Photography by Maryam Ashrafi
Commentary By Ellen Feldman
Photographs that speak eloquently to the human condition in war-torn regions encourage us to respond with empathy and compassion. Documentary photographers, unlike text journalists with more time to reflect and analyze, capture life as it is experienced in the moment.
Maryam Ashrafi, an independent Paris-based Iranian social documentary photographer, shot these images in Kurdish regions of northern Syria (Kobane and Raqqa), and northern Iraq (Sinjar). Her book on contemporary Kurdish life, Rising Amongst Ruins, Dancing Amidst Bullets (Hemeria Press), is forthcoming fall 2020.
Since 2013, Ashrafi has been an engaged observer of Kurdish resistance fighters, particularly women warriors. As Ashrafi has written, “In the heart of the Middle East, a region plagued by religious fundamentalism and tyranny, where women are known to be almost invisible in political and social activities, a Kurdish political and social movement has emerged in which women play a substantial role in decision-making in their societies as well as in politics and the military.”
Ashrafi doesn’t record the horrors of battle, but traces of war are everywhere in her photos: a weapon leaning against a wall near a resting woman, a village turned to rubble, boys playing next to roadside graves, a wounded girl awaiting medical treatment. She photographs fighters and civilians finding moments to rest, to play, to laugh, and yes, even to weep. But in these moments, too, war intrudes. This is conveyed in the photograph of two men sparring across the volleyball net. Ashrafi’s caption explains that these Kurdish fighters “stayed [in Sinjar after its liberation] to protect the city from further attack by ISIS.” The threat of attack is not made explicit in the image, but Ashrafi’s artistic decisions add more than a hint of peril. Her lowangle perspective magnifies the power of two men engaged in a kind of hand-to-hand combat; it also lowers the horizon line so that the vast stormy sky intensifies the sense of turmoil.
For her photographs of women mourning, Ashrafi uses a wide-angle lens to get us close enough to see their griefstricken expressions and gestures. A shovel filling the grave signals the cause of their distress.
Empathy can provoke momentous change; consider Ashrafi’s work in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographs of children working in coal mines, which influenced the passage of child labor laws. But even without such dramatic impact, photographs can move us to pay more attention or, better yet, rouse us to action.
Ellen Feldman, WRB’s photography editor, is a photographer, curator, and book artist. Her most recent publication is We Who March: Photographs and Reflections on the Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Websites: www.ellenfeldman.net and www.WeWho March.org
Photos © Maryam Ashrafi, from Kobane, northern Syria (April 2015); Raqqa, northern Syria (May–June 2017); and Sinjar, northern Iraq (2016). For further information, visit http://maryamashrafi.com and Instagram: @maryamashrafi
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot By Mikki Kendall
Reviewed by LaToya Council
In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave a speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, titled Ain’t I a Woman? In 2020, feminist popular scholar Mikki Kendall, like Black women before her, has posed that question to white women anew.
Kendall’s powerful and timely book, Hood Feminism, draws attention to many problems within feminism, asks many questions of white feminists, and provides some solutions. Kendall’s collection of essays is also at the center of a conversation regarding social media and its intersection with feminism and the Ivory Tower. Drawing on key essays, I will focus on the ways in which Kendall’s book brings attention to Black feminism’s ongoing battle with mainstream feminism. That is, will mainstream feminism place an effort on engaging in inclusive justice toward women who support and lean into its national rallying cries?
Kendall came to national attention in 2013 with her #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen twitter hashtag questioning why white “digital” feminists supported a controversial male writer who admitted to targeting women of color. Kendall’s essay “Is Solidarity for White Women” further explores the question. Solidarity is when people with different identities and abilities come together to work towards the same goal. Kendall’s essay sheds light on how mainstream feminism falls short in practicing this. Drawing on media references to celebrities such as Lena Dunham, Katy Perry, and Patricia Arquette, Kendall shows how the arguments for representation of different kinds of bodies and equal pay are wrapped in white womanhood experiences. Mainstream feminism’s call for women to stand together, while continuously ignoring the experiences of marginalized women, sparks the question: who benefits from solidarity? Engaging solidarity is a critical step in standing against inequality—but not if solidarity only focuses on one experience at the expense of varied experiences.
As Kendall argues, incorporating intersectionality into feminism will expose the inequity embedded within mainstream feminism. Intersectional feminism can also be an avenue to do solidarity work that dismantles mainstream “oppression Olympics” (i.e., my grievances and problems are worse than yours, so my point of view trumps yours). Solidarity does not mean one approach; it means making room and advocating for people in ways that are best for them—allowing room for solidarity to manifest in multiple ways.
I have attended many mainstream feminist events where equal pay, environmental injustice, and work/family policies were focal. However, I have not sat at a meeting where food insecurity was part of the discussion. In her essay “Hunger,” Kendall invites readers to interrogate a topic that any intersectional feminist would be concerned with—food insecure households. Readers learn that food insecurity is an unequal pay issue, an environmental injustice issue, and a work/family policy issue. Because of this, how can mainstream feminism continue to ignore the passing of bipartisan welfare-to-work policies that cut assistance to low-income families? Or, ignore how living in a food desert with inadequate grocery stores and expired products is part of environmental injustice? Why isn’t rhetoric on increasing minimum wage central to discussing unequal pay policies and the gender wage gap? Not including food insecurity as part of the national rallying cries continues to overlook the needs of marginalized women in a movement that is supposed to be for all women. Kendall expresses this concern:
If we’re going to say that this is a movement that cares for all women, it has to be one that not only listens to all women but advocates for their basic needs to be met. You can’t be a feminist who ignores hunger.
Food insecurity is a feminist issue and deserves to be included in mainstream agenda items such as equal pay, environmental injustice, and work/ family policies.
Hood Feminism captures the essence of the problem with mainstream feminism in the essay “How to Write About Black Women.” In this essay, Kendall interrogates two problems: mainstream feminism’s misguided rhetoric about Black womanhood and the impact of respectability politics within communities. Many national conversations about Black women are driven by non-Black women. It is not often that voices of Black women are elevated above credentialed experts. Credentialed experts (mostly white) often express statistics emphasizing Black women’s lower marriage rates, higher rates of infertility, and higher maternal mortality rates to name a few. Although these credentialed experts are citing facts and studies, what is often missing from the reports are the parallels between these outcomes and systemic racism, sexism, and classism. If mainstream feminism is truly invested in a movement that centers all women, then these reports must be coupled with a deeper conversation of the interplay between multiple isms.
A second point raised in this essay is respectability politics—the ability (and social pressure) to closely resemble middle-class mandates of womanhood and manhood. Respectability politics grew out of racism and the boundaries constructed to distinguish “good” from “bad.” Respectability politics are burdensome because they tend to be internalized by marginalized communities, with the idea that achieving aspects of middle-class lifestyle will help improve social conditions. But, as Kendall argues, respectability politics may allow for some measure of advancement, but at the expense of doing much harm to self and others. Pointing to respectability politics as rooted in white supremacy, Kendall writes,
We were taught to fear the impact of rejection by whiteness, to embrace their standards without giving much thought to the impact on our own well-being or that of our communities. We have to break down this conditioning, have to ask ourselves why we’re more concerned with how we are received by white supremacist patriarchy than we are with protecting ourselves.
The alignment with middle-class respectability politics is, therefore, opposed to personal wellbeing. Because mainstream solidarity practices tend to lack an intersectional lens, communities of color must continue to take back our narratives and replace current forms of being with new ones— centering our experiences.
I am a work, family, and gender sociologist. I study Black families and examine how being Black shapes their experiences. In 2015, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. on work, family, and motherhood. Each plenary panel featured only white academics as the “experts” on work/family policies. Women of color were represented in the audience. The recommendations and conclusions presented from the workingpapers excluded our voices and uplifted white middle-class women’s voices and experiences. Kendall’s essay “Parenting While Marginalized” captured my feelings at a conference that promoted expanding policies for all women but relied on one group of women to do so.
Parenting is hard. Parenting while marginalized is unimaginably so, but many marginalized women do it. Taking on the “mommy wars,” Kendall describes parenting in the hood as “survival parenting,” which includes women’s engagement in precarious work and activities to support their children. Vivid examples popped into my mind, such as leaving children home unattended because childcare is unavailable; “no show” work policies that penalize low-income mothers if they call out or do not appear; or insufficient transportation systems that make it hard for under-resourced mothers to travel to work. Again, if these mothers are late, many are penalized and at risk of losing access to welfare assistance. Alternatively, many middle-class Black mothers consistently worry about their children’s safety. Many fear their children will encounter police violence even in “safe, middle-class” neighborhoods. These forms of “parenting while marginalized” are overlooked in the “mommy wars,” which tends to pit women with hard-driving careers and nannies against “stay-at-home” mothers, and speaks to mainstream feminism’s alignment with white sisterhood. Like Kendall, I wonder, “how do you discuss overpolicing and discrimination as a feminist issue when women who fit the mainstream idea of feminism are most likely to be complicit in a particular form of oppression?”
Mikki Kendall provides multiple solutions to her framing of the problem of mainstream feminism and sparks a much-needed discussion between popular writers and the academy. Directly speaking to white women, she urges them to fight patriarchy and racism in their own communities. If mainstream feminists truly desire to create crossgroup solidarity and foster allies, then they must ask marginalized women how they can support and make room for their causes. In short, mainstream feminists must use their access to white privilege to become “accomplice feminists,” who “actively and directly challenge white supremacist people, policies, institutions, and cultural norms.” Until mainstream feminism can do this, Black feminists and other feminists of color may continue to be in constant battle with mainstream feminist politics.
Kendall’s book also sparks a conversation regarding social media and the Ivory Tower, where the ideas expressed in the collection of essays are often discussed. I wonder, after reading this book, how in sync everyday conversations regarding social problems and the Ivory Tower are. And does this relationship matter? Throughout Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot, I recognized key conversations that Black women academics are having in the academy. For example, #CiteBlackWomen was created by Black women academics to acknowledge the work we do in the academy on the same issues presented by Kendall. Does this conversation need to be included within the popular press world and its conversations on “forgotten women?” Kendall’s book is a great place to begin that conversation— moving forward best practices for the sake of all women.
It is unfortunate that in 2020 minority women, lesbian women, trans women, and differently abled women must continue to ask to be included in mainstream feminism. Feminism was founded to promote equality and equity with only one group in mind—white women. Equity is a pesky problem because it requires one group to shift certain privileges to promote access for all members of an organization. If mainstream feminism is unwilling to use white privilege to dismantle white supremacy, then minority feminists must not let the term intersectional modify feminism. Is solidarity for white women? Ask yourself the question.
LaToya Council is the author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All. A social justice activist and an academic scholar, she is currently working on her dissertation Her Work, His Work: Time and Self-Care in Black Middle-Class Couples at the University of Southern California.
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis By Ada Calhoun
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Hi. My name is Jessica. I am in my mid-forties, married with three kids, with a writing career that has been whittled down to a freelance toothpick. I’ve reached a stage of my life that is marked by daytime exhaustion, nighttime insomnia, and around-the-clock anxiety. When I exercise, I get old-lady injuries that leave me unable to hook my bra. I think about edibles and injectables a lot. I’m always looking for the thing (melatonin? microdosing? mental breakdown?) that will make my #blessed life feel less like a punishing grind. Nutshell, I’m a grade A basic bitch perfect reader for Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun (which I primarily read during bouts of insomnia while my narcoleptic husband snored beside me). The embryo of this book was Calhoun’s 2017 article in Oprah magazine, which was hotly texted around like babysitter contact info among my mom friends in Los Angeles. We read it with recognition and a sense of dread, and then texted each other stressface emojis and wine emojis and gun emojis.
Calhoun’s devastating (but validating) thesis is that Generation X women have reached mid-life, and we are screwed. The Pew Research Center deems those born from 1965 to 1980 as Gen Xers, the neglected middle child between attention-hog Baby Boomers (1946–1964) and limelight-stealing Millennials (1981–1996). After reading the damning statistics in Calhoun’s book, I see that the women of Generation X are victims of bad timing. We were born riding the second wave of the feminist movement, fully confident that we could (and must!) do anything the boys were doing. Our parents divorced at record-high rates, leaving us without foundational stability and college funds. Our teenage experiments with drugs and sex were overshadowed by scary letters like DARE and MADD and AIDS. We graduated high school to see college tuitions rise 260 percent. We entered the workforce, just as stock markets crashed and dot-com bubbles burst. We focused on our careers, putting off childbirth until our thirties or forties (we must do it all!) and were faced with an infertility epidemic that should have been biologically obvious. Our kids have higher rates of ADHD and autism, and because we pushed the timeline for careers, we are raising our special needs kids and taking care of our aging parents at the same time. “Generation X women ... were an experiment in crafting a higher-achieving, more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the American woman,” says Calhoun. “In midlife many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure.”
Where did it all go wrong? Let’s start at the very beginning—our childhoods. Kimberly Konkel, a childhood-trauma expert in the field of public health, told Calhoun that Generation X may be the “least parented” generation—“more than other generations, left to fend for itself without clear rules, community support, or adult supervision.” Our mothers worked outside the home in greater numbers than ever before, perhaps because of divorce or just the second wave call to work. Calhoun says that the higher the parents’ education level, the more likely kids were to come home after school to an empty house, except for the microwave and MTV. This rings very true—just think of Gen X narratives like E.T., The Goonies, Risky Business, and the mother of them all, Home Alone, where kids are confronting VERY SCARY THINGS with nary a parent in sight. My husband was a latchkey kid who would walk home alone from first grade, make himself a snack and watch The Waltons for company until his mom came home at dinner. Even if you had a stay-at-home parent, there was a much more laissez-faire (and parental sanity-saving) approach to childcare back then. My mom was usually home after school —but there were also times when she would just leave a sleeping bag on our screened-in porch in the dead of North Dakota winter for when she was not home. I’d climb inside in my Moon boots and snow pants and read Garfield comics until her Mercury Topaz pulled into the driveway.
Contrast that to my children, who are shuttled via a temperature-controlled SUV filled with Goldfish crackers and never-ending bottles of ice water. (Do you remember ever drinking water in your childhood? I don’t.) “According to the Pew Research Center, in 1965 mothers spent nine hours a week on paid work and ten hours on child care. In 2016, mothers spent twenty-five hours on paid work and fourteen on child care,” says Calhoun. So, even though our time at work nearly tripled, we still manage to pack in more time for the kids. Of course, we are “helicopter parents,” competitively obsessed with baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and acting as human shields for our children’s pain. (In contrast, Millennial parents are said to be “drone parents,” learning from our mistakes and watching from a more respectable distance.) Maybe we are overcorrecting based on our free-range (or, perhaps more accurately, wildling) childhoods. Calhoun states that, compared to 1975, spouses are spending far less time alone together, but doing almost three times as much parenting. “Maybe that’s why Gen X parents often complain that midlife marriage can feel like running a daycare center with someone you used to date.” Oof, that one hits close to the bone.
Well, at least we should be killing it in our careers, considering the equal opportunities we’ve been granted, right? Calhoun says, “Yes, women went into the workforce, but without any significant change to gender roles at home, to paidleave laws ... We bear financial responsibilities that men had in the old days while still saddled with traditional caregiving duties. We generally incur this double whammy precisely while hitting peak stress in both our careers and child-raising—in our forties, at an age when most of our mothers and grandmothers were already empty nesters.” Studies show that work is good for women’s mental health except when there are young children at home (this doesn’t affect men). Women who take just one year off to take care of a young child make 39 percent less than women who stay in the workforce over fifteen years. Add to that the possibility that a woman will have to leave the labor force early to care for an aging parent, which means lost wages and benefits averaging $324,000 over her lifetime, according to a 2011 MetLife study. Claudia Goldin, former president of the American Economic Association, reported that women’s earnings start out being roughly equal to men’s but then diverge as the women start juggling home and family. The solution to this inequity, she writes, “must involve changes in the labor market, especially how jobs are structured and remunerated to enhance temporal flexibility.”
One could argue that these work/family dynamics affect women of all generations, which is true, but as usual, things are a bit bleaker for Gen X. Just as we age into more senior management positions in our careers, those positions are disappearing; the past twenty years has seen a flattening of corporate hierarchies, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Calhoun writes, “Gen X women find themselves competing in middle age with both younger and older workers. In 2011, the Center for Work-Life Policy called Gen X the ‘wrong place, wrong time’ generation: ‘thwarted by boomers who can’t afford to retire and threatened by the prospect of leapfrogging Millennials.’”
To hit the final nail into our collective coffin, we are in our forties and fifties, so there is the issue of menopause and perimenopause to discuss. Menopause isn’t fun for any generation of women, but it just so happens that Gen X women are experiencing this glorious change of life (i.e., hot flashes, mood fluctuations, sleeplessness, weight gain, depression, you name it!) right at the time when the only proven treatment for it (hormone replacement therapy or HRT) is bogged down by largely false fears of cancer and strokes. Women are too scared to try hormones, so instead we turn to Gwyneth Paltrow to sell us mushroom dust or jade eggs. We turn to alcohol, which definitely doesn’t help the sleeplessness, or Zoloft, which doesn’t help with weight gain or your sex drive. We turn to our phones and google “how to sleep.” People bitch about Millennials and their smartphones, but it’s actually Gen X who are the most addicted to social media, spending almost seven hours a week on it, forty minutes more than Millennials. We are swayed by advertising more than other generations, too, probably because we were raised by our televisions.
While I think the research in this book is sound, this is not a wonky, definitive examination of social systems from an academic perspective—it’s women’s personal narratives, sprinkled with studies. Calhoun gets around the issue of racism and classism by saying she spoke to women of all stripes from all over the country, and I guess we are supposed to take her word for it, as she doesn’t identify these women by their demographics. But does it matter really? This book is, in its essence, a more fleshed-out version of a really good women’s magazine “trend piece.” It’s a book that puts our agony in a neat framework, like Jennifer Senior’s 2014 book about parenting, All Joy and No Fun (which was also a product of a really good magazine article). Consequently, Calhoun is shining a light on something, but not really offering us a way out of the darkness. She says that the process of writing this book, specifically talking to women and hearing them echo her anxieties and disappointments, helped her find her way through her mid-life difficulties. She found safety in numbers and suggests that Gen X women cultivate interest-based social groups where they can vent and relate to each other. Cool, cool, cool—but what if your kids are young, or have special needs, or maybe you have more than one of them? (Calhoun has one kid who is in middle school.) Socializing, for me, is making coffee plans with a friend a month in advance, and then cancelling it the day of because of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease.
I’m going to file away the “more socializing” tip for coming years, but for now, I’m more likely to vibe with her other suggestion, which was basically “play the hand you were dealt.” Calhoun describes a therapist in Atlanta encouraging women to find a way to take life as it is, not as you thought it would be. “It’s one of the hardest things,” the therapist says, “to radically accept what’s in front of you.” Calhoun writes, “It should be plenty to raise children or to have a career—or, frankly, just not to become a serial killer.” Radical acceptance means turning off the aspirations to do everything, perfectly, all at once, like we were supposed to do. For now, I’m just going to take comfort in the fact that I’m not a serial killer. Yet.
Jessica Baumgardner is a writer and editor in LA. Her last piece for the WRB was about Lindy West’s The Witches Are Coming.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning By Cathy Park Hong
Reviewed by Jisu Kim
It’s cringe-worthy for me to imagine describing a book by saying that I can relate to it deeply. I pride myself on being the kind of reader that insists books are more than something to be related to, and that readers should push themselves to feel alienated and decentered by their reading experience. When I find something as intimately familiar as Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, it’s certainly validating—but then, just as quickly, it’s uncomfortable and a bit embarrassing. Do I like this book for its literary merit (which it certainly has), or because it speaks to my identity and experience? I am resistant to enjoying the book, because I am worried that being obsessed with identity is a juvenile trait. Cathy Park Hong recounts feeling similarly as a graduate student of poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her original anxiety is exacerbated by a classmate’s anonymous and racist bullying. She internalizes the anxiety, and it emerges as selferasure and condescension toward other “too ethnicky” poetry. “It was made clear to me that the subject of Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate unless it was paired with a meatier subject, like capitalism,” Hong writes. Asian American poetry is not enough to warrant serious consideration—especially as a model minority “next in line to be white.”
“… this confusion, guilt, and overwhelming feeling that Asian American presence is somehow not enough—certainly not white enough, but not racialized enough either—is central to what Hong describes as ‘minor feelings.’”
as intimately familiar as Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, it’s certainly validating—but then, just as quickly, it’s uncomfortable and a bit embarrassing. Do I like this book for its literary merit (which it certainly has), or because it speaks to my identity and experience? I am resistant to enjoying the book, because I am worried that being obsessed with identity is a juvenile trait. Cathy Park Hong recounts feeling similarly as a graduate student of poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her original anxiety is exacerbated by a classmate’s anonymous and racist bullying. She internalizes the anxiety, and it emerges as selferasure and condescension toward other “too ethnicky” poetry. “It was made clear to me that the subject of Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate unless it was paired with a meatier subject, like capitalism,” Hong writes. Asian American poetry is not enough to warrant serious consideration—especially as a model minority “next in line to be white.”
Hong is the award-winning author of three poetry collections, a professor at Rutgers, and the poetry editor of The New Republic. I first encountered her work in an undergraduate Asian American literature course. The professor, while fantastic, was reluctantly teaching the class at the insistence of the administration. She had originally been hired to teach Asian American literature but had veered into classes on literary theory; the administration, annoyed they had hired an Asian American professor who then mostly taught erudite French philosophy, asked that she please teach one minority literature class a semester.
Her 2011 collection Engine Empire fascinated me as part of a syllabus of Asian American classics from the 1980s that dealt mostly with shame, struggle, and the ghost of history. It wasn’t that Engine Empire didn’t have those things, but it had an excitingly different setting than the rest: the Wild Wild West of 1800s California. At first I thought, seeing the name on the cover, that this story about an outlaw orphan wasn’t personal. Then I read the book, and thought perhaps Hong’s poetry was about identity after all, except identity filtered through a mythological past and using surreal violence as a metaphor for 1990s immigrant Los Angeles. Either way, Engine Empire was like no other Asian American text I had ever been given by a teacher; those mostly embarrassed me, even when I liked them.
In her new book, this confusion, guilt, and overwhelming feeling that Asian American presence is somehow not enough—certainly not white enough, but not racialized enough either—is central to what Hong describes as “minor feelings.” Minor feelings are an uneasy range of emotions, “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” In slippery ways, this looks like the opposite of blatant prejudice. These minor feelings are elusive and make the subject wonder, dazedly, if they’ve imagined this microaggression or that racist comment. They are generated not by huge societal upheavals but by the everyday rhythm of structural oppression. They are never allowed to rise to a fever pitch—the subject is told things are not really bad enough—and instead restrained into a “static of cognitive dissonance” by forced optimism and contradiction. Like in cases where a poet doesn’t feel their life is interesting enough to warrant poetry, the racism of minor feelings walks hand-inhand with internalized self-loathing, the logic of assimilation, and constant psychic exhaustion.
Minor Feelings weaves together personal immigrant narrative and historical anecdote into a collection of thoughtful essays, simmering in quiet rage. I use the word “quiet” uneasily because I have no desire to cast yet another Asian American text as subdued, but the strength of this collection lies precisely in the fact that the book avoids reading like a manifesto. Hong’s rage comes off as quiet not because it has less presence, but because it allows itself to be diverted and filtered through a variety of histories, perspectives, and future considerations.
Overall, the best parts of Minor Feelings occur when Hong sidesteps whiteness or white people as the central lens with which to explore race. Of course, when she breaks down the selfcongratulatory myth of white innocence or the insidious, invisible alliance between misogyny and racism, we are incensed. The feeling is satisfying. But it is very familiar.
On the other hand, Hong’s use of Richard Pryor (in a chapter called “Stand Up”) to both complicate and inspire her poetic process is much more interesting than when she details the injustices of her white colleagues. Pryor’s brazen comedy offers no easy place for Hong to situate herself as a listener—as an Asian American woman, where does she fall on the black/white binary of his performance? But it challenges her to take the “shock of recognition” at Pryor ’s emotional condition and think through it into an analysis deeper than simple recognition or alienation. While there are faceless, nameless white people in the story—in the theater seats, at the poetry reading— the story centers on Hong’s working through her identity as Asian American poet through Pryor’s performance of racial trauma.
“Bad English” and “An Education” also push whiteness to the side, examining Hong’s experience by refracting the experience through other nonwhite cultures, nations, languages, and individuals. Of course, to some extent it is impossible to ignore whiteness’s looming presence—but by focusing less on its obvious face, Hong succeeds in making clearer its invisible violence while celebrating other histories.
This is exactly what happens in “Bad English,” where Hong begins by unraveling her childhood in Southern California. Hong’s first example of multicultural creole is not politically motivated in the least—she describes a moody Korean-American teenager, the kind she went to church with, yelling, “Fuck him! Opa’s an asshole.” Yet its banality is exactly what makes it so delightful. In this essay, Hong weaves together different instances of mixedup English, exploring what it means to borrow words and stories from other groups. The resulting vernacular pokes holes in the idea of fluency. It’s not always intentional, and it can be problematic. But in all of these instances—edgy teenagers, guileless t-shirts, and postcolonial poets—what happens to language is that people
queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.
Using bad English is not always an act of resistance, but the practice does buck ideas of cultural purity and resist reductive notions of appropriation. Hong situates a wide array of nonwhite, mostly immigrant subjects in haphazard relation to each other, often engaging in casual discrimination toward other minority groups. In wrestling with the effects and consequences of speaking like, for, and near other people, she asks how we might contend with the potential for harm without demanding sterilization or bland oneness. Hong cannot offer an answer, though, because there are too many questions.
“An Education” is haunted by whiteness in the form of assimilation, fetishism, and self-loathing, among others. The story follows the toxic but lifechanging foundational friendship Hong has with two other Asian American women at Oberlin College, as they furiously navigate their artistic ambitions and each other. The women validate and affirm each other ’s art—and more importantly, their individual identities as artists—in a world that, beyond graduation, will not take them seriously. Charting her adolescent highs and lows, Hong succeeds in conveying the simultaneous ecstasy and despair fostered by codependent female friendship. Some might question what purpose a personal story serves in a collection that is, ultimately, political if creative nonfiction. But it’s by using this intimate snapshot that Hong is able to chew on some of the prickly complexities—raised as questions in other chapters—around privilege, bitterness, and joy.
Throughout the book, when speaking from personal experience, Hong carefully considers what it means to face racism when one is viewed as a mostly harmless model minority, especially when one does not read as Muslim or trans. She thus punctuates grief and resentment with unanswerable questions and honest doubt, ignoring the temptation to fall into an easy accusation with faulty categories: everyone like me, versus everyone else. Asian America was conceived of in the 1960s, inspired by radical movements of the decade, but it has largely failed to continuously organize around its early goals. Rather than fostering a state of consciousness actively seeking emancipation, Hong argues that contemporary Asian American existence is ruled by a soft panopticon, “so subtle that it’s internalized.” An example is the film Crazy Rich Asians, touted as a triumph of representation, which demands not liberation but rather asks viewers to celebrate capitalism as retribution for racism. Rather than pushing against it as an oppressive system, it calls for Asian Americans to celebrate imperial and global capitalism—the very same system that imprisoned Japanese citizens in internment camps, set Vietnam ablaze, and let Los Angeles crumble, all the while encouraging minorities to blame each other for the violence.
In the face of this uncertain legacy, it only feels right that Hong should end some of her most declarative statements with a series of questions. She eagerly considers the idea of we as a future possibility, but she’s also unsure whether or not she’s a worthy wielder of the first-person plural. This seems a fitting stance for an Asian American, when the adjective seems to engulf so many experiences that makes no sense as a collective. As of now, Hong finds she can only answer by considering the actions of others—by letting her questions travel through history, collecting information and being shaped by an endless series of logical conclusions that have no ending. Minor Feelings doesn’t read like an answer to, or even a declarative thesis on, Asian America. Instead, it reads like a probing new beginning. Propelled by minor feelings, itching and dissatisfied, this is a reckoning that has only just begun.
Jisu Kim is the senior marketing and sales manager at the Feminist Press. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and now lives in Brooklyn.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated
By Gertrude Stein; illustrations by Maira Kalman Interview by Tahneer Oksman
Maira Kalman does not have fans; she has super-fans. Her artistic oeuvre is difficult to pin down because she has produced so many kinds of works—paintings, books, children’s books, exhibitions, operas—for so many types of venues. Perhaps you might recognize her bright and bold New Yorker covers. (One such illustration, titled “In full bloom,” from March 19, 2018, features an elegant woman wearing a black dress with a big black sash and holding a tiny white poodle; an outlandishly outsized, bright pink hat covers the top half of the page from margin to margin, the woman’s eyes and the eyes of her stylish masculine companion mysteriously hidden.) Perhaps you might recognize her New York Times blog-turned-book, And the Pursuit of Happiness. (It’s an investigation of American history and politics with many unexpected digressions—from a mouthwatering illustration of lemon layer cake and a snapshot of a rainy New York City sidewalk to numerous aphoristic tidbits, characteristic Kalman-isms, like, “And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time; otherwise, you would be insane.”) Kalman has illustrated Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with composer Nico Muhly, she later transformed into an opera. She has illustrated and co-written, with food writer Barbara Scott- Goodman, a 2018 cookbook, simply titled, Cake. In short, in the domains of visual art, narrative storytelling, style, whimsy, appetite, and design, there’s not much that Kalman has not, at some point or another, consummately mined.
Her latest project is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated. The original book, published by Gertrude Stein in 1933, is commonly considered the prolific poet, art collector, and writer ’s most accessible one, and it enjoyed commercial success early on. Written, winkingly, with Stein’s life partner, Alice B. Toklas, as narrator, the book is divided into seven sections and chronicles the women’s lives in Paris before, and after, World War I. Huge portions of the volume are devoted to depicting the women’s interactions—many meals, walks, and talks—with Modernist greats (mostly men), from Picasso, Matisse, and Apollinaire to Hemingway, Gris, and Pound. Written in Stein’s steadfastly thorough, often deadpan style, the book has always been a pleasure for so many to read, undoubtedly because Stein paints such a vivid picture of, well, a life built in and around pictures. “Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality,” writes Stein-as-Toklas in The Autobiography. Reading the book with Kalman’s gorgeous pictures embedded throughout—there are dozens of fullpage, vividly-colored illustrations, adapted directly from Stein’s words—is a startling experience. The images keep steady pace with The Autobiography, refreshing and recalibrating scenes to great effect. In a way, Kalman’s illustrations gently loosen the gears that keep Stein’s prose turning. The effect is both subtle, and deeply moving.
Kalman, who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, has lived in New York City since the age of four. We spoke in her apartment in Manhattan one morning in late 2019.
Women’s Review of Books: I want to start by talking about your recent exhibition, Sara Berman’s Closet, which you collaborated on with your son, Alex Kalman. I saw it in 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and you also adapted it into a 2018 book. Could you describe how this unusual project, inspired by your mother, came about?
Maira Kalman: We adored my mother; she was an enchanting woman. After she left my father, she lived in a small studio apartment on Horatio Street. She had a room of her own. In it was a pristine closet, to put it mildly, of only white clothing.
When she died, I stood in her apartment thinking we should keep everything as it is, like a museum. But that was impractical, so we put it all in storage. Ten years later, when my son opened his Mmuseumm [a tiny museum located in lower Manhattan], we recreated and installed the closet. It was housed in a grungy alleyway, and it was visible twenty-four seven.
Later, a curator from the Met came and said they wanted to install it in the American Wing, to tell a new kind of story, a different kind of story. It became a story of feminism, identity, fashion, love, and immigration. It came to embody many different histories.
WRB: Your mother died in 2004. Do you think of Sara Berman’s Closet—the exhibition or the book—as connected to your grieving process?
MK: Alex and I often talk about how it’s not meant to be sentimental, and it’s not meant as a memorial. We adored her, but this is conceptual. It’s still emotional, but it’s not meant as a tribute. We were interested in creating an image that might resonate in different ways.
WRB: You work in many modes, and you’re so prolific. How do you decide what you’re going to do next?
MK: It’s all instinct; there’s nothing esoteric about it. If something is interesting, and the person is interesting, that’s fantastic. It’s also a question of, how much can I take on? And then there are all kinds of things that grow out of things.
WRB: A lot of people—often women—have trouble saying no. Do you?
MK: I used to, but now I delight in saying no. I say it really quickly. It used to come with a page of excuses. Now, it’s, “Thank you so much, but I can’t do it. All the best.” You have to edit your life as you get older. You have to get to the point, and not be afraid to hurt people’s feelings.
WRB: I’ve heard you speak in interviews about your work as a kind of compulsion, as something you want to take more breaks from, but also as a consolation or comfort. Could you talk a bit about your relationship to work?
MK: To be occupied with something you love is the greatest gift anybody can have. To do your work can keep you, literally, from going mad. But the texture of it changes as you get older. And the delight in not working can be a nice counterpoint to working. I think I always know that I have work, and if I didn’t know that I would be frightened and sad. But to know that you have work, and to be able to say, “Now, this month I’m going to go through the gardens of England.” You have to know what the balance of things should be.
WRB: I read somewhere that you look over the obituaries every morning.
MK: Absolutely. I haven’t opened the paper yet, but it’s waiting for me today.
WRB: What do you think draws you to them?
MK: They’re phenomenal narratives of how important it is to do whatever it is you need to do with your time. Each trajectory is vastly different, and it’s not about success by any means. It’s about living.
WRB: What attracted you to this new project, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated?
MK: I was once asked to illustrate another one of Stein’s books, but it wasn’t the right time. Then I was talking to my agent later on, and she said, you’re always talking about The Autobiography; somehow, it always manages to come up in conversations with you.
Sometimes you hear the right sentence at the right time, and you say, of course. I plunged into it, and I couldn’t have been happier. As I say in the afterword, I was loathe to leave the girls. I was loathe to leave their life, with all of the complexities and all of the contradictions.
This time period attracts me tremendously. I’ve painted it in many previous projects. I insert paintings of real photographs from the ’20s and ’30s quite often in my work. This era was rich with the most inventive, beautiful, smart, extraordinary people. And obviously Matisse is a big influence on me, and Bonnard. It’s a pleasure to look at the photographs of them and see the world they’re in. What more could you ask for beyond Paris in the ’30s? There’s a wealth of imagery.
WRB: Would you talk about your process of selecting what you would turn into illustrations. Sometimes it felt like what would be illustrated was fairly obvious—the richly imagistic sentences and scenes. But more often, especially as I got absorbed in the book, the illustrations came as surprises.
MK: The process is pragmatic and also lyrical. First, I went through the book and wrote down every single person mentioned. And then I started doing photo research and asking myself, “OK. Who is interesting? Who looks interesting?” And then, of course, there were many other archival photos to choose from. Finally, I asked myself, “How much art can this text hold?” I considered the pacing of it, the sense of, “Now, it’s nice to have a painting; now, it’s not nice.”
Then I made little sketches on 5-by-7 notecards. And I kept shifting, and shifting, and shifting, and eliminating. And finding a better image. Or deciding, this isn’t working.
This happened many more times when we were working on it digitally, and with a designer, and with Penguin Press. When everything is digitized, you can work and shift and look at it forever. Which we did.
WRB: What other sort of research went into the making of the project?
MK: I travelled. I went to their house and their apartment—to so many of the places mentioned in the book. Sissinghurst [in Kent, England], where Vita Sackville-West lived. Vanessa Bell’s home, and Alice and Gertrude’s house, Bilignin [in a small village close to Lyon, France], and their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus [in Paris].
I also looked at a million photos, which I adore doing, and I got a million books about Gertrude. I looked at Alice’s cookbooks, and I read Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. And then I just researched all the other tendrils, the people; they knew everybody.
Part of my process was of going through the book and underlining certain things. For example, I went through the paperback and underlined every time she wrote, “Gertrude Stein.” She wrote her own name about 600 times in this short book. It’s so telling.
WRB: Stein was such a complicated person, as you mentioned. Were there moments, in doing the project, where you felt put off by her?
MK: Often. She had a falling out with everybody. Her version of the history is—well, who knows? Lots of artists and writers, including Matisse and others, rejected what she wrote and said it was nonsense. Of course, every memoir has parts that are somewhat made up—there’s no such thing as the exact or complete truth.
But it doesn’t matter, because this is the story she is telling. And ego is part of it. Her colossal ego is what would allow her to have the kind of life she had.
The book is essentially about the force of a woman, the unapologetic force of her personality, and how she forged this life, together with Alice.
WRB: In addition to the time they were living through, and the people they interacted with, what do you think makes the relationship between Gertrude and Alice so singular and compelling?
MK: Stein and Toklas were able to make this domestic relationship extraordinary without having to be crazy artists. They were grounded, domestic, social, and structured and ordered. They never spent a night apart from each other the entire time they were together.
WRB: Did you ever think about how Stein might react to her book—to her book with Alice—being published with your illustrations?
MK: [Laughs.] I know Stein would have had a strong reaction. I’m going to say, I think she would have liked it.
WRB: I think so too.
MK: This is my love letter to them.
Tahneer Oksman is an associate professor at Marymount Manhattan College, the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor of the anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019). She often reviews graphic novels and illustrated works for the Women’s Review of Books. You can follow her on Twitter @TahneerO.
Interview with Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty bookstore, D.C. and Silver Springs
By Jennifer Baumgardner and Jacqueline Zeisloft
After two months working with Jennifer on the Women’s Review of Books, we took a trip. We drove from New York City to Nashville, visiting as many independent bookstores in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee as we could. Our destination was a conference in La Vergne, Tennessee but the journey itself was the star. Through casual in-person meetings with nine independent book sellers, we gained insights into the critical role of independent bookstores in local communities and publishing at large.
Publishers and authors generally love collaborating with indie bookstores. Most stores have personable staff, quiet spaces, and some even have cute cafes or furry friends that greet you at the door. Despite being a huge fan of indie bookstores myself, I had to wonder: how do they survive in a consumer landscape driven by e-commerce and huge markdowns on Amazon?
Hannah Oliver Depp’s Loyalty bookstore in D.C. was our first stop—and she had a lot to tell us. Depp’s D.C. book expertise is deep: she grew up nearby in Elkton, Maryland, received her Master ’s in literature from American University in D.C., and she got her first job working at the famed Politics and Prose. There she climbed the ranks from bookseller to managerial roles. She moved North and served as the communications director at Word Bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City for three years before heading back home last year to open Loyalty Bookstores.
Depp’s aptitude for leadership and exceptional accomplishments (she’s in her mid-thirties) make her well-known among indie booksellers, as we found out on our trip. Eliot Berger, owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham (North Carolina) described her as “a force of nature.” The next day, in Asheville, Malaprop’s Justin Souther predicted that Hannah Oliver Depp will be “running the American Booksellers Association one day.” Depp puts books into customers’ hands every day (thanks, Hannah!) and she fights to keep the doors of her shop open for the benefit of a neighborhood subject to increasing gentrification. On a sunny Monday in November, we spoke with Depp about the responsibilities of being a bookseller.
“So, yes, I am asking you to pay $28 for a book. But in exchange I am going to create a welcoming, beautiful space for you. I’m going to host as many free events as I can. I’m going to make sure that you know that this space is a place you can come to have hard conversations and it’ll be safe.”
Jennifer Baumgardner: You’ve worked at a lot of indie bookstores, including Politics and Prose, Word, and now opening up Loyalty in two locations. What is the role of the bookstore in democratic society?
JB: You mean an opinion about how to build community?
HOD: Yes, how to build community and a point of view of the store. There are stores that are fully mission-based bookstores. Some are nonprofits and some have a nonprofit wing, or they are just like, “Hey, we have a mission statement.” Loyalty is entirely focused on the community it is loyal to, the community that helped create it. That’s part of what’s behind the name.
There are very few community gathering spaces left in America. Loyalty is a space where the doors are open a certain amount of times regularly, where you can come in without buying anything and engage in hard conversations. We are here for our community and we believe in hosting as many free events as possible, whether funny book events or cool children’s readings. We have all sorts of different events because we appeal to all different parts of our neighborhood. We have to understand the image we are projecting out to people. We are creating a safe, welcoming place for our community to have conversations about gentrification or black D.C. culture. People who haven’t felt traditionally welcomed in bookstores see who’s working behind the counter and know that this is a place where they are welcome. They see it in the books that are face-out on the shelf.
Creating a space for conversation is very difficult, and so is functioning as a capitalist business. And that’s the hard part about bookstores. That’s the hard conversation we have with our community. We aren’t getting discounts on books and we are going to be featuring a lot of small presses. We can’t charge what big box stores and Amazon charge because books are a loss leader for them as they sell everything on the planet. We just sell books. So, yes, I am asking you to pay $28 for a book. But in exchange I am going to create a welcoming, beautiful space for you. I’m going to host as many free events as I can. I’m going to make sure that you know that this space is a place you can come to have hard conversations and it’ll be safe. At the end of the day, if you don’t occasionally buy a hardcover book, this bookstore is going to go away. Bookstores are different than a library or any place that can get a lot of grants or things like that. We do tread an interesting line. This is first and foremost a retail business, yet it’s a retail business with a purpose.
JB: What does it mean when a vibrant neighborhood doesn’t have a bookstore?
HOD: It almost always means that rent is too high. The landlord would rather have empty buildings than someone paying below market rent. The market to rent is inflated by huge corporations moving into smaller communities for the “look” of an intimate neighborhood, because that’s what is in style right now.
JB: Real estate companies are selling neighborhood authenticity to people who can afford high rent, but it’s your labor that creates that vibe.
HOD: Yes. Bookstores are often the anchor businesses in neighborhood revitalizations. A smart landlord sees it is better to lose a little rent on that building and have the whole neighborhood become vibrant due to the work of the bookstore—but you have to explain that to them and not all of them care. When your lease is up, they might want to push you out because they have got those other businesses now, but an independent bookstore is an investment in the overall neighborhood.
Similarly, communities have to understand that if they want a store, they have to shop there. We had an awesome Women in Business Panel for Women’s History Month last year. Almost all of the businesses on the street are owned by women, so there were seventeen of us sitting on the panel. People were really moved to support the store and saying things like: “How can we help you stay open? What can we do? Should we start a fund?” I’m like, all you actually have to do is come in and spend money. Capitalism is pretty straightforward. If you come shop, we will probably stay in business.
We’ve sort of broken commerce. We think that the only way to keep a business alive is to have a GoFundMe—but actually, all you need to do is shop here.
JB: Even if you think of a book while you are on the bus and you have the Amazon app, wait until you can shop at the store.
HOD: Or text, call, or DM us on Twitter! Or shop on the website. I do not have an app, which is something independents are working on, but we do have websites, and most of us have social media platforms.
JB: What books this past year have surprised you, sold well, or really spoken to what you are doing?
HOD: I’m basking in the golden age of children’s literature and literature in translation, which are now big sellers in indie stores. People aren’t scared of short stories or autofiction. They want something different. I have been doing this full-time for ten years. I watched the change from people who felt like they had to know what they wanted when they came or it was going to be embarrassing to now when they say “recommend something interesting to me,” or “here’s a show I watch,” or “this is what I’m missing.”
For those customers, a small but powerful book like Convenience Store Woman [by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, reviewed in WRB July / August 2018] is great. I love hand-selling that book. Nothing happens in that novel at all, but people love it—it moves people. Same with Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport. It’s this ballsy experiment the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time, though I don’t know how many people are actually finishing it. You stack up ten copies of that on a table and you’re thinking, “Wow, that might’ve been a mistake.” But, over the weekend, we sold eight of them. We are a small store, so if we’re selling eight, imagine what Harvard, Politics and Prose, and the Strand are doing. It just makes me very happy.
With children’s books, I hated reading African American literature as a kid and young student because it was just slave narrative, slave narrative, slave narrative. If you were like me and in a book, you were a slave. But now kids get to have sci-fi adventures. Kids are detectives. They are falling in love, getting heartbroken, being gay, or being a penguin!
JB: It’s so true. Harriet Tubman is a hero and has not been given her due— yet in schools it’s as if Harriet Tubman is the only black woman to have ever existed.
HOD: Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, with no one in between them. Yes, I love the stories of real-life women that we’re learning about nowadays, and also that book, If Your Monster Won’t Go to Bed, by Denise Vega. Or how in Harriet Gets Carried Away [by Jessie Sima], she has two dads but it’s never mentioned. It’s not the conflict or the story. It’s just life. It’s nice that we have books that get into the conflict of bias or when it’s hard or when it’s exciting even—but it’s when we have books where it’s not a big deal that the breadth of experiences starts to appear.
Jason Reynolds’s bestselling Look Both Ways, for instance, is just a portrait of a kid wandering up and down his neighborhood, all the aunties telling him to go home or saying, “Oh no, you’re chewing gum and you shouldn’t be!” This is a common kid experience in D.C.—but not one I see in books too often.
You walk into a store like mine and you’ll think diverse books is the norm. It’s more that I’ve created a space where we can envision this as the norm someday. The overall stats are dire as hell. Only two percent of children’s lit features an Asian American protagonist, for instance. In an independent bookstore, those special books are going to be faced out and hand-sold, but I think it’s important to know that they are in the store because we have carefully chosen them and spent a long time talking about the need for them. My sales reps know that I am going to ask about the percentages of their list. When you get a HarperCollins or Penguin Random House rep, going through literally thousands of titles, their six picks of the list might be diverse authors, which is so exciting—but it is only six out of a thousand. I have to fight to get author events because there are only six of these books. There needs to be six hundred books by diverse authors. There is a wide breadth of experience being had, and we need everyone’s experience out there.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor of the Women’s Review of Books. Jacqueline Zeisloft is a WRB editorial assistant and a writer.
Afterlife By Julia Alvarez
Reviewed by Cleyvis Natera
Madre Vieja, the small Dominican town where I was born, was haunted by a living ghost named Josefina. She— who’d been struck with the fukú of love back in the 1980s, before my family emigrated to New York City—was the most fascinating fixture in my childhood. At random times of day and night, we’d see her wandering those dusty dirt roads, more often than not seeking the kindness of our community—food, cold water, an old dress to cover her brazen nakedness. She didn’t get kindness often, not that us kids often saw.
Josefina was the living warning of what it means to disappear, to become unseen. An old woman without a husband, without children, without profession or home, was abhorrent on so many levels that all we saw was the flat outline of her, a creature no longer human. In Greek tragedy-style, she roamed disheveled, angry, spitting wildly at us, throwing rocks back at us. We were the only ones who acknowledged her, and we did so by flinging filthy words aimed right where it would hurt. I mean, non-stop. Loca, we yelled at her, sucia, sinfamilia! As if the worst fate that could befall a woman was to exist alone, unloved.
In the opening pages of Julia Alvarez’s newest novel, Afterlife, the protagonist Antonia is at the precipice of such madness, which is to say, at the cusp of disappearing. A year prior, we learn, Antonia lost both her husband of over thirty years and the English professor work that so defined her. Her retirement party was interrupted by news of her husband’s death. We now find her drifting, haunted. This particular kind of haunting is familiar to any who have experienced an identityshifting type of loss.
No matter the sips, the narrow path, grief keeps ambushing her: unsuspecting moments, nooks, crannies, cracks where the root system of loving is embedded in her life. Brutally yanked out with that tearing sound of detaching a clump of grass from the ground. She conjures her husband’s voice at her every decision and finds his absence numbing. For four decades, she has taught the books of dead writers, who now swarm through an endless loop of quotes in her head. Antonia, herself once a writer, might find relief through telling her own story, but in grief, that capacity is gone as well. As Antonia balances on a scale of invisibility, we are forced to consider the central question of Alvarez’s book: Who are we when who and what defined us is gone?
The mask stuck to the face, take it off at your own peril. Who am I going to be anymore? […] No longer a teacher at the college, no longer volunteering and serving on a half dozen boards, no longer in the thick of the writing whirl—she has withdrawn from every narrative, including the ones she makes up for sale. Who am I? The plaintive cry.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Antonia’s answer will render her either invisible, a ghost herself, or transport her to the land of creator, a narrator of her own existence. In her Vermont college town, her withdrawal is met with weary concern. Even her closest friends don’t really want to know how she’s doing. “The landscape of grief is not very inviting,” Antonia narrates. “Visitors don’t want to linger.” The turmoil of going through an identity crisis is exacerbated by Antonia’s 66th birthday, which forces her to confront the ways in which she has defined herself up until these losses. “So, will that continue to be her role going forward?” Antonia asks herself. “The one who defines herself by being what the others are not?”
For too long, Antonia has been defined through relation to her activist, now-dead husband, Sam. Most in her community assume she is the reason her husband was so inclined toward left-leaning philosophies, but in truth she is stoic, cautious, and risk-averse. Her three sisters, whom she tenderly refers to as “the Dominican Greek Chorus,” have also type-casted her as a know-it-all, a saint; they choose church bells as her designated ringtone. Most critically, Antonia casts a critical eye on aspects of herself she deems shameful and selfish: She is momentarily frightened to find herself alone with an undocumented young male worker from a nearby house and fears for her life. She and her sisters find the defect a product of assimilation. Alvarez writes, “You’re the most American of us, her sisters have commented to Antonia in an accusatory tone.” And what’s wrong with that? She lacks the expected generosity (ahem, the sacrificial lamb gene) that pushes the needs of others ahead of her own.
With masterful simplicity, Alvarez casts Antonia at the crux of two situations that propel her off-stasis. First, Antonia’s sister, Izzy, has gone missing. Izzy battles serious mental illness and an unbridled need to solve society’s greatest injustices. Second, Antonia is confronted by the migrant crisis when a pregnant, homeless, undocumented teenager shows up at her doorstep. Both situations beg the same response from her—to drop her routines, peace, and desires to save another.
She’s destined to disappoint, though, because she can’t be in two places at the same time. It is at these crossroads that we see Antonia use the voices that previously haunted her as guideposts:
Tolstoy had it right in that story she used to teach about the three questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? Funny how Antonia remembers the questions but can’t for the life of her remember if Tolstoy provided the answer.
Selective amnesia forces Antonia to seek her own answers to these questions. She quickly decides, “She is the most important one.” This is a bold move by Alvarez, for what renders a female character less likeable than choosing herself and declaring it so? Antonia is quick to remind us that this mindset is as American as the flag: “You have to start by taking care of yourself. The mantra of the First World. First, your own oxygen mask, then everyone’s else’s.”
Alvarez summons the words from the lit canon with the terrific device of Antonia’s musings. Phrases are plucked with logical need yet emerge uninvited from the long dead to those still living and kicking, in order to celebrate the gifts we can enjoy but also to take those gifts to task. After all, as playfully as Alvarez brings up the idea of a Greek chorus with the sisterhood, one can’t help but think of the greatest of all “love lost” Greek tragedies; Euripides’ Medea, whose lost love transformed her to a monster through the murder of her own children, is still widely read by English majors today.
Alvarez also invokes T.S. Elliot’s poetry to show how language falls short, how Antonia still finds language lacking when it comes to explaining herself, her feelings, and her humanity, despite having an encyclopedic knowledge of all those books: “She is alone now with her intense need to get the words right.” She knows deep down that it is mostly for naught:
But even the beauties of language, of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us—so we think—safe on the narrow path.
Still, Antonia finds comfort in the beauty of language, in the companionship of all those thousands of years of words. As an academic, she forces herself to see things evenly. And so, Alvarez once again thrusts Antonia into deeper grief and leaves her in a place where, “It’s finally come; the frightening moment she has fought so hard to prevent, when not just the world but the words fall apart, and the plunge goes on and on and on.”
There, Antonia finds liberation, by first granting herself permission to lose control—then, swiftly, she descends from pain to madness, when loss turns to despair and the world is bleak. She sees the horror around her, to the environment, to migrant bodies. She is bereft.
And yet, in the end, Antonia accepts what has been broken. There is such beauty in the simplicity of this message: We, as women, aren’t put on earth to fix everything, to be everything to everyone. Antonia extends the most human gesture: “…she has handed over the controls of others’ lives into their own hands.” And when it comes to grief, the knowledge that maybe the best way to honor our dead is to allow them to live on through us, in us, however imperfect we may be.
Alvarez’s slender novel is a reminder that in the hands of a master, a simple story of loss and love can be fresh and devastating. At the end of Afterlife, I revisited my memories of Josefina, haunted by her ferocity, by her unwillingness to stay shut away, hiding out from a world that wanted to deny her existence. I see her today as if I was nine years old, arms full of rocks, daring us to call her names.
Cleyvis Natera is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Harlem, NYC. She holds an MFA from New York University and is a 2019-2020 Pen America Writing for Justice Fellow. She’s currently hard at work on her first novel, Neruda on the Park.