An essay by Sarah Dougher
The first time a stranger called me grandmother of my own child, I was in a midwestern airport, hauling my two-yearold to a connecting flight. I was purchasing a bottle of water; the baby was having a tantrum. I put her on the floor to let her shriek and flop around, as you sometimes have to do, and calmly made my purchase. The clerk, giving me a sororal smile, leaned over the counter, peered at my snotty creature, and said, “Grandchildren are a handful, that’s for sure. I’ve got four of my own!” I smiled and said, “Yep, a real handful!” Then I picked up my daughter, who arched her back like she was possessed and shrieked “NO!” again and again as we walked out.
The clerk’s misunderstanding of my relationship to my kid is one that will be repeated for the rest of my life, I’m fairly certain. This is one of the consequences of having my first child at forty-five, and my second at forty-nine.
You can be a grandma at thirty-eight. You can be a mom and a teenager. Saying that I have small children makes me seem younger to people. People have children during a wide age range, but our cultural conception of the correct age for a new mother is somewhere between twenty and forty. Someone might think I’m fifty-ish but when they see me breastfeeding, dial it back to forty-five. Because I’ve never been a younger mother, I can’t say what is different about being an older one. I can say that I did not seriously consider children until I was in my early thirties. I had the privilege of easy access to birth control, as well as to abortion had I needed it. Not having a child when I was younger allowed me to focus on the things I wanted to do then: I got a doctoral degree, for instance. I traveled, lived communally, and toured as a musician.
My initial plans for children with my then girlfriend were disrupted by a breast cancer diagnosis at thirty-five. Getting a form of cancer that doesn’t hurt, except when excised, has a different impact than do other, more sudden and exhilarating brushes with death. It exacerbated what felt impossible: that I would ever live long enough to parent children successfully in a loving partnership. Dependent on this same philandering partner ’s health insurance for treatment, my approach to mortality was shot through with tradeoffs; I stay with her and keep the insurance, look away when she fucks other people, drink myself to sleep and pretend I’ve had a healing night’s rest. Instead of compelling me to live each moment with a clear-eyed zest for life, I was a lackluster cancerbattler. My alcohol dependence increased as my friends and family tried to rally me from deep depression. My drunkenness was an inarticulate demand: “Recognize my suffering! See me!” But no one could see my cancer and my physical debilitation and drinking was read as a moral failing. I had radiation treatment on one cancerous breast, and five years of the estrogen-suppressant, tamoxifen. Eventually, I was in remission, and I quit drinking. By then I was forty.
My children are the result of a partnership I never thought I would be so lucky to have, with a man whose commitment to family matched my own. We determined we’d have children on our third date, when I was forty-one. By the spring of my fortysecond year, I was making notes in a book about “Clomid mood swings” and “Follistim,”—the drugs that stimulate follicles to produce multiple eggs per cycle. The reality is that even between forty-one and forty-two, your reproductive odds drop sharply, and your egg supply is low. We optimistically started with intrauterine injection, which basically just saves the sperm part of the trip to the fallopian tubes. After this failed, we ratcheted up quickly, to IVF, and my notes became more dire: “anxious,” “aching,” “weepy,” “overwhelmed,” “thirsty,” “dumb,” “headache-y,” “spaced-out,” “crampy,” “sleepy,” “fragile,” “gassy,” “tender,” “bloated,” “insomniac,” “crazy.” As unpleasant as this all was, it was less horrific than my life as a drunk cancer victim had been. When you do IVF, you think you are going to be the miracle person whose eggs just needed a little prodding. I learned I am no miracle person: after two IVF rounds, we decided to pay someone young for her eggs, a process gently mislabeled “donation.”
Through an agency, we chose a person whose family history did not include breast cancer, alcoholism, or mental illness. She looked sort of like us, northern Europeans, and her photographs demonstrated a penchant for dressing in costume— pirate lass, fortune-teller, clown. The reasons people value extremely good looking, high achieving egg donors seemed strange to me, but the whole thing was very strange so we thought we would choose someone who at least liked to have fun. We didn’t know why she wanted to get paid for undergoing a physically uncomfortable, time-consuming, and, in the scheme of things, not-that-lucrative process. Platitudes about helping others with the gift of life? Maybe to pay for community college? Or to buy the best fortune-telling costume of all time? This mysterious blonde person had a crucial part in making our family possible, but I know her just from blurry snapshots on the egg donation database. She could just as easily be that person with the baby crying the next time I board a plane.
I know that I am more patient and tolerant of both my own foibles and the shortcomings of others than I was when I was young, and this is a very useful trait as both a parent and as a person. I care a great deal less now about what others think of me, but care very deeply about the needs and opinions of my family. I’m more concerned with regular practices related to health and well-being, and prioritize this. I have very limited time to myself but that time is exceedingly well-spent.
How others gauge my fitness for parenting is really their concern based on their own biases. If they choose to look upon the choice as unfair to my children, who will eventually (as we all will) become parentless, they need only look to the experiences of people whose parents are already out of the picture because of fundamental disagreements, addictions, or tragic circumstances. Sometimes, for millions of reasons, parents and adult children don’t get along to the point of estrangement, and yet these people often thrive and make excellent parents themselves. How we lose and gain family is never ordinary.
Motherhood ushered in a sudden connection to other, much younger, women with kids. This was not something I had anticipated. I’m a college professor who works in public high schools teaching in a dualcredit program, so I am in regular contact with young people. This new, specific closeness I feel to younger moms in my classes is not something I verbalize to them; it is, however, something I try to support structurally. I don’t need to understand the details of their lives, but I want to use what small powers I have to give them options—I can be in touch by email when they can’t come in; I can lend them the school computer and encourage them to write about their experiences in the context of our class. I try to use my role as their teacher to help them value the work they are doing as moms, and to let them know I see that work, and I see them, too. I can’t forget the elation and relief in the face of a mom who sees her seventeen-year-old daughter graduate as she holds her daughter’s baby, all three generations younger than me. Maybe this identification is what the shop clerk felt when she treated me kindly at the airport.
Sometimes when I tell the story of the clerk in the airport, friends remark that I should have gotten angry for her assumption, “How rude!” they say. Other times when I tell this story, my friends will assure me that I don’t look at all like a grandmother. But what, really, does this look like after all?
I remind them that what happened in that exchange was only that I was pegged for what I am, an older woman. Hers was a verbalized example of the ways in which we all use visual, socialized cues to size each other up, and operate in the flow of received ideas of gender and role. To interrupt that to say, “No, I’m not her grandmother, I’m her mom!” would have rejected the kindness that the person thought she was offering. Do I have a responsibility to let the clerk know that older women can be excellent mothers? This must be proven only to my children. Do I have to represent, call her out on her assumptions about femininity or reproductive fitness? This would only cast unneeded doubt on the support she was trying to communicate, trite and pro forma as it was.
I choose to hold on to the kindness of this woman, not her misreading. Is it really on her that reproductive science is not cheaper and more widely accessible, or more common? Her fault, unloading Cosmo and Shape magazines all day, that she might have conventional assumptions about age, reproductive capacity, and vitality? That she might view my slightly androgynous, cardiganwearing, and greying form as a “grandma”?
I came to understand the airport incident as a consequence of my unique path: I will be misread; my experiences will be assumed, not seen, unknown. Contained within this path is an opportunity to experience deep empathy and connection. In that harried airport moment, when I put my child down on a dirty floor and let her scream and cry, making everyone uncomfortable, it didn’t matter what people thought about me or my role in my family. For her part, the clerk’s comments suggested to the other people (who were likely uncomfortable or irritated by us) that it is difficult to care for a screaming child, and that a screaming child is not out of the ordinary. She signaled that she knew this was a challenging situation for any person, and that she saw my work. Grandmother or not, I was seen.
Sarah Dougher is a writer, teacher, and musician, currently working in the University Studies program at Portland State University and writing short stories in the early mornings.
The Farm By Joanne Ramos
New York, NY; Random House 2019, 336 pp., $27.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Ouellette
Just as the publishing industry became fatigued by the onslaught of dystopian fiction brought on by the success of the Hunger Games franchise, titles like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale eked their way back onto bestseller lists before sales exploded after the presidential election. The seemingly extremist views explored in these books were suddenly not as distant as white readers had previously perceived. But the circumstances that white readers have long considered as “dystopian” have often been realities for people of color. When faced with harmful political rhetoric that could affect white people personally, privileged readers (like myself) finally realized this was never a fictional phenomenon. The Farm by Joanne Ramos is firmly rooted in a contemporary setting, but the events that unfold could have easily been a primer for The Republic of Gilead.
The protagonist of The Farm, Jane, is not a heroine who reluctantly challenges a fascist regime, but a new mother who is struggling to support herself and her six-week old daughter Mali. She works for minimum wage and lives in dorm with her seventy-something-year-old cousin, Ate Evelyn, and half a dozen other Filipina immigrants like them. Since Jane can’t count on her cheating husband to contribute to childcare, Ate suggests a potentially lucrative opportunity at Golden Oaks as a surrogate. The financial bonuses granted to the surrogates—or “Hosts” as Golden Oaks calls them—for the successful completion of first trimester, second trimester, and delivery would be life-changing for Jane and Mali. And after Jane gets fired from two jobs within the span of a month, she doesn’t have many other choices for gainful employment.
The author alternates between the perspectives of Jane, Ate, Mae (the woman who runs Golden Oaks), and Reagan (a white Host). Ramos writes with equal authority over the voices of a desperate young mother, a no-nonsense nanny with a knack for securing loyalty from wealthy employers, a college-educated daughter of a Chinese businessman, and a white photographer wracked with guilt for living a privileged life. The story is made all the richer by having the motivations for each character laid out for the reader, instead of limiting the reader ’s understanding of Golden Oaks to Jane, who just wants to fly under the radar and get paid. Ramos describes their individual worldviews with striking precision, addressing unconscious taboos about class with such frankness that it forces the reader to reconcile with these unwritten social rules.
For example, when Ate gives Jane advice about nannying, she says the parents, “will tell you to call them ‘Cate and Ted,’ very American, very equal— but it is always ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ They will tell you to ‘make yourself at home’—but they do not want you to make yourself at home! Because it is their home, not yours, and they are not your friends. They are your Clients. Only that.” This distinction between the Client’s purview and Jane’s foreshadows how far systemic inequality will be carried out.
The rhetoric used in The Farm is not dissimilar from what you might find in a corporate licensing agreement. Mae tells Jane that Golden Oaks wants her to, “understand fully what you’re committing to. Because once you’re impregnated—once there’s another human living inside you—it’s no longer just about you. There’s no going back.” Not only does this philosophy echo the concerning rhetoric of “life begins at conception,” but it also paints a sinister illustration of the class divide between the uber-rich and the working class. It’s made abundantly clear that Golden Oaks bestows preferential treatment towards the fetus over the Host’s own health because the fetuses belong to billionaires and the Hosts would never be able to afford lawyers to protest less-than-ideal working conditions. As another Host puts it, Golden Oaks is “a factory, and you’re the commodity.” (Or in another world, this is the Commander’s household and you’re the Handmaid.) Even though the Hosts theoretically sign this employment contract willingly, they have as few rights as the Handmaids who are forced into sexual slavery.
Similar to how Handmaids suddenly receive luxury treatment when they finally conceive, a repeat Host advises Jane that she will receive more lenient treatment from Golden Oaks about their rigorous schedules and limited family visits if Jane gets her Clients invested in her individual wellbeing. The key is to portray herself as a virtuous vessel for their unborn baby, as opposed to just someone who deserves a comfortable living wage. But Jane doesn’t get the opportunity to woo her Client like this, so she gets sucked into a factory-like system that effectively removes her bodily autonomy. Hosts receive focused diet plans, specialized exercise classes, and frequent doctor’s appointments—where the doctor talks to the Client over the phone about the fetus instead of the woman who is actually receiving the examination. (This draws an unexpected parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, when the wives try to simulate the conception and the birthing experience while the Handmaid does the real work.) If that isn’t disconcerting enough, when the doctor discovers a lump on Reagan’s breast, she keeps Reagan in the dark about the potential risk. When the doctor is finally forced to acknowledge this health concern to Reagan, she tries to assure Reagan it’s nothing to worry about. Sensing something is amiss, Reagan tries to search for other symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma on one of the Golden Oaks computers, only to find that term is blocked by the network.
If Golden Oaks is a factory and the Hosts are the commodity, the commodification of the female body is facilitated by censorship and constant surveillance, much like 1984. Hosts are forced to live on the premises for ten months—away from home and loved ones without any cell phone service or WiFi. Reagan brings her camera to take photos of the lush Hudson Valley surroundings, but that’s also confiscated upon arrival. Hosts can make video calls home during the scheduled technology room hours, so long as the slow connection doesn’t freeze, and Hosts don’t mind a group of other women at their own computers overhearing their conversations.
The Hosts don’t suspect foul play at first, but the reader sees through Mae’s eyes that every moment of the Host’s life is monitored by a surveillance system appropriately called the Panopticon. If a Host has an emotional outburst or appears to get too chummy with known troublemakers, the Golden Oaks staff employ techniques to convince the Host to “behave optimally” of her own accord, whether that’s through schedule changes or subtle emotional blackmail. Mae dangles visits with Jane’s daughter as a reward for her ideal behavior, and the visits are taken away just as quickly as a punishment for Jane, which makes a reader wonder if the visits were ever really going to happen. And Reagan can’t research for herself if she’s developing a life-threatening condition because treatment would be harmful to the fetus.
Later, this lack of consideration for the Host’s health is extended to grim extremes. When one of the fetuses shows signs of trisomy and therefore presents a risk of Down syndrome, the Client chooses to have the fetus aborted. Reagan is horrified about how swiftly Golden Oaks terminates an otherwise healthy pregnancy without consulting the affected Host, but other Hosts expected nothing less. “‘Do you understand: they forced Anya to abort... It’s a complete violation—’ ‘Not of the contract.’” Reagan comes from a family of privilege, so she never experienced catering to the will of a rich employer before. But by this point, the reader has practically received an instruction manual (via Ate’s voice) for how working class women—often women of color—have to appear non-threatening to mothers who don’t want to admit caring for their own child is difficult. Women of color have long been nannies and wet nurses for white children for hundreds of years. Becoming the surrogate for upper class women who want to control everything—and up until that point, have succeeded in controlling everything due to their wealth—is the next logical step. They don’t have a say in how a Client runs their household or their pregnancy, even if the pregnancy is being carried out by someone else.
Even though most of the Hosts are women of color, some Clients “are willing to pay a premium for Hosts whom they find pretty, or ‘well-spoken,’ or ‘kind,’ or ‘wise,’ or even: educated,” which is code for: white. As Ramos puts it, “Most Clients cannot help but feel that the Host they choose is not only a repository for their soon-to-be-baby but an emblem of the lofty expectations they have for the being to be implanted inside,” even though the Hosts are not contributing their DNA to the fetus. As a college educated white woman, Reagan is considered a “premium” Host, but she does want to be hired for the sake of a Client’s vanity. She has aspirations to carry for a woman who had biological difficulties conceiving a child for herself. Because Reagan the commodity is more profitable than the Filipina and Caribbean Hosts, Mae is willing to appease Reagan and hires a stand-in client to make Reagan think her position was more meaningful, and therefore behave more optimally.
The Farm ultimately centers around Jane’s fierce desire to protect and provide for her daughter, though it’s intriguing to contrast her experience with Reagan’s rude awakening to her performative altruism in a capitalist structure. (After all, Reagan still needs and accepts her salary as a Host.) Jane astutely observes that “people are not as free as Reagan thinks they are,” which is especially obvious when we also compare Jane’s journey to that of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, who is assumed to be white. Jane doesn’t have her credit cards and bank accounts stripped from her name to remove her financial agency and independence, she barely had any savings to begin with. Mali isn’t kidnapped from Jane to remove her from her own family obligations, she is safely under the care of Ate while Jane is at Golden Oaks—but Jane’s burning questions about Mali’s health and safety provide just as strong emotional tension as Offred’s concerns about her own daughter. Jane isn’t raped in order to provide an heir to a powerful family, but she is still under lock and key and surveillance of an isolated household. The Farm isn’t a dystopia, it simply highlights the very real desperation of the working class versus the luxurious accommodations and “experiences” catered to the ultra-wealthy.
Katherine Ouellette is a freelance writer with bylines at Bustle, The Hippo, and Women’s Review of Books. She lives in Boston, MA.
No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir By Ani DiFranco
New York, NY; Viking, 2019, 298 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Hannah Wallace
When I first heard Ani DiFranco sing about her abortion at a small auditorium in the Pioneer Valley during the spring of 1992, I felt as if my head would explode. A freshman at Mount Holyoke, I had never had an abortion, but I’d had several close calls (who hadn’t?). The honesty with which she wrote about her experience in “Lost Woman Song”—how she linked it to the anti-abortion politics that were (and still are) so pervasive in parts of this country—was brave and righteous. My friend Grace and I were hooked. After that, we saw DiFranco wherever we could, driving to Boston or New York to see her perform in bigger, flashier venues. We were high on her lyrics—which were as urgent, feminist, sexy, and independent as (we hoped) we were.
For many budding feminists in the early 1990s, Difranco’s lyrics were more than just songs. They were a roadmap for how we wanted to live our lives—or, in some cases, affirmation for how we were already living. Her music was powerful, addictive—watching her on stage produced feelings of euphoria the likes of which I haven’t experienced often in my forty-five years. Her small size—she stood five foot two—belied her power as a singer and a performer. She belted out her songs; she attacked her acoustic guitar, playing percussively and loud and used fake nails reinforced with electrical tape instead of a guitar pick. Her sound was exciting, but her lyrics were electrifying. DiFranco sang about topics no one else our age dared to speak about: abortion (“Lost Woman Song,” “Tiptoe,” “Hello Birmingham”), periods (“Blood in the Boardroom,” “My IQ”), sexual assault (Gratitude), atheism (What if No One’s Watching), and women who settle (“The Slant,” “Fixing her Hair,” “Worthy,” etc.). And, like any self-respecting folksinger, she sang about heartache, love, and sex—sometimes all in the same song. Though on the surface DiFranco came across as angry and provocative (especially to her male listeners), her songs were also poetic, reflective, and downright seductive. “Overlap,” a brooding song on Out of Range, starts,
I search your profile / For a translation
I study the conversation / Like a map
‘cuz I know there is strength in the differences
and I know there is comfort where we overlap
Because she was so prolific—producing, on average, one new album each year—we fans never had to grow tired of what DiFranco had to offer. First there was her eponymous album (I still have the worn-out cassette version) then—in quick succession—Not So Soft (1991), Imperfectly (1992), Puddle Dive (1993), Like I Said (1993), Out of Range (1994), and Not a Pretty Girl (1995). We haven’t even gotten to Dilate—which may be my favorite of her albums, full of righteous anger—or Little Plastic Castles.
DiFranco’s fans were legendary for their intense identification with her and her music. When I took my male cousin with me to see her perform at New York City’s Irving Plaza in the late 1990s, he marveled at how her audience knew all the words to all her songs. “That doesn’t happen at a Liz Phair concert,” he said. In her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, she expresses gratitude to these very same ardent fans:
Even in deepest obscurity, I was blessed with listeners who supported and affirmed my existence in the way that I so craved, but also, right from the beginning, I was challenged by their high demands. The intensity in me, naturally found its likeness in the world.
Ani (pronounced “AH-nee”) DiFranco was born Angela DiFranco in Buffalo, New York, in 1970. Her father was the first American-born son of an Italian family from Campobasso (near Naples), and her mother, who studied architecture, was Canadian. In the memoir DiFranco provides an indelible image of a kid who embraced being different from an early age.
I was the wildly expressive girl with the rainbow socks pulled up over my overalls and pigtails in my hair. A bright smiling clown. I was my wildly expressive mother’s understudy and I earned the label “weird” from the other kids.
DiFranco expressed her independence from a young age. At eight or so (she doesn’t give an exact age), she read about a horse camp in the back of the Sunday New York Times and negotiated with her parents to pay half. (She earned the remaining half by selling pressed-flower greeting cards, babysitting, and busking.) At age 15, she became an emancipated minor, renting a room from a Lebanese woman in Buffalo, while gigging around town with Michael Meldrum, her first musical mentor. (She relied on her dad’s Social Security check to pay rent, but later got a job waiting tables at a Greek diner.) In high school, she told the principal that if he didn’t allow her to graduate in three years (still squeezing in all her needed credits), she’d quit and get a GED. He assented, as long as she promised to be discreet. “It was a theme that was just starting to appear in my life: Okay, I will let you be the exception, just don’t tell anyone,” she writes. “I didn’t know it at the time, but this theme was to carry all the way through to my eventual relationship with the music industry and its gatekeepers.” She recorded her first demo tape in 1990, the same year she founded Righteous Babe Records, her label. She was not yet twenty years old.
She moved to New York and attended the New School in Greenwich Village, studying poetry with poet/musician Sekou Sundiata, a lasting influence on her writing. She also took Feminism 101, where she read Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange, and Carol Gilligan. “I knew it right away: I am a part of the feminist continuum. I am entering myself,” writes DiFranco of that education. This class was also where she re-discovered the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whose “lost baby poem,” about having an illegal abortion, helped her put words to her own abortion. Difranco’s Lost Woman Song is dedicated to Clifton and she’d often recite “lost baby poem” on stage as an invocation before singing her own.
DiFranco’s memoir is as bold as her songwriting. In straightforward, vivid prose, we learn about her brother’s mental illness, the circumstances surrounding her two abortions, and details about past lovers. She opens one early paragraph with this revelation: “I’m not sure if this is typical but I, personally, had seen a lot of penises by the time I was ten.” Men exposing themselves to young girls “seemed like the kind of thing that just happens, like thunder, to make you suddenly jump out of your skin.” She and her friend Ingeri develop a sixth sense for flashers and learned how to avoid them—an experience which is perfectly conveyed as both horrifying and utterly normal.
On the question of musical influences, DiFranco reveals that she’s always been “somewhat sincerely stumped.” “For one thing, who stops and examines themselves in the middle of a journey?,” she asks, quite wisely. But I enjoyed learning that the man she refers to only as “First Boyfriend” exposed her to Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, “and a host of other heroes of the hippie cosmos.” Joan Armatrading and British singer/songwriter John Martyn got deeply under her skin, especially Martyn’s record, Solid Air. “I believe his guitar playing resides deep inside mine and his circular, jazz-inflected grooves wove their way slowly into my DNA,” DiFranco writes. She also met and listened to Suzanne Vega (“something about her presence provided me with subliminal proof of my own difference”) and absorbed John Fahey and the Beatles. Later, she would discover jazz (coincidentally around the same time she discovered cannabis)—specifically Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Betty Carter—and groove music and West African musicians like Baaba Maal, Mansour Seck, and Farka Touré. Even Prince, who she eventually meets while on tour with saxophonist Maceo Parker, is an influence. (I’ll never forget DiFranco’s rapturous cover of When Doves Cry at a concert in Edmonton, Canada.)
Meanwhile, the memorable backstory to her first abortion is a tender reminder of how easy it is to get pregnant—even when you’re educated and responsible and trying so hard not to. She begins by recounting her pre-sex preparations:
I must have been the only teenage virgin to ever walk into the Buffalo Planned Parenthood to properly plan for having her first run-in with a penis because I was an instant celebrity. The nurse practitioner took me around the whole office and introduced me to everyone. They all acted proud of me and it felt like I was giving them hope. Maybe some of the educational efforts they had been putting forth were having an effect on society. Maybe the world was changing for young women.
DiFranco leaves with a prescription for the pill and general approbation, but “in those days the pill was like a hormonal sledgehammer” and she feels dizzy every time she stands up. Predictably, she stops taking it and, well— “Instantly I was pregnant,” she writes.
“Why, why would you stop taking it?” the nurse asked me as I cried in her office. “I don’t know,” I whimpered, “I just made a mistake.”
In the end, severely depressed, she opts for an abortion—“This was a solvable problem, not the end of my life”—and returns to writing poems and songs, playing her guitar, and becoming the significant musician we know her as today. Later in the book, after a profound philosophical disquisition about when life starts, and the admission that she’s happily carried two children to term, DiFranco re-affirms a belief in the right to abortion. “Every situation is unique and every woman is right when she decides what is right for herself,” she writes. “Reproductive freedom should be understood as a civil right.”
Her fan base loved her bold declarations about abortion; her complexity was less tolerated. As DiFranco described in her early (somewhat meteoric) rise, she grappled with the power of her iconography and what she represents to her mainly young and female fans. When she fell in love with and later married Goat (her male sound engineer), for example, a certain portion of her vocal dyke fans felt betrayed—and let her know. Though she now concedes that the media probably gave the conflict outsized attention, DiFranco was hurt by the relentlessness of the criticism. In the memoir, she sums it up:
There had really been no more backlash against my marriage than there had been to every other thing I’d ever done but, after a certain number of repetitions, I doubted even the weight of my own experience.
Even though DiFranco writes that she finds it insulting that someone might ask her who a song is about, one of the great joys of reading her memoir is hearing echoes of her lyrics in the stories she shares. “My parents were patriotic about paying taxes and taught me all of what you get for it in America,” she writes in the first chapter. “They not only voted, but my mother volunteered her time to local candidates she believed in. I sat with her stuffing envelopes and licking stamps in circles of laughing women and I went canvassing door to door holding onto her hand” (a story I’d heard in “Paradigm,” from her album Knuckle Down). I’d always wondered about a lyric from “Cradle and All”—and now I know its origins: the Trico plant she refers to in the song (which moved to Mexico) is a windshield wiper factory, based in Buffalo. Later she talks about the end of her relationship with First Boyfriend, and how his resistance to breaking up included punching things. “There were holes in the plasterboard right next to where my head had been,” she writes, an image that devoted fans will remember from Out of Range. Sometimes, she even tells us who she wrote a song about. For instance, “If He Tries Anything” was about her Mexican road trip with Shawnee.
No Walls and the Recurring Dream is a delightfully picaresque memoir, but there are some glaring omissions. For one thing, though the book is chronological (for the most part), she’s not consistent about giving dates. Also, DiFranco only glancingly mentions her two children—Petah and Dante. (And we never learn who their father is, or if he’s still her partner.) I didn’t expect them to be the centerpiece of this story, but I was curious—as I assume many of her fans are—to hear whether motherhood has changed her priorities and informed her songwriting and activism.
As a parent of a teenage girl, I was eager to know how she navigates the twin issues of screen time and sugar: is she like her dad, who said, “Let them eat a box of donuts! They will get sick and throw up and they will learn!,” or like her more structured mom? And how does an artist like DiFranco encourage the kind of boredom that leads to hours of creative exploration, the kind of solitude that she herself knew well as a teen, but that few children experience these days due to the siren song of social media, video games, and Netflix? I’m afraid we’ll never know, although there is one clue to her parental prerogatives. On page 167, after describing the Mexican adventure with her friendturned- lover Shawnee, she does give a word of advice to her daughter: “It’s all okay but the hitchhiking. That shit’s just too dangerous.”
In her final pages, she divulges that her children have always been jealous of her music. “Both my kids looked instantly upon my guitar as the enemy,” she writes. “Goddess forbid Mommy should start playing and get that faraway look in her eyes … If I am in the same city with them, and they are awake, songwriting is forbidden. It would be like taking air out of their lungs.” Other than that hint, DiFranco doesn’t reveal much of anything that happened in her life after 2001—including the nine albums she’s produced since then. DiFranco writes,
You’ll have to forgive me. I only ever intended this book to be the “making of” story. I probably should’ve warned you at the onset. The remake is a story that is still writing itself, right now. A story so much in motion that words couldn’t even begin to nail it down. But rest assured, the greatest happiness, fulfillment, and accomplishments of the girl in this book are still ahead of her.
The inside dope of DiFranco’s life remains hers to reveal to her fans, or not. Her honesty, it’s clear, still shines brightest in her songs—which continue to evolve, as she does.
Hannah Wallace is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about food, health, and sustainable agriculture. Whenever she gets the chance, she also writes about strong women—be they activists, artists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, or chefs.
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully By Karen Havelin
New York, NY: Dottir Press, 2019, 280 pp., $16.95, paperback
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
We live in a noisy time. The noise of culture, politics, identity—and that particularly noisy place where they all intersect. It’s the era of voices once silenced being heard—shouted from rooftops, celebrated and liberated. Women, people of color, LGBTQ, and survivors of violence, sexual or otherwise, are for the first time speaking and writing about their experiences. Inherent to narratives of suppressed voices is pain. The pain is at the hands of an oppressor or a predator, either individual or a system or group, and clearly villainous. The best of these narratives can carry us, their readers, into, through and, finally, to triumph over that pain. Our hearts ache and soar alongside of a hero/heroine’s journey, as we align ourselves with them and revel in their successes. It feels good.
Karen Havelin’s debut novel Read This Leaflet Carefully is a different beast altogether, but no less potent. It is quiet and its transcendence comes not from the triumph over the villain, but from something else, something that challenges us to bravery in the face of no clear end. We are dropped into the life of a woman in her early thirties, Laura Fjellstad, who has long suffered from allergies to almost everything and, since her late teens, chronic pain from extreme endometriosis (a condition wherein the lining of the uterus spills out and creates a web of painful scar tissue throughout the pelvic cavity and sometimes beyond, resulting in everything from gastrointestinal issues to pain throughout the body to infertility). In this story, the villain is a lifetime of illness and pain—invisible to the outside world, as the body attacks itself from the inside. There is no visible handicap or assailant, save for moments when pain becomes unbearable and results in collapse. Internally, though, it is crashing noises and blinding white hot flashes. Externally, it’s a life of “grin and bear it” and being rewarded for not taking up space, not being a victim. The great accomplishment of this book is how it navigates what is created by the friction between the two.
The character of Laura is perfectly rendered in Havelin’s steady, unflinching prose as a real human being, simmering with rage at not being seen or heard or wanted as she is. Chronic pain is not unlike mental health in that it can elicit judgment and fatigue, even from the most loving and well intentioned among us. Society rewards the noble sufferer. The afflicted is dependent on everyone: doctors, family, friends, even strangers on a subway train. Havelin deftly navigates the murky waters of what the true voice of chronic physical pain is, and moreover, what simply being human and loving is. There’s a thrilling ferocity to this character. She simply is. She is brave, she is afraid, she is petty, she is resentful, and she is noble. About her divorce, Laura says,
The failure of our marriage hinged on him giving in to the temptation of secretly believing my illness was my fault. That there was some abstract, heroic, grand gesture to be performed, but I refused to do it.
That is at the crux of this story. Who is allowed to call herself brave, who is a victim and how should she behave to be deserving of love, pity, and empathy?
The novel moves back in time through Laura’s life, and through Laura’s body, from 2016, when she is a single mother of a toddler in New York City, all the way to 1995, at which point she is an underweight but strong fourteen-year-old figure skater in Bergen, Norway, beset by deadly allergies and illness since infancy. The narrative device is particularly effective—and poignant—because the reader becomes omniscient; we know what happens, what young Laura has ahead of her, as we move back in time. We know what each decision will result in, and we ache or rejoice all the more for it. The book is interspersed with passages from a book about figure skating and as we travel back in time with Laura we learn that she was once a competitive skater. That her brain had such control and symmetry with her body, that she could train and then will a form of perfection on the ice. Her body was once hers, it once obeyed her. We first meet Laura as a New Yorker, a European runaway from the shackles of being the family member who is sick and must be cared for, and the attendant guilt. In America, she is not simply the patient. She is the graduate, the mother, the writer; she has movement, hope, love, marriage (then divorce) to a man possessed with what she calls “rude health.” Laura embraces New York because New York is not afraid of hurting her. It’s refreshing. In New York there’s a freedom to the rough anonymity and the shoddy healthcare.
It turns out that the rest of the world is more like me than it’s like Norway. I’m more at home around people whose lives seem as hopeless and disrupted as mine does. My long list of allergies, which made me a freak growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, barely raises an eyebrow in New York City.
We are in Laura’s body from the moment we first see her in the gynecologist’s office, legs in stirrups. The prose is not heavy handed, but simply suffused with the physicality of the experience, familiar to any woman who has endured the necessary prodding and awkward conversation over paper draped across the knees. Havelin writes, about the female body, “there are so many things that swell, ache, cramp and drop.” That body remains a mysterious inner landscape in this culture, understood by some, but only partially, especially when it comes to pain, allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities. Women occupy a strange no-woman’s-land of intolerance and ridicule on one end and pious judgment on the other. Things like the wellness website GOOP and its like have arisen, in large part, to address the murky hinterlands of pain that describe much of women’s experience. They explore alternative treatments to ill-researched and puzzling afflictions because women’s health concerns have long been ignored or easily dismissed as based in mental illness. Women have been trained, as Laura has, to “behave” with doctors and accept it when they’re told it’s nothing. At age 25, before Laura is finally diagnosed with endometriosis, her doctor treats her for depression and psychosomatic stomach issues.
In real life, endometriosis itself has only recently been identified and treated as a real condition. Lena Dunham has very publicly written of having a hysterectomy as a long-shot solution to the pain of her own endometriosis. On the other extreme, current, earnest, wellness fascism asks, have you done enough acupuncture and steamed your vagina as well as invested in extremely rare mushroom potion and organic biodynamic kale? Laura is conscientious in her care for herself, availing herself of the laundry list of alternative modalities alongside of the regular doctor ’s visits. Meditation, acupuncture, yoga, therapy, the list goes on. There is a sense, though, throughout the novel, that she is to blame no matter what.
As the story progresses (or retrogresses) we travel through the landscape of pain and love and where Laura falls on that spectrum. We meet lovers—men and women—family, friends, all of whom do their best in love and care and still casually humiliate Laura with asides and judgments. Perhaps most bittersweet and painful is the effect on love. Love will always be a hurdle for those who have to juggle need with being perceived as too needy. Either the lover or the loved will push away, disengage. Laura is left by lovers. But then, Laura also rejects the man who does stand by her side, who will take care of her. As we move back in time we find out that she saw herself as freeing him from that role of caretaker. Laura, like anyone, wants to be loved as she is, taken care of, but also to be free. The shame of illness and its effects are explored with generosity here: the, to put it bluntly, stupid, stupid, sad choices we make around shame. The stupid things people say. The stupid decisions to leave a loved one, to “free” him from caring, only to realize years later, that that may not have been the kind thing. There is a beautiful muscular physicality to the book, pulsing through cities and bodies and between characters. Some of the book’s best moments are when Havelin carries us into Laura, describing the sensations of walking, holding a child, having sex, being poked and prodded. There is something of a fever dream to it. It’s almost as if the plot is beside the point. It enhances the science fiction-like quality of pain, how it takes over the body, how it renders a woman helpless when she defiantly does not wish to be helpless, and how it is invisible. (Sigourney Weaver in Alien came to mind reading this book, in a good way.)
Perhaps I would have a better life if I could manufacture more meaning from it all. Through illness, you mostly just get screwed. You lose so much time, putting in full days of misery and there is really no end to how bad it can get. Time spent suffering didn’t teach me anything I wanted to learn. But perhaps as time passes, it’s possible to learn not to blame yourself. Life is hard enough. Take what is offered, because it might not always be around. You can’t be harder and harder, stronger and stronger, more and more disciplined until you compress into a diamond. People aren’t mineral or metal. They are soft flesh, where love and pain echo through the body. Sometimes you have to ease up, to let go. You never know what will be able to help you. Compassion and gentleness are also endless. There are limitless possibilities inside other people. They could possibly say something other than what you expected.
Although there is a very palpable lack of silver lining to the pain, there is still hope to be found in these pages. The story is bookended by Laura figure skating, first as a grown woman and then as a teenager with everything ahead of her. It is her strength, her sense of control over her body and how she finds beauty in her body. We know when we read the final part, set in 1995, what the young teenager will experience and we know it will be awful. But we also know that this character is triumphant in her way. That even with all the loss, she will love and be loved. She will find joy in being clung to and needed by her own child. It’s a story that not only gives voice to the invisible specter of constant physical pain, but it also challenges our notions of what constitutes happy endings and how meandering and messy the whole picture can be, with joy and pain interwoven. This book is ultimately not simply a view into chronic pain; it is also a close-up of how we love. How we see ourselves in the eyes and actions of those we love, and how we negotiate the freedom to take up the space we deserve. Of what could have been and how we wrestle with what is.
Kira von Eichel is a writer in Brooklyn.
How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide By Crystal M. Fleming
Boston, MA; Beacon Press, 2018, 230 pp., $23.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
For the last six months, I have been on a book tour for a children’s picture book I wrote and illustrated about whiteness and abolishing white supremacy. I always read the book the same way, but my talks before and after are completely different on account of all of the different points of entry to any discussion of racism—its causes and its solutions.
Take adult audiences: With the exception of spaces held by a majority of Black adults, I could never assume a shared understanding about what racism is or even a consensus that it exists. Though I am rarely challenged in spaces with a majority of white adults, I don’t dare take the silence in those rooms as agreement or alignment with Black Liberation. I focus on the ones nodding, with flushed faces and soft eyes. They are getting—or, at least, feeling—something. I cannot guess at the rest. Children’s audiences tend to be different. At a library event in Sonoma County with a class of second graders where almost all of the children were Brown, fluent in Spanish, and studying English, I wondered how they’d make sense of a book about whiteness. Their teacher later reported that during the art activity, she overheard students asking each other, “Are we white?” “I don’t know—are you?” “Am I?”
At the Henry Ford Academy of Creative Studies High School in Detroit, which has a majority African American student population, the aspect of my book that drew the most curiosity was that a “Caucasian” person cared. I noted their use of “Caucasian” to replace my use of the word “white” and sensed, in the careful way students used it with me, that it was a more respectful alternative to a word they, fairly, associated with ignorance, cruelty, and indifference to the lives of Black people. I wonder how we will ever get on the same page when we have never read, let alone lived, the same story?
Dr. Crystal M. Fleming wondered likewise and wrote a book for these times. How To Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide speaks into the chasms that persist between those who experience racism and anti- Blackness in a bodily, generational, encompassing way (as many Black people do) and those who may not know a single freaking thing about it (as my target audience of young white children and many of their adults do not).
Fleming, who identifies as a queer, bisexual, Black woman, begins with the “The Origins of Racial Stupidity”—her own. “Despite being a child of the 1960s and ’70s, and living through the civil rights and Black Power eras,” writes Fleming, “Mom never spoke to me about discrimination or desegregation or anything related to oppression, really—at least, not until I began formally studying these matters in graduate school.” This was a choice on her mother’s part to shield her daughter from the damaging effects of negative stereotyping in childhood. “I had no fucking idea that we in the United States live in a racist (and sexist and classist) society until I was a full-grown adult.” Her own process of becoming less stupid about race makes Fleming an ideal guide for those of us on that path, especially those of us cursing a blue streak along that path. Today, Fleming is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Faculty in Gender and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She earned her Ph.D. and master’s at Harvard and her first book explored white supremacy in France.
She calls race “a fundamentally stupid idea” and “inherently ridiculous,” as do I, even in the presence of children as young as two and three years old— which is the age when kids of every race and skin tone have been observed expressing the racist bias that has already invaded their soft, small bodies. This perpetuation of racial stupidity across centuries involves “the misrepresentation, minimization, denial, and justification of racial domination.” It’s no accident that we grow up deluded into believing that kindness and hope will someday change the world. Our ignorance and magical thinking serve to keep oppressive structures in place.
“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power,” writes Fleming. While we are all immersed in stereotypes about social groups, “we do not all occupy the same position in the racial order.”
Case in point: Fleming’s own experience of being shielded from racist injustice in childhood bears a lot in common with a white child raised with no education in the catastrophe of systemic racism—yet the different manifestation of that ignorance is everything. When you’re Black and your mom protected you from knowing too much too soon, you go along not realizing the ways that white supremacy is impacting you. In the author’s case, she came to see that white supremacy propped her up as a model minority, exceptional, better than, separate—devastatingly so, as this severed her from her own intuition, authority, community, and ancestry.
When you’re white and don’t know what that means in terms of a personal, cultural, and national identity built on the lie of liberty and justice for all, you go along unaware of the innumerable ways you’ve been weaponized to advance white supremacy. “The costs of taking a superficial approach to addressing racism are quite high,” writes Fleming, “—and fall squarely on the shoulders of people of color.”
How we feel about racism is practically irrelevant. We can ignore it, deny it, despise it, defend it—none of this makes any difference in the lives of the people directly impacted. But until we—all of us—activate ourselves to expose and reckon with white supremacy where it’s rooted in our minds and bodies, in our intimate relationships, in what we read and who we listen to, and in the spaces where we bank, work, pray, earn degrees, and do yoga, this vile machine of destruction, theft, and incarceration will keep purring along, 100 percent by design. Our ignorance didn’t create this system, but its maintenance does depend on it.
This is the kind of book I want to download directly into my brain, to cure my own ignorance about how white supremacy is ingrained into every facet of American life. Fleming’s research and analysis tracks how racist injustice is maintained in media, education, and our deeply racist political system, among conservatives and liberals alike.
I’d like to take a quiz on how Fleming’s Gaslighting Fallacy of White Supremacy differs from her Whites-Only Fallacy and her Black Supremacy Unicorn Fallacy. And I want to memorize whole paragraphs like this one, so I never forget how strong the conditioning is to fail to see our complicity:
Americans have been socialized to look on the bright side despite centuries of colonial and racial violence, torture, and the oppression of minorities. Our problem is not and has never been overreacting to racial terror. Our problem is the hegemony of under-reaction, denial, minimization. Ours is a society that has always socialized white folks to live in the midst of racial oppression but go on with their lives like normal. At every turn, those who oppose white supremacy have been met with denial, violence, “race card” accusations, or magnificent claims about progress. It seems that in the minds of many white liberals, we should all be celebrating the fact that most of us are not physically in chains. White supremacy wants you to look at four hundred years of uninterrupted racial terror and conclude “Things aren’t so bad.”
Her chapter called “Listen to Black Women” aligns with my own process of becoming less stupid about race, as my activism was remade in every way by internalizing and crediting the voices of Black women. She highlights the “intersectional sensibility” of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, whose leadership “explicitly brings the problems of antiblackness and state violence into dialogue with the marginalization of queer lives and trans lives.” This “sophistication and complexity” draws together the “radical coalitions” that will shift the culture. The chapter “Interracial Love 101” emphasizes the “continuous commitment to unlearn” that is vital to our building actual intimacy across racial bounds. “What we need, quite desperately,” writes Fleming, “is the willingness to cultivate revolutionary love, grounded in knowledge, compassion, courage, and collective action.” Two grueling chapters on Obama and Trump offer plenty of incentive to shed illusions about our current terrible mess and how far we are from getting through it.
In the “Fake Racial News” chapter, Fleming holds mainstream media to the fire: “When it comes to the fine art of not giving a fuck about black people and other people of color, the New York Times really is in a league of its own.” This claim, as with all the others, is backed up with research and egregious examples of this newspaper and other widely respected news sources, including the New Yorker, “providing a platform for white nationalists and presenting white supremacy as ‘just another side.’” Each example offers searing proof of just how far white supremacy, and only white supremacy, has progressed in this country. The only way we will halt its momentum is by catching it in the act—and that means knowing its ways: where it lives (in us) and how it moves (relentlessly). This is something we haven’t tried before as a collective. Drop all defensiveness, abandon hope, and as DeRay Mckesson says: “Watch whiteness work.” Two more things we haven’t yet tried en masse, which Fleming also mentions throughout the book: the value of a mindfulness, meditative, and spiritual practice to heal trauma, prevent burnout, and keep the mind-spirit-body connection flowing, and the urgency to get this information to young people so they grow up wiser and in touch with their own power, responsibility, and collective potential.
Among other things, that means bursting white kids’ bubbles, quick—the one that so many adults who benefit from whiteness like to believe gradually dissolves as grown-up realities (such as Blackness and the truth about Thanksgiving) can’t be kept out any longer.
Every time a white parent laments that a book like mine will end their child’s innocence (the way a book like Fleming’s will end theirs), I remind them that they, and we, and I, and you were all born into a system that has set up white children to be anything but innocent. At best, white kids can expect to become accidental oppressors, enriched even as they are de-souled.
So long as we offer white children no choice but to advance white supremacy actively or passively, we leave the entire burden of navigating, dismantling, and staying alive within white supremacy on the shoulders of Black and Brown children. That right there is white supremacy at work. Or rather, that is white supremacy pouring itself a pitcher of martinis at 5 pm, after another successful century of work.
We cannot afford to be that stupid. In fact, we never could.
Anastasia Higginbotham is the creator of the Ordinary Terrible Things series of children’s books, which includes Divorce Is the Worst and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.
Territory of Light By Yuko Tsushima
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 192 pp, $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Domenica Ruta
A single mother moves with her young daughter into a new apartment suffused with light, but it is in the vacant apartment downstairs where she lurks in the middle of the night that her heart finds fleeting peace. In this transcendent novel by the late Yuko Tsushima, vacancies both real and symbolic become the space where human emotions not permitted to exist elsewhere are cast and poorly contained. The top-floor apartment, with its blood red floors, abundant windows, and symbolic promise of renewal, is at once a physical incarnation of a desperate woman’s direst hopes and fears.
Set in 1970s Tokyo, Territory of Light is ostensibly based on the author’s lived experience. Tsushima never names the female protagonist, leaving her to be known only in terms of the husband who abandoned her, Fujino. She works as an archivist at a radio library. Her husband, a fickle aspiring actor and producer, urges his castoff wife to move in with her widowed mother, but a combination of pride and shame make this option out of the question for her. Her first steps toward independence are tenuous, as she relies on her husband to help find a new home for her and their daughter. “I was enjoying the feeling of being swept along by a man … All I had to do was follow his instruction.” But the comfort of their looking together becomes farce as they tour apartments that are increasingly more expensive and untenable. Just then, an auspicious apartment on the fourth floor of an unremarkable office building becomes available.
“Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother.”
Territory of Light is a story of floods and fires, bedwetting and vomit, a story composed of elements both earthly and ethereal. A small leak somewhere in her new building becomes a flood on the floors below, and she is unfairly held responsible. Another single mother she meets in the park is the cause of a fire that destroys a building in the neighborhood. Later, the mentally handicapped son of a different single mother falls to his death while playing alone on the deck; trouble is always adjacent to the protagonist’s life like this, as though an otherworldly warning, a rebuke saying: in a parallel life, this could be your fire, your flood, your child dead. Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension so richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother that lines of metaphor dissolve leaving only the shadow of dread on every page. Not all is existential and elemental in the life of this woman and her little daughter. The realities of life as a single mother are all too real; her loneliness and isolation and feelings of resentment toward her toddler grow in proportion to her lack of sleep.
Every week, the morning of my one day off plays out the same way. “There’s milk, sliced bread, whatever you want, just help yourself,” I tell her, not opening my eyes. The lull that follows allows me to drop trustingly off again, until my daughter breaks into more tears: I spilled the milk, I wet my pants. The glass broke … And yet I never learn: I go on sleeping in on Sundays. I go for every minute I can get. I continue to meld my body into the bedclothes, believing the tiredness will vanish if I give it just a little longer.
But she gets up, day after day, sometimes cursing her daughter, sometimes keeping her home from school in her exhaustion. She leaves her alone to go drinking at night. In desperation for adult contact, she gets attached to a college boy, the former student of her ex-husband, only to be humiliated and rejected by him as well.
Where is her husband in all this? The narrator is left to speculate. He calls her at work sometimes, angry she cannot give him more attention over the phone, while her boss listens in at their open plan office. Then her husband disappears for months without a word. She hears he has taken up with an older woman; she feels no jealousy. Every person in her small life—her mother, her former friends, even the director of the PTA who sleeps with her one pitiable night—urge her to reconcile with her husband, as though she were the one who left the marriage. Even a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all. The narrator steadfastly rejects this and files for divorce, where she is treated by the double indignity of a mediator who places all responsibility and blame on her, and an ex-husband who cannot even show up to sign divorce papers.
Life marches on. Time in this novel has the feeling of a slow, oppressive progression and stagnation all at once. Broken into twelve chapters and published monthly in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo from 1978- 1979, Territory of Light chronicles the first year of Mrs. Fujino’s and her daughter ’s life on their own. This translation, by the lapidary Geraldine Harcourt, has the compression of poetry, the crackle of hyperrealism and the gloaming tension of a winter nap in late afternoon. In the end, the narrator decides to leave the top floor apartment that was her cocoon into independence. This setting, once so full of promise, looks different now, its “reddish light so bright it was almost suffocating.” She moves with her daughter to a more ordinary residential building with much less light, but more hospitable to children. No more vacancies hovering just below the surface; this new home comes with a cranky downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged woman who, the old tenants warn, yells at them through the walls. The narrator is undaunted. There will be new troubles, and new opportunities, as well. A feeling of hope and triumph can radiate from nowhere special.
Domenica Ruta is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir With or Without You, a darkly hilarious mother-daughter story and a chronicle of a misfit nineties youth. Her most recent book is Last Day: A Novel. She lives in New York City.