Crying in H Mart: A Memoir By Michelle Zauner
Reviewed by Ariel Kim
In a metacognitive episode of NPR’s Code Switch, co-hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby discuss the functional and frustrating phenomenon of the “explanatory comma”—a brief aside that gives context for a word, idea, or person. Depending on the audience and the subject matter, an explanatory comma can be the difference between observing the scene through a window and being invited inside to participate. Every artist, author, or journalist makes their own choices about explication and creative purpose, but people of color, in particular, often find themselves wrestling with a simultaneous reluctance and compulsion to include these explanatory asides about aspects of their respective cultures, since an omission might come at the expense of a larger audience—or worse, clarity and resonance.
But no audience is a monolith, and sometimes it’s impossible to articulate the significance of kimchi or Nirvana. Either you get it, or you don’t. Michelle Zauner embodies this “take it or leave it” approach in her new memoir, Crying in H Mart. From the growing pains of her “flimsy version of young adulthood” to “the pain I’d keep with me for a lifetime” after her mother’s battle with terminal cancer, Zauner chronicles the cultural and emotional pilgrimage of growing up in Eugene, Oregon, with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother. She adeptly navigates the sharp curve of an explanatory comma, offering her story first, a crash course in Korean cuisine and the noughties music scene second. Crying in H Mart is a coming-of-age narrative as much as it is a reflection on loss and grief; of seeking or spectating or stumbling upon your cultural identity in a defunct, boiling-over melting pot.
This is the story of a Korean mother and her half-Korean daughter.
Her style is a cheeky cross between the charming and laidback ethnographic candor of John Jeremiah Sullivan and the vivid yet accessible emotional frequency of Amy Tan—although even as I make that analogy, I cringe apologetically and look to the Asian American women whose voices and faces are on the rise within the “mainstream,” thankful that we are gaining more breadth and depth of representation in all genres, from literature to film to music. Indeed, although the titular essay of her memoir was previously published to great acclaim in The New Yorker in 2018, Zauner is probably better known as Japanese Breakfast, her indie rock solo project. She is one of the few Asian American women in the rock music scene, and the dulcet-yet-danceable songs have been rising in popularity since her first album, Psychopomp, in 2016.
Her writing, like her music, is a quietly urgent meditation on the enormity of the mundane: “My mother died on October 18, 2014, a date I’m always forgetting.” She favors long and lingering visual descriptions, from the “Korean restaurants that pack the table so full of banchan side dishes that you’re forced to play a never-ending game of horizontal Jenga with twelve tiny plates of stir-fried anchovies, stuffed cucumbers, and pickled everything” to the sprawling greenery of her family’s woodsy outpost in the Pacific Northwest. In the first few chapters, these numerous and occasionally rambling recitations of the particulars of her biracial upbringing construct the tentative trajectory of her life and personality, which her mother’s cancer diagnosis would abruptly derail.
Zauner also shares sumptuous anecdotes that illustrate her “distinctly Korean appetite,” and her “reverence for good food” is contagious. In one memory, she and her mother sneak into the kitchen of her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul at night, where they would “giggle and shush each other as we ate ganjang gejang with our fingers, sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell, prodding the meat from its crevices with our tongues.” But these decadent sentences are striking for more than their mouthwatering detail—Zauner’s use of the phonetic anglicization of myriad Korean foods speaks to a level of unapologetic comfort with her Korean language and culture. Although she gives enough context that a discerning reader can glean her meaning, it is always for the purpose of descriptive evocation, rather than mere explanation.
In subsequent chapters, we dive into Zauner’s reflections on the “auspicious privilege and … smothering consequences” of her mother’s devotion, particularly during her fraught adolescence and estranged early twenties. She and her mother begin to drift apart, exacerbated by the “complicated desire for whiteness” that runs parallel to her desire to be accepted by her Korean relatives. Her middle name, Chongmi, is also her mother’s name, but she pretends not to have one because she hates how her peers mispronounce it. When she complains to her mother about being the only Korean girl at school, her mother’s blank stare and uncomplicated response only intensify her lack of belonging. “But you’re not Korean. You’re American.”
When she later insists on pursuing songwriting and music production, against her mother’s wishes, they have an explosive argument in a Korean restaurant. Her mother sees no future for Zauner doing “this weird thing,” and doesn’t understand that the uncharted waters of the music industry are empowering, rather than discouraging. But while Zauner might gesture to the significance of diverse representation in indie rock, psychological terms like “scarcity mentality” are not her primary concern. After storming out of the restaurant, Zauner lingers on the image of her mother retreating to the car and “using the mirror from the sun flap to pick the gochugaru from her teeth with the folded corner of a receipt. She was waiting for me to stop her—to chase her and beg for forgiveness. But I would not give in.” This is the story of a Korean mother and her half-Korean daughter.
As Zauner shifts to tell the story of her mother’s battle with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma, she maintains this plainspoken and musing voice. She doesn’t attempt to be elevated or detached, rarely imposing any interpretations or justifications for her actions. She simply presents them as they happened, awash in sentiment and immersed in the emotional maturity of that given moment. It feels as if she is bustling around her kitchen, telling you about how she just planned her impromptu wedding while sitting on the fire escape of a Seoul hospital, where her mother was delirious and bedridden after their failed attempt at a final vacation. Instead of attempting to achieve perfect prose, Crying in H Mart reads like an intimate archive of these moments—every scene could have happened just yesterday, for how raw and accessible they are in Zauner’s recollection. She writes not as someone who found ways to transcend her sorrow, but rather as someone who found herself crushed by it.
In the final chapters, as Zauner coaxes herself through the aftermath of her mother’s passing by reclaiming the rituals and rhythms of Korean food, the through lines of banchan side dishes, jjigaes, and jatjuk also facilitate an ongoing commemoration of culture. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home.” She makes her own kimchi for the first time—an enormous yet mundane task—sitting on the kitchen floor surrounded by bowls of bright red marinade, napa cabbage, and chonggak radishes. With vivid and barefaced detail, Crying in H Mart challenges the necessity of explanatory commas—we are invited to share in her grief, even if we’ve never tasted kimchi or lost a mother.
Rather than being overwrought or self-indulgent, Zauner compares the path ahead of her, the future without her mother, to the process of fermentation, which she had mistakenly believed was “controlled death. Left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes. It becomes rotten, inedible. But when brined and stored, the course of its decay is altered … It ages. Its color and texture transmute. Its flavor becomes tarter, more pungent. It exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether.” By the end of her memoir, Zauner has transformed into the woman we know: accomplished essayist, successful indie rock musician, committed foodie and proud Korean American … the woman who her mother never got to see.
Ariel Kim is a recent graduate of Harvard University, where she studied English and Global Health and Health Policy. Her interests include education, social justice, and creative writing.
By Laurie Stone
Election night, when it looked like Biden might lose, I could not think of a reason to get off the couch. Or remain on it. I was awake until 3:30. The next morning I couldn’t see a future beyond the bed, and then a woman texted to say she was picking up chairs we were selling.
Back when I walked on Broadway, I would see a man with flowing white hair I had known in the past. He walked as much as I did and lived nearby. He was often singing to himself and seemed oblivious of me or others whizzing by, and although I did not stop to say hello, I would recall the excitement of first knowing him at nineteen. He had curly dark hair back then and worked for a trade newspaper that reported on scrap metal. He wrote all the pieces in the paper with headlines such as “Steel Prices Stainless” and “Nonferrous Market Resists Rust.” The man I was married to was in law school and as a part-time job did market research at the scrap metal paper. People liked him, and although his research was pretty much fabricated, he was kept on and in time was able to hire me to help him make things up. The full-time writer was older than us and really a musician and songwriter. On weekends he performed in a cabaret, and the man I was married to and I would go see him playing the piano and singing songs of soft satire. It was 1966, and Lily Tomlin was performing there regularly, too, developing the characters she would soon present on Laugh-in. The writer was carefree, and I was grateful to be swept into a world I found glamorous and grown up. He would hold little gatherings in his Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. Actor friends would lean against exposed brick walls, holding juice glasses of wine. He wrote movie reviews for the newspaper, and when he went on vacation, I filled in for him. They were my first published pieces. I would have followed anyone into a theater and the world it led to.
Yesterday we drove to New York City for the first time since the morning of March 6 of last year. Back in my apartment, I saw I'd left a small heater by the couch. It must have been cold. Who were we? We were in the city to have our teeth cleaned, and we went in together and were finished together and walked a little downtown, and although it is a part of the city I have always loved, I did not feel love. Everything was familiar except me.
Some people are waiting for the pandemic to pass over like a weather condition. I am living in an airport lounge.
Recently we watched Reversal of Fortune, about Claus von Bülow, who was accused of attempting to murder his rich wife Sunny by injecting her with enough insulin to place her in a permanent coma. The role requires Jeremy Irons to wear a partly bald hair piece and look ghoulishly pale as he floats around in his imperious and clueless rich-man's way. The film makes you think about the tragic interior design choices of the wealthy and how money buys freedom from accountability. It contrasts Claus's idle drifts from point A to point B to the dervish efforts of his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who with his team of students and the aid of maids, hospital workers, bankers, lawyers, and the police, clean up the wreckage left by the moneyed class.
But who would you prefer to have lunch with? Claus or Alan? Witty, self-deprecating Claus any day. The script, based on the book by Dershowitz, advertises Dershowitz as the people's lawyer, fighting for the underdog and the right of anyone to have a strong defense, but you don't think that's who he is. He wants to win a splashy case because as much as Claus wants to fade into the beige drapes, Dershowitz wants the limelight.
I used to practice tap steps waiting for trains. Everyone danced in the subway. The acoustics were good. I used to run to my sister at camp. She’s at the flagpole, twisting her ponytail and smelling of suntan oil. It’s sexy to cut someone’s hair. When I was a bartender, I was generous with the alcohol, wanting people to be happy. For years in the 1960s and 1970s, I read Virago and Penguin editions of books by women: Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Colette in a giant gulp, the Margarets Drabble and Atwood, Violette Leduc, Jean Rhys, Gayl Jones, Plath, Sexton.
Before the pandemic, a friend invited me to a party. It was the renewal of a friendship that had come undone for reasons no one could understand. By this time, we had no idea who the other person had become. Still, warmth rose up, and I forgot to eat. The other morning, I recapped the last episode of The Queen’s Gambit for the man I live with. We were in bed, drinking tea. I said that at the end the protagonist chess prodigy teenaged girl is alone in Moscow with a group of old Russian men, who sit outside in the cold, playing chess at café tables. A curtain of tears fell as I spoke. Whatever I told him I cried, and I was sad when there was nothing more to cry about. Who is this girl to me? Every girl who ever wanted something? Remember moving out of yourself on the fast-spinning Tilt-A-Whirl ride? Again. Can we do it again?
Who is this girl to me? Every girl who ever wanted something?
Where I live now—on a farm road upstate—there are tall evergreens and lots of field mice going nuts in the prickly winter grass. I wanted to offer mice to the baby owl who was discovered in the Christmas tree brought to Rockefeller Center. I have always wanted an owl. Who hasn't? Florence Nightingale rescued an owl in Greece she named Athena and took home with her to England. If the small owl came to live here, I wouldn't think it was mine. I would just love it. In pictures of the owl, you can see it thinking: This is like accidentally stowing away on a plane and finding yourself in South America, where you have to learn another language it turns out you have an aptitude for, and it makes you think traveling reveals new parts of yourself as much as it reveals the world. You think about where your wings can take you, and you remember you are adorable to people. Humans think you look smarter than they look. The thing about a human is the hands. Their hands see the future.
Last week our sump pump died during twelve hours of rain. The battery died as well, and the apparatus was screaming its head off as we waited for a plumber. At one point the water in the well rose nearly to the basement floor, and the man I live with and I had to bail it out with buckets. He kept saying we would not be able to contain it, although it was clear if we kept going, we would. I filled the buckets, and he climbed the stone stairs to dump them outside. We got into a rhythm. He was carrying two buckets at a time. Fill, carry, hurl, and soon the level subsided. I knew absolutely we would not fail because no matter what we wouldn’t stop. The man I live with knew absolutely we would not fail, but his way of knowing was to state the opposite.
On the phone the other day a friend recalled the time she gave the man she was involved with a case of crabs. It was forty years ago. They had been in Denmark. He was an artist, preparing a show. She’d grown bored and returned to the States, where she’d slept with this one and that one. “It was a horrible thing to have done, so embarrassing, careless and cruel,” she said, and a few days later when I spoke to her again I could see her judgment had worsened. How could she have done such a thing to someone as kind and loving? I said, “Giving a person crabs because you had sex with other people doesn’t sound that bad to me.” Their affair was winding down, and what she’d done was a way out—cowardly, sure, but to me ordinary. I said, “I have done many worse things.” She said, “Like what?” I said I didn’t feel like recalling the times I had been a heartless betrayer, as examples flipped in my head. I thought that if giving a tender and trusting man a case of crabs was the worst thing you could see looking back, then I could not imagine such a life. By any standard my friend was a more honest and generous person than I’d ever been, and I was amazed she could stomach me.
I am thinking of the kind of hipster that finds compliance with government authority of any kind uncool—a type that, ironically or maybe not so ironically, lines up with Trump defiers of masking and social distancing. And I wonder if it’s thought less uncool to follow orders for the sake of others than to follow orders to save yourself. After the vaccine, will TV shows that resume production pretend Covid never happened? The man I live with says that, if I die, he will return to England. This has given me added incentive to live.
I have been thinking about rewatching movies and rereading books and the way this makes you feel about your life. I remember seeing the films of Jean-Luc Godard as each came out, year after year, and loving them, especially Pierrot Le Fou (1968) and Weekend the same year. Godard was the kind of person you were supposed to love, and I did. I think it was real love back then.
It's not as if I have fallen out of love with his films. To fall out of love, you need the wear and tear of daily life or the sudden awareness you have been living in a place where you do not know the language and have been wrong about the words. This once happened when I was visiting Germany. I thought I understood German because the German words sounded like Yiddish and because I started to walk and dream with the music of Germany in my head. I could taste the meaning of the words in the crusty bread.
Last night on Godard’s birthday, we watched Breathless (1961) again. I don’t remember the last time I saw it, but I remember the first time. Not what I thought about the movie. I don’t remember that. I remember who I was. Where could I have seen it? The Bleecker Street Cinema, probably. I remember the jersey tops with horizontal stripes worn by Jean Seberg. I wanted to wear a top like that. I thought Jean-Paul Belmondo was beautiful. I don’t know what I thought, really, but the film with its energy and jumps cuts and a couple of times direct address to the viewer, and the music and sense of Paris and being a girl/woman on her own, this appealed to me when I was a young girl/woman. I think, more than anything, seeing Seberg on the street with her not-even-trying-awful French accent called to me because she lived in a hotel.
Seeing it now, I didn’t remember any of it as it actually is. I didn’t remember that Belmondo pursues Seberg, and she’s not sure about him, which he likes, although he pretends not to. Somehow you think she understands that were she to act like she was falling for him, she would never see him again. I didn’t remember the idiocy of their conversations that hover on the edge of boredom, the way the whole movie does. There is already a kind of boredom about life in these people and in the man who filmed them. Godard’s camera loves each of them more than they feel for each other. They aren’t sexy together. No heat comes off them. They kiss fake. They are two pretty birds on adjoining perches, fluffing out their feathers and pecking a bit on the other’s wings before hopping off in other directions.
I didn’t remember that Seberg turns him into the police or that everyone finds Belmondo’s character, Michel, insufferable, while he doesn’t see it. He’s petulant, pushy, oblivious of Seberg’s wishes or those of anyone else. The way the film thinks about women and understands women has nothing, really nothing whatever to do with how female people understand the world and the ways they’re perceived in it. The job of a woman in the world Godard depicts is to pretend not to see the contempt in which women are held. It’s a full-time job. It’s sometimes all any woman has time to do. I didn’t care about Godard’s infatuation with movies as he made a different kind of movie, although there is something to love about that. I’m just not the person to love it is all.
I wasn’t bored as I lingered on the verge of boredom, like the characters. I could see Godard had made a piece of jazz from nothing and smoke. It was also like returning to the apartment building where I had lived as a young child to see how tiny in actuality the courtyard was. It was like returning to the summer camp where I had spent the happiest times of my childhood to find it abandoned and all the buildings leaning over. Godard and the others in the new wave were inventing a new language of film, using all the old bones and props and body parts of ordinary, unthought-through understandings of what a man is and what a woman is.
The Christmas cactus has bloomed on the window that looks out on the road. It isn't a cactus. It isn't possible to will yourself to love anything. We love our new sheets that are gunmetal gray. I resist the social urging to feel doom. I was once at a decrepit artist residency so bleak with dirt I spent my days in the lobby of a nearby hotel, wearing headphones and using the Wi-Fi. At night I watched The Wire, unable to turn away from children entrapped in the drug world the show depicts. I kept borrowing the DVDs from the local library. When we bought the house where we live now, I didn't understand what was needed to make it right. It was like falling in love—which is more or less the rejection of feeling doom. At the artist colony, I found funny the space between feeling lucky to be there and feeling disgust at what it was. At another colony I lived amid an infestation of stinkbugs no one tried to contain. In order to work or sleep, I had to vacuum up hundreds of bugs from the furniture and walls several times a day. The thing about colonies is they are mostly uncomfortable in one way or another and you need to bring your own gunmetal gray sheets. At this one, while everyone slept, you could stream movies, and it was heaven.
Before the women’s movement, every woman used to say, “I’m strange. I’m not like other women.” I wake up early in order to live longer. When I was twenty-five, I borrowed money from a friend to pay my rent and left behind a gold bracelet as collateral. People around Andy Warhol wondered if they should be more damaged or more whole.
A man came to fix the filtration system in our house and showed me videos of himself in the Grand Canyon. He was riding a mule in snow along the narrow path that cuts back and forth like a ribbon in the wind. I once visited the Grand Canyon at sunset. The rocks were on fire, and the man I had come with said, “It looks like the last day this is ever going to happen.” In the videos, the air was gray above the icy Colorado River, and snow speckled the brown mules. The descent into the Grand Canyon takes six hours and the climb up eight hours, along a mile of stairs.
In the Before, I was walking one night in Manhattan with the man who had showed me the Grand Canyon when I tripped on the sidewalk outside a Rite-Aid. This man was now my former boyfriend, and my lip was bleeding. The store had the blue-gray air of a space station. People were poring over heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and violent computer games, pretending not to notice the blood. A young man with a thin mustache led us to the employees’ toilet down a hallway lined with soft drinks and scouring cleansers. My former boyfriend had dark, flowing hair. I had bitten my lip in two places, and the inside was visible outside, like a palm turning out. He said, “You won’t be the worst-looking person on the subway.” It was the reason he’d been a good choice for me. Before he left, I said, “I want to hold your hand.” He took my hand, sticky with blood, and kissed it.
All the trees have dropped their leaves, and the branches are jumping in the wind. For women, the past has no information. In 1968, the house of famous modernist and anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline burned down, destroying manuscripts, furniture, and mementos. His parrot Toto remained safe in an adjacent aviary. In the 1990s, I found myself friends with a number of people who’d been junkies. By the time I was born, there was a television in the house. I watched it from a couch splashed with red dahlias. To eat clams from the shell, my father would throw back his head. As the youngest child, I didn’t imagine living an adult life. I could have taken the same fall at twenty.
Laurie Stone is an author, critic, and frequent contributor to the Women’s Review of Books.
If the rapturous response to Amanda Gorman’s stirring performance at the Inauguration is any guide, poetry is definitely having a moment, especially poetry by women, and particularly by women of color. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was a New York Times bestseller. Joy Harjo has been the Poet Laureate since 2019. Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize. A new biography of Sylvia Plath weighed in at a thousand pages.
That women poets are coming into their own makes sense for many reasons. Women are the large majority of readers of poetry (and also of fiction) and fill creative writing workshops and MFA programs. Poetry tends to be short, and thus lends itself to email, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, all platforms where women are active. A poem can go viral, like Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” or many poems by Maya Angelou and Lucille Clifton and Rupi Kaur.
All this would definitely surprise critics of decades ago. There have been great women poets and popular women poets (not always the same people) for centuries, but in the past, few were taken seriously by the scholars and critics who form the canon. John Crowe Ransom’s notorious 1937 takedown of Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Poet as Woman,” was typical (“undeveloped intellectually,” sentimental, effusive). But flash forward to our own day and who is the subject of a substantial, widely read biography and renewed critical interest? Who is still read? Not Ransom. In Millay we recognize a kindred modern spirit—a woman longing for joy and beauty and sex and love and above all, freedom. Ransom, by contrast, seems like a dusty old male chauvinist on the wrong side of history in just about every way (I say this as one who loves his poems, but they clearly belong to an earlier day).
Women poets today seem intimately connected to their readers. Perhaps it’s be- cause, even though “women’s poetry”—feminist poetry—has been part of the po- etry world for at least half a century, it still feels that women poets are saying things that have not been said very often, if ever. That is what makes my job as poetry editor of the Women’s Review of Books so exciting. We are, in a way, making history.
As April is National Poetry Month, we are celebrating by publishing six— yes, six!—poems. Longtime WRB contributor Priscilla Long’s “Summer, Seattle” depicts what looks at first like an idyllic day of reading and writing in a lovely garden. But I’ll bet I’m not the only reader who feels the anxiety beneath these concluding lines:
days that drift and pile up
like red-oak catkins
as if one day’s job
was to make another day.
In “The Skillet Puts in a Word,” Long wittily reflects on domestic work, which is at once daily and seemingly eternal:
I’m humble, a frying pan
but long after you, I’ll be
here, like the moon.
Next, US-based/US-raised Syrian poets: Mohja Kahf and Banah al- Ghadbanah. Mohja Kahf’s “When He Starts in with Geopolitics” is a clever take on the know-it-all expert who actually doesn’t know much: “When you think Syria, I know you think ‘walnut trees’ and ‘town meetings,’” not today’s reality of civil war and its horrors. Men who trumpet their out-of-date opinions oblivious to actual events—now there’s an old story. Banah al-Ghadbanah writes about another experience that is both daily and (so far) eternal, sexual violence. “Before I forget” tells of the gang rape of a Syrian refugee boy, whose rapists felt so safe, so entitled, they filmed it; “Little brother a sea of women have prepared a home for you, cast spells for your protection, while the men look the other way.”
Of course it is possible for a woman to be revered as well as reviled. She just needs to be a virgin and the mother of God. In “Poem Where I Am a Reliquary, a Vierge Ouvrante,” Anne Babson cleverly takes on the absurdity of demands for female sexual purity (talk about daily and eternal!). Her clear-glass empty container confesses, “I haven’t been a sacred vessel for a long time.”
Finally, Elizabeth Powell’s “Roe v. Wade 410 US 113 (1973): an erasure” distills Justice Blackmun’s decision down to its essence and makes poetry of its rather flatfooted prose. Witty and profound, it finds the mystery in that mysterious word “life” and stands in awe before it.
The tall green paper birch.
orange California poppies.
The cottage snug in sun,
lazing through the long days,
days I loiter
among poems and books,
days that drift and pile up
like red-oak catkins
as if one day’s job
was to make another day.
I kiss and spit fat
on the burner, I'm
of Earth, old as Earth,
iron, born of exploding
stars, glad to hang
on your kitchen nail
for your few years
of cooking and dreaming.
I'm hot to fry fish,
the perfect pancake.
I'm humble, a frying pan
but long after you, I'll be
here, like the moon,
like mountains, like sun
and night. Like the sea.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, science, creative nonfiction, fiction, and history, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. Her most recent book is Holy Magic: Poems (MoonPath Press), which won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award. Her previous poetry book is Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press). Her other books include The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writer's Life (University of New Mexico Press) and a collection of memoirist essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Little brother, your tears deep among the stars.*
How does a blizzard shriek?* And how does your shadow wander through the night? And how does the pain subside? And how does a butterfly fly in the rain, in the thunder, through the barbed wire and the barrel of the rifle? And how does a camera lens react to bearing witness? And what did the wind say? And how did the olive oil begin to taste? And how did you tell your mother and how many ears received the news that day? And when the dawn broke, did it cover you? Did the light comfort you softly or was it the night who held you close?
Did the city’s gravel speak after it had witnessed? Did the fish stare openly into the summer air? Little brother a sea of women have prepared a home for you, cast spells for your protection, while the men look the other way. You said it happened seven times before that and still no one knows your name.
Banah al-Ghadbanah (pronoun: zhe, they) is a Syrian poet published in As/Us, Sukoon: an Arab-themed literary magazine, Passage & Place, Afghan Punk Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Her Words, and Acting Up: Queer in the New Century Anthology. Banah is the winner of the Diverse Voices Book Prize, and their debut poetry book, syrena in space, comes out with Dzanc Books in 2022. Banah is currently a PhD Candidate working on zir dissertation about Syrian women’s creative work in revolution and war.
*the phrases “tears deep among the stars” and ‘how does a blizzard shriek,” taken from Huda Numani’s poem, “I was a point, I was a circle.”
We need not resolve
the difficult question
of when life begins.
We are unable to arrive
at any consensus,
in the development
of man's knowledge—
When he is not
in a position
to speculate as to
Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of three books of poems, most recently Atomizer (LSU Press). Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was a Small Press Bestseller and named a “Books We Love 2016” by The New Yorker. Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of J.Crew Catalogues, was published in 2019 in the U.K. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Seneca Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Green Mountains Review and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Vermont University. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In 2020, she was Distinguished Visiting Writer at Oregon State University-Bend.
when he starts in with geopolitics at the mixer you know he doesn’t get it
the regime is dropping bombs on Idlib as we speak
Khirbet al-Joz, a village in the woods you can smell it
just from the name, Ruins of the Walnut Tree, the split heartwood—
it has a local council that’s been pulling together but just barely
the way tree roots pull toward water by the river
When you think “Syria” I know you think “walnut trees” and “town meetings”
the women in long brown or dark blue dusters negotiating and the small-town men
and the farmers and the FSA guys and the media girls & guys and the field medics in baseball caps
trying to decide whether to throw in with the devil Black Flags just to defend the town
they’re all hoarse now and there are flecks of light brown dust on their limbs in last sunlight
you can hear the sound of their running to the river but the border is closed where will they run
another shell explodes in your WhatsApp message from Khirbet al-Joz
and the local council is drafting a letter like Syrians newly awakened to their power to draft letters
to which no one in the world responds
and they are making hasty videos filmed in the street posted
online by the media girls huddled next to a crusty window
and you can see the smoke from the bombing, next building over, and feel the phone-camera shake
and you can hear the the hoarse women and men and their hasty online videos that no one seems to hear
and what will happen to them in the next moments? these moments, while you are at the mixer?
but the know-it-all hor d’oeuvres in hand starts in with geopolitics because that’s what Syria is to him
not the smell of Khirbet al-Joz and he knows nothing of Syrian women in town councils and does not ask “how are they?” or “how are they faring?” or “how are they faring now?”
Mohja Kahf, professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas since 1995, is author of a novel, three books of poetry, and an academic book, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. Her writing has been translated to Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Italian, German, and French translations. She is a founding member of the Radius of Arab American Writers and winner of a Pushcart Prize. In 2011 she joined the Syrian Nonviolence Movement (الحراك السلمي السوري), which was founded by protest organizers inside Syria. Her most recent book of poems is My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit (Press 53, 2020).
Full disclosure: I haven’t been a sacred vessel for a long time.
I am empty, as you can see through the glass.
They have lit me just so. Hushed patrons shuffle by.
Some point. Others gesture toward larger urns.
I am supposed to contain the fetus Jesus, to be His
Tabernacle. I am supposed to be a virgin.
I was handled by too many silversmiths in my making
For me to remain one, really. They wiped off prints
When they poised me next to the index card labeling me.
I am empty. I said that before, but it bears repeating.
I am an evacuated Heavenly Jerusalem.
I am descending to Earth in the End Times.
I am a trope, a symbol ex-machina.
I am mineral. I utter Magnificat.
But a woman? Don’t believe it!
Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.
Anne Babson’s latest collection of poetry, Messiah, will be released this autumn by Saint Julian Press. Her other works include Polite Occasions (Unsolicited Press), The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press), the chapbook Dolly Shot (Dancing Girl Press), her play Reenactment, which tackles the subject of gun culture in America, and the libretto for the opera Lotus Lives, which has been performed in New York, Boston and Montreal. She has been anthologized most recently in Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (Lost Horse Press). Her work has recently appeared in Iowa Review, Cider Press Review, Southampton Review, Bridges, Barrow Street, Connecticut Review, The Pikeville Review, Rio Grande Review, English Journal, New Song, The Penwood Review, Sow’s Ear, The Madison Review, Atlanta Review, Grasslands Review, WSQ, Global City Review, Comstock Review, California Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, The Red Rock Review, and many other publications.
Red Rock Baby Candy By Shira Spector
Interview by Tahneer Oksman
The process was improvisational, related to quilt-making … as a mom and a person with a day job, I had to make it in a way that I could put it down and pick it up again, like sewing.
Shira Spector’s visual memoir, Red Rock Baby Candy, is a sight to behold. The hardcover volume, coming in at about eight-by-twelve inches, consists of pages packed with bold, bright colors, pencil sketches, collages, torn diary pages, inlaid photographs, and narrative text jotted and drawn in an assortment of ways, including lots of intimate pencil doodles interlaced throughout. This is a book bursting with surprises. Each spread, from its coloring to its sometimes gritty, sometimes delicate textures and its overarching configuration and design, is an unexpected delight.
Like lots of feminist graphic memoirs, the text is hard to classify. Shira’s alter ego takes us on many journeys. Some of these take place in the “present” (the book spans over ten years in its making), and they include experiences of grieving a beloved father, infertility and pregnancy loss, and navigating the ins-and-outs of co-parenting as an artist. In the folds of these stories is a bildungsroman, in which our narrator revisits the long road that led to her proud emergence as a high-femme dyke drama queen.
Red Rock Baby Candy is a book to read for its absorbing storylines and delicate, poetic prose. It’s also one I’ll undoubtedly return to, repeatedly, in order to re-absorb and re-savor its sensual, glamorous art. Shira and I spoke one afternoon in January over Zoom, and despite the hundreds of miles between Toronto and Brooklyn, we had much to discuss: books and art and motherhood and girlhood and, not least, the complicated trajectories of radicalized and rebellious would-be Nice Jewish Girls.
WRB: How, and when, did you first start making comics?
SS: I’ve been drawing my whole life. I went to art school in the 1990s to study painting and drawing. But it was a conservative program, and I was interested in comics, and they weren’t, and they really discouraged the work I was doing.
So I basically dropped out of art school, but I kept one class, which was my fibers class. That department had a much more contemporary feel, with more mixed media and a lot of women speaking about marginalized artwork. I had a teacher, Régine Mainberger, a mentor who was a Holocaust survivor and a staunch Jewish feminist. I was exploring queer Jewish identity in my fiber work, and she really encouraged that. Other teachers wouldn’t interface with my work because I was talking about being a Jewish dyke.
At first, I started by working my comics onto textiles. The drawings didn’t feel real to me until I saw them on fabric. That’s where the layering comes through in my work. But eventually, once I lost access to all the equipment at school, I started treating paper like textiles. I took what I knew—reverse appliqué, surface design work, repetition, patterning—and moved it onto paper.
For me, it’s incredible to be working in comics, a medium that is so—I want to say, bisexual [laughs]. It’s interdisciplinary; it’s words and images, so that’s already mixed media in a sense.
WRB: Your memoir winds in so many directions, but it’s framed by grief. It opens as you lament the loss of your father and soon turns to infertility and pregnancy loss. Do you think of this book as a work of grief?
SS: Yes and no. I started this book because I had all this grief, and I didn’t know where to put it. So I turned to my art.
The book became a house I lived in—a place that was sacred, and a place I could go and be with my grief. As you know, this culture has no room for grieving. But it’s not only a book about grief. As much as I was mapping that terrain, in the space of grieving I also found gratitude and joy. Grief is multicolored and multilayered. I wanted to bring that sensibility to this book, all of my tools. Like the deliciousness of looking at a children’s book, a picture book: where you can look at an image and look at it again, and you can just keep coming back to it.
WRB: One thing your book captures powerfully is how each experience of grief is linked up with many others. Can you talk about how you found a shape to contain all of those threads?
SS: When I was writing the book, a big question was, what is the story? I knew I wanted to talk about infertility, pregnancy loss, and the intersections I saw between those experiences and my dad’s terminal cancer and death. I think of it like setting gems into pieces of jewelry. I had those key stories, those gems.
But because it took me so long to write the book—eleven years—I ended up also weaving in everything that was happening in my life at the time. Part of that was actively parenting—being in that privileged position of being infertile and experiencing pregnancy loss, but also having a baby. It was complicated to be at that intersection.
As I wrote, the baby grew up to be a teenager. That baby had a sexuality and a gender identity of their own. Watching my son express that and come out to us really brought back my own youth, my own coming of age, my own coming out, and my own grappling with gender identity.
The process was improvisational, related to quilt-making. Not only because I come from a textile background, but also because, as a mom and a person with a day job, I had to make it in a way that I could put it down and pick it up again, like sewing.
WRB: I love that idea of the work reflecting, in its very arrangement, the circumstances in which you were creating it. Would you talk a bit more about your process? Do you tend to start by thinking first of words, or of images, or is it something more complicated?
SS: My process starts with words. The text comes to me first, and then I tear it apart. I go through this complex editing process where I pare it down. It’s like sculpting. There’s syncopation—comics are music. So sometimes one sentence will stretch out over several pages, and other times it’s a big block of text.
But even though the text comes first, and then I have images I want to use, there are times where the images assert themselves. I had very clear visions in my head of what I wanted to do, but I also really had to be listening for what the work wanted me to do and what the story demanded.
For example, there’s one image of me with my bubbie [from Yiddish for grandmother] early on. She’s drawn as just this giant stomach, and I’m hugging her. At first, I had a very definitive idea of what I was drawing, and it didn’t include her. But as I was drawing, she would show up, and then I’d erase her. And she’d show up again, and I’d erase her again. By the third time, I was like, okay, bubbie, clearly there’s a reason for this, come on in. And then this whole new stream emerged, about my bubbie and her death.
It was a scary thing to do, to let the image through; it’s a process of consenting to go deeper. I had to surrender to what the story was telling me.
WRB: Over the last fifteen years or so, there seem to be more publications trickling out, slowly, in terms of stories and art pieces related to pregnancy loss and infertility. In comics, for example, you have works by Diane Noomin, Paula Knight, Emily Steinberg, Phoebe Potts, and Anna Brewer. Could you talk about how you see your book in relation to what’s already out there?
SS: I started writing the book around 2008, when a lot of these works did not exist yet. I did get to see Diane Noomin’s short piece, “Baby Talk: A Tale of 4 Miscarriages,” at an exhibition, as well as a show of Frida Kahlo’s paintings. Both were profoundly inspiring to me.
What I found outside of that trickle was, largely, nothing. Our culture reinforces that. You’re not supposed to tell people you’re pregnant until you’re three months in because that saves everybody else from dealing with your grief if you miscarry.
I found silence except when I spoke to people one-on-one. And the more I’d speak to people, the more I’d realize how everybody had a story. Either they’d miscarried several times, or they knew someone, or their mother or their sister or their grandmother. My grandmother miscarried three or four times. I was interested in how it could be that this thing as prevalent as birth was kept so quiet.
I especially wanted to talk about infertility and pregnancy loss as a lesbian because there’s a double silence when you’re queer. Historically, LGBTQ+ people have been denied the right, or the safety, to even start families. And if we do, we face violence and discrimination and the horror of having our children taken from us. Positive images exist for a reason. In the early aughts, when I was involved in the queer parenting community, there was just this overwhelming sense of shining, happy people having babies, as if to say, we may be queer but our reproductive systems are working just fine, thank you. Like no one wanted to mess up that rosy picture.
But my reproductive system was not working at all. What I found, in this community where I would expect more voices and more bravery and more communication around things people usually don’t want to talk about, was just more silence.
WRB: Though you clearly have a marked style all your own, as I was reading through your book I was reminded, in flashes, of the works of creators including Vanessa Davis, Ellen Forney, Alison Bechdel, and Aline Kominsky Crumb, among others. Could you talk a bit about influence?
SS: I love all of those artists! I grew up reading Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, which showed me it was possible to chronicle the true lives of queer people, at a time when we had so few authentic reflections of ourselves. It was—and continues to be—a comfort and joy to read her work. I knew if there was one lesbian cartoonist, there could be more. Lynda Barry’s What It Is was another huge influence; she freed me to mix things up and tell the truth. And Phoebe Gloeckner, too. Her work is bold and visually eloquent. She gave me the courage to say what I needed to say.
In terms of painters and artists, I also love Frida Kahlo, for her daring and intimate work about her life and body. And Faith Ringgold, who passionately centers being African American and female in her work. Her story quilts were a big influence on me when I was a textile artist because they upended quilt making and are gloriously political and narrative.
Music too—Steven Sondheim, Leonard Cohen. Those artists influenced me in a way that feels incredibly Jewish. It’s a heaviness but also a playful sensibility. Sondheim has this ability to speak about three things at the same time; there are just layers and layers to his work.
WRB: Your father introduced you to musicals through Hair, right?
SS: Yes. He had music playing all the time. I think he had aspirations to be an artist himself. But he was a first-generation Canadian, and it was his job to lift the family out of poverty. His family threw everything into him becoming a lawyer, but he had such a love and reverence for the arts, and music and dance and literature, and he really nurtured that in me.
His mom worked in sweatshops, and he worked [as a labor lawyer] for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. So that’s beautiful to me, too. That he was involved with union work, and specifically that he fought back against the same system that exploited his mom. I’m very proud of him. I wish he had had another lifetime to explore that other part of himself.
WRB: In your book, you include flashbacks to your teens and adolescence, when you were attending a Jewish day school and grappling not just with influences from the culture at large (like Seventeen magazine), but also pressures from your small Jewish community. Could you talk a bit more about what that was like?
SS: I was not exactly raised to be the person I became. I mean, in some ways I was. My parents had a real social justice framework. I was taught early on that you had to stand up for what’s right and use your voice. It was your obligation. Tikkun olam [a Jewish concept, roughly translating to “repair of the world”], and all that. They were invested in us being culturally identified as Jewish.
When I think back on that time, and being in that conservative, religious school—I was with only Jewish kids, and when you were in grade seven, every weekend there was another bar mitzvah. There’s a culture around those places, and it’s pretty conventional. And I was starting to figure myself out. I was just learning that I was a creative person, and my sexuality was starting up. All the other kids seemed to be just eating it up with spoons, and I felt like, this isn’t right for me.
Going back to that time is hard. But it did inform who I became. I learned that that wasn’t my place, and then I found alternative spaces. It was a matter of rejecting the life that was handed to me—here’s how you become a Nice Jewish Girl: you go to nice Jewish schools, and maybe you’ll be a dentist, or you’ll marry a dentist, and you’ll have children, and it’ll be fine. And I was like, no. That’s not how it’s going to go.
There was a rebellion, and then I found Jewishness again. It’s almost like being a born-again Jew! [laughs]
WRB: Color figures throughout your book—especially bold reds and pinks, like fuchsia. You also talk a bit about your love of body products, like makeup and perfume, and your passion for extravagant wedding dresses and clothes. Could you talk more about the relationship between this kind of conspicuous, pronounced aesthetic, and the exploration of gender and sexuality in your book?
SS: I identify as femme and high femme, which to me just means super-femme. Femme identity is a complex thing to describe and make visible. For me, it’s about larger-than-life femininity, a construct that is available for anyone, of any gender, to play with. It’s making better use of that same femininity that was oppressing me as a young adult and was thrown at me but didn’t work for me, that unattainable Seventeen magazine femininity imposed on Phoebe Cates and Brooke Shields. It was about being demure and innocent, not in charge of yourself, which was supposed to be sexy somehow.
And it was about the color pink. I have a love-hate relationship with pink. For a while, everything in my life, from my 1968 birthyear and onwards, was pink. But I never felt like the right kind of girl. I always felt so unlike everybody else.
Pink became fuchsia for me. Fuchsia is over-the-top pink. It was about taking all those trappings—the lipstick, and the pretty stuff—and weaponizing it. Making it not about men and boys at all. Making it about me and other women, and taking pleasure in my body on my own terms. Just being able to say, yes, I love sex, I love pleasure.
The senses for me are what make everything worthwhile. The bees in my story—there’s one on the cover—are about that: they pull me back to a kind of fertility that isn’t about reproduction. Which is similar to a kind of femininity that isn’t about the patriarchy, which, for me, is femme.
WRB: Your child and your partner, the models for the characters in the book named Max and Chris, respectively, are figured in spurts. Did you find it difficult to navigate your explorations without invading their privacy? And how did you find parenting while being an artist influenced your work?
SS: Both are generous to allow me to take their sort of likeness—I strive, actually, for essence—and turn them into characters that are them but not them.
When Max was little, he would crawl into my lap sometimes and draw with me. There are a lot of his drawings integrated into the book, and sometimes his writing, too. You can’t always do that. But when I could make room for him to be part of it, I did. When kids are little, it’s easier to talk about them and your experiences of parenting and not feel like you’re giving anything away. The line is clearer. But it gets more complicated as they get older. There’s a part of the book where I’m starting to think about my own adolescence, and I ask Max [then a teenager] about the people in his life, who’s dating whom, and Max is like, you’re not gonna know these stories, they’re not your stories. It was at that moment that I drew a line; I started to be more careful.
I wanted Max’s transition to be part of the book because it was part of what was happening, and I’m proud of him and thrilled for him. But I wouldn’t dare speak for him. It’s a concern when you’re writing your life—whose story belongs to whom.
My wife, the Chris character, she’s been so generous with me. We had discussions before I even started the book, and I said, you need to tell me if there’s anything you find wrong with this. Because my relationship with the two of them means more to me than anything else.
Tahneer Oksman is Associate Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College, the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor of the anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019). She often reviews graphic novels and illustrated works for the Women’s Review of Books.
Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology By Jess Zimmerman
Reviewed by Kathleen Rooney
Reclamation has been a vital feminist tool since the 1970s. That decade saw the dawn of scholarship seeking to pry open the vise-grip of masculinist history—all too often presented with biases both deliberate and unconscious that rendered it hisstory—to reveal the herstory hidden therein. Combined with efforts at re-purposing such slurs as “bitch” and “slut” to transform them from hurtful utterances to statements of pride, these processes of claiming something back or reasserting a right have been crucial to resisting and even poking fun at the dominant patriarchal culture for half a century.
In her concise, intellectually and emotionally engaging Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology, Jess Zimmerman reaffirms the strategy of reclamation with all the wit and intersectionality that befit the twenty-first century. Signposting the book’s inclusivity, Zimmerman expressly states that she’s using the word “women” “in its broadest possible sense,” acknowledging the additional oppressions trans women and nonbinary people face, while pointing out that men, too, might find much to learn in these pages, considering how an inherently misogynistic society all too often insults them by comparing them to women, suggesting that “their anger or sadness or sexuality was somehow too feminine.”
The editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, Zimmerman is the co-author with Jaya Saxena of the 2017 book Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven. Long a proponent of how feminism can ally itself with the weird and the occult to achieve a higher degree of empowerment, as well as how revisiting hell-raising women of the past can yield a more liberated present and future, Zimmerman extends that advocacy here.
Born from a series of essays originally published at Catapult, these chapters see Zimmerman presenting a lively reassessment of eleven well-known female monsters, including Medusa, Charybdis and Scylla (who each get their own section), the Sirens, and the Harpies, all the while inviting readers to explore what feminism could achieve were it to transform into something more audaciously monstrous. In other words, she aims to “rehabilitate these monsters—not externally, like the (male) artists who gradually made their forms more pleasing and symmetrical, but by showing how the traits we were told made them dangerous are actually their greatest strengths, and ours.”
If you grew up, like I did—and like Zimmerman did, for that matter—obsessively reading and rereading such classics as D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Zimmerman’s book is a thrill. “Mythology obsessives are a powerful demographic” she notes. But even if you’re a relative mythology novice, Zimmerman’s expansive and inviting critiques will likely capture your interest. As she says herself in her “Note to the Reader,” she’s not a classicist, and her intention “isn’t to offer the most authentic interpretation of these monsters. In some (probably most) cases, their metaphorical weight in the book will be different from the role they played in ancient Greek society. Here, their image, as it survives today, is being used as a framework for discussing women’s current-day cultural role.”
… an ecstatic ode to the potential transgression and power of ugliness, ugliness not hidden and shamed but flaunted and embraced.
Each chapter opens with an illustration by Samira Ingold in an arresting, black-and-white style reminiscent of Art Nouveau. The strength and boldness of the images harmonize with Zimmerman’s recuperative assembly of a new mythology. Like Del and Sofia Samatar’s Monster Portraits or Madeline Miller’s Circe, Zimmerman simultaneously entertains her readers with the reanimation of familiar stories from the days of old while also situating these tales in a fresh and progressive contemporary frame.
Because of their origins as standalone essays, Zimmerman’s chapters meander pleasingly, rove widely, and put her own voice in conversation with a dazzling pantheon of other thinkers, phenomena, and cultural artifacts, from Umberto Eco to Kim Kardashian, from Homer to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, from C.S. Lewis to the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, from the Old Testament to Alicia Silverstone in the Aerosmith video for “Crazy.”
The first entry, “To Turn Men to Stone,” provides a sense of how Zimmerman’s rangy yet incisive approach to each of these monstrous women operates. First, she gives a crash course in the myth of the Gorgons, particularly Medusa, but with zero sugar-coating, noting that initially—before the scalp rife with snakes and the powers of petrification—Medusa was a regular woman, albeit with beautiful hair, hair so beautiful that it turned the head of Poseidon. “Some mealy-mouthed translators refer to what happened next as Medusa being ‘ravished’ or even ‘rifled,’” she writes, “but let’s be clear: Poseidon liked her hair, so he raped her.”
From there, Zimmerman braids in (hair pun intended) a number of personal details from her youth and coming of age, unsparingly critiquing her own body along the way—its fatness, its thin frizzy locks, its thick ankles, its big feet—through the harsh lens of the male gaze. In doing so, she shows that she understands that while she’s not the ideal, neither is she hideous, “But for women, the ‘correct’ form is so narrowly defined that almost anyone’s physical form can be deviant. We don’t have to have two heads to be monstrous. It’s enough to have two chins.” These various lines of interpretation mingle and mesh, gradually building to an ecstatic ode to the potential transgression and power of ugliness, ugliness not hidden and shamed but flaunted and embraced. This chapter concludes: " Whatever our monstrous new heroine looks like, whatever armor she wears, she too will carry the Gorgon’s head on her shield. Ugliness for protection, and for bravery, and for defense. Ugliness for visibility, for forcing people to meet your eyes, for making them freeze and shiver when they do. Ugliness for an infinity of options, a universe unconstrained by any desire except your own."
Throughout, Zimmerman does something similar for each of her chosen subjects, including the Sphinx, a figure she holds up as the male-produced symbol of the preternaturally wise woman who can be easily bested by a regular man, and who will also do that man the courtesy of self-undermining. As it’s typically presented, she notes, the myth of Oedipus suggests that this woman—monstrous not just for her bizarre body, but for her supposedly freakish knowledge—“will not only lose her position of power but renounce it.” Seen in this light, Zimmerman makes the case that this tale is really “a fantasy of petty revenge.”
Virtually every page is packed with fun facts, not in the sense of trivia—for each item feels carefully selected to enhance her argument—but in the sense of little nuggets of data that are a pleasure to learn. In her chapter on the Furies, for instance, she points out that these creatures are often referred to as the Eumenides, meaning the Kindly Ones, a dodge intended to protect the person referring to them from their wrath, and that “The words ‘euphemism’ and Eumenides share a root: eu-, for ‘good.’” And in the chapter “Deep Houses” she writes with characteristic humor that the term chimera “survives to mean anything made of disparate parts: an aggregate creature or machine, an impossible idea, a fantastical beast. Hippogriffs and manticores would be small-c chimeras. A hacked-together computer could be a chimera. So could a Cronut.”
Zimmerman’s writing wears its research lightly and her tone, though unapologetically erudite, remains conversational and welcoming, free of jargon or academic smugness. But make no mistake about the extensive scholarship underlying each piece. Her formidable works cited could serve as the syllabus for an intense graduate school class, exhibiting an energetic engagement with other experts on these subjects ranging from such canonical standbys as Hesiod, Ovid, and Vergil to such latter-day monster studies specialists as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, as well as such contemporary fellow authors and cultural critics as Margaret Atwood, Mikki Kendall, and Lindy West.
Beacon Press, the non-profit publisher that is an arm of the Unitarian Universalists, serves as an ideal home for such a book, given that their mission is to “change the way readers think about fundamental issues” and to “promote such values as freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.” Zimmermann’s own mission aligns harmoniously, as the questions she poses have the potential to change not just what her readers might think, but possibly how they might act, as in the chapter on the Hydra, where she asks: “But as with most manifestations of misogyny, the question isn’t who’s making the demands. The question is who benefits. Who is served by keeping women at odds with each other? What happens when we refuse?”
Observing each of these figures from Greek antiquity, Zimmerman reveals “how they function as tight little packages of expectation seeded into the culture and how they can be subverted.” In her own explanation of the hybrid power of monstrousness, Incubation: A Space for Monsters, the poet Bhanu Kapil writes that, “The monster is always itinerant.” Roving across place and art and time, Women and Other Monsters offers a fittingly wayfaring exploration of the many feminist lessons that monsters have to teach us.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017) and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020).
The Mermaid and the Minotaur By Dorothy Dinnerstein
Reviewed by Vivian Gornick
When Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur was published in 1976, many of my generation of Second Wave feminists felt as though we had suddenly been supplied with biblical text. Woman’s second-class position in society had long been traced to the ironclad shibboleth that motherhood defined her, but Dinnerstein mined the insight with such brilliance and originality that Mermaid quickly became a Book of Wisdom that anyone could live by.
Forty-five years later, a new paperback edition published by Other Press has occasioned my rereading this work. Dinnerstein’s essential argument is that the major reason women and men can continue to make the sexual “arrangement” they always have made—that he be dominant and she subordinate—is that women alone have been, and are pretty much still, solely responsible for child-rearing. To this day, a woman is mainly “the parental person who is every infant’s first love, first witness, and first boss, the person who presides over the infant’s first encounters with the natural surround and who exists for the infant as the permanent representative of the flesh,” that which forever both attracts and repels. She is the embodiment of all the dangerously mixed feelings about childhood that we can never put behind us. She nurtures but hovers, protects but restricts, encourages but warns; anxiety is her middle name. Unlike the open invitation to aggress upon the world that the semi-absent father seems to extend—urging the fledgling person to simply spread its wings and fly—the mother’s invite turns on apprehensions that divide us from the longing to experience ourselves fully and freely. Who on earth would not willingly turn away from identification with such a compromise? We have made a world, Dinnerstein speculates, in which “female dominated childcare guarantees male insistence upon and female compliance with a double standard of sexual behavior.”
If from earliest life fatherhood, like motherhood, was associated with the all-important physical intimacy that is our introduction to human existence, the race as a whole would see that each of our parents is molded, differently but equally, by fear and desire, courage and cowardice, kindness and (in)competence. Should such a monumental change be achieved, the age-old “arrangement” between women and men would fall away, and all would take their rightful place in the domestic sphere as well as the world enterprise. Then we’d see more clearly who or what is responsible for the infantilism within that continually waylays our Sisyphean efforts at wholeness of being.
It all sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? We see the problem; we see the solution. Why then does the culture’s ability to achieve consolidation between theory and practice continue to elude us?
This, actually, is the large preoccupation behind Dinnerstein’s lifelong work as a cognitive psychologist. Why, she asked for some good forty years, can human beings not act on their own behalf when, demonstrably, they see with a deal of shared clarity what might save them from their own worst selves. In the ongoing struggle for women’s rights (only one of the many injustices we are reluctant to part with), she sees this underlying conundrum writ large. More than two centuries have passed since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, two centuries in which, in ever growing numbers, millions have agreed on the need to admit women to the ranks of social and political equality; and yet, to the largest degree, the “arrangement” continues to hold sway. Again, we ask: why?
And here is where Dinnerstein proves herself prescient in her synthetic use of the wisdom derived from psychoanalysis, anthropology, myth, and fairy tale to make her case. Which is: We cannot correct a myriad of self-evident injustices, just as we cannot free ourselves of childhood, because we don’t really want to. We think we want to grow up, we say we want to grow up, we think we want equality, we say we want equality, but when it comes right down to it, the dread of individuation is greater than what we say we want. In fact, it is so great, it is not to be borne. Imagine beginning and ending only with oneself! Intolerable.
Yet, as the centuries progress, individuation seems exactly what millions do crave. The loss, as Dinnerstein puts it, “of infant oneness with the world” requires the steady consolation of believing we can forever stay as we were Before the Fall (otherwise known as leaving the womb)—and our “prevailing male-female arrangement” is “part of what we [believe we] have always been.” At the same time, much in us is resistant to remaining what we have always been; hence the never-ending liberationist movements that seem to approach revolution. On this score, we continue to be split down the middle, forever unable to resolve these powerful conflicts, either socially or personally.
It’s the ambivalence, seemingly inborn, that is so crippling. The therapeutic culture has demonstrated amply how impossibly hard it is to rid ourselves individually of the many garden variety neuroses easily traced back to childhood. Common experience reveals that fifteen minutes into psychotherapy we probably know everything we need to know, yet it will surely take decades, if not longer, to act on those original insights; we have lived too long with the disabilities that hobble us to simply give them up. Repeatedly, the fear of risking the unknown wins out over the abstract promise of walking free.
For this pitiable situation Dinnerstein has large anger and even larger compassion. It pains her to have to conclude that, while the quintessence of human life is its “self-creating feature,” we, all too often, have refused to make use of this marvelous mechanism for righting the wrongs we so needlessly inflict on ourselves as well as one another. As the weary analyst might point out, as individuals we are sunk in what can only be called a symbiotic relationship to our personal neuroses. By the same token, Dinnerstein testifies that traditional relations between women and men also represent a symbiosis that we find “oppressive [but] are nonetheless ... frightened of giving up.” It might very well, she speculates, “take [us] forever to become sufficiently free of [its] influence.”
The beauty of The Mermaid and the Minotaur resides not in its intellectual excellence (although there is that in abundance) but rather in the poetic sympathy with which Dinnerstein puts pen to paper. Taut, pessimistic truths form its foundation: “Until we grow strong enough to renounce the pernicious prevailing forms of [this] collaboration between the sexes,” she writes, “both man and woman will remain semi-human, monstrous.” Yet a vein of love for all that we have and have not been, as well as all that we might yet be, runs through the entire book. Single-sex rearing, she mourns, “gives us boys who will grow reliably into childish men, unsure of their grasp on life’s primitive realities. And it gives us girls who will grow reliably into childish women, unsure of their right to full worldly adult status.”
Taut, pessimistic truths form its foundation … Yet a vein of love for all that we have and have not been, as well as all that we might yet be, runs through the entire book.
Ah, but there is hope as well as anxiety. On the one hand, very soon after birth, we are saddled with what will prove to be a lifelong fear of our own mortality. On the other hand, Dinnerstein observes, we are born ignorant of this fact; and she adds: “What we make of [it] depends on what happens before we discover them.” In short, the way life feels from the start will determine how well we do with these ur fears that threaten to bring us down. And here is where she ties it up: perhaps a father’s brazenly self-assured touch as well as a mother’s over sensitive one is wanted to complicate the weave of courage and protection the baby will be swaddled in.
Dinnerstein is not writing to accuse or demonize or bring men to the bar of sexist justice, she is writing to understand how everyone concerned suffers from the conventional “arrangement” between women and men. Inevitably, it is more in sorrow than in anger that she speaks of the need to end our mutual imprisonment inside the territory of single-sex parenting; that sorrow is never more in evidence than when she grieves over men’s abandonment of the free flow of their own tenderness, an emotion easily restored should they begin raising their own children.
More than four decades have gone by since Mermaid was first published. Over these passing years I have read the book three times, reviewed it twice, and contributed an introductory note to its first re-publication. Each time around I have prepared myself to find the book either mildly dated or severely time-worn, bereft of intellectual merit or emotional power or sheer writing pleasure. None of these expectations has ever materialized. In fact, the opposite has prevailed: Mermaid grows richer, more provocative, more profound with each reading. Repeatedly, it throws me back not only on my own history as a feminist—that is, someone for whom the struggle for women’s rights is integral to that of human rights—but as one for whom the contemplation of “outsiderness” has been a lifelong activity.
I grew up the youngest child in a large clan of Jewish immigrant working-class lefties for whom life on the periphery was a given, and, like Dinnerstein, came of age wondering: “Why was I born on the margin and what does it take to get to the center?” This has been a key sentence in my own development, one I am reminded of every time I reread this great work of social research and fullhearted empathy. Not a year goes by that I don’t put Mermaid into the hands of some young person (usually a woman) who reminds me of the glorious pleasure and pain one derives from thinking hard about one’s own actual experience.
Vivian Gornick is an American critic, journalist, essayist, and memoirist. Her books include Fierce Attachments, The Odd Woman and the City, and Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time, publishes this month from Verso.
On one of my first days as the executive director of the Feminist Press, a dashing silver-haired woman swept into my office in red cowboy boots, jeans with a belt buckle John Wayne would have liked, patchwork vest, and a purple scarf. In an accent somehow both Southern and British, she said, “JEB. Darling, you do know JEB?”
My interlocutor was Blanche Wiesen Cook, the radical feminist raconteur and celebrated Eleanor Roosevelt biographer. Also: one of the coolest people I've ever met. JEB (Joan E. Biren) was (and is) her friend and the photographer who, since the mid-1970s, photographed lesbians in their natural environments—with friends, taking care of kids, kissing a girlfriend, fixing cars at a womyn-run garage. At Blanche’s urging, I checked out JEB’s work, which bristles with era-specific action and aesthetics. These weren’t images I saw often, and I had a thought of creating something people would look at every day: a planner or journal, peppered with dozens of photos of, for instance, a shirtless woman sawing a 2x4 on a deck, her latissimus dorsi as taut as the board. I wanted to call the journal Womyn’s Studies. Drew, the art director, mocked up a gorgeous layout.
With a sense of missed opportunity, I unearthed Womyn’s Studies from my desktop a few days ago, after reading a new edition of JEB’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, published by Anthology Editions. (The original was self-published in 1979 and distributed through the then-robust network of feminist bookstores, lesbian and gay bookstores, and mail order.)
Living in DC a few years after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1966, JEB helped found the Furies Collective, a lesbian feminist separatist commune named after the avenging goddesses of Greek mythology. As the Furies disbanded, the members fanned out to found organizations like Olivia Records and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. JEB, meanwhile, noticed that even during the post- sexual revolution, post-Stonewall height of second wave feminism, images of lesbians were scarce. “I had never seen a picture of two women kissing and I wanted to see it,” she recounts in the book. “I borrowed a camera, but I didn’t even know anybody else I could ask to pose for it. So I held the camera out at arm’s length and kissed my lover, Sharon, and took the picture. That’s my first lesbian photograph.”
From that moment, JEB chronicled lesbian life. The portrait on the cover was taken at legendary publisher, writer, and activist Barbara Smith’s home in Roxbury, Mass. A few years earlier Barbara and her twin sister Beverly were two of the cofounders of the foundational Black feminist organization the Combahee River Collective. Barbara went on to teach, co-found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and to this day continues to write and organize.
Barbara attended Mount Holyoke around the same time JEB did, although they became friends through the women’s movement. I asked Barbara why Eye to Eye was groundbreaking, and she began by describing the actively anti-lesbian culture of 1970s America. “JEB was making us visible at a time when lesbians were absolutely marginalized,” she said. “Now, it’s cute to be a lesbian. It’s actually cute. You can have a multimillion-dollar career. You can have a nightly television show. You can be a movie star or make films yourself. You can be Black. You can even sell Russell Stover chocolates,” she added, laughing. Barbara was referring to a recent holiday ad featuring all sorts of people offering chocolate to their loved ones. It ends with a lesbian couple in a tight embrace. “Whenever I see that commercial, to my eyes, it’s just like, ‘I’m not really seeing this.’ But there’s a reason that lesbians can be in a commercial for candy, and it’s called having built a movement.”
The photos were for the community, not the mainstream, but JEB’s photographs are cropping up in “establishment” spaces, too. In 2019, for instance, the New York Times ran a glowing appraisal of JEB’s work and she received the 2018 Alice Austen Award for Advancement in Photography. For Barbara Smith, this constituted another Russell Stover moment: “[For] those of us who have known JEB for decades and been involved in the same kind of efforts to gain visibility and rights, the coverage in the New York Times was like, ‘Wow. So now they’re paying attention.’”
As Paula Gunn Allen has written, the root of oppression is loss of memory. JEB's rich trove of images preserves lesbian history and counters the amnesia necessary for patriarchal culture. Barbara, too, has dedicated her life to creating space for lesbian feminists to be visible, read, and heard. She advocates that we read the groundbreaking feminists in their own words. (The Library of America has collected many of the most influential pieces in the new Women’s Liberation: Feminist Writing that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can. On page 15, you'll find details for attending their celebratory event, at which Barbara will be speaking.) “You can’t find out about our history by scanning social media—you just can’t,” she said. “You’ve got to dig in if you want to know where you came from.”
February 18, 2021
New York, New York