An essay by Anastastia Higginbotham
Learning to accept the truth about white supremacy, when you are white, is like learning to accept an unspeakable but widely known truth about your family. The family secret. The family shame. Everyone already knows, and yet, to say it aloud will ruin everything. Or so you’ve been told.
White supremacy is the very rich uncle who favors you. He’s not handsome but you fail to notice on account of how rich he is and how thoroughly he spoils you. As in rotten. As in rotten to the core. As in rotting inside of you, in your core.
This very rich uncle, who remembers you on your birthday and always sends presents, stole the money he used to get you those presents from Black and Brown people. He robbed them, your neighbors, the people who greet you “good morning” and nod kindly in your direction as you pass on the sidewalk. Your uncle framed them for his crimes. They’re in prison now, which has been a very good investment, because he owns that prison and has convinced himself he owns every life inside of it as well. He earns money from their phone calls home. He hires the prisoners out to work for Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods and only has to pay them a few cents a day—a day!—which they can put toward paying down their phone bill debt.
He comes to you around the holidays. His favorites are Christmas and the fourth of July. He slides a wad of cash in your pocket and whispers, Buy yourself something pretty, honey. He means something from Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods. He also means a house. He means you should buy lingerie and organic food and a house in the right neighborhood, where your kids can go to the right school. He says “right” but he means “white.” But he also means right.
White supremacy is a lying, thieving, raping, murdering uncle with ties to the mafia. But you don’t need to know that. Why are you asking such unpleasant questions? Haven’t I been good to you? What do you want, sweetheart? I’ll get it for you. Stop asking these worrisome questions. It makes you look old.
Uncle White Supremacy, who is also an arms dealer, drug dealer, and human trafficker, claims to know whom you can and cannot trust, whom you should and should not love.
You know what Uncle White Supremacy loves? Your pale skin, your blue eyes, your shapely legs. He’s been watching you since you were a baby. He always knew you’d be a beauty. How old are you now, 18? he coos. Oh, you’re only 14? That’s surprising. A beautiful young woman already. If you weren’t my niece, well….” Well, he would try to have sex with you. Or lure you into it, saying you lured him. Or possibly he would force it. And then lie. And say you’re lying. You’re delusional. He would never! His own niece? You women are crazy. He raped your mom when they were kids. She never told you? She told then and was not believed. She tried telling again but her family was furious at her. They shamed her and she finally did come to believe she had something to do with it, and so, stopped believing it ever happened. She no longer believes it happened. My own brother? He would never!
Uncle White Supremacy is disappointed when you don’t reply to his texts. Where were you? Answer me. You’re so pretty. Do you know how special you are? Do you?? You still haven’t told me where you were. He is disappointed you’ve been peeking in his books, studying his tax returns, tracking his investments. His lip twitches when he confronts you about it. His pupils constrict. He wants you to stop spending so much time with those friends of yours. The boys with their pants that sag. The girls with their big soft afros that take up space, their locks, and the others with their shaved heads and hairy legs. And that sissy boy you seem to like so much—which bathroom does he/she/it use anyway?!
He thinks it’s cute you go to those rallies for those people. Cute but dumb. Just goes to show how naïve you are. He thought you were smarter than that. The world is full of pain, honey, you think you can stop it??? That’s life. It’s real life and I’ve been protecting you from all that. This is the thanks I get? Oh, don’t look so pained. As I said, it makes you look old, and ugly. To be honest, I’m disappointed in you. I thought you had more sense.
Uncle White Supremacy places a hot hand on your thigh under the dinner table. He thinks you belong to him too. You don’t.
Anastastia Higginbotham is the creator of the Ordinary Terrible Things children’s book series, which includes Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Dottir Press, 2018).
Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability By Kristen Hogan
Durham, NC; Duke University Press, 2016, 328 pp., $24.95, paperback
A Life in Motion By Florence Howe
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2011, 536 pp., $19.96, paperback
Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women's Bookstores in the United States By Junko R. Onosaka
New York, NY; Routledge, 2006, 224 pp., $57.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
If there is a feminist bookstore that currently looms in the popular imagination, it’s Women and Women First—and it’s fictional. Featured on the sketch show Portlandia, for eight seasons viewers engaged with a feminist bookstore staff that took themselves very, very seriously. The show often played off of tropes about these businesses. One sketch revealed the store’s inventory to be organized in hyper-specific, esoteric categories such as “Political Cartoons – Lady Artists” and “Softball 1980-1989.” Another depicted a bookseller skeptically examining a popular new release: “That’s a top-selling author. Do we want that in here?” To which her colleague definitively replied, “No, we want bottom-selling authors.”
Today, with only a handful of feminist bookstores left in the US, younger readers are more likely to be familiar with Portlandia’s depiction than to have ever personally set foot in one. From the 1970s to the 1990s, however, there were more than one hundred across the country, and collectively they played a pivotal role in advocating for women’s literature and ushering it into the mainstream. The rise and the fall of feminist bookstores is the topic of Kristen Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability and Junko R. Onosaka’s Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women’s Bookstores in the United States. Onosaka’s work—which was published a dozen years ago and is the first major study on feminist bookstores—provides a thorough history of their emergence and evolution, who founded and ran them, and how they functioned. Hogan’s book, from 2016, aims to redefine the narrative of these businesses by highlighting the lesbians and women of color at the center of this movement and examining how the bookstores operated as sites of activism, community building, and accountability. Both offer enlightening explorations of how and why these stores succeeded (and failed) as well as a closer look at the ways in which they helped shape the feminist movement and the literary landscape.
Before delving further, some history may be helpful. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of literacy rates and the growth of the publishing industry, literary writing became a viable profession in the US, and many women took up the pen as a way to support themselves and their family. Onosaka discusses how other parts of the book trade, however, required greater capital and mobility and remained more difficult for women to enter, even well into the twentieth century. Publishing, for example, was referred to as the “gentleman’s profession,” known for attracting upper-class individuals interested in the promise of prestige and cultural influence. Bookselling, too, had barriers; in 1917 a group of women booksellers formed the Women’s National Book Association after being barred from membership from the all-male Bookseller ’s League. Whose stories and experiences were deemed worth publishing and what works made their way into bookstores and the hands of readers, then, was controlled by an industry predominantly run by elite white men.
By the mid-twentieth century, cheaper and faster printing methods—such as the mimeograph machine and offset printing—proliferated throughout the US, fundamentally altering who had access to the means of production. The new accessibility of printing was a boon to the emerging counterculture and political and social causes such as the Civil Rights movement and anti-war protests. Second wave feminists, too, recognized it as an opportunity to print pamphlets, essays, and manifestos. The first copies of Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful was published on a mimeo machine in 1970. That same year, Women and Their Bodies, later renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves, appeared as a stapled booklet on newsprint. Inexpensive and quick production also resulted in underground newspapers such as Ain’t I a Woman and The Female Liberation Newsletter as well as magazines like Off Our Backs that helped forge feminist networks by connecting likeminded women across the country.
Feminist publishing flourished during this period as well. Iconic presses such as Shameless Hussy, Women’s Press Collective, and Diana Press were founded in 1969, 1969, and 1972, respectively. Although many of them only lasted a few years, one of the most well-known and significant, Feminist Press, still thrives today. Florence Howe’s memoir A Life in Motion spans the scholar, publisher, and activist’s eventful life, but her memories of founding the press in 1970 form the spine of the book. At the time, Howe was a literature professor at Goucher College. Frustrated by the lack of available works by and about women writers for her students, she believed that a series about historical women writers written by contemporary women writers could be a step toward addressing this dearth. Her proposal, however, was rejected by multiple publishers who did not see a market for such works. At a raucous meeting hosted by Howe for her students, one suggested that the movement needed its own publishing house, prompting the beginning of the Feminist Press.
Its first release in 1971 was Barbara Danish’s The Dragon and the Doctor, a children’s book, adapted from a publication Danish discovered on a trip to China, challenging traditional gender roles. It was soon followed by small volumes on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Perhaps Feminist Press had some of its greatest impact recovering a “lost literature,” releasing once widely-circulated works such as Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper. When these reprints appeared in the early 1970s, both had been out of print for several decades, and their authors relatively unknown to modern audiences. That by 1990 they were included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature speaks to the press’s prescience and feminist publishing’s role in broadening the American literary canon and transforming college curriculum.
If the presses and publications gave a voice to the feminist movement, the bookstores provided the physical space for it. These were venues that radically prioritized the needs and interests of women. Growth happened quickly across the country. The first bookstore opened in 1970, by 1975 there were 45, and by 1980 the number had grown to 71. Reflecting on this time period, Howe recalls that “there was a hunger for our work.” Feminist bookwomen—a term most commonly used to refer to women booksellers but may also include women involved in other aspects of the book trade, collectors, and experts—stocked and promoted books by women writers, lesbian writers, and writers of color that other bookstores typically didn’t sell, and championed publications dedicated to feminist issues such as economic and racial justice. In the process they offered a new way of thinking about these texts. Hogan describes this work as building the “feminist shelf,” a term she employs to refer to the ways in which these booksellers’ efforts to discover, select, and organize their inventory created new ways to understand these works, helped establish a community of writers and readers, and served to document and disseminate feminist history. If the idea of “women’s literature” seems obvious to us today, it is largely due to the pioneering work feminist bookstores, publishers, and publications did to introduce and normalize this concept.
This network of bookstores, periodicals, and presses was a collaborative, dynamic relationship, with each component both supporting and depending on the others for success. The presses and bookstores relied on the feminist newspapers and magazines to review their books and share their information with readers. The bookstores were advocates for the presses, magazines, and newspapers, helping them find readers. In 1976 bookwoman Carol Seajay began Feminist Bookstores Newsletter (FBN, later Feminist Bookstore News). Originally intended for booksellers and then later available to all feminists working in the book trade, FBN was a powerful tool, enabling subscribers to pool their knowledge and resources and work together toward the common goal of supporting feminist print culture. Articles ranged from book reviews to bookstore profiles to pieces on programming ideas or strategies for dealing with distributors and publishers, and the content had a real impact. One notable example of the publication’s influence is that the lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink was able to publish Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals after successfully raising the funds through FBN.
The bookstores were more than just places to buy books. They served as community and resource centers, hosting meetings and lectures, creating and distributing bibliographies on topics such as divorce and abortion, and providing bulletin boards for visitors to communicate with each other and learn about local events. They were places to meet and socialize—an aspect particularly important for lesbians who had few options for public spaces where they could be both out and safe. Hogan observes that the ambitious goal to serve as a “site of feminist education” was evident in the name of the country’s first feminist bookstore—Information Center Incorporate: A Woman’s Place (ICI)—which opened in Oakland, California, in 1970. As other bookstores sprung up across the US—New York, Cambridge, Austin, San Francisco—many looked to ICI as a model. At their best, these bookstores were a highly visible and physical manifestation of a desire for and work toward real change. According to Onosaka, “through women’s bookstores, many women found their identities, communities, and sisterhood.”
Feminist bookstores differed from their counterparts not just in the books they stocked or the programming they offered, but also how they functioned. Staff promoted works they were passionate about regardless of their profitability and allowed books they believed in to remain on the shelves indefinitely rather than returning them to the publishers after a set period, as was the common practice. For some bookwomen, these new enterprises were an opportunity to create an alternative to traditional business models that reflected their values. Many bookstores began as collectives where consensus ruled. Yet this approach presented its own set of challenges such as a heightened sense of authority but diluted sense of responsibility and slow decision-making processes. Reliance on volunteer labor was necessary but often unpredictable. Such issues eventually lead some to modify their structures. Howe remembers similar growing pains at Feminist Press. She writes, “through its first decade … [the press] was organized horizontally in a manner I would describe today as ‘creative chaos.’” Hogan notes that the mission of these stores also set them apart from other bookstores, most significantly in their commitment, evident in both inventory and structure, to working toward inclusivity and accountability. They were spaces where staff and customers could have difficult conversations about important issues and work together to create and maintain feminist ethics.
During the 1970s, the presses and bookstores both supported and benefitted from the burgeoning field of women’s studies, which grew out of a similar motivation to rectify the lack of representation in college curriculum. As with feminist bookstores, the expansion of departments across the US was rapid. Howe reports that the two existing academic programs in 1970 in the US had grown to 270 by 1976. This emerging discipline required new readings and anthologies, and some of the earliest textbooks began as course readers, such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s now classic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (first published by Persephone in 1981 and then Kitchen Table Press in 1983). Many of these works were stocked by feminist bookstores and published by feminist presses or other small presses; some of Feminist Press’s books became permanent course adoption texts. Onosaka notes that today many mainstream and academic presses publish women’s studies textbooks and bookstores often have women’s studies sections, both the result of feminist bookwomen demonstrating the value and profitability of women-centered works.
Despite their successes, the bookstores remained economically vulnerable. Hogan identifies chains as the primary threat, beginning in the early 1980s. Unlike independent bookstores, chains had enough clout to be able to demand discounts and special terms from publishers. Alternatively, Onosaka recognizes a host of troubles during that decade, including a shift in the political and social atmosphere (the “backlash”) and the rising costs of books and shipping. Vandalism and harassment also plagued feminist-run businesses. Howe describes a devastating arson incident in 1982 that damaged the premises of Feminist Press and resulted in substantial financial loss. By the 1990s, chains, superstores, and the emergence of Amazon were making it increasingly difficult for feminist bookstores to survive. The closure of their primary distributor Women in Distribution in 1979 and the cessation of FBN in 2000 also were serious blows to the community. In A Life in Motion, Howe remembers that the dawn of new millennium saw major changes on the horizon in publishing and bookselling: “When the press started, local bookstores were as common as local drugstores, and we rejoiced as the some 140 feminist bookstores were founded … Who among us imagined that most bookstores would vanish before two colossi— Barnes & Noble and Borders?” Here it is hard not to think back to Portlandia’s depiction of self-serious feminist booksellers. If we consider the work they wanted to accomplish, the pressures they faced, and what was at stake, the origins of this portrayal read a bit differently.
While Hogan and Onosaka cover similar terrain, their works complement rather than duplicate, and any reader interested in the topic will appreciate both. Literary scholar Onosaka’s Feminist Revolut ion is drawn from archival research and provides a thoughtful history that demonstrates how the bookstores played a pivotal role in the feminist movement, particularly in terms of making writing about women’s experiences, concerns, and achievements not only accessible, but a priority. Readers unfamiliar with the broader context of the publishing world and book trade will find the background information useful. Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores, which is based on interviews she conducted with store founders and staff, similarly documents the achievements of feminist bookwomen, but focuses more on understanding these efforts as an extension of a set of values that prioritized resistance and accountability. She also shows that several of the bookstores were lesbian-run and identified spaces and that many of the founders were lesbian and/or women of color, disrupting the myth of the second wave as straight and white. Hogan, a scholar and librarian, has the unique perspective of having worked at BookWoman in Austin and at the Toronto Woman’s Bookstore, and at times her account is an intensely personal one, reflecting on her own experience with being part of a collective to meeting her partner at work.
Onosaka’s book closes with a hopeful chapter about the bookstores still in existence, yet it would be hard for any reader in 2018 to match the author’s optimism. Only one of the stores she mentions— Chicago’s Women and Children First—is still open. Hogan’s work is more recent, and perhaps unsurprisingly, offers a more sober view. She argues that the demise of these radical and transformative bookstores was the result of feminist booksellers sacrificing their own unique concerns in order to join in the larger movement of helping independent bookstores survive during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Consequently, the history she provides is not just a celebration of their successes but also “a cautionary tale about attempting corporate advocacy at the cost of movement accountability.” At the time, many feminist bookwomen likely saw refashioning themselves as independent booksellers as a marker of their resourcefulness and adaptability in an increasingly hostile climate. Hogan, however, contends that this decision came at the cost of their ethics-driven approach, weakening the perception of feminist bookstores as places of movement-based activism.
Despite the immense importance of feminist literature and women’s writing to late twentieth century feminism, these bookstores and booksellers largely have been overlooked in feminist histories. This may be partially due to their status in the book world; Hogan and Onosaka contend that within the book trade there has long been a hierarchy, with booksellers at the bottom. Hogan quotes FBN founder Carol Seajay, who sees this as an issue of class: “publishing books is important; selling them is beneath contempt.” Yet the stores and the women who ran them, like authors and publishers, were an integral part of the feminist print culture network, getting books into the hands of readers. What activism looks like and who gets recognized for doing this kind of labor are central to these histories, and both authors offer compelling arguments that encourage us to expand our definitions to include bookstores as part of this literary activism.
In June 2018, Portland’s In Other Words bookstore, the inspiration for Portlandia’s feminist send-up, announced that it was closing: publicity from the show had not translated to sales. According to the store’s website, reasons included “increased expenses and the lack of funds, volunteers, and board members.” Although many of the stores and the earliest presses are now gone, their influence remains, evident in some things we now take for granted, such as the wide availability of women’s writing and literature. While there is still work to be done, their efforts can be seen in some of the ways mainstream publishers and bookstores have changed in the past few decades and the ways in which today’s literary canon is a more diverse one than its predecessor. Moreover, there is little doubt that feminist print culture is thriving in other forms. Women-run small presses such as Siglio, Emily Books, Dorothy: A Publishing Project, Dottir Press, and others have emerged, taking a feminist approach to publishing. Organizations such as VIDA, People of Color in Publishing, and the Well-Read Black Girl book club and literary festival work to call out inequalities and provide opportunities, continuing the legacy of feminist accountability that Hogan recognized as central to the feminist booksellers. While the language and venues have changed, these contemporary projects are building on the groundwork laid by the second-wave feminist booksellers and publishers. Books and bookwomen remain crucial to the work of feminism. They continue to transform our culture, one reader at a time.
Jolie Braun is Curator of American Literature at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her article, “A History of Diane di Prima’s Poets Press,” which used archival material to tell the story of the Beat Generation poet’s overlooked but significant publishing venture, appeared earlier this year in The Journal of Beat Studies.
The Incest Diary By Anonymous
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 144 pp., $18.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
The author of The Incest Diary had sex with her father from the time she was three until she was 21. She has published her account as a memoir and has chosen to remain unnamed. This morning on Facebook, in response to a comment I posted about the book, a man said a memoir can’t be anonymous. He didn’t want to think about the subject matter of the book, so he found fault with its form.
The Incest Diary was published in hardcover a year ago. This review coincides with its paperback release. Some reviewers have questioned the truth of the narrative because the text is artfully constructed, with layered movements back and forth in time. Other reviewers have faulted the literary accomplishment because the author describes the sex she experienced in ways that purposely arouse the reader. Some reviewers have discredited it as an account of abuse because it includes the child’s initiation into sexual pleasure. The author learned about sex from her father, and its many colors of pleasure remain prized by her— perhaps above all other sensation and all other forms of aliveness. “Sex is the center of things. If you’re having it, it’s the center. If you’re not, it’s the center,” she writes. For a brilliant dissection of the many queasy responses the book has prompted, read Amia Srinivasan’s March 2018 essay in Harper’s, “Silent Treatment, a troubling response to an incest memoir.”
Here are some things we learn in the book. The narrator’s father entered parts of her body before they were large enough to accommodate those things. One day her bath water turned red with blood. She learned to float above her body and look down from the ceiling or a cloud at a girl on a bed. She had orgasms that filled her with desire and loneliness. In dance class, she was afraid to open her legs, fearing people would know she had intercourse. She was afraid to stick out her tongue, believing people could tell she licked her father’s cock.
She imagined bashing in the heads of cats. She had nightmares in which she saw her “long-haired scalp hanging from a blossoming tree branch.” On repeated occasions, her father tied her to a chair and left her alone in a closet. After he opened the closet, he fucked her mouth. He used a steak knife to cut her vagina while she was tied up. The wounds healed without medical attention. She sat on a heater until she could smell her flesh burning. She asked strangers in grocery stores to take her home. She pulled off the head of her Barbie doll.
The author presents herself as neither a victim nor a hero. Her book resolves nothing about ambivalence, and that is one of its gifts. Her father was the parent who fed her, combed tangles from her hair, picked her up from school. As a child, he and his sister had been raped repeatedly by their grandfather. The author thought her father’s penis was beautiful. She walked in ways to turn him on and had sex with him for the last time at 21 because she wanted to. Summing up her feelings about him, she writes, “I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.”
She wants the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader, and to achieve this effect, she slips the noose of moral language and the noose of psychoanalytic reduction (moralism dressed in a white coat). She opts mostly for restraint and deadpan delivery, layering memory, rumination, theory, and sometimes art criticism, as in this elegant series of jump cuts:
Sometimes I read my father’s journals without him knowing. When I was a teenager, I read that nothing felt as good to him as being naked around me. Another time he wrote that little girls can be so sexy because they just love you and they want you to touch them. When Richard Serra was a boy, he was standing on the shore and he watched an old ship get launched into the sea. This gargantuan thing was set into the water, where it made the water move like mad, but the water held it. He says he thinks that all of his work might be about that day—about the transfer of mass and heavy things buoyed up. Maybe all of the things I do are about my father raping me before I knew how to read or write.
On my Facebook comment about the book, one man posted a lengthy narrative about his own experience of sexual abuse. Another man was interested only in the father as a criminal who should be punished. I did not respond to the first man. My post was not about sexual abuse in general, and I thought he was shifting attention from the woman to himself. I responded to the second man by saying the author wants to be seen. She’s asking the reader to consider what a life looks like, smells like, tastes like when it has been formed in the framework of incest and rape. The man kept returning to the father. He didn’t want to look at the woman’s life.
That was pretty much the author’s experience where she grew up, a world where people read art books, sent their kids to private school, and owned beach houses and horses. Several older women she tried to talk to did not want to know. When she told her maternal grandmother, the woman offered her a tuna fish sandwich. The author’s mother knew what was happening under her roof; there was blood on the sheets of her premenstrual child. She suffered from depression and seems to have roused herself only to ride in steeplechase competitions. One day, when the author was 20, her father tried to choke her to death. By then her parents were divorced. The author jammed a heel into his sternum, ran out of the house, and called her mother to come for her. Her mother said she did not want to drive that far.
When the author was 22, she confronted her father about child rape and incest. He said he was sorry. The next day he denied everything. The author’s brother had a nervous breakdown in light of the revelations and her grandfather threatened to commit her to a mental institution. For her brother’s sake, she retracted the charges. He recovered and to this day, they have not spoken about it further.
Here are some other things the author discloses. At sixteen, she spent a year in Chile, living with a family, and met a businessman who was older than her father and with whom she conducted a secret sexual affair. After college, she was married to a man for twelve years. He was kind, and they seldom had sex. After the marriage ended, she met a man who liked to do the things to her body her father had done. It turned her on. She is with this man at the end of the book, having sex that feels familiar, scary, disgusting, irresistible.
Most critics have seen the author as starting in darkness and ending in darkness—as if they need to judge her as broken to prove the vileness of her ordeal. It’s commonplace to question the understandings women bring to their stories of sex as well as to question the truth of their accounts. It’s commonplace to disbelieve women publicly because privately they are believed.
The author’s account is not a rare thing scuttling out from under a rock. What rattled the people the author told and has rattled some critics is the story’s familiarity. The extreme trauma detailed in The Incest Diary gains resonance not as an example of psychological perversity but as a reflection of a dominant social force. A father believing he owns the life and body of his daughter. A man cutting the genitals of a girl. A malesupremacist culture alternating intimidation with a promise of protection. The punishment of murder for disobedience. Bondage, hurting, rape, child marriage, forced allegiance to the tribe. Gee, where are these things happening? Maybe not in every white household in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in the lives of millions of girls and women right now, a reality that lends legitimacy to the actions of men like the author’s father, who has not been tried for any crimes. If the stories women tell about sex were publicly acknowledged as true, what to do about everything else in the world?
What has been left for the author and what has been taken away? Based on the book’s chronology, she appears to be in her early forties. She comes across as self-reliant and profoundly alone. In the narrative, her focus is so squarely on her own sensations, other people are shadowy. Even her father is a vague presence, instrumental only to her tale of captivity and captivation. No matter what else was happening, she excelled at school and felt an overwhelming need to protect her brother. Most evident, she has become a masterful writer, a woman alive in her flesh, and a person who does not evaluate pleasure in relationship to the way it is stirred. Pleasure is pleasure. Incest and rape are vile crimes. Her boyfriend may not be your dom. Lots of people enjoy S/M sex who were not raped as children and did not experience incest. Sexual tastes change in the course of a life, or they do not. You can count yourself lucky if you emerge from childhood with your clitoris intact, and if you get to spend at least part of your life deeply aroused.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography By Deborah Levy
New York, NY; Bloomsbury, 2018, 144 pp., $20.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
At the outset of this singular memoir, the second volume of Levy’s “Working Autobiography,” (the first was Things I Don’t Want to Know, published in 2013), we learn that Levy has left a marriage, a home, and an at least somewhat conventional family life with a husband and two daughters—a world that she had spent decades creating and nourishing. She has mourned, dismantled, moved on: “To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House … is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.” Levy evokes the caring and curating that went into this creation—the ticking of clocks, the seaside holidays, the blooming garden—and the shipwreck that it all became: a great sinking hulk to which she would not swim back. To do that would be to drown herself in anger and betrayal.
The literal details of all of this are barely sketched in, but the emotional currents that carried Levy out and away from this life and into transformation, a sense of becoming, are drawn with superb clarity. And, if we ever suspect it all might not have been quite as conventional as suggested (in The Cost of Living’s first scene, she is eating coconut rice and fish alone at a beachside bar in Colombia, eavesdropping on a nearby conversation), we forgive, if only out of sheer curiosity. After all, this thankless house and this marriage somehow managed to contain her, at least for a while. And Deborah Levy must be one of the most unusual minds putting digital ink to the screen today.
The Cost of Living is a sleight-of-hand masterpiece, a text full of unfathomable juxtapositions and curious segues. Timeframes are a bit elastic; for example, we never learn whether her liberatory Colombian meal—the scene that gave her a window onto what this memoir needed to be, and who might need it—took place before, during, or after her divorce. But she gets away with it. It works because of a crystalline economy of prose, and Levy’s uncanny talent for imbuing objects and events of daily living with a magnetic energy that creates a momentum and drama all its own. Her background in theater serves well. Chosen props and scenes draw us into a narrative that despite its notuncommon subject matter has the freshness of an onshore breeze after a tempest has passed. These include: an electric screwdriver, a black negligee, a garden shed, a funeral and the kinds of weeping at it, a cocktail party in which Levy does not pass a canapé to a man who can’t ask her name or speak his wife’s, a Provençal stove, a freezer full of frozen quartered apples, a clock that marks the hours with birdcalls. We are given a glimpse of an anxious meeting with film executives. Levy is sent away from it with homework—to make a list of major and minor characters in the novel under consideration, since the moguls just can’t figure out which is which.
All these populate a text that is only glancingly a memoir; it is in fact a meditation on transformation— our aching, long-postponed need for it—what inspires it, and what it costs. In one column of the ledger stands a bookshelf of carefully chosen volumes—the guiding minds of de Beauvoir and Dickinson; Proust and Heidegger and Baldwin; the warnings of Macbeth. Also putting the author in the black are the generosity of a friend with the garden shed in which Levy writes, the intensity of close conversations; an electric bicycle that carries a woman and her groceries with greater ease, the discovery of what transforms grief. On the other side of the balance sheet is nothing more or less than the cost of living, including and especially those who would force a woman to the margins of her own life, and tax her dearly for claiming the right to her own majority. It is a precarious balance. “[F]reedom is never free,” writes Levy. “Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
Much in this volume has gone less examined than it should have been since de Beauvoir; since Baldwin. Maybe since Macbeth. The Cost of Living considers how a woman deconstructs and rebuilds herself—block by block, brick by brick. The heavy lifting, as Levy calls it, is a motif that recurs. The lifting (or not)—of a canapé, a glass of champagne, an e-bike, of clogs in a drain and boxes and boxes from the former house—is both physical and symbolic. In this slim volume, heavy effort is made soufflé light. (Although the soufflé itself is a dish that Levy will never again bother to make for reasons of social necessity.)
She has done the work of dismantling; a prodigious effort containing lifetimes and generations, folded together in an intricate, impossible, origami; a shape evident and tangible enough to be seen, felt, held in the mind and even, released. In all of this focused intention is a message. Still, it is one to be whispered from ear to ear rather than blared from the rooftops. That platform is reserved, still, for the incessant, tinny scratches of the tannoy—the several voices of “Big Silver,” as we come to know him here—he who will not cease; who considers himself the only major character; who does not know our name and will never speak it; who insistently demands pleasure, attention, endless listening. And yet, we must stop Big Silver’s voice, each of us in ourselves; in our own ears and in the very fabric of our living—that is, if we want to live. As Olivia Laing puts it in her review for The New Statesman, “this is a manifesto for a risky, radical kind of life.” Or framed differently, the photographer Berenice Abbott, a woman who also understood the cost of living, once said, “Until you do what you what you want to do you do not know your own identity.” Levy would agree.
The Cost of Living also made me want to listen more carefully, and with a new ear: is there reciprocity here; genuine engagement? Is pleasure present—not just for the one who considers himself (or herself, as these things don’t always break along gender lines) the major character in the situation— but for others in the frame; for me?
On the day that I was preparing to write this review, I had the radio on: a classical music program. In honor of Labor Day weekend, the host had chosen music about work, and she put on a song called, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” a Sondheim ode to giddy masculine delight of taking full advantage of such a person around a house (looking down her blouse, etc.). The song is a sleazy, winking romp that now seems preposterously out of date, though a salient reminder of all we have lived through and, indeed, the costs we still bear. The host announced it with a mild comment that it gives us “much to think about.” (Because Levy is so particular about naming women and I missed the host’s name, I looked her up: she is Dorothy Bernstein of KANW out of Albuquerque, listed as a “Volunteer Host” of this Sunday morning classical program. Thank you, Dorothy, for the free labor!) Later I watched YouTube renditions of that song, campily homoerotic, one sung by Sondheim himself at a celebration of his birthday and career at the BBC Proms in 2010—a performance met with wild applause. Clearly, a person who had no difficulty making himself the major character; and the world complied. As it does.
That evening I was to have dinner with a man for whom I had done some work—not as a maid, but perhaps a kind of twenty-first century corporate equivalent while in a job I had recently left behind much as Deborah Levy had left her marriage. Leaving that position was my own tempest, the wreck of many hopes, dreams and years of service— and one reason that The Cost of Living felt so resonant and relevant. As I read Levy’s memoir, I was still prying barnacles from my own splintered lumber and getting familiar with a strange new shore. I suspected that this dinner would bring a new solicitation to work for him, and my own wrestling match with life’s balance sheet—who, and what, was to command attention and resource. But instead, I had had to face the fact that I wasn’t, at this moment anyway, able to do the kind of work I had done, and from which I had heretofore made my living. My own decades-long narrative—that the expenditure of self, time, care, energy, and creative personal resource to help others become the major characters of their own stories, and in their own lives, was okay, was worth it—this had come to an end. It was an ending I’d postponed as long as I could. For love, affection, ties that bind, pride in my work; political convictions, a salary; fear of chaos and the unknown—the book of reasons was a hefty tome. But inevitably, its final chapter had been reached. “Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want,” writes Levy. I could only hope that this was true.
Sondheim’s fantasy maid never said no; whatever the cost, she’d comply. Neat as a pin. Quiet as a mouse. I thought about the disruptions, the dismantlings, the “no’s” rippling across the lives of so many women I knew, and certain men, too. Brassy and loud; quiet and gentle; long choked but now stuttered, whispered, shouted. Letters, poems, novels, texts, posts, blogs, emails, and tweets. Digital ink, sweat, tears, and blood. All of these brave souls, willingly or not—with reluctance, or excitement, or trepidation, or astonishing courage “stepp[ing] outside the societal story that offered her symbolic protection.” “How is she to protect herself?” Levy asks. How will I? How will any of us?
The Cost of Living opens with an observation from Orson Welles—that if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. This working autobiography stops where it starts, in medias res. Levy does not exactly give us happy endings; though we travel through this book on a smooth wing of hope. It’s hope for ourselves, for the ability to give ourselves over fully to change; and certainly for the next installment of Levy’s journey and the luminous clarity of her reflection upon it.
Carole DeSanti was Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, a Division of Penguin RandomHouse. She is the author of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., and is at work on a new novel, Plunder.
Love War Stories By Ivelisse Rodriguez
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 200 pp., $16.95 paperback
Training School for Negro Girls By Camille Acker
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 248 pp., $17.95, paperback Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer
Two recent short story collections from the Feminist Press have created something rare: kaleidoscopic portraits of girls of color that demonstrate their innocence, defiance, selfreflection, and joy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us against the danger of a single story, of constructing myths to represent an entire group. Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories and Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls don’t tell a single story of adolescence or childhood; instead, each story provides a new lens on youth and how children of color may experience it. This summer, we’ve seen children of color harassed by police for selling water and delivering newspapers. And we’ve felt the loss of Nia Wilson, who had just entered adulthood when she was murdered by someone believed to be a white supremacist. We realize that, while all children risk having their voices diminished and their movements restricted, youth of color face life-altering and life-ending consequences for trying to live freely.
The two collections, which are structurally and thematically in conversation with each other, examine restrictions on girls of color and pose uncomfortable questions: for girls of color, when does adulthood start? Has society denied girls of color a collective childhood, by positioning them as caretakers and nurturers? Are girls (and boys) of color given the freedom to rebel and make mistakes?
In “El Que Dirán,” the first story in Rodriguez’s collection, Noelia decides she doesn’t want to become like her aunt Lola, whose selfhood is defined by the loss of a man. Noelia decides that while her heartbroken aunt mourns a man who has long forgotten about her, she, Noelia, will defy the traditions of 1950s Puerto Rican society and have sex with her boyfriend without caring whether he stays or goes. The story ends with a celebration of rebellion and defining womanhood on one’s own terms, with sentences whose rhythms and language mimic love-making: “[...]when he arrived, he kissed me and undressed quickly. I watched Lola fling what looked like confetti from her open window ... I pushed his shoulders up, so I could look at him one last time. Then he entered me. And I wondered what her room felt like now, devoid of its past. Had it sunk? Or risen again?” But it isn’t sex that moves Noelia into adulthood; it’s deciding to love, making the decision to be true to herself by being vulnerable with another.
Throughout the collection, Rodriguez suggests this vulnerability as necessary for adulthood. In “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” Veronica, a student at Holyoke High School, lives in a community where you fight or act hard, where “Puerto Rican girls walk in silence, hoping for invisibility if they are alone or in pairs.” The adults Veronica knows are scared to be open, scared to feel, and though Veronica is a secret romantic (“even Holyoke girls are allowed to hope for love”), she’s disenchanted. She has seen too many relationships end because of poverty and stress.
In 2018, we may live with the bluster of Donald Trump and a hyper-masculinity associated with physical strength, guns, and weapons, but Rodriguez shows us we don’t have to accept it. Through “El Que Dirán,” and “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” she dismantles the idea that vulnerability and sensuality lack value, and with “The Summer of Nene,” she suggests new models for strength. Jimmy knows Nene has health problems, but that doesn’t prevent him from falling for him. Emotional vulnerability, this story indicates, increases our capacity for love—and marks us as adults.
How we tell our stories reveals our maturity. “The Simple Truth” parallels the lives of three women—Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, the youthful Maricarmen, and Maricarmen’s mother. Maricarmen admires Julia de Burgos because she displays her emotions deeply and openly. But so does Maricarmen’s mother, who has been betrayed by Maricarmen’s father. While Maricarmen is enthralled with her father, she comes to respect her mother’s stories and storytelling style, her version of fairy tales that “would always lapse into some feminist manifesto, completely changing the story.” Thus, “The Simple Truth” is less about a universal truth than how ambiguity molds storytelling: Maricarmen acknowledges how our stories bend and stretch depending on the storyteller (“But if my father told the story. If my mother told the story”). “Love War Stories,” the culminating story in the collection, is humorous, with multiple literary allusions to other epic love battles. It features Rosie, who, on the verge of becoming an adult, declares a war against love until she realizes even failed relationships can have value. This final exploration of growth reminds us of the continuous process of making ourselves willing to love. Acker, like Rodriguez, explores freedom and vulnerability and the specific cultural histories central to understanding her characters. The story of Washington, D.C., shadows the collection, which opens with an epigraph from educator Nannie Burroughs: “women, barely out of girlhood, were trained to follow society’s rules ... Then, they would be free.” A backdrop of the nation’s capital makes Acker ’s examination of liberation more acute. Referencing Marion Barry or Len Bias makes us aware of the forces—racial stereotypes—that attempt to define the parameters of the characters’ lives. We see young girls and women, nearly drowned by their parents’, teachers’, and neighbors’ need for authority and control, still managing to swim out almost every time.
Divided into two parts, “The Lower School” and “The Upper School,” Acker examines why these forces exist, why children of color are confined and controlled. “The Lower School” is more somber in tone (“The Upper School” is often hilarious), but both sections question why some children are allowed to be vulnerable—protected—and some are not. The first story, “Who We Are,” is told in the collective voice, as the “we,” the voices of youth of color, go to school and hang out with friends. On the subway, “we” describes how “people in suits and ties and nice dresses and heels give us looks ... We talk louder to make them look. And we don’t stop until we see that they’re afraid.” Acker makes us aware that just by being vocal, the adolescents can make other passengers uncomfortable. Perhaps some of these passengers are also of color (D.C. is, after all, a Chocolate City), but this may be Acker’s point. One of her best critiques is how people of color can inflict pain on other people of color. And this pain restricts our ability to live freely and joyously. Acker’s young people want to be free, to be seen, but already they face a wall of stereotypes.
“Cicadas” is another story that sings with subtle metaphor. The story examines a black girl’s piano competition and opens with the scattered shells of cicadas, an insect known for their song. The cicadas are able to fly, to be free: “In the dank of D.C.’s summer heat, cicadas scaled the heights of oak trees, vocal and untrained trapeze artists.” Acker offers her readers a choice—do we want children’s songs to be flattened and oppressed or sail through oak trees? Ellery, Acker’s protagonist, is resilient and smart. After winning the piano competition against wealthier and more privileged students, she better understands her own power and flings the cicada shells, metaphorically breaking out of her shell.
“Strong Men,” set in 1986, references basketball player Len Bias, and seriously examines black teenagers’ ideas about freedom while the laugh aloud funny “Final Draft of College Essay” will appeal to any black girl who has struggled to apply eyeliner, write college admission essays, and find her place in the world. With “Final Draft,” Acker mentally prepares for the second section, which is heavy on irony (“The Ropes”) and humor (“Training School for Negro Girls”).
Acker isn’t easy on her characters; she dissects them and points out the biases they have towards those in their own communities. In “The Ropes,” Dawn, a young and inexperienced black teacher, singles out one of her students—a spirited black girl from a poor neighborhood—for punishment. Dawn decides to teach students values like honesty and integrity (for some strange reason, through political campaigns), but reveals her own limited capacity for empathy. The titular story, “Training School for Negro Girls,” mocks the pretentiousness of D.C.’s black middle class. Its absurdity and its satire of black social organizations shows the destructive side of the so-called “black elite.”
To make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to question or defy the rules and not be unduly overly punished for it are rarities for youth of color. Acker and Rodriguez reveal why girls of color fight for the right to make youthful mistakes, just like everyone else.
Rochelle Spencer is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2019), co-editor, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and a co-curator of the Let’s Play exhibition and Oakland’s Digital Literature Garden.
Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism By Omise’eke Tinsley
Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 2018, 216 pp., $17.95, paperback
I remember where I was when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade (2016), a visual album that tells the story of a lover’s betrayal, the healing power of sisterhood, and black women’s magical ability to turn the haters’ lemons into sweet lemonade. For once that summer, the world was not watching black death streaming on our computers but black life in all its complexity, fabulousness, and vulnerability.
Lemonade is the mirror black girls like me never had in the white sea of mainstream pop culture. I saw myself in the heartbreak, the healing, the hopefulness on screen. When I watched Beyoncé and Serena Williams twerk at Madewood Plantation in the video for “Sorry,” I was reminded of when my Spelman sisters and I learned to love our bodies and each other over and against Southern racism and the pressures of respectability. When I saw young Blue Ivy and Quevenzhané Wallis holding hands in “Freedom,” I saw myself playing with my childhood friends. I was not alone in my awe. Black women knew one thing for sure: Beyoncé made Lemonade for us.
It has always been unclear just how much of Beyoncé’s work is inspired by her real life and how much is expertly curated storytelling. What’s undeniable, however, is Beyoncé’s (or her team’s?) ability to create narratives and metaphors that hit home for black trans and cis women who came to slay but are still trying to break free from generational suffering caused by slavery, imperialism, and misogynoir. In our group chats, living rooms, and hair salons, black femmes used Lemonade as a starting place for collectively unpacking our trauma and articulating new black feminist politics. But there is perhaps no one more qualified to decode Lemonade’s symbolism than Omise’eke Tinsley, who has taught a course entitled “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism” at University of Texas-Austin for years. In her new book, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, Tinsley invites us all into her classroom.
Beyoncé in Formation loosely follows the narrative arc of Lemonade through an introduction, three body chapters, and an outro. In the book’s first body chapter, “Family Album,” Tinsley considers Beyoncé’s persona as a daughter of the South, of the blues, and of Tina Knowles, and the lessons black girls’ learn from their various mothers about love and loss. In “‘Most Bomb Pussy,’” Tinsley focuses on Lemonade’s portrayals of black feminine sexuality in “Sorry” and “6 Inch,” and how they differ from Beyoncé’s earlier work. Lemonade does not shy away from the fact that femme-on-femme desire is often a source of pleasure, politics, and profit for black cis and trans women, and Tinsley argues that black feminism should follow Beyoncé’s lead by recognizing sexuality as a resource to embrace rather than deny. Finally, “Calling for Freedom” uses the songs “Freedom” and “Formation” as starting places for imagining reproductive justice for black women, who continue to create fictive, biological, and adoptive families despite institutional racism, homophobia, femme-phobia, and controlling images that deny black women our softness.
Tinsley writes unapologetically from Beyoncé’s flock of fans (otherwise known as the “Beyhive”), notorious for its unconditional and defensive love for all things Bey. A shameless “love letter to [her] sister Beyoncé feminists,” Beyoncé in Formation glosses over critiques by scholars like bell hooks who argue that Beyoncé has “utterly aestheticized” black womanhood, and Jennifer DeClue, who notes the curious absence of Big Freedia and other transwomen’s bodies from Lemonade.
Rather than trying to defend Beyoncé from her critics’ point-by-point, Tinsley acknowledges Beyoncé’s missed beats and meets them with optimism and forgiveness. Beyoncé in Formation chooses to “consider how unfinished visions like Beyoncé’s offer space for black women to creatively reinvent our genders, pleasures, and alliances in unexpected ways.” This is what Tinsley means by subtitling the book a black feminist remix; the memories and identities people bring to the listening experience, Tinsley posits, change Lemonade’s sound. We all hear Beyoncé through the beat of our own histories, and we can dance to that beat however we please.
Beyoncé in Formation’s style is itself a remix, with Tinsley playing DJ. This book is part cultural analysis, part memoir, and part black femme-inist manifesta. Tinsley anchors her analyses of Lemonade’s black feminist symbolism with anecdotes from her own family, as well as the biographies of Southern divas like Memphis Minnie, Oprah, Black Chyna, and Maya Angelou who paved the way for and alongside Beyoncé. Tinsley’s telling of these women’s stories together with Beyoncé’s rethinks the respectable narratives black communities often selectively tell, and highlights the roles that twerking, ratchetness, and femininity have played in these matriarchs’ empowerment. Bey’s critics regularly throw shade on Lemonade’s version of feminism, but Tinsley points out that black girl magic has always and should always include the body, passion, and selffashioning.
Tinsley’s tone and use of first-person perspective throughout Beyoncé in Formation invites readers to likewise contemplate their relationship to Lemonade’s themes. She writes with familiarity and authority all at once. I thought I “got” Lemonade before, but Beyoncé in Formation inspired me to dig deeper. I found myself reconsidering my relationship to twerking as a granddaughter of the South, and how the black girl games I played may have created space for me to explore my body within the confines of a conservative Southern Baptist upbringing. I also found myself saying “yasss” while re-writing my Instagram photo captions using a mash-up of Tinsley’s and Beyoncé’s words—a remix of the remix.
Those looking for Beyoncé In Formation to resolve Beyoncé’s curious silence about her artistry and its symbolism will not be consoled by this book. Many will begin reading Beyoncé in Formation as skeptics, who have wondered if Lemonade was intentionally political in any way. Is Beyoncé-the-black-feminist wishful thinking on our parts? Was Lemonade a shrewd attempt by an artist to capitalize on the fervor of the Black Lives Matter, feminist, and LGBTQ movements? By the end of Beyoncé in Formation, I suspect you’ll join the Beyhive’s chorus singing, “Does it matter?” Tinsley convincingly argues that it does not, and her insistence on seeing queer femme-ness in Lemonade’s femininity is enough to help the reader imagine a freer freedom and a more radical black feminism. In short, Lemonade, like life, is what and how you make it.
Chelsea Johnson is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California whose work focuses on beauty politics and race. Her coauthored children’s book about intersectionality, IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, is forthcoming Spring 2019 from Dottir Press.