Feminist Press. If not, I’ll send everybody’s money back. Fifty people turned up, and the enthusiasm was palpable.
We began with three biographies—Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Browning. We started on those, and there were a couple of children’s books: The Dragon and the Doctor, and Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, which was a historical book about the fact that there were women physicians as early as the nineteenth century. In fact, that book could be rescued today, probably. I must have a copy of it here somewhere. Three months into the Press, Tillie Olsen sent me a story that had appeared in The Atlantic in the middle of the nineteenth century—“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis—with instructions not to read it at night. Of course, I read it, and of course at night, and of course I didn’t sleep that night. I just cried and cried.
FH: Two reasons: One, the story is incredibly sad, but the other is that this literature should have been lost seemed to me the most horrible thing I could think of. It was like burying a live person.
I assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that, if this had been lost, then there would be others, and our job was to find them. Immediately we had a third series, the reprint series. What I fault myself for most these days is that I was never smart enough to get grant money just for that purpose. I did try for Indian literature, and I succeeded with our work in Africa [the Ford Foundation funded the development and publication of four anthologies of literature by women in Africa], but think of all the American literature we published, rescued, and re-published. We could’ve done much, much more.
JB: Let’s recap: in 1970, you’ve accidentally, or against your will, founded the Feminist Press, discovered an emergency mission to recover a lost literature by women, and, simultaneously, you helped create what would become women’s studies. How did that last part happen?
FH: My composition classes at Goucher were becoming known as “Women’s Studies.” Now, I never said I was teaching Women’s Studies or feminism. I was teaching people how to be better writers. I insisted on that. But other people said, “No, no, you’re teaching female consciousness.” I said, “I don’t even know what that means. Nonsense.” Nevertheless, the people at College English, which was a magazine, assigned me to write about my composition course. I did, and then I had a zillion people writing to me, asking specific questions. What was the curriculum? What worked? What didn’t work? So, I wrote more about that course. I had an extraordinary work-study student named Carol Allen, who was very bright and very interested in what was happening in Women’s Studies. She decided, practically without even talking to me, to collect the contact information from the letters I was getting and put it in a chart, which eventually became “Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies.”
JB: What year was this?
FH: I think it was the spring of ’72. Mariam Chamberlain, of the Ford Foundation, invited me to a meeting at her office. Mariam was data-driven. She said, “I hear you have data,” and I said, “Well, if you mean lists of people who are teaching Women’s Studies.” She said, “Yes, that’s data! I’d like you to do a complete report for us, maybe even a book, that lists all the courses and where they’re taught and by whom, so that we know where our starting place is.” She gave FP $12,000 to do this. We had no computers; we did the whole thing on little white notecards, and we had to write each notecard three times because we were going to organize the information by teacher, by institution, and by department. So, it was a long and very difficult task that could’ve been done quickly, had we had even one computer.
I gathered the Women’s Studies departments and programs on a list, and for twenty years I personally updated those until we had 630 different departments. I stopped in 1992. I’m not sure if the National Women’s Studies Association continues the practice now.
JB: Mariam Chamberlain was a fortuitous and loyal friend to the Press. Tell me about the African and Indian projects that Ford funded.
FH: The Indian project began because I was on a forced Fulbright in India— that’s a whole other story. I went around to universities and asked where the women writers were. Both women and men scholars in English and in History said there weren’t any, and if there had been any, they wouldn’t be any good, so why was I bothering them? That infuriated me.
I spent two years looking for Susie Tharu. I knew such a person must exist, but nobody knew her; she was teaching at a very small university in Hyderabad. When I found her, I knew I had found gold, because she was a literary scholar who could write, who could imagine, and who was a historian. I convinced her that collecting Indian women’s writing was political work, and that it was very important. What she did was magnificent. You know, there are seventeen languages in India, and we did, I think, nine or ten. She had teams of people in each of these languages, working to find and select the texts to translate. I worked on the translations. If we couldn’t agree, we ditched that text and took another one. She eventually found 600 women writers.
These women in India did the entire project for over ten years with no money and no support. It was an enormous undertaking. At the last minute, Ford had given a small grant for the finished product. When I stopped by to deliver the Indian books, Alison Bernstein [who had taken Mariam’s job when she retired] said, “Great. Africa must be next.” I said, “Not me. These women had no support and the Press is in debt because of those two books. I’m not getting in deeper with Africa.”
Two years later, Alison called me with a plan. She gave us $50,000 to support a conference in Accra, Ghana, at the tail end of a meeting of African literature specialists, just to see whether there was interest enough in an African project. By then, several CUNY scholars of African origin had been urging me onto this kind of project. I was very reluctant. I understood that Africa was fifty-four diverse countries, and there was no way we could handle surveying that literature without massive money—especially if we wanted it to be Africans speaking, the way the Indian project really was Indians speaking. I was very clear about that. It slowed the whole project, and before it was over, Alison was not a little impatient with us. The project did take fifteen years, but I’m not sorry.
JB: Why is it so significant to the Feminist Press’s vision—to your vision—that you undertook those kinds of projects.
FH: As with our recovery of literature by American women writers and European women writers, the African project and the Indian project indicate that the story is the same for them, that each continent and country has a lost history of women writers, and that, I assume, Estonia and Latvia and all of these other countries in the world have a similar history.
In fact, the last book that I had anything to do with before I left the Press was from North Korea. Even before North Korea was North Korea, but from the northern part of the land mass called Korea. It’s a book that dates to the 1930s, by a woman that we published because a guy who’s getting a Harvard degree found it, translated it, and sent me his introduction and a copy of the translation, which was brilliant.
I really believe that there’s still much to be found. I don’t know if anybody’s looking. That’s the question.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.