What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Taken from the opening line of her poem “The Colonel,” What You Have Heard Is True is the title of Carolyn Forché’s recently published memoir. It concerns her involvement in events leading up to and including the civil war in El Salvador (1979–1992) and the relationship between that experience and her development as a Poet of Witness. Although Forché cites children of Salvadoran refugees (“who want to know more about their country”) and her own son Sean-Christophe (“so he will know this part of his parents’ past”) as her audience, this text has a much wider reach, including US citizens seeking to understand their country’s involvement in Central American politics, students of literature measuring the relationship between creative selfexpression and activism, and poets who must decide about their own place in an increasingly violent world. It also addresses women, singularly and as a group, for whom war has traditionally been considered a masculine undertaking. While this account offers no direct answers to the questions it raises, it does provide a number of details from which one may draw conclusions. What we know from the beginning is that it is factual, all the more gripping for the shock that it really happened—this way.
Forché’s account of her poetic re-education begins in El Salvador with a scene in which she and her guide, Leonel Gomez Vides, encounter a dismembered corpse in a cornfield. He has told her to wait, to stay behind, but the poet is not good at waiting, and her urge for immediacy takes her to a situation that is difficult to absorb. She notices flies and turkey buzzards humming about a corpse. A man’s crotch is covered with tar. His legs and one of his arms are gone, as is his head. Silently, hypnotically, the campesinos who accompany them collect the head, which is missing its eyes, lips, and tongue, and the severed limbs and reposition them around the mangled torso. They take off their straw hats and pray over the remains. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” the poet thinks she asks.
This nightmarish event sets the stage for scenes teaching job in Southern California, to a country on the brink of collapse, where poverty, violence, and corruption are the norm. It depicts a flurry of encounters with figures who occupy the various sides of this conflict: from the military strongmen who live opulently off confiscated US aid, to public servants who make do with little to no resources, to the simple farmers who occupy the champas in the Salvadoran countryside and whose mutilated bodies are regularly displayed in public places as a warning against dissent. Such encounters are interspersed with memories from her own past in order to discern what she, a young American woman, could bring to bear on this suffering. It’s all part of a process, founded in a belief in words; a way of internalizing experience, so that it can be rendered with the immediacy and emotional accuracy that Witness requires. “Mira” (“Look, …”), Leonel would say at the beginning of each exchange, and there would follow explanations, clues that would lead her closer to understanding. Other senses were also engaged—hearing, smelling, tasting—and, after that, entries in her notebook, a shorthand of responses, written in pencil “so the words evanesce.” Here, one finds personalities, images, and encounters to help the poet remember. One also encounters silences: emotions and events for which there are no words, and in those cases, the page is left blank.
Identity is a recurring theme in this saga, pushed forward by the question as to why Forché would go to El Salvador in the first place. What was her goal? And who is this Leonel, really? The man who showed up at her door unannounced with papers and maps and convinced her to join him on this perilous journey? Who is she, a twentyseven- year-old woman, enjoying early poetic success, who sets aside concerns for her own safety for reasons that are not quite clear? To those closest to him, Leonel is a puzzle, a person not to be discussed. He seems to have no active employment, no fixed abode. He shows up and disappears unpredictably, sometimes in the company of another person, sometimes by himself. He takes her to meet peasants, dignitaries, soldiers, and men of the cloth; leaves her at various safe houses, apartments, flophouses, champas; depends on relatives and acquaintances to take him in. He uses pseudonyms, too, on one occasion, going by “Hermano” (Brother); on another, “Christos” from the movie Z. On yet another, he acknowledges that one faction of the guerillas calls him El Gordo because they think him fat. Even his aunt, Forché’s mentor Claribel Alegria, doesn’t know who he really is. “So who is Gomez?” Leonel says to Forché, “Nobody knows.”
Forché assumes various identities as well: Papu (adopted granddaughter of Grandpa Goodmorning), journalist, girl, nun, CIA operative, doctor, nurse ... poeta. This shape-shifting comes partially from her own lack of self-knowledge, partially from the various roles Leonel has her play. On one occasion, she poses as a doctor in a local hospital. On another, she is an emissary from the US government, trying to get information on an American citizen thought to have been “disappeared.” On yet another, she is a nun working with the resistance to locate the desaparecidos. Sometimes, she resents Leonel’s manipulations, sometimes she goes along with them, not fully understanding where it all will lead. She herself is a cipher, a collection of impulses that don’t quite add up. “Listen to me, Carolyn,” her friend Margarita tells her. “I’m going to try to explain you…” The poet seizes on this phrasing. ‘“Explain me,” I thought to myself, “good luck.”
In the course of several visits, the poet does learn from her experiences, not only about the political dynamics of El Salvador, but her relationship to the people who suffer under military rule. She moves from a condition of fear and disorientation to a determined focus, discovering in herself the courage not to look away. One stage in this process comes after a visit to a prison, where she is confronted with the stench of human waste and sees in a darkened room “wooden boxes the size of washing machines” in which men are kept in solitary confinement. Unsteadily, she returns to the van where Leonel is waiting, vomits, sobs, and says she has had enough. “Papu, listen,” he tells her. “You are always asking me why people don’t do something… Could you fight back at this moment?”
This lesson is followed immediately by another. She wants to cancel her meeting that evening with a group of local poets. She waits outside as Leonel goes in to deliver her regrets. One of the participants comes out and tells her that the meeting has been cancelled; the wife of one of the poets has just had a baby. She goes inside to see and discovers a woman lying on a blanket on the floor, her new baby next to her in a cardboard box. They have named her Alma, (meaning “spirit” or “soul”).
The spokesman presents her with a sheath of freshly mimeographed poems. “We were hoping that if you publish them in the United States,” he tells her, “you will be careful not to say who gave them to you.” This experience stays with her, guiding her responses to future challenges:
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off … and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
The final section of this memoir is devoted to returning. The poet has spent some time at the Catholic University, working on human rights. She has made the acquaintance of Monsen͂or Oscar Romero, the activist priest who shelters the poor and speaks out against the brutal practices of his government. She has survived several close calls with the death squads, including one in which she and an unidentified photographer prevent a massacre of refugees by threatening to record the event for the American press. Seemingly, she has earned a place in this world and a growing sense of her own worth, but even Leonel believes it is time for her to go home.
She returns to the United States a week before Monsen͂or Romero is assassinated and the civil war begins. She experiences what she describes as a period of great personal turmoil, in which she relocates to the East coast, teaches briefly at two universities, and publishes her new book of poems, containing her iconic prose poem about “The Colonel,” with his bag of human ears. The implicit question for this phase of her existence is: can a young American woman experience such atrocities and not be permanently marked by them? Can she put aside these images and live?
The answer comes in the form the American photojournalist whose path she crossed during a raid in El Salvador. Having been assigned to write the narrative for a book of photographs, she works with him to communicate the truth about events leading up to the Salvadoran civil war. They go on to marry and have a son, exchanging cartons of cigarettes and mugs of black coffee for juice boxes and Legos, strategies of evasion for scheduled play dates, and a fixed abode. But there is always a sense of disassociation for her between what Americans assume about El Salvador and what she has learned from her experiences there. A young defector from the Salvadoran army comes to stay with them while seeking asylum. He testifies before Congress as to the brutality and corruption of his government and is repaid for his efforts by being sent back to the Generals and to his death.
This is a compelling memoir, poetically written. It offers important contexts for Forché’s second book of poems, The Country Between Us, and it raises essential questions about the role of poetry: whether it can contribute to positive change; whether the cost to those writing it is worth the sacrifice. What is clear here is that it holds promise for those who believe, providing emblems by which they live and work. Even within a context of extremity, there is continuance: a baby in a cardboard box; words scrawled on a page.
Joann Gardner is associate professor of English at Florida State University, where she regularly teaches Contemporary Poetry, from both a critical and a creative point of view. She is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks, including, most recently, The Deaf Island.
The Yellow House By Sarah M. Broom
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
For several months I’ve been on book tour for a memoir I wrote about my mother, and much of it centers on the red brick fourbedroom Colonial house she bought, which was the symbol of our middle-class life. Audience members often say to me about the inspired descriptions of my family home: “Wow, it makes me wish I’d grown up in that house.”
Sarah M. Broom’s evocative and startling memoir The Yellow House is also about a family home that her mother bought in the same year my mom bought ours, 1961, but that’s where the similarities might seem to end. Broom describes the modest wooden shotgun house with the screenedin porch that her mother Ivory Mae bought at age nineteen, with $3200 cash, as an ever-challenging physical space in which to live and grow up. The falling-down, fragile house was tended to and patched up constantly by her father, Simon Broom; but by the time of his death when Sarah was six months old, the house remained decidedly unfinished. Where there should be walls was just framing; a naked ceiling exposed unfinished beams. The house suffered mightily from electrical problems, with the lights in the “add-on” her father had built shorting out; a sister ’s “amateur carpenter” boyfriend laid linoleum on the kitchen floor that started curling, which led to holes in the floor, which likely led to the rats that took up residence; the plumbing never worked right, so they kept buckets under the kitchen sink to catch the dishwater. The one bathroom with a lock on its door also had an ever-broken faucet, prompting the brood to boil water on the stove and fill the tub for the baths they loved. Some nights, Sarah and her siblings returned home to find termites or flying cockroaches gathered in their rooms.
“This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal,” writes Broom. “You kitchen do not warm me. You living room, do not comfort me. You bedroom, do not keep me.”
And yet, Broom tells us this unwieldy house with its yellow siding was her mother’s first and only house, and that “within its walls, my mother made its world. Twelve children passed through its doors.” As she worked hard to make her home tenable, sewing curtains to cover door-less cabinets and putting up pretty Christmas decorations and scrubbing everything clean and trying to repair things herself, Ivory Mae wrestled to tame the Yellow House like it was her thirteenth unruly child. “To describe the house fully in its coming apart feels maddening,” Broom tells us. “Like trying to pinpoint the one thing that ruins a person’s personality.”
Over time, battling against the brutal elements of nature, poor construction, time and heavy usage, Broom’s mom became ashamed of the house she’d so diligently nurtured, that once held her dreams in its potential; she began to see it through others’ eyes. She voiced that shame by saying You know this house not all that comfortable for other people. It was uncomfortable for Sarah and her siblings, too. “The evidence stared back at us,” writes Broom. “We became more private then. In a way, you could say we became the Yellow House. Here is a riddle: What was worse? The house or hiding the house? Shame is a slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later.”
What elevates this memoir from an account of growing up in and getting away from a crumbling house in a depressed neighborhood of a mythologized city is Broom’s language. Her descriptions are tactile and redolent, her observations stunningly astute. The writing itself conveys a dignity that permeates Sarah and her family members’ lives despite the tenuousness, and the poverty that hovered, threatening to engulf. You come to know and understand the inhabitants of the Yellow House, even as you come to know the ways in which the house shaped and defined them, and the ways it didn’t:
“There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in,” she tells us. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we should live in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house? My memories of the house’s disintegration have collided, the strains impossible to separate, its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum.
You understand exactly what her mother Ivory Mae means when she said, “This house doesn’t reflect who we are.”
But it did reflect a New Orleans steeped in exploitation, neglect, and racial bias. The family home was bearing witness to that truth. Its location in the city is a case in point: Far removed from both the much-featured Ninth Ward and the touristy French Quarter, the Yellow House was located in New Orleans East, a section of the city that’s seven miles from the French Quarter and fifty times its size. New Orleans East, as a development, was supposed to be an ideal community, rising, like a space-age city within a city, from its cypress swamp wetlands, what Bloom describes as “a rural village right in the middle of building up.” A place whose potential her mother allowed her dreams to get tied up in. Broom places us there beside her in the East, as it was called—“that abandoned suburban experiment”—most vividly in her description of the harrowing Chef Menteur Highway, a treacherous four-lane road that she and her siblings had to cross, the very one which a car dragged her sister Karen down when she was eight years old.
The section of the memoir that describes the impact of Hurricane Katrina, what Broom calls “the Water,” on Broom’s family members is the most haunting. To read her brothers’ firsthand chronicles of harrowing escape, now, fourteen years after, is in some ways more profound for its distance and simplicity of fact: Her brother Carl rode out the Water for seven days atop a roof after axing himself out of an attic; her brother Michael joined fourteen other people in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafitte Projects, walking or swimming the streets daily to forage for food; once finally rescued, all fifteen of them were flown to San Antonio. The rest of the family didn’t know Carl or Michael’s whereabouts for eleven days. Before Katrina, Broom had six siblings living in or near New Orleans, as well as her mother and seventeen nieces and nephews. After the storm, only two brothers remained in Louisiana. Her extended family became part of that third of the city’s population (over 92,000 people) that didn’t return to the city after the Water. The Yellow House itself did not survive post- Katrina, torn down less than a year later by the city for “imminent danger of collapse.” (After waiting eleven years, her mother finally received a grant for the property, and the lot where the house once stood was auctioned off).
In the intervening years, Sarah grappled with how a phantom Yellow House, how New Orleans itself, had penetrated her psyche, and invaded her dreams. “Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word,” she writes. “We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs….”
For years, Broom travelled to faraway places. Apart from living at various points in California and Texas and New York, we learn that she spent her 31st birthday riding a camel in Cairo, that she visited the Khmer Rouge site in Cambodia, and travelled to Berlin and Istanbul. She moved to Burundi for several months at the suggestion of Samantha Powers (who later became US ambassador to the UN), a move she now admits was an “urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.”
She also continued to feel the pull of home, moving back more than once, even living briefly in the French Quarter, in an apartment featuring an iron balcony railing with designs hammered out by slaves.
Toni Morrison once said, “Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure … They are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.”
Morrison could be describing Sarah Broom, moving often to places far from New Orleans (“What adventure you on now?,” her siblings would ask when they called her), she who felt without a home. Yet Broom kept creating “beauty out of ordinary spaces,” perfected mini yellow houses, wherever she went. Her memoir is ultimately a story of nest and adventure, of home and away, of where you come from and what you’re headed to, and how it makes you who you are. The depth and nuance of this story is a tribute to Broom’s patience in waiting to tell it, in letting it nest so to speak, for more than a decade after the Water. This is a story that has marinated, steeped itself in time and distance and maturing black womanhood to emerge as an arresting narrative on its way to becoming a classic.
“When you are the babiest in a family with eleven older points-of-view, eleven rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices, all variations of the communal story, developing your own becomes a matter of survival,” Broom tells us. “There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.”
This memoir is the story of Sarah M. Broom’s surviving, and thriving, which is to say the full emergence of her voice. You will want to hear everything she has to say.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little, Brown and Company; 2019). She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
Valerie By Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Hating Valerie Solanas (and Loving Violent Men) By Chavisa Woods
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) By Breanne Fahs
I Shot Andy Warhol (including full text of SCUM Manifesto) By Mary Harron and David Minahan;
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
By Laurie Stone
For centuries the world writes learned studies proving the biological inferiority of females and depicts them as contaminants. The world devises social and religious policy propped by the certainty of female inferiority. In 1967, at age 33, Valerie Solanas self-publishes SCUM Manifesto, a brief, funny screed asserting that males are biologically inferior, owing to their damaged Y chromosomes. She argues that males should be treated as inferior, and her writing is pronounced crazy, perverse, and dangerous. She sells mimeographed copies on the street, charging men a dollar and women 25 cents.
At age seven, her father begins raping her on the porch swing when her mother leaves the house. She retains a memory of counting roses on the seat cushion and finding gum in her hair. By fifteen, she is homeless. During this period, she falls in love with a sailor and gives birth to a son she does not see after he is born. In 1954, at eighteen, she enrolls at the University of Maryland, where she is openly lesbian, likes talking about jazz and art, and supports herself through prostitution. After graduation, she’s accepted on scholarship to a PhD program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. She doesn’t complete the degree, and in 1965 sets off to be a writer in New York City. Through Candy Darling, she gains entrée to Andy Warhol and the Factory world. Andy sees something in her he recognizes. Both are shy, ambitious, from Catholic, working class backgrounds, dubious about sex, and awkward in front of cameras. She agrees to perform in his movie, I, a Man (released in 1967), improvising all her dialogue. She makes him laugh. She never stops pushing him to produce her play, Up Your Ass. Ultimately he tires of her and misplaces the only copy of her play. In 1996, after both are dead, the play will resurface in a trunk owned by (Factory archivist) Billy Name.
In 1988, Mary Harron, a researcher for the BBC, happens upon a copy of the manifesto in a London bookshop, and it takes hold of her. In 1996, the film I Shot Andy Warhol premieres, directed by Harron and cowritten with Daniel Minahan, featuring Lili Taylor as Solanas and Jared Harris as Warhol. In the introduction to her shooting script, published to debut with the film, Harron says Valerie’s text “reached a core of anger I didn’t know I possessed.... It made me wonder about blighted talents, vanished possibilities, and what might be lurking in the great host of humanity we call failures.”
On June 3, 1968, Valerie waits outside the Factory on Union Square, rides the elevator up with Andy, then shoots him three times with a .32 caliber pistol, wounds the art critic Mario Amaya in the hip, and tries to shoot Andy’s manager, Fred Hughes. After the gun jams, she rides the elevator to the street and gives herself up to a cop at Times Square, explaining she is lonely and wants to talk to someone.
In 2006, Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s novel Valerie is published to acclaim in Sweden. It depicts the life of Solanas in a collage of fictional and documentary scenes that skillfully jump between locations and time periods. In 2019, it is translated into English by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published in the US. Why the time gap? The backward glance is always about now. In 1988, Valerie dies alone of pneumonia in a welfare hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Stridsberg sets many scenes of her book during Valerie’s final days, inventing a narrator who interviews Valerie and tries to comfort her. Valerie’s body will be found days after her death, covered with maggots. Her last writings will not be saved. Close to the end of the book, the narrator says to Valerie, “I love you.” Valerie says, “Fuck you.”
On June 6, 1968, three days after shooting Warhol and gaining headline fame, Valerie is again whisked to the margins when Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.
In September of 1968, Maurice Girodias, the publisher of Olympia Press, rushes into print an edition of SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press has published some of the great works of suppressed literature, among them: Lolita, Candy, Naked Lunch, Story of O, and books by Bataille and Beckett, among many others. Girodias recreates the title as an acronym, Society for Cutting Up Men, that Valerie does not endorse. He has written an introduction to the book, and Paul Krassner writes an afterword. Valerie, confined in Elmhurst Psychiatric Hospital and awaiting trial for attempted murder, is unable to correct the distortions made to her work. Although she had come to his office to shoot him before staking out the Factory, Girodias offers to pay her legal fees. She declines his offer.
Ti-Grace Atkinson, the president of New York NOW, calls Valerie “a heroine of the women’s movement.” Ti-Grace visits Valerie in jail and is criticized by Betty Friedan, NOW’s founder. At the invitation of my teacher Kate Millett, I am present at the meeting where this shit flies. It’s my first time there, and I don’t exactly know what’s going on, but I see there are women like Ti-Grace and Flo Kennedy who embody a raucous approach to feminism—in some ways modeled on the freedom of Warhol’s aesthetic—where you do politics as an in-your-face throw down, not caring whom you offend, counting offense as a plus. And there are women like Friedan, who want to make a revolution without disturbing anyone. In time this stripe of feminist will swap the word abortion for the word choice, and while they will rightly strive to include racism as a grievous social ill, they will not protest the erasure of women’s rights from everyone else’s agendas.
Valerie calls the women’s movement “a civil disobedience luncheon club.” She has measured these categories in SCUM Manifesto, writing,
The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this “society” and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting “cultivated,” polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown ... who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by ... and with a fat, hairy face in the White House ... who ... can have value only ... as soothers, ego boosters, relaxers and breeders....
“All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.”—Jean-Luc Godard, 1991
I Shot Andy Warhol aims for the fragmented, verité style of Warhol’s films. It sends a tender love letter to the down-and-out street girls of the lesbian demimonde who, even after Stonewall, will remain unwelcome in many quarters. Lili Taylor plays Solanas as tough, grandiose, deranged, funny, and poignant.
Taylor wears floppy pants and loose jackets, camouflaging her slender body in an effort to look more formidable. She’s a hustler, an aggressive panhandler prowling the East and West Village. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, she approaches Warhol at Max’s Kansas City. She’s been made a pariah at the Factory for staging a violent fit when she isn’t paid enough attention to, and she stands on the edge of the group who are seated at a long table, a clique of intimates who will make no place for her. She hops from foot to foot, wanting to poke them and also will them to include her. She’s hardened and softened by the rejection. She has steeled herself to it a long time ago, but she can’t control the impulse to beg, and she thrusts creased, mimeographed copies of SCUM Manifesto at them, which they refuse, shrinking back as if she smells.
Warhol has said he will pay her $25 to appear in a film, and she asks for an advance. He says in his slow drawl that makes him sound dimwitted and shrewd at the same time, “Valerie why don’t you get a job?” She says, “I can’t do that, I’m an artist.” He likes people who work, preferably for him, and he asks around the table if anyone has money, and no one offers any, so he withdraws a crumpled five dollar bill from his pocket and extends it to her so she will go away. She takes it with a look of shame and triumph on her face.
In another scene, she has the odd good luck to panhandle Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), unaware he is the publisher of Olympia Press. She asks him to pay her fifteen cents to say a dirty word, and he’s amused and takes her to lunch and gives her a dollar for the thirty minutes of conversation they exchange. In time he offers her a contract and an advance of $500 to write a novel in the tone of bored ease with which she describes turning tricks (i.e., “Ten for a fuck, five for a blow job, two for a hand job. No kissing. No fingers. No licking”). He will publish a book if she will write it, and it must feel like a gun to the head. What happens when you are not a genius and someone says: I will encourage you, I will engage with you, all you need to do is the work?
Until this point in the film, Valerie has been appealing in her over-the-top, butch irreverence and street-rat energy, but now she grows frantic and paranoid, and she stalks Girodias and Warhol. She thinks men are out to get her, and some are, but not these two men in the ways she imagines. She goes to shoot Girodias, but he’s not there, so she continues to the Factory. In Valerie, Stridsberg’s narrator brilliantly distills the next moments in the form of an address to Valerie: “You hold your life in your hand.... The moment you shoot Andy Warhol, you throw away all possibility of being someone other people listen to, the only thing you dream about, the writer, artist, revolutionary, psychoanalyst, rebel.” The bullets damage Warhol’s liver, spleen, esophagus, and lungs. He never completely recovers physically, and afterward suffers from lasting terror she will return to finish him off.
You hold your life in your hand
The narrator of Valerie imagines Valerie with her mother and former lovers, scenes Solanas did not document. The writing is sentimental, fevered, and dream-play poetic. Like this address to Valerie: “To write now would be to throw yourself into an ice-cold tidal wave and drown in the searing pain of salt and self-hatred.” Skip these sections. Nothing will be lost.
The book comes alive when we hear Valerie’s voice (often extracted from SCUM Manifesto) and when the narrator dwells not on why Valerie acted but on the things she did, lining up moments—like exhibits at a trial that has no verdict. Valerie’s position on prostitution: “charging for rape.” Drugs: She used “amphetamine, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepine, and LSD.” Her recollection of her early days at the Factory:
I liked being there so much, I wanted to be one of those needle junkies and fag-whores who sat along the walls, sweating and mumbling and waiting for Andy to come and make art out of them. They were very happy days. Andy laughed at everything I said. I read aloud from the manifesto.... I wanted the Factory to swallow me up forever.”
She is tried in June 1969 and sentenced to two years in prison in addition to the year she has served for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol and his associates. Stridsberg’s narrator again:
What is regarded as an extremely lenient penalty is probably due to Andy Warhol’s refusal to appear in court, the demonstrations outside the courthouse every day in support of your release from hospital, and not least Florynce Kennedy’s blazing defense.
The book skillfully situates Valerie’s life in a historical framework, reminding us, for example, that in 1955 the Hiroshima Maidens arrived in New York City for free reconstructive surgery and in 1953 nuclear testing occurred on Bikini Atoll and the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, a fate Valerie might have faced, according to New York State law at the time, had she killed Warhol instead of wounding him.
And the novel is at its strangest—most murky? most mysterious?—when Stridsberg pits her Daddy’s Girl narrator against her own private Valerie, who always comes out on top, telling the narrator to quit romanticizing her and instead,
Stop in the subway and talk to the psychotic hookers. Don’t walk away when she starts raving about nothing.... Ask what she has in her notes, if you’re so interested in dying crack whores. Visit hostels, mental hospitals, drug ghettos, red-light districts, jails. The world’s out there waiting for you, baby. The material is called SHE’S EVERYWHERE.
Abused crackpot with 15 minutes of fame
In a recent essay in the literary journal Full Stop, critic Chavisa Woods compares Valerie’s status in social memory to the status of male artist-felons, among them William Burroughs, who in 1951 shot his wife Joan Vollmer dead in Mexico, and Norman Mailer, who in 1960 stabbed his wife Adele Morales in the chest, nearly piercing her heart. Pablo Neruda raped a “servant” while visiting her country as a diplomat. Charles Bukowski is on video, Woods reports, “kicking and punching his girlfriend during an interview about his writing, and was said to have been physically abusive to multiple female partners.” French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife to death in an act of cold-blooded murder. Woods does not include the unwitnessed murder in 1986 by sculptor Carl Andre of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, who plunged from a 33-story window, following a violent argument witnesses heard. Andre said they were arguing about his greater artistic success.
Burroughs was not arrested, and he left Mexico. Mailer claimed that if he hadn’t stabbed Adele, he would have gotten cancer from repressed rage. He walked away from the stabbing with a suspended sentence for third-degree assault and spent fifteen days in a psychiatric ward. Neruda wrote about the rape as a no-big-deal episode in his memoir I Confess that I have Lived (1974). In the Wikipedia bio for Althusser, Woods notes, the murder of his wife is mentioned in the last paragraph and only in the context of his mental illness: “Althusser’s life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her.” In 1988, Carl Andre was tried and acquitted of Mendieta’s murder on the grounds of “reasonable doubt.”
All these men continued to work, publish, and collect praise. Adele Morales did not press charges. I lived next door to her from 1967 to 1973, and we became friends. I wondered but did not ask her why, after the stabbing, she spent two more years with Mailer before leaving him. In 2014, I joined a protest organized by the performance artist Christen Clifford against a giant retrospective of Carl Andre’s work at Dia art gallery. Similar protests dogged the show as it traveled.
Does anyone still read Mailer? Woods quotes a passage from Advertisements for Myself (1959) that sounds like something Valerie might have written as a parody of male rage:
I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today.... I do not seem able to read them. Indeed, I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.... I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.
Dykily psychotic! A new height to aim for!
Every backward glance is about now
There are people who declare they are a genius—Gertrude Stein comes to mind—then produce enough work to qualify for recognition. What might Solanas have become if she’d had Stein’s money and been less nuts? Warhol was famous, and he was a man, and Valerie wanted him to help her, and she went for him the way hustlers go for you, with a hand out and a push, without embarrassment and nothing but embarrassment, with bravado that is not earned and is everywhere on the landscape of advertising the Factory fed on. The culture of branding and self-promotion and marketing is Valerie shaking you down at an ATM. At the end of the 1970s she’s sighted at Tompkins Square Park and at St. Mark’s Place: hungry, dirty, alone, selling sex and the manifesto, threatening to kill Kate Millett and to throw lye in the face of Robin Morgan because they defended her.
SCUM Manifesto is a performance of Valerie’s personality, not a kit for murdering famous men. “I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted him to pay attention to me. Talking to him was like talking to a chair,” she is quoted in Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography as saying when asked for the umpteenth time why she shot Andy Warhol. SCUM is a manifestation of rage few people want to believe exists in the female heart. I would say it exists in the heart of every woman who has lived in a body interpreted as female. I would say it’s small potatoes beside the rage at women considered ordinary in the codes of every religion and in the writings of man after man after man.
Reading Chavisa Woods’s essay, I was at first uncertain about the comparison she was making between writers and artists of considerable achievement and Solanas, who wrote clumsily and very little. But who attracts us now, and who do we care to think about? For the vast part, when I read the books of men, it doesn’t matter what century, I find I do not exist in them, nor does anyone like me exist in them, and it is like reading the literature of a lost civilization.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal: Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-atlarge 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, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality By Jennifer Nash
Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
Intersectionality is perhaps the most popularly embraced, discussed, and debated concept to emerge from black feminist thought. Like many ideas with broad explanatory power, intersectionality has inspired, expanded, traveled, and morphed. Many generations after intersectional thinking appears in women of color activism, and three decades after the term was coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal work, intersectionality has become a research method, an academic discipline, a call for representation, a diversity and inclusion initiative, a benchmark for feminist organizing—and it has become a target of virulent critique.
Two recent books, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer Nash and Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism by Barbara Tomlinson, grapple with the forces talking about intersectionality. In Undermining Intersectionality, Tomlinson writes as a self-identified white embodied feminist defending intersectionality against power-blind white feminism. In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash writes as a self-identified black feminist asking black feminists to let go of their defensive hold on intersectionality as the exclusive property of black women. Both books tackle three interrelated, overarching questions: What does it mean for intersectionality to be institutionalized within women’s studies, when the university is precisely the type of neoliberal and hierarchical social system that black feminism critiques? What does it mean if popular applications of intersectionality separate the theory from black women, when their experiences and labor—intellectually and otherwise—have historically been exploited, misrepresented, and devalued? How should intersectional feminists feel about intersectionality becoming a target of academic politics and critique? Tomlinson’s and Nash’s answers to these questions are productively at odds.
First, a note on style: Nash and Tomlinson treat upper-case and lower-case Black vs. black differently and do so with implicit purpose that seems to align with their core world-views on race and theory. Nash uses lower case, while Tomlinson uses lower case to refer to black bodies but upper case to refer to Black feminism. Moving forward, I follow the authors’ leads when writing this review.
Given that black women scholars continue to be one of the most underrepresented and overworked groups in the academy, shouldn’t black feminist academics stake their claim to a concept and an emerging discipline that has become the standard of good feminism for women’s studies departments? In Black Feminism Reimagined, Jennifer Nash responds with a definitive no. Three decades after intersectionality took women’s studies by storm, Nash finds black feminism’s preoccupation with defending intersectionality to be exhausting and toxic.
Black Feminism Reimagined is Nash’s account of the state of black feminism within the discipline of women’s studies, based on discourse analysis of black feminists’ reflections about intersectionality and their own work. She observes that black feminists have assumed a disciplinary role within women’s studies, literally and symbolically showing white women the limits of their thinking in scholarship, organizing, and activism. Intersectionality’s analytical disruption of mainstream feminist assumptions about universal sisterhood has most visibly and effectively accomplished this disciplinary work. But as intersectionality took hold in the field, black feminists have largely responded in a protective way, fearing that their contributions might be undone or appropriated by institutionalization, varying interpretations, and use by non-black women. Nash speculates that black feminism’s current conceptual foci on death, representation, and care exacerbate and maintain a defensiveness of intersectionality, and that these strands of black feminism rationalize black feminists’ treatment of intersectionality as a property under threat, a disciplinary tool, and a love to be protected.
Black Feminism Reimagined concedes that misinterpretations of intersectionality are common. The university’s conflation of intersectionality with diversity and the politics of inclusion, for an example, has been a constant point of frustration for black feminists. In response, it has become conventional for black feminists to tell “origin stories” that remind others that true intersectionality is a product of black feminist social justice work, and that white feminists would know this if they only read the “right” readings. Such corrective discourses reduce intersectionality to an imagined single history and foreclose generative debate. From Nash’s point of view, treating intersectionality as if it is property that has been lost or stolen on account of idea migration, transformation, or critique wastes energy that black feminists might productively spend beyond the “intersectionality wars.” She implores black feminists to separate their care for black feminism from ownership over intersectionality, and to “let go” of their impulse to control what black feminist thought inspires in and from others. Nash points out that “[while] black feminist theory has brilliantly captured the ways in which the US academy has been a killing machine that cannibalizes black women, it has yet to fully capture the toxicity of defensiveness, and how exhausting— physically, spiritually, psychically—the defensive posture can be.”
The second half of Black Feminism Reimagined wonders what it would mean if black feminists told the story of intersectionality differently. What if black feminists included women’s studies’ turn to transnationalism in their reflections about intersectionality’s impact on the field in the 1990s? Nash argues that black feminists’ investment in keeping black women at the center of intersectional analyses prevents intimacy and solidarity with other women of color feminists, who likewise challenge feminism’s imagined hegemonic white Western middle-class feminist subject. Instead of feeling competitive or being isolated by the academy’s tokenization of women of color, Nash encourages black feminists to practice the politics of solidarity and community that are so central to black feminist thought. Doing so, she envisions a reimagined black feminism that pushes back against women’s studies departments’ narrow and tokenizing tendencies to associate intersectionality with black women’s bodies, and transnationalism with brown women’s bodies.
As someone who has fought for funding and recognition in the neoliberal academy and opted out from exhaustion, I understand the defensiveness Nash observes in and of black feminism. I’ve felt defensive for years. However, as a black feminist trained in sociology and not in women’s studies, as a scholar who has never been committed to the Ivory Tower, and as someone who finds black feminist thought more powerful in applied rather than academic settings, I find Nash’s descriptions of black feminists in Black Feminism Reimagined otherwise peculiar for a few reasons. First, most sociologists use intersectionality as an analytic to think about the relationship between interlocking social structures and lived experiences, without limiting analysis to black female subjectivity alone. Second, many black feminists do take up intersectionality in relationship to transnationalism and decolonialism, and in collaboration with differently racialized women of color, both within and beyond the United States. Moreover, many black feminists are not positioned within nor loyal to the academy, and are working for impact rather than intellectual ownership.
Though the black feminists and scholars of intersectionality in my world do not fit Nash’s descriptions, and even if I don’t always agree with her, what Nash does in Black Feminism Reimagined is new, brave, and important. For skeptical readers like myself, it will likely be the book’s last analytical chapter that inspires a change of heart. In “Love in the Time of Death,” Nash models the vulnerable love she preaches in her loving undoing and reinterpretation of black feminism’s relationship to the state. She draws upon June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patricia J. Williams to apply a black feminist politics of love to intersectionality and the law. Noting that the law produces black women’s invisibility, Nash considers what it would mean for black women, for all people, and for the earth if the law sought justice for injury rather than property loss. Here Nash shows readers how to “let go,” and how to reimagine black feminism in this contemporary moment.
In Undermining Intersectionality, Barbara Tomlinson does exactly what Black Feminism Reimagined begs black feminists to abandon doing—she lays down a forceful defense of intersectionality’s contribution to knowledge and of women of color’s ownership over “true” intersectional thought. Tomlinson meticulously analyzes popular feminist discussions about intersectionality and their discursive strategies, finding that the most vocal critics tend to neglect any meaningful engagement with intersectionality’s original texts, the racial studies literature, the history of European imperialism and slavery, or their own positionalities. Most criticisms, Tomlinson argues, are color-blind, contextblind, and power-blind, implicitly reinscribing white women as the central subject of and authority over mainstream feminism. For this reason, Tomlinson names intersectionality’s critics white feminists, a discursive move that makes visible what is too often invisible—the hierarchical racial power relations of neoliberal academia and mainstream feminism.
The first half of Undermining Intersectionality focuses on white feminists’ critiques of intersectionality, which tend to misinterpret intersectionality’s key texts and metaphors. For example, a popular criticism dismisses the theory’s use of social categories as outdated and rigid, when in actuality, the logic of binary either/or categorization is the product of white male elites via European imperialism, not Black feminism. Tomlinson points out that when Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality, she used the intersection as a metaphor to describe the contextually situated and mutually constitutive nature of social categories and systems of oppression in order to make black women’s unique experiences at the nexus of anti-black racism and patriarchy visible to the court of law. Undermining Intersectionality reminds readers that Crenshaw’s intersectionality was deeply shaped by her own training and method as a critical race legal scholar. Broader reading of critical race theory would likely clarify to white feminists that intersectionality views identity as fluid, and more importantly that it strategically takes up categories to understand them. Intersectionality subverts categories through a both/and logic in order to to free subjugated people from oppression. Much of Undermining Intersectionality is such a corrective, laying bare the misinterpretations, misquotes, misreadings, and mistakes that white feminism makes in impressive detail.
The second half of Undermining Intersectionality argues that the white feminist scholarly conversation about intersectionality amounts to what Tomlinson calls an epistemic machine, a system of training, description, argumentation, citation, and publication that devalues, condescends, excludes, and dismisses women of color ’s contributions to feminism. Tomlinson notes that when white feminists take up intersectionality, they tend to colonize it by neglecting to attribute the theory to the women of color from whom it originated, misrepresenting it so they can take credit for solving its imaginary defects, or emptying it of its anti-racist political imperatives. Feminists-in-training are expected to cite and build upon such white feminist discussions of intersectionality in order to be taken seriously as well-read in the field, and such “contemporary citational practices operate as a conservative force, so that contemporary critical discussion of intersectionality ultimately congeals around powerblind strategies deployed in the past to reinforce white women’s symbolic domination of feminist studies.”
Tomlinson includes Google Scholar citation metrics for many examples she presents, persuasively showing the reader that this white feminist version of intersectionality is dominant within women’s studies. For example, she notes that Leslie McCall’s article, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” is “one of the most widely cited feminist critiques of intersectionality (with nearly 4,500 citations in Google Scholar as of May 10, 2018),” but points out that McCall erases the racial specificity that is central to intersectionality’s original intervention. Likewise, the 2,000 citations and 870+ reprints of “Doing Difference” by Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker perpetuate out-ofcontext white feminist misreadings of Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought as essentialist. If we take the numbers in Undermining Intersectionality seriously, the intersectionality most people know bears little resemblance to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective. As a result of the epistemic machine, this next generation of graduate students is not only being trained to attack women of color ’s intellectual labor, but also to treat it as a flawed thing of the past.
Undermining Intersectionality begs readers to see that critical debates and discourses are not solely ideological; they are also material. Black women working in women’s studies contexts must participate in the neoliberal corporatized university and play by its rules to make a living. Scholarly citations have implications for tenure, the credibility of intersectional work by and about women of color, and effecting social justice. Tomlinson concludes by insisting that feminists turn off the epistemic machine, listing thirty comprehensive strategies for responsible scholarship and reading practices, such as not undermining the claims made by intersectional scholars of color in order to rescue the concept or elevate a new view, not misconstruing the nature of metaphor, not assuming white women are the normative subjects of feminism, and choosing to work in collaboration with scholars of color.M
If Black Feminism Reimagined implores readers to let go, Undermining Intersectionality fastens the reins and redirects the ship.
Chelsea M. E. Johnson, PhD, is the co-author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, a children’s book that offers intersectional feminist theory to people of all ages.
Q and A with Eve Ensler
By Jennifer Baumgardner
I first encountered the playwright and activist Eve Ensler in 1996, when she was starring in her pivotal work, The Vagina Monologues, Off-Off- Broadway at a small Soho theatre called HERE. Her play was a revelation to me—part-exegesis of the vagina as site of pleasure and trauma, and part-exhortation to stop masking the body part with euphemisms and to instead acknowledge the misogyny and violence hiding behind our unwillingness to “say the word,” the eventual tagline for the show. That Off-Off Broadway show was a hit, but Ensler recognized that it was a piece of theatre that could become a movement.
Indeed, the V-Day movement has racked up thousands of productions over the last two decades at most colleges in the US and countries in the world. Ensler, now 66, has long traveled the world, working with activists to end sexual violence. In addition to V-Day, she co-created the One Billion Rising global campaign, City of Joy (a therapeutic and leadership center in the Congo), and several books and plays.
Her most recent contribution to this movement took her inward, to the origins of her activism: her abusive father. Her new book, The Apology (Bloomsbury, May 2019), is an emotional and insightful imagining of a 112-page letter from her now-deceased father to “Evie.”
Jennifer Baumgardner: How did you get the idea to write the apology you had never gotten from your father?
Eve Ensler: I was thinking about how many times I have heard women tell their stories in twenty-one years, how many silences I’ve heard broken, how many V-Days, Take Back the Nights, marches, protests I’ve attended. I was thinking that survivors have done so much work that was never our work to do as violence against women has always been a men’s issue. And then I was thinking that in all these years and with the recent escalation and iteration of #MeToo, I have never heard a man make a thorough authentic public apology for sexual abuse. Ever. Maybe in sixteen thousand years of patriarchy. And it hit me that if it has never happened, it must be central to what needs to happen.
Where are the men who will be brave enough to enter into this new time of reckoning, the practice and journey of the apology? To face themselves in deepest self-interrogation, look at their childhood histories acculturated in patriarchy and toxic masculinity, examine what brought them to place where they could rape or batter or incest or harass, investigate the why of what they’ve done and the details of what they’ve done, and then to feel what it felt like and feels like inside their victim? I’ve been waiting for an apology from my father for sixty years. He’s been dead for half of that time. But still that yearning was there. So, I decided to write my father’s apology to me for him. To say the words I longed to hear. I imagined it might be freeing and I hoped it might serve as a blueprint for men who are looking for a pathway to make their own apologies.
JB: What happened when you began “channeling” him?
EE: He told me things about himself I’ve never known before. He told me about his childhood and how through a process of being adored instead of loved, he was essentially severed from his heart. He showed how patriarchy had progressively robbed him of his humanity and eventually allowed him to become a sexual abuser and a sadist. And I discovered how deeply I have carried my father inside me. How whether I have been conscious of it or not, I have been in constant dialogue with him. Because once a person rapes you or beats you or invades you, they become embedded in you. I learned through this process that it is possible to change the narrative of your perpetrator inside you. For sixty years I lived in this frame of being victim to my father ’s perpetrator. Through the exercise of this book, this monolithic monster inside me became an apologist. This towering and terrifying entity was transformed into a broken, vulnerable little boy.
JB: In your book, your father recounts a time when your cat was hit by a car. Your dad cradled the cat and allowed his broken parts to come out. It reminded me that some of the most stern or patriarchal men that I’ve known have had this mysterious soft side for little kids and animals.
EE: Somehow animals offer men a place where they are allowed to feel and express tenderness. In my father’s case, and I think in the case of many boys, that tenderness is eradicated, judged, and annihilated. All those feelings of vulnerability, neediness, sorrow pushed underground. After time they begin to congeal into an alternative persona who often surfaces at some crisis moment and is out of control.
JB: It seems that people with a lot of privilege or entitlement have almost no capacity to deal with scary feelings like guilt and shame. Your father obviously knew that he molested you and that he treated you cruelly, undermined you, and said you made things up. These can’t be things he was proud of. Would it have annihilated your father or his self-image to apologize?
EE: My father says in the book, “To be an apologist is to be a traitor.” I think that’s how men feel. If one man admits he’s wrong, that he knew what he was doing was wrong, the whole story of patriarchy would to crumble. What we need is for ten per cent of the men to begin to come forward, to move us into a new time of reckoning. To devote themselves to the practice of sincere, deep, rigorous, humble apologies.
It took me sixty years to write this book—it didn’t happen overnight. If we sincerely want to end sexual abuse and all the forms of violence that destroy women’s lives, men have to move to this next stage of humility, honesty and accountability.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor of the Women’s Review of Books. She is also the director of the documentary It Was Rape.