We Are Taking Only What We Need
By Stephanie Powell Watts
Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2011, 209 pp., $15.95, paperback
Bobcat and Other Stories
By Rebecca Lee
Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013, 212 pp., $14.95, paperback
Reviewed by Trish Crapo
I love the novel. I’ve confessed this in this column before—I am completely smitten and have been since I was about eight years old, when I devoured C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and my older sister’s collection of Nancy Drews. Of course I love my life, but I also love the way a novel completely obliterates it. I love to be pulled so completely into the lives of characters and into worlds so completely alien from my own that I’m gone for days.
Or, in the case of a big book like War and Peace, which I finally finished, or Moby Dick, which I am still struggling to finish, a novel can engage me in a long-term, on-again-off-again relationship that takes months or even years to resolve. And as anyone who has been in one of these relationships knows, until you finish the thing, even when you’re “off” you’re “on.”
But this summer—perhaps because I was struggling with Moby Dick, or perhaps because I spent half the summer in travel, some of it unexpected and not particularly recreational—I rediscovered the joy of the short story. And loving the short story again got me thinking about what makes a short story great.
First of all, it’s short. And that’s convenient. It’s entirely possible to absorb a short story while sitting at an airplane gate, where I would never crack open Moby Dick. So much easier to stare at the mind-numbing televisions (CNN anyone?) in airport terminals or slip that rumpled magazine out of the seat pocket onboard and browse the articles about up-and-coming Albuquerque or five-star vineyards in the hills outside Traverse City, Michigan—which happened to be the destination of one of my trips, though not the one during which I read the article.
But it just so happened that I looked up from that in-flight magazine and saw, across the aisle, two people reading the same article about the vineyards in Traverse City, and rather than thinking, “Isn’t this great, we’re all connected because we’re all reading the same thing!” I thought, “Oh my God, we’re all reading because we’re bored!”
The next trip, I packed two collections of short stories from my Women’s Review of Books box. Lucky for me, they both turned out to be good choices—which speaks to the power of a good title and interesting cover design. And these two collections reminded me that another thing short stories have going for them is that they’re potent. And potent can be exactly what you need when you finally sit down after dragging your sorry carry-on all over a major metropolitan airport, jam-packed with chain restaurants and abuzz with fluorescent light. You need a shot of real life. Which, oddly enough, can often be delivered only through fiction.
Stephanie Powell Watts had me on the first page of her collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. Her narrator speaks with such blunt honesty and self-preserving humor about the messed-up family in which she finds herself that I couldn’t help but be drawn in:
In April 1976 my uncle Silas on my daddy’s side got out of jail early after two years and five months of time served for arson. We welcomed him with dinners and back slaps, ignored the pink guilty splotches on his face, places on his skin that would never fully heal
That summer the family celebrates “the bicentennial for white people”—“Whose 200 years of freedom?” the narrator asks—and watches in surprise as their “tall and big-boned” Aunt Ginny, at 41, finds a husband in five-foot, round-bellied Gerald.
One of most memorable characters in the entire collection, Aunt Ginny, who is really the narrator’s cousin, gives her some plum advice:
“Do some things you want to do in your life. Hear?”
“Shut up, Aunt Ginny. God,” I said, hating the lessons I was sure came to Aunt Ginny from hard experience.
“I’m serious. Don’t wait around. Like sex. Do it as much as you can. I’m telling you the truth. One day, you’ll look over your lifetime of being a good girl and doing all the things you were supposed to and you’ll be as mad and crazy as I am.”
Whether they are young women trying to come to terms with their own love lives, kids caught in the middle of their parents’ love lives, black Jehovah’s Witnesses trolling the back roads of rural North Carolina, or a phone operator at a National Kennel Club dog registry, Watts’s characters make the best of what they have, which is not much. They are, as one character, Tash, puts it, “dirt-roaders,” living in “hick, nothing towns.”
In “Welcome to the City of Dreams,” Tash’s mother takes her and her little brother, Gary, away from their father in the back woods of Millsap, North Carolina, to an apartment complex in Raleigh, to start a new life. Tash and Gary are not impressed with the empty, generic apartment. And when, not surprisingly, the new life quickly reveals itself to include a new boyfriend, who shows up with a mismatched collection of lawn chairs, boxes of dishes, and a beat-up brown recliner, Tash thinks, “If you have never seen poverty it will scare you. Junk packed because it was hard-won. Still I resented Reggie his poverty. He had nothing. At least Daddy had furniture.”
In “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” another story that begins with a family member just released from jail, the narrator advises, “Always start with love. That’s what our grandmother says. Start with love, and when it fails, like it will, knock the hell out of the truth.” That might be an apt description of Watts’ attitude as she goes about writing her stories. Though I’m not convinced Watts—or her characters—really believe that love will fail. I think they just know how damned complicated it can be.
Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories is another collection that takes an unsentimental and uncompromising look at love, and just about everything else. This book I grabbed not entirely blindly, as I remembered having been impressed by Lee’s 2006 novel, The City Is a Rising Tide. And in some ways, I found the short story to be a better fit for Lee’s prose, providing focus for the sometimes wild rambles her characters find themselves in.
In the title story, “Bobcat,” the lawyer-narrator and her writer-husband, John, throw a dinner party at which various secrets begin to assert themselves beneath the surface of the smart—often smart-ass—conversation.
The guests include the narrator’s wise-cracking best friend Lizbet, who attended an unnamed writing program in Iowa with John; John’s agent Frances, whose intimate connection with him is an irritant to the narrator; Susan, another writer Frances represents, whose memoir, “Bobcat,” tells the story of having her arm ripped off by said beast; and a couple, Kitty and Ray Donner-Nilson, to whom John refers to behind their backs as the Donner-Blitzens. Just to make things interesting, Kitty Donner is a descendent of the infamous Donner family, who may have resorted to cannibalism in the late 1840s, during a harsh winter spent snowbound in the Sierra Nevada.
Lee handles the comic possibilities with aplomb:
“There was no cannibalism,” Kitty said. She knew what we were all thinking.
“What?” I blurted out. That was the main thing, the cannibalism.
“There’s no evidence in the fossil record.”
It was sort of disappointing, actually. Apparently the new thinking among some archeologists was that there wasn’t enough forensic evidence—knife marks on the bones, essentially—to support a conclusion of cannibalism.
“I still watch myself,” Ray said. “I watch my back.”
As they spar, they wait for various documents to arrive: Frances expects the manuscript of a new Salman Rushdie memoir to be delivered by courier at any moment, and the narrator is waiting for a legal decision regarding her Hmong immigrant client who refused to give his dying wife treatment he considered to be “Western voodoo.” The partygoers proceed through various deliciously complex dishes including a roast infused with rosemary, palm, olive and macademia oils; a trifle flavored with “anise, raspberry, and port, with a gingerbread base”; fortune cookies; mangoes.
There’s a breakneck quality to this story as it barrels through this evening jam-packed with lavish food, barely stated nuances and multilayered conversation. The end effect, for me, was to point out something my travelling was beginning to allude to as well: that no amount of distraction can ultimately hide the truth.
In the story “Min,” as unlikely as it may sound, an American woman, Sarah, ends up in Hong Kong, hired by her male friend’s father to find a wife for him. Coming upon Min, relaxing in a whirlpool at the end of his day, Sarah considers offering herself as his bride but realizes that “the hundreds of hours I had spent with Min had, by the mysterious alchemy of friendship, distilled out any romance, like the steam rising all around us now, leaving us pure, fast friends.” It’s interesting to watch as this realization leads Sarah to take her role as match-maker more seriously.
This story, too, is rich with detail and unforgettable food, such as a soup served at a monastery on the island of Lantau, that “looked like water but tasted like the ocean—salty, warm, the small a hint of every creature in the world, eel, fish, lizard, horse, human being—that had at one time passed through it.”
It occurs to me that this is what I want when I read: a concoction like this fictional soup that will fill me with the world. The stories in these two strong collections did just that.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, MA. She was recently awarded a two-week artist residency in the wild dunes near Provincetown, where she continued work on a novel as well as documented dune-shack living, using pen and paper and good, old-fashioned film.
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp
by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 248 pp., $24.95, hardcover
Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust
by Rutka Laskier
Jerusalem and New York: Time, Inc. andYad Vashem, 2008, 90 pp., $19.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Harriet Malinowitz
1929: Anne Frank is born in Frankfurt, Germany; Rutka Laskier is born in Bedzin, Poland; and Helga Weiss is born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. All are Jewish; all will confront the Holocaust; all will write diaries that will be hidden when their authors are deported; and all their diaries will be retrieved by others after the war. Anne Frank’s diary will be published in the immediate postwar period and have a huge impact on world culture. Helga Weiss will put her journal in a drawer and leave it there for more than sixty years—until she decides, “It’s high time I put my effects in order.” Rutka Laskier’s journal will remain sequestered for a similar amount of time, until the friend, now aged eighty, to whom she entrusted it finally makes it public. Anne Frank and Rutka Laskier will die in concentration camps. All three diaries will convey harrowing narratives; all three will also result in volumes that present complicated issues of authorship, genre, reception, and the relationship of personal narrative to historical events.
Anne Frank’s became the famous one—not only because of the timing of her journal’s entry into the wider world, but also because the girl who wrote it was an enormously gifted, ambitious, and disciplined artist, who makes a number of references in her diary to her literary aspirations. When she hears the suggestion, on a Dutch radio newscast, that wartime diaries and letters be collected when all is over, she envisions publishing a “romance of the ‘Secret Annexe’”—adding, “But seriously, it would seem quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here.” From other sources, we know that at that point, she began intensively revising her diary with a wider audience in mind—and that what was published in 1947 as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is actually the fruit of that revision, further redacted by her father.
In 2006, the 1943 diary of Rutka Laskier was made public, and she was immediately “dubbed the Polish Anne Frank.” Just who first dubbed her this is unclear; the analogy is serially restated in the passive voice, without elaboration. Of course, to a large extent, it’s obvious: Laskier was a perceptive, intellectually engaged girl from a well-off family, exactly Anne Frank’s age, and she kept a diary during the same period. She endured a parallel tightening of the noose of Nazi occupation in her own community, quaked with similar fears, felt caged and longed for freedom—and ultimately met the same fate. Like Frank, Laskier confessed to mood swings, eccentricity, and behavior that was not always received well by others. She, too, swiveled between documenting the terrors of her situation and recounting “normal” teenage preoccupations with boys, girlfriends, conflicts with parents, awakening sexuality, and her appearance.
But Laskier’s diary—which seems to have remained mostly intact—though studded with powerful and articulate observations, is much briefer than Frank’s. It was written between January and April 1943, and consists of sixty handwritten pages—which turned into just 23 of printed text in a very large font. Unlike Frank, who addresses her diary to “Kitty,” Laskier creates no pretense of an addressee, and she does not explain the diary’s provenance—she simply plunges right in, writing, “I cannot grasp that it is already 1943, four years since this hell began.” While Frank professed to be uninterested in politics, there are suggestions that some in Laskier’s circle, and perhaps she herself, were involved with the Polish underground resistance. (For example, she writes on March 9: “I want to learn how to work. To be a Communist and not to work doesn’t go together.”) And while Frank’s diary is rich with detail and tackles it all with a keen zest for analysis, Laskier’s tends toward the cursory and cryptic; hers is actually more diary-like in its assumption that the reader can fill in the gaps, because the reader is herself. While language and reflection were soul-saving for Frank, Laskier writes: “I don’t understand why I can’t pour out my heart even on paper. It’s very difficult to self-analyze.”
When the Germans seized Bedzin in 1939, the town’s Jews—whose long, vital history there stretched back to the thirteenth century—numbered about 21,000, or 42 percent of the total population. Characteristic Holocaust-era atrocities soon followed, including the burning of the town synagogue with 200 people inside. Laskier witnesses unspeakably traumatic events: “I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of its mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy.”
As Laskier’s diary opens, she is living with her parents and little brother in a neighborhood that the Germans have converted into an “open” Jewish ghetto—that is, they must live there, but they are not imprisoned in it 24 hours a day. The non-Jewish owners of the house have been temporarily evicted in order for Jews to be installed, but the daughter of the family, Stanislawa Sapinska, comes back to check on the property from time to time. In the process, she befriends Laskier. The two agree on a hiding place for the diary in the event of Laskier’s deportation (and this is indeed where Sapinska finds it at the war’s end).
In the course of just one diary entry that begins, “Something has broken in me,” the arc of Laskier’s ruminations ranges from “I think my womanhood has awoken in me….I have never had such sensations until now,” to a description of an Aktion, or selection, in which her parents and brother are sent to the “good” side (they may return home, for now), while she and several of her friends are placed in the area designated for those who will be deported. “The weirdest thing was that we didn’t cry at all. AT ALL,” Laskier writes. By a combination of initiative—she jumps out a first-floor window and runs away—and luck—the officer who intercepts her is drunk and doesn’t notice her yellow star—she escapes.
The diary halts abruptly, shortly before the Laskier family is transferred to the Kamionka “closed” ghetto, located in a crowded, squalid neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Some months later, an editorial note tells us, the residents of Kamionka were deported to Auschwitz. Of the Laskier family, only Laskier’s father, Yaacov, survived; he emigrated to Palestine and remarried.
Until recently, it was believed that Laskier had been gassed immediately in Auschwitz; it wasn’t until after the diary’s publication in book form that the even grislier facts came to light. Apparently, Laskier lived in Auschwitz for about six months, fell extremely ill with cholera and, unable to walk, was pushed to the crematorium in a wheelbarrow by a fellow prisoner. According to the survivor, “[Laskier] begged me to take her to the electric fence so that she could kill herself. But an SS officer with a gun was following us and wouldn’t allow it.” This was revealed in a 2009 BBC documentary (now viewable as Rutka Laskier: The Polish Anne Frank on YouTube).
Sapinska kept the diary in her own home for more than sixty years: “I treated it as my personal memory,” she explains in the BBC documentary. In 2006, she was finally persuaded by a nephew to make it public. The original volume ended up in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, and it was published in Poland and Israel before its English edition. The most remarkable feature of the diary’s afterlife was its presentation to Zahava (Laskier) Scherz—Laskier’s father’s Israeli child by his second marriage; until she was fourteen, she never knew she had had a half-sister and -brother who died. Scherz took a passionate interest in Laskier’s story and contributed two essays to this volume.
The English edition is overproduced and thickly padded with myriad voices that all but drown out Laskier’s. One can surmise that the editors felt that Laskier’s diary alone was not a book-length project and thus chose to supplement it with essays by people related in one way or another to her—or the diary’s—story. Captioned photographs of Bedzin and its people, and reproductions of documents are, of course, valuable additions, and often Laskier’s references need contextualizing. But the editors also chose to include “lessons” about the Holocaust, lest this be a reader’s first foray into it. Irritatingly, these images and commentaries, which could have been placed as appendices or endnotes, occupy the right side of each page, facing Laskier’s diary on the left (as in a bilingual edition, though this is not). Thus, Laskier’s narrative can never be the sole object of the reader’s attention, and one’s attempt to follow her words is continually interrupted unless one resolves to ignore what is under one’s nose and firmly turn the page. In addition to making the reading of Laskier’s short work confusing and pointlessly nonlinear, the design makes it difficult to sort out, in the end, what one actually gleaned from Laskier from what slipped in on the side. This, of course, may or may not matter; it all depends on what one seeks in a Holocaust narrative. (More on this later.)
Now, in 2013, another Holocaust diary of a young girl has been published. Unsurprisingly, its author, too, has been heralded as “the other Anne Frank.” Helga’s Diary is comparable to Frank’s in its breadth, and it is the only one of the three discussed here whose story continues through the Auschwitz experience and beyond, to liberation. This is only partly due to the fact that Helga Weiss is the only one of the three who survived.
As with Frank’s and Laskier’s diaries, Weiss’s inevitably ends when the worst of the nightmare begins. Her first section covers the beginnings: decampments to air raid shelters from the Weiss family’s comfortable home in Prague; the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938; the escalating restrictions on Jews’ movements and activities; round-ups and transfers. The second, longest, part encompasses the family’s deportation to, and almost three-year incarceration in, Terezín (often known by its German name, Theresienstadt)—a former military fortress turned into a transit ghetto for Jews and used as a “model” camp for international eyes by German propagandists. This meant that, amidst brutality, hard work, and carts bearing corpses in the lanes, there existed some modicum of real food, mattresses to sleep on, and sufficient staples to facilitate holiday festivities, covert schooling, and cultural events such as concerts and plays; when the Red Cross visited, cafes, boutique shops, and a carousel sprouted up as well.
Upon the Weisses’ deportation from Terezín to Auschwitz in October 1944, Weiss’s diary was preserved thanks to an uncle, Josef Polák, who fortuitously worked in the records department of Terezín. Polák bricked numerous Terezín documents, including Weiss’s diary and her many drawings, which constitute her truer métier, into a wall, where they remained safely until after the war. Ultimately, Weiss and her mother—who survived together against astounding odds (of 15,000 children deported to Auschwitz from Terezín, only 100 came out alive)—returned to their former apartment in Prague—where Weiss, now in her eighties, still lives. She resumed work on the narrative, revising in the postwar years what she had already written and, significantly, expanding the story into a third section that features the most horrific events—in Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and along the hellish course of marathon train rides and forced marches. Yet she continued to relate her memories in diary form, for dramatic immediacy. Finally, the pages were put in a drawer to yellow while, over the course of more than sixty years, Weiss raised a family and pursued a career in painting.
She explains the manuscript’s latter-day resurrection in the practical terms that characterize much of her writing: “I like things tidy and don’t want to leave a mess behind.” She learned to use a computer and, typing and printing out the earlier drafts, went on revising. She resisted using a professional editor because, as she says in a 2012 author’s note, “I fear that, with changes, the authenticity and force of the narration would be lost. May readers treat this diary charitably and accept it for what it is.”
But accepting the diary “for what it is” poses a challenge more intriguing than Weiss may have imagined. Billed as a diary and written according to the conventions of the genre, most of it actually constitutes a far more hybrid type of memoir, in which the original, “raw” events have been filtered through the voluminous Holocaust discourses of the ensuing decades. The earnest pursuit of “authenticity” has plunged more than one writer into a doomed attempt to represent the unrepresentable. At best, the line between the letter and the spirit of events when one is bearing witness may be negligible; at worst, one can be charged with outright, even deliberate, fraud. (Think of the narratives of the slave/abolitionist Harriet Jacobs and the Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, on the one hand; the hoaxes of James Frey and Holocaust love-story memoirist Herman Rosenblat on the other.)
Weiss’s case is closer to Jacobs’s and Menchu’s. There is no evidence that she sought to falsify events—only to spice up their presentation. She describes approaching Auschwitz on the train:
I can see people, but what are they wearing? It looks like pajamas, and they’ve all got the same ones….My God, those are prisoners’ clothes! .... What’s this? The train has stopped…. We’re not getting off here, surely? Or—why didn’t it occur to me earlier?—this is Auschwitz, of course.
Similarly, she describes the moment of liberation, in an entry “dated” May 5, 1945 (but written some time between late 1945 and early 2013):
What is it I see? Am I dreaming? Can I really believe it, can it be true?....[U]p high, on the tower of Mauthausen—a white flag flutters! ....The voices thrum and people repeat as if in a fevered ecstasy: PEACE, PEACE, PEACE….The woods, nature, the building is friendlier; I feel like dancing, whooping. We made it. We survived the war. PEACE IS HERE.
Was Weiss thinking of Steven Spielberg? Aristotelian catharsis? The latter-day cachet of Holocaust witness testimony? What is the point of adding hokey flair to a story that in itself is indisputably remarkable?
In contrast, consider Weiss’s visual art. One of the most interesting facets of her book is the inclusion of her many drawings, both black-and-white sketches and color plates, depicting Terezín life. It was not her initial impulse to find material in the stark realities of the camp. The first color plate, entitled “Snowman” (December 1941), depicts a cheerful winterscape in which two warmly dressed children pat the final touches on their sculpture. Its caption says, “The first picture that I made in Terezín. I smuggled it to my father in the men’s barracks and he wrote back, ‘Draw what you see!’” Thereafter, Weiss followed this good advice: pictures of soup lines, a hospital during an encephalitis epidemic, and a quarantined Polish children’s transport portray the grim realities that belie the “not-so-bad” reputation of Terezín.
In her narrative, though, she doesn’t seem to trust her senses, or honor their limits, in the same way. Numerous footnotes by her translator, Neil Bermel, indicate errors of fact and chronology, and inform us that particular entries “were rewritten extensively by Weiss after the war.” Weiss looks forward to seeing a Terezín premiere of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride, but Bermel explains that the line, inserted much later, “works thematically, but comes several months too early.” Similarly, she pronounces a lecture on Rembrandt “interesting” and muses, “I hope they keep having these lectures; I’ll definitely go again,” though it turns out that this, too, did not appear in the original manuscript. Clearly, these events lingered in her memory in the years that followed. It is certainly extraordinary, and worth noting, that arts and culture flourished amid such wretchedness. But who, exactly, is noting this? It is the Weiss of later—either immediately afterward, or in the twenty-first century, after living a full life. There is an unsettling—because unacknowledged—disjunction between that Weiss and the young girl who kept a diary.
”I don’t want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do,” Anne Frank asserted in one of her first logs. And she didn’t. Neither did Laskier. Neither did Mary Berg (whose eloquent diary of growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto I reviewed in WRB in 2008 and highly recommend). And neither did that other brilliant Holocaust memoirist, Primo Levi, nor the stunningly insightful women whose narratives, recorded in the 1980s, appear in the collection The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (1988, 1991). But Weiss’s bent was journalistic rather than literary; she was a chronicler, not a contemplator; outward-gazing rather than introspective; and perhaps she felt that the simple facts of her extremely unsimple circumstances needed a little rhetorical glitz to elevate her account from informational dossier to inspirational classic.
In any case, as both readers and writers we do a Holocaust narrative a great disservice if we reduce it simply to its plot. As narratologists have argued, the what and the how of a story are two different—albeit related—things. “[T]hings happen and they get told,” says James E. Young, a scholar of Holocaust writing (in “Toward a Received History of the Holocaust.” History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 4, December 1997). Facts don’t speak; people do.
And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the millions of people who perished, there were untold numbers of diaries that perished as well. Anne Frank’s sister Margot kept a diary we have never read; and Weiss tells Neil Bermel in an appended interview (which is actually one of the most fascinating parts of the book), “In Terezín loads of children kept diaries; and … adults as well, because people needed to come to terms with the situation and so they started to write.” I see no “other Anne Frank” in either Rutka Laskier or Helga Weiss, and I do not expect to find one among those diarists whose pages may still someday be pulled out of drawers or attics. It trivializes them to treat Frank as the template and other Holocaust diarists as reproductions, because of the commonalities of some of their circumstances. If you want world-class literary autobiography, go to Frank; if you want unique evocations of how other human beings perceived and endured the Holocaust, go to Rutka Laskier, Helga Weiss, and whatever other precious shards of humanity have been, and may still be, salvaged from the staggering rubble.
Harriet Malinowitz is professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Long Island University, Brooklyn—where the administration has denied her a sabbatical for her work on Zionism and Propaganda (while refusing to state a reason). She is grateful to her union, and to be on a unionized faculty generally. Arbitration is scheduled for late July.
Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory and Silence in Rwanda
By Jennie E. Burnet
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012, 277 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jonneke Koomen
After the genocide of 1994, a small army of English-speaking journalists, novelists, and scholars turned their attention to Rwanda for the first time. They looked to the country to make sense of perennial questions: when and why do ordinary people participate in the mass killing of their neighbors? Can people live together after genocide? Is forgiveness after atrocity possible? What contributions do women make to peace building?
Until very recently many of these international commentators, in venues such as National Public Radio, the Economist, and Business Week, uncritically echoed the Rwandan government’s portrayal of the country: in 2009, the influential political scientist and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria described Rwanda as Africa’s “biggest success story.” Zakaria implied that the country’s economic growth and apparent stability were due primarily to President Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the political-military movement of Rwandan exiles once based in Uganda, which has ruled Rwanda since it ousted the genocide leaders in July 1994. US- and UK-based observers have been particularly keen to draw attention to Rwanda’s women’s groups, efforts to promote gender equality in the education system, and women’s leadership. In 2010, the Guardian described efforts to promote women’s rights in Rwanda as “revolutionary.” Indeed, writes Jennie E. Burnet, the author of Genocide Lives in Us, the Rwandan legislature boasts the highest proportion of women members of parliament in the world, 56 percent.
In the midst of so many grand claims about Rwanda, the value of Burnet’s nuanced, in-depth study of women’s everyday lives and struggles in contemporary Rwanda cannot be overstated. Burnet makes the case for engaged and careful scholarship. Researched over a period of fifteen years, Genocide Lives in Us is one of the first long-term ethnographic studies of Rwanda since the genocide. Where many journalists write about Rwandan women as if they form a homogenous and cohesive group, Burnet presents a thoroughly intersectional analysis of the ways in which peoples’ lives are shaped by gender, ethnicity, and class as interlocking systems of oppression. In doing so, she shows how women’s ability to survive and exercise agency in postgenocide Rwanda may be either constrained or enabled by their rural-urban location, land access, literacy, and social status.
One of the study’s finest contributions is its careful analysis of the ethnically infused and politicized social categories that dominate contemporary Rwandan politics. As part of the RPF’s efforts to promote national unity in the wake of genocidal violence, open discussions of Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa ethnicity are effectively outlawed (or at least considered highly politically incorrect). Instead, “experiential categories” dominate Rwandan political discourse and structure reconstruction initiatives. In this ostensibly ethnically blind “discursive regime,” writes Burnet, pervasive and powerful terms such as “genocide victim,” “survivor,” and “old case load returnee” or “’59-er” (refugees from the 1950s and 1960s who were not in Rwandan during the genocide) denote Tutsi; while words like “perpetrators,” “killers,” “prisoners,” “infiltrators,” “new case load returnee,” (people who fled Rwanda after the genocide), and even “the population” can be used to signal Hutu. These linguistic devices allow Rwandan leaders to employ what Burnet calls “coded ethnic talk” that is clearly audible to Rwandans, though often undetected by foreign observers.
Burnet’s ethnography traces how these “experiential categories” determine women’s access to land, assistance, status, and social recognition. In particular, she examines the ways that violence experienced by Hutu and people of mixed heritage is rendered invisible in public memorialization, and how unmarried women (“maidens”), Tutsi wives of Hutu prisoners (including genocide suspects), and Hutu genocide widows are marginalized in reconstruction efforts. Burnet argues that these powerful categories serve to maintain polarizing distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, mask government-sponsored violence, and make dissidents vulnerable to accusations of genocide.
In these ways, Genocide Lives in Us takes seriously the experiences of “victims, survivors, perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses of genocide, war, and other sorts of violence” in order to delve beyond official slogans, into the messy, painful, and fraught dynamics of cohabitation and reconciliation after genocide. While acts of revenge were common in many communities, Burnet explains that often, “rural subsistence peasant farmers had little choice but to find ways to establish a local truce of some sort so that minimal amounts of cooperation and exchange could occur.” She argues that “government-sponsored memory-making and reconciliation activities prohibited the kind of honest exchange of experiences that ordinary Rwandans needed.” The RPF portrayed its gacaca initiative—large-scale, village-level hearings of genocide suspects by elected lay judges, described by Phil Clark in 2010 as “justice without lawyers”—as a grassroots reconciliation mechanism. Burnet argues, however, that many Rwandans viewed gacaca “as another imposition of the central government on local communities and as another venue in which local power conflicts worked themselves out while appearing to conform to central government policies.” Tracing ways in which the community-based hearings were at times used to settle local conflicts, usurp land, and wreak revenge on individuals and groups, Burnet explores how gacaca processes at times “deepened cleavages within communities and sowed mistrust on all sides.”
Readers do not need an extensive background in the politics of the Great Lakes region of Africa to appreciate the value of Burnet’s research. While Genocide Lives in Us will be essential reading for scholars of Rwanda, this book is highly recommended for all students of gender-based violence, human rights, and peace building. In particular, the book offers an important contribution to an emerging literature that examines how ordinary people negotiate social repair after atrocity in their everyday lives. While many authors speculate about national reconciliation in general terms, Burnet examines how particular individuals and community groups reestablish their relationships in the wake of mass violence. Her account explores the efforts of childhood friends, neighbors, and strangers to share and respond to one another’s suffering. She describes attempts to mend relationships, such as symbolic gift exchanges between former friends and frank conversations between co-workers from different ethnic groups. In doing so, Burnet points to ways that the sharing of personal histories of suffering at times may help individuals “avoid falling into generalizations and globalization of blame.”
Burnet also examines how particular congregations, women’s groups, and youth associations have achieved some success in reestablishing trust between people—though she is careful to point out that reconciliation was not the initial aim of many of these groups:
They originally set out with more specific goals such as helping victims of sexual violence, assisting genocide widows, improving the socioeconomic conditions of women, or helping youths to worship Christ. In the process of helping people rebuild their lives after the genocide and war, these organizations realized that rebuilding had to start with economic wellbeing and then move to the psychological health of the individual. In their work they discovered that an important aspect of psychological health included the rebuilding of the social self, which could not be accomplished without reestablishing relationships with others in the community.
Burnet’s ethnography provides an invaluable guide for students and scholars wishing to engage in field research in Rwanda and beyond. With humility, she details her own fears, missteps, and moments of panic as she embarks on her project as a graduate student in the mid-1990s. She recalls her entrance into Rwandan social life through her host family, where she “began to experience the divisions within Rwandan society that at the macrolevel correspond roughly to ethnic and regional difference but at the microlevel are much more complex and personal, involving issues of class, education, family history, and gender.” Because her research spans a decade and a half, Burnet is able to convey both her evolving understandings of Rwandan life, cultural norms, and linguistic complexities, and the key developments in the postgenocide period. Her discussion of intersubjectivity and situated knowledge is particularly valuable as she engages with fraught, deeply contested and often contradictory narratives of violence, ethnicity, and memory. As such, Burnet’s ethnography centers on “empathetic listening” to diverse and often contradictory voices and silences, an approach which allows her to consider why some individuals fail to acknowledge or refuse to speak about mass violence. In these ways, Genocide Lives in Us serves as a valuable reminder of the vital importance of long-term, engaged fieldwork and language learning, combined with critical self-reflection, all of which are all too often lacking in popular English-language accounts of postgenocide Rwanda.
Rigorous research and writing about Rwanda is difficult and sometimes dangerous. As the political scientist Scott Straus explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2011, “researchers tend to tone down their concerns about contemporary Rwanda, or avoid writing about them, in order not to fall afoul of the regime.”To protect her Rwandan collaborators and informants, Burnet’s otherwise rich account eschews the kind of thick description that would identify individuals, groups, and communities. Readers looking to contextualize the people Burnet writes about in the specificities of their local context may initially find this writing strategy somewhat jarring—though many Rwandans and scholars of the Great Lakes will recognize its necessity. This is in no way a failing on the part of the author. Indeed, Burnet’s judicious editing signals to the careful reader the intense public silence that surrounds postgenocide authoritarian rule which, she argues, “drives a wedge between Rwandans and limits the possibilities for reconciliation.”
Jonneke Koomen< is an assistant professor of Politics and Women’s and Gender Studies at Willamette University, Oregon. Her research examines witness testimony on sexual violence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
[for WRB’s 30th anniversary]
By Martha Nichols
In the late 1980s, my favorite lunchtime routine was to eat a takeout salad and read the New York Review of Books. I’d graduated from Rolling Stone and Time to the intellectual love of my father’s life—and I loved NYRB, too. It was full of lively, sometimes vitriolic “exchanges,” such as this one, from 1988, in which Gore Vidal skewered a historian who criticized his historical novel, Lincoln (1984):
Professor Richard N. Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the propriety of fictionalizing actual political figures—I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels’ delusion that there is a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote maze; in this he is simply naïve.
My father, a political scientist, enjoyed such intellectual boxing matches, and he pushed me to argue my own points strongly and logically—and, in the face of willful ignorance or rampant political agendas, to name idiocies outright. Not surprisingly, I became the loud-mouthed girl in college classes who never agreed. I was a feminist book reviewer in the making, although I wasn’t aware of that.
I hadn’t yet noticed that the literary exchanges I enjoyed took place almost exclusively among men. In 1988, Women’s Review of Books was only five years old and not on my reading list. Then, in 1993, I got a job there, as production editor. That year, I was thrilled to attend WRB’s tenth-anniversary conference at Wellesley College, with the distinguished Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood as keynote speaker. I felt surrounded by a legion of witty, fiendishly smart feminist authors and intellectuals.
Where are they now? I don’t mean the individual authors and reviewers I remember from my giddy coming of age: I know many of them are still writing books and articles, still teaching, still fixtures in women’s studies programs around the country. But what happened to my sense that a whole universe of brilliant women was about to enter the public conversation?
Instead, in 2013, on WRB’s thirtieth anniversary, there is a continuing, profound absence of opinion writing by female intellectuals in mainstream media. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the New York Review of Books. Yet in its August 15, 2013, issue, I counted two female contributors out of 29, one of whom was Joan Didion, an NYRB fixture. If you include the Letters section, where exchanges such as that between Vidal and Current appeared, the count is two out of 34. The imbalance is so extreme that a doctored image of a previous table of contents, the authors’ names stamped “MAN, MAN, MAN” in red, has gone viral (that issue featured only one woman).
Women’s Review of Books got its start in the early 1980s because its founder, Linda Gardiner, wanted to counterbalance the dearth of opinion writing by women in publications like NYRB and the New York Times Book Review and to provide a sounding board for female critics. But Gardiner and other early WRB contributors also pointed to the plethora of books being published from a feminist perspective. As the editorial in WRB’s pilot issue (Summer, 1983) put it:
Now, ironically, those of us who once lamented the scarcity of writing by and about women are beginning to feel overwhelmed by its volume. Keeping up with the vast range of new material—from fiction to philosophy, anthropology to art, political science to poetry—gets harder every year…. [Yet with] minor and occasional exceptions, the existing book review publications have effectively ignored the flood of new works by and about women; and while many feminist journals and newspapers have sprung up over the last decade or so, few of them can devote a substantial part of their space to reviewing books.
Some of this optimism feels quaint. The books are still coming out, which is great, but most of those feminist journals from the seventies and eighties—off our backs, Sojourner, Big Mama Rag, Lesbian Tide—are gone; Women’s Review of Books itself suspended publication at the end of 2004. Structurally and financially reorganized, WRB was relaunched in 2006, and a few newer feminist journals of cultural criticism have emerged, such as Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, which is now close to twenty years old. The feminist blogosphere is thriving at sites like Feministing, Feministe, Jezebel, and Geek Feminism; Margaret Atwood is an active blogger these days. WRB has a website, too—www.wcwonline.org/womensreview—and a revived blog, WOMEN=BOOKS.
But the proportion of female-to-male writers in major cultural and opinion journals remains as depressing as ever. The most recent count by VIDA (www.vidaweb.org), a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that’s been tabulating the stats since 2010, notes that in 2012, only three percent of the book reviewers in Harper’s, for instance, were female; at the New Republic, the figure was nine percent, down from the previous two years. (To be fair, the 2012 Vida Count also highlights substantial gains in female contributors at the Boston Review and Tin House.)
Pre-VIDA, Paula Caplan and Mary Ann Palko’s damning tally of a year’s worth of New York Times Book Review issues appeared in WRB’s November 2004 issue. Their article, “The Times Is Not A-Changin’,” was published just before WRB’s temporary shutdown—a sad irony underscored by the opening blurb: “Your impression of the New York Times and other prestigious book review publications … is correct: The women are missing.”
More recently, some literary journals, Granta, for example, have created special issues with all-female contributors or devoted to “women’s” topics (the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Fall 2012 issue was titled “The Female Conscience”). This bucks up their VIDA counts, at least temporarily. But the effort often comes off as parody. Last fall when the New York Times Book Review ran side-by-side reviews by women of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina (2012), the graphic on the front cover showed a big red high heel spiking a teeny men’s oxford. (Inside, another graphic showed a women’s symbol whacking a men’s symbol on the head.)
The numbers tell only part of the story. When female authors do claim print and airtime, it is often as experts on work/life balance, childrearing, and “The Sexes”—the title of one channel of the Atlantic’s online Wire, which publishes Hanna Rosin, Katie Roiphe, and Caitlin Flanagan. Newspapers may have renamed their “women’s pages” “Style” or “Living”—or “The Sexes”—but most mainstream outlets still give the impression that women rarely have much to say about anything beyond the home. The occasional Gail Caldwell, Christiane Amanpour, Stacey May Fowles, or Melissa Harris-Perry does not mask the fact that there’s no critical mass of female intellectuals in the public eye—the most pernicious result of which is the thinking about gender that now holds sway. It feels more cartoonish than ever, as if the past fifty years of writing and thinking by feminist academics, journalists, and activists never happened.
Consider the novelist and feature writer Stephen Marche’s July/August 2013 Atlantic article, “Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Inequality” (that’s the title on the web; in print it had the more provocative title of “The Masculine Mystique”). Marche rightly criticizes Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)— as of this writing topping the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list—as a “capitalist fantasy” akin to a Horatio Alger tale, which bears little connection to the lives of most working families. But he goes on to claim that “the plutocratic wave of feminism [my italics] continues to roll in”—as if the women’s movement is composed of enormously wealthy queens of industry. Marche insists that we now have a “hollow patriarchy”: At the top, men may still have a lock on power, he admits, but underneath things look pretty darn egalitarian. His evidence for this counterintuitive—indeed, counterfactual—assertion is sketchy at best; he refers to a few government figures that feminist economists have either questioned or used to come to the opposite conclusion.
Marche has good reason to criticize the notion that the women’s movement promotes a philosophy of “having it all,” especially when a family with two working parents must struggle to make ends meet. In his own family, when his wife took a high-powered position as an editor, the couple decided to moved to Canada—not only because she would be earning a larger salary but also because Canada provides partially subsidized childcare.
In fact, childcare is at the crux of the struggle Marche describes. However, his analysis goes awry when he implies that he’s stumbled on a previously hidden truth. “Men’s absence from the conversation about work and life is strange,” he writes. “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided.”
It’s hard not to laugh. Women’s studies scholars and feminist journalists, including Nancy Folbre, Laura Briggs, Arlie Hochschild, and innumerable others, have long been conducting research about the impact of US conservative political agendas on funding for welfare, Head Start, foster care, afterschool programs, and elder-care. They have written vast libraries of books on subjects such as childcare, parenting, and work-life balance. Women have been buttonholing male journalists and politicians for decades, trying to persuade them to put such issues on our country’s agenda—and into the budget (the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not even include family caregiving in its calculations of paid labor). Few were persuaded.
Indeed, Marche’s “where are the men?” complaint is rhetorical jujitsu, turning the ongoing problem of men’s indifference and hostility into one of women’s dominance and aggression. Whether Marche and his Atlantic editors are unaware of the research or purposely ignoring it, the absent voice is not the one he names.
Serious book reviewers and critics take a hard look at whatever they’re reviewing, regardless of their own political philosophies. And yet, from where I sit, what’s most endangered by the current absence of female intellectuals in the public conversation is critical analysis, period.
While the flaws of articles such as Marche’s can be refuted, the “listen to me, I’m not a feminist!” tack taken by some female critics is more insidious. Exhibit A is Caitlin Flanagan, a sharp-eyed social observer who exemplifies the shift toward snappy answers to stupid questions in slick “think pieces.”
In a 2012 Atlantic article, “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” Flanagan combines an assessment of Didion’s legacy with a review of Didion’s 2011 memoir Blue Nights. Flanagan’s anecdotes about meeting the shy and awkward Didion in Berkeley in the early seventies, when Flanagan was fourteen, are amusing. But her larger claims are preposterous. “To really love Joan Didion,” she writes, “you have to be female.” To explain this, she emphasizes Didion’s detailing of clothing and housewares, the stuff of women’s lifestyle magazines (such as Vogue, where Didion cut her teeth).
Flanagan goes on, though, to take potshots at Blue Nights that amount to the accusation that Didion was a bad mother to her troubled daughter, Quintana. “Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly,” she writes,
[leaving] her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working.
(Isn’t it funny how childcare keeps popping up?)
Finally, in a sweeping statement about Didion’s much-imitated tics and style, Flanagan states that “[u]ltimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old.” Not surprisingly, Flanagan’s article coincided with the release of her own 2012 book, Girl Land. And her trashing of Didion is similar in tone to other trend stories in magazines like the Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, many of which are written and edited specifically to irritate readers in order to boost web traffic and comments.
But while Flanagan’s persona has long included mocking feminism, the real issue is not what she believes; it’s the shallow analysis. She doesn’t engage with Didion’s ideas. Instead, she provides gossip and clever, snarky riffs that stand in for analysis: Hunter Thompson, she writes, “gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; [Didion] gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair.” The end result is a catfight—which is no doubt supposed to be a turn-on. But it’s hard to imagine a woman critic getting away with dissing Thompson—or David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, V.S. Naipaul, or other male masters of bombast—as Flanagan does Didion. Men can become popular, pissed-off pundits, but rarely does an angry woman win a popularity contest.
Even at his nastiest, Gore Vidal spent prodigious column inches on the details his academic critics got wrong. He was a personality, too—but in the late eighties, what drew me to his writing was his intellectual feistiness. In publications like WRB and NYRB, the goal of book reviews and essays is not just to pat fellow believers on the back or to offer encouragement; neither is it about scratching one another’s eyes out to boost web traffic. It’s about having a substantive exchange of opinions.
Of course, long literary reviews like this never had a large audience, even back in the sixties. I know that my warm and fuzzy feelings for NYRB are mostly nostalgic. As such writing becomes increasingly irrelevant, my sadness is also wound up with watching my elderly father fade. My dad may still remember Gore Vidal by name but not what he wrote or why it mattered.
Yet, my feelings for Women’s Review of Books aren’t just nostalgic. I’m outraged that the sexism of the literary elite—which I once thought would surely be as extinct as the dinosaurs by the year 2013—is still thundering across the media swamp. The majority of online users and programmers are male, and the computer “logic” of platforms like Wikipedia and Google has only speeded up the erasure of work by women. If the mainstream media isn’t talking about female authors, such reasoning goes, they don’t merit a Wikipedia page; they don’t turn up at the top of a search. And suddenly—poof!—female critics are not only absent from the current debate but have been excised out of existence.
Today, this is how the patriarchy is institutionalized—not with a bang, but with a few keystrokes. In contrast, feminist analysis keeps the focus on what and who have been erased and why. Twenty years after I became affiliated with WRB, it is more relevant than at its founding, not less. Once patriarchy has been embedded in the very tools we use to do research and create history, the absence of all that’s been left out really is profound. And depressing. And well-worth fighting against with all the intellect and passion and breath we loudmouthed women can muster.
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing (talkingwriting.com), an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization. She's a contributing editor at Women’s Review of Books and a guest blogger for the Christian Science Monitor. Her work has also appeared in Salon, Utne Reader, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. She teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School and blogs at Athena’s Head (athenashead.com).
“Only Connect”: The Creative Nonfiction of Amy Hoffman
By Robin Becker
In 2013, Amy Hoffman, editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books, published her third memoir, Lies About My Family. As a longtime friend and colleague of Amy’s, I wanted to talk with her about family lore, Judaism, and truthfulness. We decided to conduct a conversation by email that we could document and share. Hoffman’s two previous books—Hospital Time (1997) and An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News (2007)—concerned the political and social movements that shaped feminists of the second wave. The new book fascinated me with its focus on immigration, assimilation, buried family stories. A creative nonfiction faculty member in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College, Hoffman teaches students how to shape personal narratives, how to interview and conduct research. The following conversation focuses on Hoffman’s craft and her own strategies for getting at the meaning of the stories we tell.
Robin Becker: The title Lies About My Family points toward the memoir as a complex, contested site for truth. Can you speak to that?
Amy Hoffman: The title concerns the elusiveness of truth, the slipperiness of memory, and the difference between truth and facts—or what we think are facts. The past, in memory, is not fixed, like a picture or a videotape (and even those rip or fade; the colors alter; they can be photoshopped). According to neurobiologists, in the act of accessing a memory, we change it. Having written the book, I can no longer remember the stories and experiences in it; I can remember only what I wrote.
My original notion was that the book would include three types of chapters: the family stories that are told over and over; the truths underneath these stories; and what I thought of as the facts: the immigration officer’s story. That’s not the way I ended up telling the book: it wasn’t really possible to keep those strands separate. And, the “immigration officer’s story” turned out to be less factual than I had thought.
I suppose another reason I titled the book as I did was to be a little shocking and obnoxious. But it would have been worse, wouldn’t it, if I’d called it “The Truth About My Family”?
RB: Can you give an example of how the “immigration officer’s story” upended your expectations?
AH: There’s this: the ship manifest I found on the Ellis Island website says my mother’s mother came to the US from what’s now Ukraine when she was sixteen. My mother, though, says my grandmother lied about her age, and that she was really fourteen. And sometimes my mother says my grandmother was thirteen. What we do know is that she was young and alone.
And this: My father’s mother tells a story of how her father, a town elder, was arrested. She claims she doesn’t know why—but it turns out he was arrested for using forms he had access to as a government official to forge passports for his relatives. Of course, on the ship manifest, where he’s asked whether he’s ever been arrested, he checks “no.” He also lists his profession as “farmer.”
RB: The unknown and “impossible to know” accompany your efforts to certify and document. When your father shows you a photograph to make a point, you say, “But who can really tell one dressed-up blur of villagers, in their braids and kerchiefs, beards and hats, from another?” To what extent have you allowed uncertainty and family lore to be part of the story?
AH: Uncertainty is what the book is about. If history is written by the victors, then family lore is, similarly, created by the teller. We tell the stories we do for our own purposes: to mitigate pain; to explain ourselves; to find meaning. When I started to do research, I thought it would tell me the truths underneath the stories. But of course it provided only a new set of stories—which themselves could be excavated.
RB: American Judaism—religion and cultural history—takes many contradictory forms in this book. For example, you say your father is an “unbeliever,” yet he served as president of the temple. Your paternal grandparents are buried in the Temple Beth-El cemetery, but no one has ever visited their graves. How do you make sense of Judaism in the forms and traditions your family practices, and how do you (who know and love liturgical Hebrew) see yourself as a contemporary Jewish feminist?
AH: My family, I suspect from my grandparents through my own generation, were both steeped in Judaism and unbelievers. To me, this is very Jewish! In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob struggles with an angel all night and in the morning is given a new identity and a new name: Yisrael, meaning “He who wrestles with God.” The story was always told to me as an parable of questioning, of not taking any assumptions for granted, of using all your strength to seek meaning and truth. So, we question everything—which also means living with the answers. Jacob/Israel is wounded in the course of the struggle.
RB: Your reference to Jacob struggling with the angel nicely situates you and your family as Jews who search and contend, question and argue. I admire the way your book actualizes and embodies that struggle by showing how love coexists with difference—of opinion, religious and sexual persuasion, politics.
AH: In the book I write about my Great-Uncle Sol, who, my father says, was a communist, and who would argue endlessly with my socialist-zionist grandparents, his in-laws, about the establishment of the state of Israel. Sol believed that a Jewish state would become just as oppressive as any other state. For my grandparents—and parents—Israel, especially the Israel of the kibbutzim (collective farming communities that have now almost completely disappeared), was the realization of a utopian dream. As a politically progressive person, this heritage is important to me—both Sol’s skepticism about the state and my grandparents’ idealism.
RB: Secrecy often shrouds mental illness in families. The tragedy of your twin cousins Bobby and Betty’s sibling estrangement, ending in Bobby’s suicide, speaks potently to me as the sister of a suicide. In another section of the book you tell of the accidental death of your great-uncle, after which his wife took her own life and the lives of their two little daughters. What role do these narratives play in the larger narrative of your book?
AH: The thread of mental illness in my mother’s family is not something that was much acknowledged—and I did not know the story of the wife’s suicide-infanticide until I started researching the book and asked my mother about some photos in an old album. All of it makes me very sad: there was so much suffering and so many distorted relationships because of the self-destructiveness of that wife, the psychosis of my mother’s aunt, the anxiety and paranoia of her father, the depression of her nephew (my cousin Bobby), the venality of her uncle Irving-the-gonif (thief). Maybe the lesson is compassion: everyone has their struggles and pain, even those like my family, whose story, we told ourselves, was one of love, happiness, progress, and success.
RB: The story “we [tell] ourselves” often excludes illness or trouble or irregularity of any sort. In the 1925 novel Bread Givers, the author Anzia Yezierska addresses women’s increasing unhappiness with their roles in immigrant Jewish families. And Mary Felstiner, in her biography of the artist Charlotte Salomon (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era, 1994), reveals an “epidemic” of suicides in interwar Germany among educated Jewish women who had no outlet for their talents. Did gendered expectations shape the suffering you evoke?
AH: I’m sure they did, although I know this only from reading between the lines. The great-uncle’s wife, for example: she must have believed that she and her children could not survive without the man of the house, that she had reached a hopeless impasse. And would my mother’s mother have lived longer if her illness had been taken more seriously? If she had not been thoroughly exhausted by her difficult and perhaps lonely life?
But for me, the great story of gender expectations—and the breaking of them—is my mother’s: her father, she often told me, did not believe in educating girls, even though he had three daughters. Despite this, she excelled in high school and received a full scholarship to Cornell. Going away to school was her heroic rebellion.
RB: I admire your weaving of personal, familial, and pop cultural references into an exploration of given subject or theme. Rachel Maddow, for example, makes an appearance in your discussion of names related to your paternal grandmother’s family name, Madorsky. In another section, you tell of your grandmother, deep in Alzheimer’s disease, who still recalls songs from her childhood and of your friend Walta Borawski, who, in the late stages of AIDS dementia “could have been a contestant on Opera Quiz.” How did you come to this practice which, I think, enriches the book?
AH: It occurs to me that I love discovering unlikely interconnections and overlapping circles among people in the real world, and I’m also delighted by this in the imaginative world—how words and images and ideas echo each other, reverberate, interconnect.
In the biography of E.M. Forster by P. N. Furbank (1994), he says that Forster was blocked and troubled in his writing until he learned to “trust the imagination.” This notion of trusting the imagination was so liberating to me. It’s a tremendous leap to take, and I can’t always do it. But my best writing, I think, is very associative and intuitive.
RB: Early in the book, we learn that your mother, her parents and her two sisters lived in a one-bedroom apartment. As a child at your family’s summer cottage, you write, “There was no escape and no privacy.” How do privacy and the need for disclosure co-exist for you? Shape you as a writer?
AH: Writing memoir is about creating meaning, a narrative thread that ties together and shapes—or appears to—the random chaos around us. It is also about sharing that meaning: otherwise, we’d keep it in our journals, right? “Only connect,” Forster said, and I take that to mean both “find order” and “make human contact.”
People have told me they feel that they know me, as they might a friend, after reading my books—but that’s an illusion. A good writer, which I strive to become, is in control of what she discloses and why—it must all serve the creation of meaning. It’s embarrassing to read a book when you get the feeling you have more insight than the author does.
The writer must also figure out how, which involves the creation of a persona on the page, a voice—a character. I feel protected by the persona. It’s not identical with me as I live and act in the real world. It’s like the painting of a pipe by the surrealist René Magritte, which is captioned, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” [This is not a pipe.] And it’s not a pipe—it’s a painting.
RB: Your book is full of wit and irony, the self-mockery of Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, all of whom have great timing. You write, for example, “The men in my family don’t tell war stories, they tell draft-evasion stories.” Where did you get your gift for pacing and double-edged observation?
AH: I know the jokes of the old guys—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Marx brothers—second hand, because my parents, especially my father, a great storyteller himself, love repeating them—applying them to new situations and putting their own twists on them. That kind of telling and retelling, or rather, interpreting and reinterpreting, questioning and answering—wait, no, questioning and answering the question with another question—is talmudic, almost, in its intellectual rhythms, and has contributed to the rich heritage of Jewish humor, which wrestles with the absurdities of the world and ends up bursting into laughter (instead of tears).
Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published four books in the Pitt Poetry Series. Her next, Tiger Heron, will appear in 2014. She writes the poetry column Field Notes for Women’s Review of Books, where she has long served as contributing and poetry editor.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
New York: The Penguin Press, 2013, 480 pp., $27.95, hardcover
Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity
By Emily Matchar
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013, 272 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Sarah Blustain
Go to Williams-Sonoma’s website in search of a chicken coop, and you’ll find eight styles to choose from. A basic white structure was recently on sale for $319.99. For those with more elite tastes there’s the Cedar Chicken Coop and Run with Planter, large enough “to comfortably house four hens—up to six if they are allowed to range freely during the day.” It sells for $1,499.99.
Yes, that decimal point is in the right place. It seems like a lot for a house for chickens, but apparently there is a potent case to be made for raising them—in your backyard, on your roof, or anywhere you have space for a small coop and an area in which the birds can peck around. Along with that case come other arguments: for growing your own vegetables, growing your own wheat, grinding your own wheat, raising your own sheep, spinning your own wool, and knitting your own socks. People who went looking for Williams-Sonoma chicken coops also went looking for a Backyard Beehive and Starter Kit and the book A Chicken in Every Yard: the Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping, by Robert Litt and Hannah Litt (2011). The call of the almost-wild has never been louder.
Two new books make some convincing arguments—and some less-than-convincing ones—for a new form of back-to-the-landism, or at least, for those not prepared to go back to the land itself, a return to certain basics. In Cooked, Michael Pollan returns to familiar culinary territory, delivering the environmental and health arguments for shortening the food chain as much as possible. And in Homeward Bound, Emily Matcher catches up with Pollan’s target audience—the many women (and a sprinkling of men) who have heeded the call to turn the clock back on distaff duties to a pre-industrial—and prefeminist—time.
The two books make overlapping cases, and it’s not hard to see their appeal. Epidemic levels of ill health in the US are due in no small part to industrialized farming and the ubiquitous availability of high-calorie foods, which individuals need not expend even a calorie of effort to obtain or create. Thanks in part to Pollan’s earlier writing, we are increasingly aware of the environmental degradation caused by our current food-production system: the destruction of natural habitats, crop variety, and the global climate by the mass farming of animals and the shipping of food around the world in oil-dependent vehicles. Our consciousnesses now raised, Williams-Sonoma assures its customers that its $1,500 coop is “hand-built from sustainably harvested western red cedar, custom milled by a local, family-owned sawmill and delivered to the workshop via ferry.” (Is a ferry more environmentally sound than a truck or a train? Just asking.)
The New Domesticity—as Matchar calls the appeal of home cooking, sewing, gardening, jam making, and other crafts—has been brewed in a big pot of anticorporate, pro-environmental impulses. “Widespread feelings of disgust and distrust toward government, business, and institutions are changing domestic life,” she writes. “The practice of going to painstaking lengths to know where your food comes from is known as ‘food vetting’ among industry analysts who consider it to be one of the decade’s most important trends.”
This is not just a question of individual preference for the healthy over the unhealthy. As Pollan puts it, “Changing the world will always require action and participation in the public realm, but in our time that will no longer be sufficient.” In his model of resistance, cooking from scratch becomes a
vote … [a]gainst the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
In other words, Pollan wishes to mobilize a political movement, but one in which participation is manifest not publicly but in a series of individual decisions in the private sphere of hearth and home.
While I spend about three times the national average cooking every day (which Pollan says is 27 minutes), I worry about whether there is hormone-disrupting BPA in the lining of the boxed tomatoes at the local market, and I usually cannot bring myself to eat the red meat I buy for my family, I do not grow my own tomatoes or raise chickens in my suburban backyard. And that is because there is also a potent case against raising chickens and the like. The New Domesticity may be an answer—or, in Pollan’s elegant analysis, the answer—to several world crises, but a hard-core return to the homely arts is decidedly not the answer to the problem that, still, has no name.
Simply put, Pollan’s from-scratch model is bad news for women. He is, at heart, a romantic. His book is a prose poem of love for food done slowly and right. He writes a hundred pages on barbequing a pig and travels the world to learn the old ways of yeast and wheat, bread and beer. He finds a cheese-maker who proves to him that the bacteria in her wooden barrel makes her cheese safer than that made in a “clean” metal one; he finds a mentor who teaches him the Zen-like patience required for a good onion sauté. Perhaps the most poignant example of modern food degradation is his discovery, as he works on getting air into bread, of what happened to flour. At first, bread was heavy and whole grain. As flour was refined, bread got lighter, but people got sick; it took some years to realize that while human beings could subsist on whole-grain bread alone, they could not survive on white. By then, though, wheat-producers had shifted to planting a kind of wheat that was easier to refine, and it was too hard to shift back to the old ways, so they stayed with the new wheat and whiter flour, stripping the nutrients—and then adding nutrients back in again. It’s a stark example of how capitalism and industrialization have combined to take us ever further from our healthier, more natural roots.
The old ways may be best in theory, but what does turning back the clock look like in practice? The answer to that question appears in Homeward Bound. Matchar finds bloggers devoted to cupcakes, a Brooklyn café devoted to knitting, urban homesteaders, homeschoolers, and mothers who relocate their families to farms to live off the chickens and veggies growing in the yard. It’s a diverse bunch of adherents to do-it-yourself, crafty culture—to homemade jams and knitted scarves that can be sold on Etsy.com—but they all have one quality in common: they’re women.
And they are quick to frame the decision to trade in the briefcase for a retro-frilly apron as a sort of neofeminism. Thus re-imagined, work—as in “work for money”—becomes a dirty word, a capitulation to the capitalistic world of men. The cupcake is “a playful symbol of reclaiming women’s work,” suggests Matchar; attachment parenting is the natural role for mothers; and even the apron is having a celebrity moment. “In this new cultural climate,” she writes, “the sex-kittenish British celebrity food writer Nigella Lawson can describe her baking cookbook How to Be a Domestic Goddess as a ‘feminist tract,’ and nobody blinks an eye.”
Matchar’s subjects talk about their domestic work as a form of self-empowerment. They frequently disdain second-wave feminism, which they believe undermined women’s strengths, and they embrace many strains of gender essentialism. She quotes the “revolutionary housewife” blogger Calamity Jane, who typifies this attitude when she asserts, “What could possibly be more feminist than to embrace the natural female quality of nurture. It seems to me that to truly honor ‘woman,’ we must also honor her biological role as mother.”
Homeward Bound contains a few facts that, taken together, offer a dissonant counterpoint to such hymns to “empowerment.” Most of the women Matchar talks to are not feeding the chickens after work or farming on the weekends. They are giving up work in order to spend their time bound to their homes. And it turns out that doing from scratch what industrialized business can do in no time flat is—no surprise—not a lucrative undertaking.
In her best chapter, on the online craft marketplace Etsy, Matchar tells us that as many as 97 percent of Etsy sellers are women—women who seem to think, all evidence to the contrary, that they can get themselves out of the lousy job market and get ahead by crocheting doilies. For the most part they can’t. “There’s mounting criticism level at Etsy and co. for selling the idea of microenterprise as the solution to women’s woes. In fact, some have suggested that Etsy is selling women a ‘false feminist fantasy.’” Matchar tells a similar story about bloggers, one out of every three of whom is a mom. While a few homesteading bloggers have gotten fat book deals off their work, “only 18 percent of bloggers make any nonsalary money off their blogs. And of those, the average yearly earnings are less than $10,000,” reports Matchar. Perhaps the most damning fact is Matchar’s acknowledgment that most women who take DIY to its extreme and live off the grid have alternative sources of income: “a partner’s income, or a piece of land, or some family money.” It hardly sounds like a recipe for women’s liberation.
Of course earning money is not the ultimate feminist goal: our definitions are by now far more nuanced than that. But I have to admit that it sort of sickens me to think that the next stage in women’s empowerment is a return to unpaid, backbreaking domestic labor.
Matchar explicitly calls Pollan out (she wonders if he is a “sexist pig”) for encouraging this line of thinking. “The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove.” Pollan can’t sidestep this critique, so he engages it head on: “To certain ears,” he is forced to acknowledge in his introduction, “whenever a man talks about the importance of cooking, it sounds like he wants to turn back the clock, and return women to the kitchen.” But, he insists, “that’s not at all what I have in mind. I’ve come to think cooking is too important to be left to any one gender or member of the family.”
And so, like the neofeminists in Matchar’s book, he attempts to elevate cooking and housekeeping tasks, to give them meaning by choosing to do them slowly and consciously—as acts of “leisure”—unlike women of the past (and present) who were forced into them by tradition and necessity. Most dramatically, he learns to tolerate what he first considered the “drudgery” of chopping onions, an activity he finds to be the epitome of female culinary duty. Eventually he comes around to love the onions, professing himself a changed man.
Still, he can’t hide his real attitude toward women’s work:
On the plus side, chopping leaves you plenty of time for reflection, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about while doing it is, appropriately enough, the “drudgery” of everyday cooking. Curiously you never hear that word around the grill. When men cook outdoors over a fire, it’s usually a special occasion, so by definition cannot be drudgery.
I have to pause here to remember the weeks of Passover preparation in my grandmother’s house—the scrubbed kitchen, the new dishes, the delicately stuffed vegetables, the meatballs, the chicken, the tablecloths, the silver to be polished, the multiple wine glasses, the seder plates—and to marvel at his suggestion that a special occasion cannot by definition be drudgery. But back to Pollan:
“Fire! Smoke! Animals!—This is drama, drudgery’s antithesis, and about as far from dicing and mincing, from the fine work of fingers, as a cook can get. … There’s nothing ceremonial about chopping vegetables on a kitchen counter, slowly sautéing them in a pan, adding a liquid, and then tending the covered pot for hours. … [T]his sort of cooking takes place indoors, in the prosy confines of a kitchen. No, this is real work.
At least we can give him credit for calling a spade a spade. Housework is hard work; and while it may be personally empowering to grow your own food, it is not collectively empowering in any meaningful way. Even if we all agree that it is well past time to roll back the toxic impact of our overprocessed lives, the idea that the burden of saving Mother Nature should fall exclusively on Natural Mothers—even those who are blogging, liberated natural mothers—well, that sounds like a rhetorical trick, one that some women are playing on themselves.
Sarah Blustain is senior editor at the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.