frank: sonnets By Diane Seuss
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
The established literary world doesn’t stir what she writes.
In a minute I’m going to shut up and let you hear Diane Seuss. The thing I love about this book and all her books is that reading her is like being in a conversation with her except she’s doing all the talking, and you are listening to a person who would just as soon be talking to herself. Why are there only sonnets here—128 to be precise? Why do you decide to walk in a blizzard? Why do you see how far you can swim underwater on one breath? A sonnet is like a trapped body: all physical limits and nowhere to run but inside the lyrical imagination. Fourteen lines, again and again. Remind you of your life?
The title of the collection is for a touchstone of Seuss’s, Frank O’Hara, the great New York School poet who worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who invented (again) a confessional, conversational style of writing poetry that sounded right there in the minute, and who in 1966 was freakishly hit by a jeep on a Fire Island beach and died at forty. The title is for a close friend of Seuss’s who died of AIDS. The title is for the voice of these poems, where nothing that happens to the body is out of bounds or shocking.
Familiar themes recur: a childhood in rural Michigan and wonders of the natural world, a beloved father who was sick and died when Seuss was a kid, a resourceful mother, a period of chaos and glamour in New York’s Downtown scene, a son who developed a heroin habit, sex arriving like weather conditions, solitude sought as a companion, and always the need to pee on the side of a road because she is on the run and because she, like everyone else on the planet, dreams of walking around in public and losing her pants. Nowhere in this book does Seuss reference her accomplishments as a writer and teacher and the numerous awards she’s won. The established literary world doesn’t stir what she writes.
More than anything, it strikes me, she loves the individual sentence and line. She loves them so much each is required to build a world that is there and at the same time includes its opposite: her dead father in the coffin of Emily Dickinson; artists she met who were famous and left her with a lasting sense she was invisible; a blizzard producing a ceasefire between sisters. You don’t feel the poems arrive whole like memories or anecdotes. You feel line one pulls behind it line two like an ant carting along a bread crumb. In each poem, the fourteen little stories build a collage that buzzes with tension. Also joy. This is a writer whose pleasure in building language knocks you over and makes you feel some responsive pleasure, even if she is talking about grunge and illness and moldy things found under splintery floorboards. The comma is her preferred punctuation mark. The comma used as a form of and and in place of other conjunctions that might argue a case or an understanding. There is no resolution and little consolation in these poems apart from residue left by desire. Even plucked from different poems and arranged as a list as I am about to do now, Seuss’s lines produce a monologue uniquely hers: intimate, rapturous, deathy, and wry.
Here she is on the road:
Once, I took a Greyhound north across an icy bridge . . . / a bridge lined with stars unscrewed / from the sky and fastened to the cables and the towers with black / electrical tape, bus windows fogged-over from all the human breathing, / lovers, masturbators, numb frostbit moon going black around the edges.
And in another maybe less safe vehicle:
I had no squeamishness, I’d eat alligator, rabbit / with the head on, fish eggs, eyes, hitchhike playing / the mouth harp, got into a helluva jam, sitting in the cab / of a truck between two nasty bumpkins, saved when / a turkey vulture crashed through the windshield into / my lap.
And on that time she met those famous men:
Yes, I saw them all, saw them, met some, Richard Hell, / Lou Reed, Basquiat, Warhol, Burroughs, Kenneth Koch, / . . . I hope you are not titillated by it, their loathing / of women was indisputable, sometimes leaving genuine bruises, / more often just a sneer or no eye contact, the eyes wandering / off like dogs looking for something worth peeing on.
And on the way her mind works in opposites:
Here on this edge I have had many diminutive visions. That all at its essence is dove-gray. / Wipe the lipstick off the mouth of anything and there you will find dove-gray.
They cut me stem to stern and out came a little / drug addict.
My favorite scent is my own funk, my least favorite scent, other / people’s funk, and this, my friends, is why we cannot have nice / things.
And on poetry:
Even poetry, though built from words, / is not a language, the words are the lacy gown, / the something else is the bride who can’t be factored / down even to her flesh and bones.
Poems are someone else’s clothes I slipped / into so I could skip town.
And on attraction:
All desire should be illicit, its / fulfillment transpiring in wet, blue-shadowed places where a life like a shirt comes / undone.
But you know how coyotes are, / that high laugh-cry that throws salt into your wound at the time / of night you’re already bedded down in your loneliness.
The world today is wet, the world is wet, trees / not so much dripping as exuding, walnuts dropping, / bouncing off the roof, sound of a 100 small skulls / thwacked with a bat, . . . / love stops, let’s not say / otherwise, out of the blue it arrives chuffing black / smoke then departs with a scream like Spanish trains / in the ’70s, jump on, eat a bocadillo, blow a wet harmonica / with a guitarist you’ll never see again who plays Dylan’s / version of “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
And on dreams that are your life:
I dreamed of it again, my dad’s body lost to us again but finally / found again, we set him in Dickinson’s coffin, . . . / I could see the stitches holding my dad’s eyelids shut, but lo / and behold his eyelashes, so long they tangled now and then, were / still intact, and at his throat, like Emily’s, a nosegay of violets, / . . . I don’t / know why I miss Emily so, and him, why die, why dream?
The life that emerges from these fragments and shards, though often reflecting on disappointment and sorrow, is outwitted in each poem by the exuberance of creation that comes flying at us from the poet. It’s part of the paradox of writing and reading that we lose ourselves both in the making and consuming of literature. frank: sonnets is a great book to steal from. “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do without,” writes Seuss. All the fun of writing is in finding out what doesn’t need to be there. Learn as much as you can from what she’s doing. Break it down. You won’t be able to imitate it, but try. Even if you’re not a writer, your brain will shake itself out and walk around. Reading Seuss, you are her. You could be her. You could never be her.
Laurie Stone is a regular contributor to the Women’s Review of Books. She is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, which features several essays that originally appeared in the WRB.
Before he died in 1972, the leading literary figure Edmund Wilson, wary of how easily even a very important book of one era can go out of print, championed the idea of a Library of America, dedicated to preserving the literature that has defined the United States. The important writing of women and writers of color, subject to the same hierarchies that defined every other institution, was both more likely to go out of print and less likely to be archived. The women’s movement sought to right this wrong: The Feminist Press, for example, was founded in 1970 in large part to recover “lost” writing by women. Meanwhile, since its founding in 1982, the books included in Library of America have been a critical indication of what writing is worth saving, which is why I found their latest volume so significant. Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can, edited by Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, gathers glittering examples of the radical prose that informed second-wave feminist thought in the years between The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Backlash (1991).
On March 18th, I joined the editors on a celebratory Zoom panel that vastly exceeded my expectations for that medium—also featured were Barbara Smith, a contributor, and the critic Margo Jefferson. More than six hundred audience members tuned in, and hundreds more watched the recording the next day, flooding my inbox with comments. Most responses trended toward glowing affirmation, but productive disagreements were offered as well. One professor zeroed in on a statement that came toward the end the panel about how gender diversity in our movement(s) needs to be written about: “I worry that some of our feminist foremothers are not reading this work and appear to be leaving it to the new generation to take on. There’s a great book to be written about the essential-ness of trans and non-binary people’s contributions to the work of feminism.”
Valerie Morales, who reviewed Cherríe Moraga’s memoir for WRB in 2019, sent me this unique, penetrating response:
Although I don’t self-identify as a feminist and I’m not an activist, I’m the daughter of a feminist and an activist who was insistent that my childhood expose me to women of color who didn’t call themselves feminists but demanded equal treatment. In my academic and social world, feminism was problematic, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t: A critic of white supremacy. A critic of white women keeping black women out of the suffragette movement. A critic of Margaret Sanger. A critic of white wives participating in slave atrocities. A critic of the one-drop rule, black rape and the children of rapists denied the last name of their fathers. A critic of black women’s hysterectomies without anesthesia. A partner in black woman’s struggle, acknowledging racism often overwhelms sexism.
While Val went on to say how much she enjoyed the panel, she struggled with feminism’s “pragmatic application.” I shared her comments with the panelists, and Barbara Smith responded:
There was and still is an anti-racist feminist movement. It was not the majority of the movement, but it did exist and had significant impact on the direction of feminism as the movement continued to evolve. The power structure makes sure that the history of white anti-racist organizing in a variety of movements, including feminism, is virtually unknown. Often people conflate the actions of white racist women with feminism, for example the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump in 2016. It is unlikely that those voters are a part of the women’s movement or consider themselves feminists, just as women who owned enslaved people were not likely to have been involved in women’s rights. Anti-racist feminists from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds actually opposed all of the atrocities and oppressions that you cite, but they seldom got to be the spokespeople and visible leaders of the mainstream women’s movement.
The essays archived in Women’s Liberation! are wide-ranging in tone and purpose, but all are bracingly political and illuminating. It’s edifying for me to be reminded of the roots of ideas I may take for granted or have built upon in my own writing. Valerie’s critique and Barbara’s response served another hopeful purpose: a reminder of how conversations between feminists—whether real-time or epistolary—can breathe life into this always evolving philosophy of liberation for all.
Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes By Claire Wilcox
Reviewed by Kathleen Rooney
These scraps accumulate to offer a likeness of both the author and her efforts in the service of art and garments, not to mention the invisible labor of so-called ‘women’s work’ throughout the centuries.
A patch, of course, is a piece of material used to mend or cover a hole or weak spot. One of the ingenious aspects of Claire Wilcox’s memoir Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes is the way in which she stitches an entire book of patches—scraps and pieces of both her own biography and the longer swathes of history—to yield a narrative arresting in its strength and elegance.
Wilcox has spent most of her professional life as a curator in fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the world’s leading museum of art and design. Founded in 1852 and named after the then queen and prince of England, the V & A features the largest collection of applied and
decorative arts anywhere on the globe, and, like all national museums in the UK, its admission is free. During her own tenure there, Wilcox has staged such high-profile
exhibitions as Radical Fashion: Vivienne Westwood, The Art and Craft of Gianni Versace, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, and Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up.
She opens her memoir, an exquisite blend of the private and the public, with a section called “Kid Gloves,” describing how it feels to “draw out the velvet wings of an opera cloak bought from Liberty & Co. over a century ago,” spreading out “a lace veil, slowly disentangling its lost barbs,” then cautiously unfurling “a parasol, releasing the faint puff of perfume.” The V & A’s fashion holdings are as close to comprehensive as any museum can probably get, consisting of more than 14,000 outfits and accessories dating from 1600 to the present day, as well as 2,000 pairs of shoes. Yet Wilcox acknowledges that there are inevitable gaps. For to work with such “high-quality detritus of the past” is also to accept that “it will always be a three-dimensional puzzle with the majority of pieces missing.”
Part of the wisdom of her approach here is that she makes those missing pieces not a limitation but an asset. As in the literal meaning of patch work,Wilcox composes her story of miscellaneous or seemingly incongruous parts. Divided into twenty-one short sections with evocative titles like “Storeroom,” “Seam,” “Vertigo,” and “Nocturne,” Wilcox’s book itself feels not unlike a visit to a museum, that sensation of gradually building one’s understanding by way of meditative wandering from room to room.
The V & A, she reports, “has a miscellany of period rooms lovingly disassembled from their sites of origin and re-formed for us to look into and wonder.” She gives her readers something similar: “enclosures of time” from her own life, permitting us into her days of early motherhood, “when we were all younger and didn’t know what to do with long afternoons,” so “I would put the children in the bath.” Or later on, when her beloved mother and father are dying, and she realizes that, “Together, they made me understand that the slow pull of death is part of life, and that love can last beyond the end.”
Wilcox draws on her many years of expertise in chronicling and contextualizing the lives and clothes of others to craft a self-portrait: her own memories explored through the intimacy and detail of outfits and adornments. Often, she will state one of her affinities in a broad abstraction—“The clothes of sleep have always interested me”—then transport the reader into that affinity through rich biographical and sensory detail. Of the time in her young adulthood spent working in a shop that sold Victorian and Edwardian bedclothes and lingerie, she writes, “The lace-edged pillowcases crisped up and I liked burying my face in them, to smell the washing powder and the singeing of the iron.”
Not unlike the wall texts in an exhibition, some of these entries are quite brief, not more than half a page, like the one called “Bias” about 1930s wedding gowns; or “Mail Order” about shipping out Jubilee Knickers, “sheer and crotchless and trimmed with a satin bow,” from a sex shop; or “Life Model” about “reclining in front of a roomful of people working away at their easels.” These scraps accumulate to offer a likeness of both the author and her efforts in the service of art and garments, not to mention the invisible labor of so-called “women’s work” throughout the centuries. In “Sheets,” she writes of her mother, “She had been taught laundry work at school, learning how to starch collars and warm the cast irons on the stove, and how to use a goffering iron for frills and flounces. It seemed like another age.”
Such passages called to mind Roberta Cantow’s brilliant and underrated short oral-history documentary, Clotheslines, in which the director uses the quotidian imagery of clothes hanging to dry as a signifier of all the unseen and unappreciated domestic work performed by women worldwide. No detail of personal adornment feels beneath Wilcox’s notice: the strands of hair that remain in a brush, the contact lenses left out and going dry overnight.
But though her method of composition consists of fragments and vignettes, the totality adds up. Really, every entry is a flash nonfiction, a complete and self-contained memoir or essay. But each one gains impact, too, by Wilcox’s careful placement of her chunks of text in succession, her putting them in thoughtful juxtaposition and conversation with the others around them.
She depicts her own coming-of-age with a pleasing choppiness, the fits and starts of a department store job, a trip on the Silk Road, her studies at university, and her attendance at various concerts and parties, all characterized by a yearning “to have interesting things, to be well travelled, to live in a shadowy house full of books and papers and all sorts of old things.” Her tone is far from still or staid as some museums (no offense) can be, crackling instead with life and vibrancy, like the best museums, which remind visitors not only of the objects they contain but also of the people who once made and used those objects.
In 1999, Wilcox initiated Fashion in Motion at the V & A, the holding of live catwalk events inside the museum, and here, too, she blends the past and the present and offers tips and insights into her successful curatorial practices. A title, she explains, “needs to sum up an exhibition in no more than three words, plus perhaps a subtitle. If it can’t be done, there’s something wrong with the thesis.”
Wilcox is also Chair in Fashion Curation at the London College of Fashion and serves on the editorial board of the magazine Fashion Theory. Her deep intellectual knowledge about her chosen field is undeniable, yet she wears her learning lightly. Her allusions and analyses are erudite but accessible, as when she writes of the impact of the “high-gloss, art-meets-fashion” magazine Visionaire, and how it transformed the way people thought of fashion from either “mass-produced, conformist” street wear on one hand versus “high-end, out-of-touch couture” on the other by proposing a third way: “fashion as expression of artistry, veering on the edge of non-functionality with a heightened aestheticism that owed much to preoccupations around identity and expressiveness—the wearing of clothes as an art in itself.”
The book’s assertively piecemeal structure allows Wilcox to let us watch her growing up, fulfilling her destiny, and doing her work, but also to let us watch her watching herself. While still a novice, she writes of her mentor, a Keeper at the V & A, “I imagined being like her one day, swinging the keys of knowledge.” It’s a steady, quiet thrill to watch as Wilcox learns to do exactly that.
Museum studies hangs over the entire undertaking in a wonderfully meta way. A curator must be skilled in the art of display, and Wilcox is clearly a passionate custodian, alive to the power and beauty of objects, and aware of the best methods of conveying their significance to the public. She intersperses the sections of her memoir with photographs, some archival, but most of them by her husband, the potter and writer Julian Stair. These images—camping with her family in Cornwall in 1959, a silver chatelaine from 1910, a silk brocade dress from the eighteenth century, and so on—add to both the chronological and thematic organizational ideas behind her book’s meandering yet intentional structure.
Early on, Wilcox quotes Henry Cole, the first director of the V & A, as saying in 1857, “The museum will be like a book with its pages always open.” By the end of Patch Work, she leaves her readers astonished at the subtlety and care with which she has laid bare the pages of her own existence.
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).
Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 By Sarah Schulman
Reviewed by Nino Testa
While she makes a clear and convincing argument against the deification of particular individuals, it is difficult not to hold Schulman herself up as an unsung hero of the movement.
In the early days of the 2020 quarantine, as we were all still fumbling to wear our masks properly and visualize an invisible six-foot radius, the Twitter handle for ACT UP NY shared a provocative pair of photographs, drawing an explicit comparison between the politics of HIV and of COVID-19. On the left, the unforgettable photo of David Wojnarowicz’s black leather jacket, reading “If I die of AIDS—forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.” On the right, a black face mask reading “If I die of COVID-19—forget burial/drop my body on the steps of Mar-a-Lago.” Many online found the tweet distasteful or disrespectful to AIDS history, but Matthew Rodriguez, a journalist and writer for The Body (a preeminent HIV/AIDS resource), urged us to resist “the instinct to keep [AIDS history] like a cabinet curio, behind plate glass, and to leave it undisturbed,” while AIDS and a racist healthcare system are still with us. As we mark the fortieth anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV, with the epidemic ongoing, critical AIDS histories still have much to teach us about the politics of the current moment.
Enter Sarah Schulman’s remarkable new work of public history, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993. Founded in March 1987, after years of governmental and cultural indifference to the AIDS-related deaths of Black and brown people, gay men, intravenous drug users, trans women, Haitians, and other marginalized groups, ACT UP became the central organizing force of AIDS activism in the United States, one of the most culturally and politically impactful social movements of the twentieth century. Schulman sets the scene of the “apocalyptic story” of AIDS in appropriately stark terms: “This is the story of a despised group of people, with no rights, facing a terminal disease for which there were no treatments.” Schulman, herself an early member of ACT UP, is clear about her motivation in writing this book: to preserve and disseminate the lessons learned and tactics used to effect social change. “Historicizing ACT UP as an organizational nexus of a larger culture of resistance by people with AIDS (PWAs) invites all of us, in the present, to imagine ourselves as potentially effective activists and supporters no matter who we are.” In the pages that follow, Schulman does more than establish an extensive history of the movement, she guides us through the transferable principles that made it successful and encourages us to let this history do real work as we strategize interventions in response to the countless crises of our world. Throughout the book, she repeats the underlying philosophies that organized ACT UP’s work: a separation of direct action and social services, building the broadest possible coalition, trusting the simultaneity of actions, and not attempting to develop consensus within a dynamic group. Schulman also offers extended meditations—both her own and perspectives from interview subjects—about the failures of the organization and the human relationships that caused those failures, always with an eye on praxis: “Understanding mistakes does not undo successes. Learning to hold both, at the same time, is necessary in order for new generations of people under attack to feel capable of moving forward.”
Schulman describes the book as a kind of people’s history, the collection of personal narratives, experiences, and reflections of those most immediately involved in ACT UP: “I am not a trained historian, and this is not a cumulative, documented history beyond the testimonies of the people who created it.” Since 2001, Schulman, in collaboration with filmmaker and AIDS activist Jim Hubbard, has conducted nearly 200 oral history interviews as part of the ACT UP Oral History Project. Anyone who has perused these interviews at actuporalhistory.org, or used it in the classroom, knows that it is an indispensable tool for teaching and learning the history of AIDS, but it is also an unwieldy archive, difficult to dig into without a guide or frames of reference. Already, Schulman and Hubbard have utilized this impressive collection as the source material for their 2012 documentary United in Anger, an important narrative primer on ACT UP history. In Let the Record Show, Schulman combs through interview transcripts, organizing them not into some master chronology but into thematic groupings, case studies, and narrative retellings. Schulman makes clear that this book is meant to be read and used as a guide for making social change: I think about the ways that one might utilize this hefty text by assigning these case studies in a classroom as companions to primary historical materials and a guide to the ACT UP Oral History Project, but I likewise imagine individual chapters circulating in consciousness-raising groups, community centers, and activist organizations.
In a series of case studies, Schulman narrates ACT UP’s most important and controversial actions—like Stop the Church (1989), Storm the NIH (1990), and the Ashes Action (1992)—which, she argues, have otherwise been rendered caricatures in the popular imagination, their political and cultural significance reduced to mythology. Let the Record Show restores the historical urgency and specificity of these actions and their imagery. For instance, Schulman offers extensive analysis of the aesthetics and political tactics of Gran Fury, the activist visual art collective that designed ACT UP’s most iconic agitprop and radically redefined the popular imagery used to represent people with AIDS. She makes the case that these now indelible images of protest art contributed, in real time, to the development of a particular activist consciousness that transcended weekly meetings and direct actions: “It can be said that the art of ACT UP created a new kind of person, one who was living with HIV (infected or not) and who could change the world.”
One of the critiques of dominant AIDS histories is that they focus primarily on the experiences and activism of a handful of white gay men. In many ways, ACT UP has been wrongfully remembered as a white man’s organization. Schulman re-narrates this whitewashed history of the organization as one whose civil disobedience and direct-action tactics were learned from Black civil rights activism, and whose patient-centered healthcare framework (“People with AIDS are the experts”) was the product of decades of feminist organizing done by early ACT UP members like Marion Banzhaf, many of whom were lesbians. She doesn’t just pay lip service to the diversity of ACT UP, she offers detailed historical analysis of the formation of ACT UP Puerto Rico; a four-year campaign to change the CDC’s definition of AIDS (which would “allow women and poor people access to benefits and experimental drugs and studies”); and solidarity work with HIV-positive Haitians who were being incarcerated in Guantanamo.
While Schulman centers the racial and gender justice work done by ACT UP, she also documents the routine experience of racism that people of color experienced in the organization. Her analysis of the infamous 1992 “split” of ACT UP and the Treatment & Data Committee (which became the independent Treatment Action Group), details the racial and gendered power dynamics that, some argue, contributed to the organization’s declining impact. In this way, Let the Record Show offers a substantive racial and gender analysis, as opposed to a cursory review of a few high-profile women or people of color in the organization, as we might find in other public histories of the movement.
Schulman is in conversation with decades of critical work that refocuses our understandings of intersectionality in the experience of people with AIDS, and she explains how the most privileged group impacted by AIDS, gay white men, came to stand in as the most visible representative of the movement. But she is making an even more fundamental critique about how we narrate the history of AIDS activism through an individualistic, neoliberal framework. She decimates the myth of Larry Kramer as the “founder” of ACT UP, but more importantly, she tells a de-centralized history where ACT UP isn’t the accomplishment of a few heroic individuals (a la the mega-successful 2012 David France documentary How to Survive a Plague), but the achievement of a diverse, collective movement. Schulman is asking us to consider a paradigm shift, not just in how we narrate the history of AIDS but in how we narrate the history of social change. We are reminded throughout Let the Record Show that ACT UP was actually not a single organization with clearly identifiable leadership, but was instead made up of countless smaller affinity groups that pursued their own political actions as well as supporting the larger initiatives of the organization, all “united in anger, and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.”
Schulman weaves together the oral history interviews of ACT UP members and her own recollections and analysis, always mindful of the narratives she is constructing and closing down through her own writing; she makes space for the messy moments of historical experience and interpretation and highlights discrepancies between her own recollections and those of her subjects. While she makes a clear and convincing argument against the deification of particular individuals, it is difficult not to hold Schulman herself up as an unsung hero of the movement. Perhaps best known for her powerful AIDS novels People in Trouble (1990) and Rat Bohemia (1995), Schulman is a prolific writer whose nonfiction includes My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years (1994), a collection of her journalistic AIDS writing, and Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (1998), a meditation on how mass media so egregiously misrepresents the realities of AIDS and gay life. I can think of no other person who has done more to document, interpret, and disseminate histories of ACT UP, and the AIDS epidemic more broadly, than Schulman herself.
In the closing pages of Let the Record Show, Schulman reflects on her own traumatic experiences of loss throughout the AIDS epidemic, a poignant reminder (like the remembrances sprinkled throughout the book), of the visceral motivation of survival in a mass death experience that motivated so much of the activism she now documents as history. One is left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude—not only for the incredible amount of labor that it took to remember, collect, preserve, narrate, and interpret the events of this book, but for the world-changing activism from which we have all benefited in such incalculable ways.
Nino Testa is the Associate Director of the Department of Women & Gender Studies at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas. He lives in Dallas where he also volunteers for The Dallas Way: An LGBTQ History Project.
The human I live with digs out snow so our solar unit can follow the sun. There is no sun. Where are the birds? You don’t hear enough Scriabin on the radio. When I fluff for Zoom, I reach for the perfume. Then I think: Schmendrick, that was in a different life.
The other day I laid ceramic tiles beneath the serial killer’s furnace in our basement and accidentally produced a design in the shape of a swastika. We didn’t buy the house from an actual serial killer. The great grief at the heart of The Wizard of Oz is that the wish to return to a black-and-white world is a lie. Auntie Em, who hands over Dorothy’s dog to a woman of power and influence in their town, is not a person anyone would ever want to see again, and you catch this in the strained expression on Judy’s face as she clicks the heels of her ruby slippers. Also, there’s no song in the movie about returning from the rainbow.
I’ve grown uninterested in why people do the things they do. People don’t know why anyone does anything. Even the person doing a thing doesn’t know why, and people who admit this or skip over the subject of human motivation appeal to me. I find more interest these days in the play of light on a wall, reflecting the fronds of a palm, swaying in small currents of air.
We are watching Call My Agent, the French TV series streaming on Netflix, and so far it’s please don’t let it end, so we’ll be adrift again in the tragic suggestions other people make. In season two, Andréa, who is gay, winds up having angry, hot sex with a man she detests and who has bought the talent agency where she’s a partner. His acquisition is owing to her, and it’s something she quickly regrets and also has to accommodate in that without him the company will go under. Their paths have crossed at an award ceremony back in her hometown, where they are both being celebrated for doing well enough to leave the backwater. She feels distaste from the moment she lays eyes on him, with his manbun and teasing/angry manner with her, using a name she has changed, on and on. He wants to break her, in that it’s his way in the world. In one scene he asks her to change into a dress he has bought her to seduce a client he wants to steal from another agency. She refuses to do it in front of him, making clear the limits of her compliance, but then they are both drunk and both making out with a beautiful model in a hotel room, when suddenly they go at it with each other, abandoning the woman, who says, “Hey, over here” (in French), before slipping off. We watch the former outcasts take each other’s faces in their hands, and tear each other to pieces.
The scene made me happy in its tender acceptance of sexual weirdness and the great comic truth that desire is larger than what we can know. Once at a party a man I secretly wanted to touch came over and kissed me. I didn’t push him off. His hands were on my shoulders. His tongue was in my mouth. It was a good kiss, as if we’d been doing it for a while. After my father died, my mother wasn’t that old, and I remember walking on a beach with her as she looked around for her life. I pulled away from the man and said, “You’re acting like a lunatic.” I didn’t really say that. I said, “I love you.”
For several weeks, I used prison-grade toilet paper that was free. I had to use it until it was finished, the way some people tap on a wall five times before they can leave a room. On two separate occasions the market where we shop sent out a coupon for two free packages of prison-grade toilet paper, and I took them because it would not have been possible not to. In my twenties, I was seeing a shrink, and one Christmas I knitted him a pair of mittens. The following Christmas I knitted him another pair of mittens with the exact same wool. When he asked the significance of repeating the gift, I had no choice but to see my interest in what we were doing was fake.
We watched a Danish show on HBO called The Investigation. The chief of police is telling the parents of a journalist that their daughter may be dead, and everyone looks like a monument on Mount Rushmore, no expression you can read and no voices raised. I said to the human I live with, “Imagine this scene with Italians.” Then I said, “I should become more Danish.” He said, “It would help.”
An orange has been engineered so it’s easy to peel. It’s the ones that are hard to peel that hold our attention. I once answered an ad on craigslist to visit the home of a stranger, who was giving away tea. Not only tea but the accoutrements of tea making, including kettles and pottery. He was in the business and had too much in his house, owing to circumstances I don’t need to tell you. He inhabited an entire brownstone in the West Village, and I was excited by the familiar feeling of abjection amid luxury. He opened the door and led me to the parlor floor where cartons were waiting. I couldn’t carry all the things I wanted and would give to people I knew could use them. He was slight and looked weary. He said he had a cold and curled up on the couch. I was on the floor with the boxes. He said, “Are you dangerous?” I needed to give him something. I said, “Yes.”
A week ago I posted an image on Facebook of two baby owls. Two puff balls, their twig toes wrapped around a branch, with tiny triangular beaks and pin-point eyes behind which it was easy to imagine wit and joy. Within seconds the image prompted excited reactions. Forty or fifty shares and shares of shares. Nothing I had posted before drew such a response, and I quickly resented the owls. On closer inspection, their beaks are mysterious. You don’t know if the small triangle is supposed to represent a nose or a mouth. They look as though they don’t have mouths, and I was reminded of the body artists David Wojnarowicz and Pyotr Pavlensky, who have sewn together their lips as a form of protest and erasure. There is no telling where a chain of associations is going to wind up.
The human I live with is concerned for the plight of burglars, who cannot schedule break-ins, since everyone is home. He’s alert as well to the struggle of robbers at gas stations and convenience stores, who have become indistinguishable from everyone else wearing a mask. How can you be certain this is the right person to empty your cash register for?
The other day I got into a conversation on Facebook about what was meant by the term radical feminism in 1967, when I joined the women's movement. I said we meant what Shulamith Firestone meant by feminism: a fundamental rethinking of sex and gender categories and the effects on society of that rethinking. It was all up for grabs, and someone on the comment thread asked if that much had changed for women as a result of all the rethinking, and I said evenly—because I didn't want to be the dick I am—that everything had changed, and the example I gave was that white, monied, heterosexual men didn't used to be a category. Those people were thought to be the world.
The other day I got into a conversation on Facebook about what was meant by the term radical feminism in 1967, when I joined the women's movement.
I started thinking about the thinking that underlies such a question, the way people don’t want to see what’s altered because everything hasn’t altered, and what came to mind was a joke Leonard Michaels tells in his essay, “My Yiddish.” According to Michaels, the joke expresses the incongruity and forbearance that are quintessentially loaded into the Yiddish language and Jewish humor, and I'm going to tell you the joke and say something after.
“The rabbi says, ‘What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?’
The student says, ‘I don’t know.’
The rabbi says, ‘A herring.’
The student says, ‘Maybe a herring could be green and hang on a wall, but it absolutely doesn’t whistle.’
The rabbi says, ‘So it doesn’t whistle.’”
What I want to say to the person who asked if anything for women had changed after fifty years of feminists hocking everyone day and night about sexism and misogyny is: So we didn't fix everything.
I decided to stop drinking and to walk on the road every day. I have resumed drinking and have not been outside for four days. I was sad without alcohol, and the house had too few rooms. Last night a box was delivered by our neighbor, who owns a liquor store in a town some miles away. Drinking is a new constant for me. Change is good.
I mixed a pitcher of covid cocktails, and the human I live with ruffled my hair. It was in need of a cut. I thought maybe I should get a cat instead of a cut. I asked him if he was up for telly this early. It was only 5 o’clock. We tried an Israeli show called Losing Alice, in which all the women are beautiful and sexy and all the men—really ALL the men—are dentists and accountants from central casting—even the husband, who is often half naked. Within the yawning range of female appetite, these men do not cut it. A great Israeli hoax is being perpetrated.
Yesterday I was reading Paris Review and came upon an appreciation of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the Hitchcock movie starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, who plays her uncle and turns out to be a serial murderer. Suddenly I remembered I’d known Teresa Wright in her later years, and we’d met a few times at the Popover Café on Amsterdam Avenue. I remember sitting across from her and seeing the young face in the old one.
We first met in 1990 after a performance she gave at Berkshire Theater Festival in Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca. The reason I remember any of it is I wrote about the production when I wrote about the death of the man I was with then. The play is about an aging artist, who is nearly destroyed by isolation and yet is sustained by her work, and that man, whose name was Gardner, and I had sat weeping through the evening. Teresa came out to talk to us after the rest of the audience had left, maybe because I was a reviewer for the Village Voice. Maybe that’s why we met afterward in New York.
I’m straining to recall a single thing we talked about. Did she tell me about her daughter? Her career in Hollywood? I was interested that she still wanted to act. She was seventy-two, younger than I am now. During the play she was on stage for the entire two hours and at one point delivered a monologue that runs for four pages. At the time I was forty-three, and when you are forty-three and talking to a person in their seventies, they seem to occupy a different plane of existence. This is something I cannot keep in mind now, that when I interact with people several decades younger than me they are probably seeing an exhibit on a plinth.
I was always interested in pushing myself against people with fame. Teresa Wright was so real, the element of her fame was quickly absorbed into the tender and sincere way she looked at me and asked about my life. I think we met after Gardner’s death. The memory is sweet. She is soft as a petal and generous. I remember nothing, really, except that it happened.
A few nights ago I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the everything and nothing of late night. It reminded me of my old life in my apartment in the quiet and expansiveness of solitude. I used to let my dog off the leash in Riverside Park, and when he would wander too far for me to see him and I would be shouting for him like an hysterical lunatic, I felt like I was going to die of fear and I thought the dog was me in his indifference to control.
I miss sex with strangers, not the sex itself but the possibility of something happening. I don’t like to think of the ending of anything. I am opposed to all conjunctions except (yeah, I know) and. The moon made the snow outside bright enough for shadows. I was happy for no reason.
Laurie Stone is an essayist and author who writes frequently for the Women’s Review of Books.
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch By Rivka Galchen
Reviewed by Charis Caputo
And as the town rallies against Katharina, her ‘resplendent underside’ is eclipsed by her ‘off-putting way.’
Rivka Galchen’s oeuvre is famously hard to summarize. I first encountered her as a prolific New Yorker contributor who casts the slant, revealing light of her strange mind on subjects as disparate as fracking, hospital food, and children’s literature. I fell in love with American Innovations (2014), her collection of contemporary reworkings of classic short stories like Joyce’s “Araby” and Borges’s “The Aleph.” Her essay collection, Little Labors (2016), has similar range. Galchen’s work—journalistic or creative—shows an ambidextrous ease with both scientific and literary knowledge (she holds an MD as well as an MFA), and perhaps it is from the cross-fading of these categories of knowledge that her surreal, precise fiction derives its power.
Galchen’s second novel Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, is (unsurprisingly) something no one expected from her: historical fiction set in the seventeenth-century German duchy of Württemberg. The protagonist is Katharina Kepler, mother of the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler. In the “ominous” spring of 1618, Katharina is charged (in the novel, as in the historical record) with practicing witchcraft against her neighbors. So begins a protracted trial during which the town of Leonberg, racked by plague, the onset of the Thirty Years’ War, and the enclosure of public lands, turns against the mother of a distinguished and contentious scientist. The townspeople pile on, blaming their illnesses, family deaths, and bad harvests on her. They allege poisonings, “passing through locked doors,” and riding a goat (or a calf) backwards to death and roasting it.
Facing financial ruin and possible execution, Katharina first fights the charges in Leonberg, then flees to her son Johannes’s home in Austria. Upon her arrival, she falls temporarily ill. In one of several metafictional scenes, Johannes’s wife reads to the sick Katharina “from a story that was familiar in essence, but whose details were strange.” This might describe the feeling of Galchen’s novel itself, the familiar tale of a woman scapegoated as a witch, situated and told in a way that is funny, sad, and suffused with the weird, incandescent logic of a story-within-a-story distorted through a fever dream. Composed mainly of fictional testimony, trial records, and letters that are based partially on real documents and informed by a wide range of secondary sources, the novel gives us a sort of parallax view, raising questions about perception and reality.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that it was Johannes Kepler who discovered the parallax effect. A key figure in the transition from ancient to modern cosmology, Kepler is most famous for his laws of planetary motion, which embraced Copernican heliocentrism while laying the groundwork for Newtonian mechanics. He was also a devout Protestant and considered himself a metaphysician as well as a scientist, working at a time in which there was no clear distinction between astronomy and astrology. In the novel, Kepler has just left his post as the emperor’s astrologer in politically unstable Prague (officially Catholic) and been excommunicated from Württemberg (officially Lutheran) because of his supposed Calvinist heresies. The accusations of witchcraft against Kepler’s mother are often attributed to Kepler’s precarious position in this shifting Counter-Reformation landscape, as well as to a sort of proto-sci-fi manuscript he wrote and circulated around this time in which his protagonist’s mother consults a demon about space travel.
While both of these factors are addressed in Everybody Knows, Johannes remains a relatively minor character. And if you find his politico-religious situation confusing, you’re not alone. His mother, an illiterate woman in a world in violent flux between residual paganism, Catholicism, and various strains of Protestantism, leaves the finer points of theology to others: “I was born the year Luther died. I took Catholic communion only one time, in error. My daughter Greta is married to a pastor who says that’s okay.” She is also told it is “okay,” theologically speaking, to wear face powder and to sing certain songs to sick babies, though it is not okay to use incantations or believe that animals have souls. Righteousness is a slippery thing, defined by the mutable expectations of others, and Katharina ambivalently tries to conform to those expectations, though her cosmology is (dangerously) steeped in a kind of syncretic animism.
In many ways, Galchen’s rendering of Katharina fits our popular conception of witches, or of the type of woman likely to be accused of witchcraft: she is an elderly, propertied widow, a matriarch and healer so attentive to plants, animals, and humans alike that she seems always to collapse the boundaries between them. Her cow, Chamomile, receives as much care and affection as her grandchildren. She notes that her son Christoph is “not friends with dill.” She prescribes her neighbor Simon cowslip blossoms for his cough (which she overhears from a distance) because, in her arcane apothecary logic, “a lung is a sheep.”
Katharina is also a busybody and a gossip. Simon—who acts as her male guardian in the proceedings and to whom she gives the informal testimony which makes up part of the novel—was at one time repelled by Katharina’s interference (trying to cure his cough, for example). Simon is a very private person who, like many characters, is guarding secrets of his own, never brought into clear focus. But Katharina, we learn, eventually won Simon’s friendship by leading a party to rescue him and his home from a flood, “calling out plans,” as he recalls, “in what I now recognize as her usual off-putting way. Her intrusive nature had this resplendent underside.” Katharina, though generous, can indeed be abrasive. She is defiant of enemies and authorities. She refers to the ducal governor—a venal usurper—as “The False Unicorn.” Of Ursula Reinbold, the glazier’s wife who initiates the witchcraft trial by accusing Katharina of using dark magic to inflict a mysterious illness (syphilis maybe?), Katharina says privately: she “has no children, looks like a comely werewolf … and everyone … knows that as a young woman Ursula took powerful herbs given to her by the apothecary … with whom she had an affair.”
“Everybody knows” is a refrain of this novel—the language here is rich, but also contemporary, demotic, wry—in which gossip and slander not only propel the narrative but seem to constitute and negate an unstable reality. When another woman accuses Katharina of assaulting her daughter, Katharina retorts, “Everyone knows Wallpurga Haller tells fortunes by measuring heads—a superstitious and unlawful practice, which, besides, she is no good at.” We are in a world where you’re only as safe as your reputation. Indeed, Simon’s oft-repeated motto is “see no monsters,” for monsters are only created through perception. And as the town rallies against Katharina, her “resplendent underside” is eclipsed by her “off-putting way.” Even her son Johannes, after an exchange that annoys him (Katharina has implied that eating with a fork is an affectation he acquired in Prague), bursts out: “I was thinking to myself … [how has] Mama, who works so hard, who is kind even to animals … been so viciously turned on? … But living again with you here, I remember.” Unfazed, Katharina interprets: “He was saying I am a person of substance, which I have always felt. And maybe this is because I had to be a mother and a father both to my children.” Subtly, the sexism here is revealed: Katharina is an old woman made strong by a difficult life—hostile in-laws, an unreliable husband who disappeared (dead or absconded, no one knows) in the religious wars, the loss of many children and grandchildren—she is no good at playing games.
But she is also no misanthrope, nor does she ever become a monster. Actually, the word empath comes to mind. She appears so finely attuned to her surroundings that visions often intrude on her testimony, decontextualized, animistic glimpses of pain: “An image came to my mind, of sickly grapevines being cut, and bleeding.” She resolves to see the best in her accusers; when her daughter loses a pregnancy, she resists blaming her enemies: “sad things are so commonplace. As you say Simon: see no monsters.” You don’t expect a book about witches to be so full of tenderness, subtlety, melancholy, as this one is. We watch Katharina care for children we know will soon die. When she is thrown in prison, she tells her daughter, “I liked at least half of the women I met in the thieves’ tower.” As the book concludes, the thread of the trial is nearly lost to plague, warfare, time. Katharina suffers, everyone suffers—“to love others,” she says, “is to suffer”—and she bears it with as much dignity as she can.
In the final chapter, Simon, who we now see is the story’s meta-author, tries to sell his manuscript at auction. First he pitches it as the story of “a good woman, a hardworking widow, exemplary, facing the worst calumny, with dignity,” but no one has any interest. Next pitch: “a tale of the viciousness that lurks in village life!,” but he grows “tired of pretending.” Later, an Englishman who has just sold an erotic story about a gold-digging adulteress gives Simon some advice: “People don’t like an old lady story, you know? I wouldn’t lead with that part.”
This is obvious meta-commentary in a book that does not conform to easy marketing categories. You’d expect a novel with such a sassy title—not to mention a pink and purple cover—to fall back on the “witch” tropes of contemporary pop-feminism: either semi-ironic postmodern paganism or the strident reappropriation of witchcraft as validation of female anger. But something subtler is happening here. We’re within the ambiguous cosmology of early modern Europe, where science is inextricable from magic, where you can be executed for witchcraft, and yet the Lutheran minister insists that “witches aren’t even real,” they’re just delusional old women to be “pitied, not punished.” Which kind of misogyny is worse?
In a particularly surreal chapter, Katharina travels to a bathhouse near Ulm full of naked women resembling “so many badgers and otters.” Here, she is told, resides a “doctor” who can tell a woman whether or not she is a witch. The doctor’s divination is inscrutable, and when she offers to get him a horoscope in return, he answers that astrology is “all garbage,” and she trusts him because “he saw delphinium as I saw delphinium. As a plant capable of good and evil both.” Galchen, as she so often does, uses spiraling confusions and negations to open up an uncanny space, a “region of unlikeness” (to borrow a phrase from one of her short stories) in which nothing is quite itself, and mutually exclusive realities become compatible. Somehow witches both do and do not exist and Katharina both is and is not one, and this both matters and does not matter.
This is a beautiful, slippery book that gives much if you can grasp it. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again, not only because the characters were good company but because, like life itself, it produced in me that paradoxical pleasure of having not quite understood.
Charis Caputo is an MFA candidate in NYU’s Creative Writing Program and Assistant Editor of Women’s Review of Books. She holds an MA in History from Loyola University Chicago.
The Other Black Girl By Zakya Dalila Harris
Reviewed by Eisa Ulen
Nella feels the aloneness that is inevitable in an industry that is among the most segregated, despite its left-of-center inclinations.
With page-turning, character-driven intrigue, and a thoughtful examination of middle class Black female life, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel positions the author in a literary tradition helmed by the great Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. Like her literary foremother, Harris examines compelling themes of disappearance, silence, and invisibility. Larsen centered bi-racial Black women in both her novels and so offered a unique perspective on race, the social construct that wears her protagonists, quite literally, down. In The Other Black Girl, Harris’s characters are unambiguously African American, yet the main character still exists in a state of racial liminality, caught in-between, submerged in whiteness, forced to claw her way up to authentic Blackness, and so trapped in a perpetual loop of psychological violence. Despite these heavy themes, The Other Black Girl is accessible and enjoyable, as millennial characters navigate the exclusive world of New York’s publishing elite with a clever erudition that also references Larsen’s 1920s sophisticates.
Harris’s main character is even named Nella, an obvious homage to Larsen herself. Raised in Connecticut, where she was tracked in the classes populated by white and Asian students, Nella lives in Brooklyn with her white boyfriend. Her work life is much more important than her home life, however, and much of the novel is set at Wagner Books, where Nella brings meticulous dedication to her role as assistant to one of the company’s top editors. The white woman for whom Nella works seems satisfied enough with her prodigious note taking, her prompt manner of answering the phone, her twice-as-good impeccability. Nella fits in, which is, of course, a way of saying she does not stand out. She is beige, even though she is Black. Yearning to ascend the publishing ladder and become an editor herself, she contacts a prominent Black intellectual, a man known in the mainstream for his fierce opposition to white supremacy. And then she waits, hoping half the time that he might reply to her email, worried the other half about the repercussions on her career if he does.
Nella feels the aloneness that is inevitable in an industry that is among the most segregated, despite its left-of-center inclinations. The Village Voice identified the real-life world fictional Nella inhabits as “almost completely white” in a two-part 1995 article exposing “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing.” Twenty-five years later, The New York Times found that “85 percent of the people who acquire and edit books” are still white. Nella throws her heart into spearheading Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work at Wagner, but no one attends her events. So, when another Black girl arrives on her floor, Nella is intrigued, even pleased. This other Black girl initially emerges as a fast friend, then quickly surfaces in the deepest wells of Nella’s anguished fear. Does this other Black girl mean to support her, so that they might mutually benefit one another’s careers—and sanity? Or is this other Black girl a competitor, lurking and plotting and striking awful blows to derail Nella’s professional future—and her mental acuity?
Hazel is tricky. When Nella shares her concerns about the racist caricature submitted in a best-selling author’s new manuscript, Hazel first bangs her fist on the table, bemoaning white fragility and the problem Black professionals face when we “just subtly imply that a white person is racist—especially a white man—they think it’s the biggest slap in the face ever. They’d rather be called anything other than a racist.” Hazel speaks with such force that “Nella sat stock-still, taken aback,” and a “well-dressed Korean couple sitting at the table beside theirs… [was] curiously looking over at them between bites of food.” Hazel then gaslights Nella, forcing her to confess to her middle-class status, as if the fact that “as a child, she hadn’t wanted for anything” somehow erodes her authentic Blackness. Just as Nella is “unable to mask the defensiveness that was creeping into her voice and causing her to cross and recross her legs under the table,” Hazel completely shifts her tone, making Nella wonder “where her lunch companion’s Black Panther spirit had gone.” Hazel’s manipulations spur Nella to feel “energized” and “free” enough to voice her concerns regarding the submitted manuscript’s sole Black character—with disastrous results. Nella’s professional reputation begins to wobble, causing her to experience an anxiety that intensifies as mysterious letters suddenly appear on her desk, warning her to leave Wagner. The other Black girl seems genuinely concerned but could, in Nella’s anguished mind, be the literal author of her demise.
A florid letter figures prominently in Nella Larsen’s 1929 Passing. Like Larsen’s twin protagonists, Irene and Claire, the other Black girl is a threatening counterpart to Nella. The other Black girl is so much like herself, that Nella’s growing fear is the only thing making her Other. Nella must struggle against this Other that is also the Self. Similarly, in Larsen’s Passing, Irene struggles against Claire, whose first name symbolizes the clarity with which careful readers see so much of one character in the other. Indeed, Claire embodies the most provocative aspects of Irene’s personality. Claire even appropriates the I—for identity—in Irene’s name, calling her, unlike anyone else in the book, the less dignified ‘Rene.
Harris’s other Black girl also has a symbolic name, Hazel, an eye (I) color that is not quite brown, but certainly not green. A color in-between. And like Claire, Irene’s other Black girl, Hazel shortens Nella’s name, a seemingly innocent, even affectionate act that is made more significant and more sinister in Harris’s book because Nella’s true friend adamantly resists Hazel’s bossy appropriation of the last letter in her name. Hazel calls her Nell, and “Nella could feel the chill coming off her friend a few feet away as she waited to be greeted.” This friend’s name is also significant, and beautiful—Malaika—but Hazel pokes the bear, calling her Melanie instead. Malaika instantly corrects Hazel, telling her she’s wrong because her own name “is a little Blacker.” The exchange makes Nella feel “a bit like a child who had stupidly rounded up her divorced parents for a dreaded school function.” Like a white person who struggles with words of African origin but psychologically needs to wield a certain haughty power, Hazel then lands on the shortened Mal, which in various languages means crazy (Afrikaans), wrong (French), and bad (Spanish), and is the root of a list of English words with awful denotations (malfeasance, malpractice, malaise, malign, maladjusted, etc.).
Hazel’s chomping off a bit of both friends’ names is at worst creepy and at best way too familiar. And it is deliberate, meant to provoke and irritate, as scrambling Black folks’ names is entirely white and also utterly exasperating, so it is also a clue. This absurd renaming scene foreshadows the book’s stunning conclusion. Indeed, long before she ever meets Hazel, Malaika predicts what will happen at Wagner, telling Nella, “one of your coworkers is gonna mix you and the new Black girl up at least once. I promise you.” One of them does. To Nella’s white co-worker, the error is a simple mix-up, but to African Americans, and in the narrative, it is actually complex and significant—a mix that is at the same time confusing, stirring, and in a heartbreaking denouement, a combining of both Black girls.
Amid this on-the-job anxiety, Nella finds refuge in Malaika, her sister friend, a woman her age who always has her back. Malaika is her sounding board, her confidant, the one character that tries to help her untangle the thrilling mystery that drives the novel’s plot: Who is trying to push Nella out of Wagner—and why? Malaika is the girl every Black girl needs, but she is not the other Black girl.
Malaika is an homage to former Atria powerhouse Malaika Adero, the real-life woman who might have edited The Other Black Girl had she not left the Simon & Schuster imprint less than a decade ago. There are so few Black women in book publishing. Names like Marie Brown, Stacey Barney, Dawn Davis, Tracy Sherrod, and Linda Duggins come to mind. There are others, but only a precious few more. Harris tributes them all by naming her most keep-it-real character after the one Black woman editor who worked at the very imprint that published Harris’s book.
Adero, who rose from Editorial Assistant to Vice President and Senior Editor, generated millions for Atria from the 1980s through 2014, the year she exited the company. She edited the work of some of our finest writers, including Maryse Conde and Tananarive Due. Adero acquired the work of Mexican American writer Reyna Grande years before American Dirt. She used her power to reissue The Black Woman, Toni Cade Bambara’s groundbreaking anthology containing work by Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. She also cultivated the voices of Gen X writers Farai Chideya, Carl Hancock Rux, and Kevin Powell. Along with these more literary authors, Adero published, and thus amplified, Black voices as widely diverse as Civil Rights leader James Meredith, Hip Hop artist Common, pastor T. D. Jakes, actress Victoria Rowell, and international icon Nelson Mandela. But the real money came from Zane, a breakout voice of the 1990s, whose steamy novels landed on the New York Times bestseller list more than a dozen times. A generation of what were called Urban Lit writers followed Zane, as well as Sister Souljah, who wrote the huge bestseller, The Coldest Winter Ever, also published by Atria. Street Lit authors filled the coffers at Atria and made quick millionaires out of writers who, without Adero, would likely never have been published at all.
Adero’s real-life career is one the fictional Nella could only dream of in her cubicle in the sky, where she battles the floor’s coffee machine, nervously pulls her hair, and languishes. Nella does dream of one day meeting a character whose influence on Wagner (the publishing house at the center of Harris’s book) mirrors Adero’s influence on Atria (the house that published Harris’s book). In her most vivid aspirations, Nella would become Wagner’s next Kendra Rae, one of the rare Black women in the fictionalized world of publishing Harris renders. In the book, Kendra Rae edited one of the company’s most important novels, a work by a Black woman who was also her friend before suddenly and mysteriously disappearing. Rae’s disappearance means she is not present or secure in her role and thus able to mentor Nella to achieve her career goal to publish more important books about Black life.
Thankfully, Adero’s real-life career was decades longer than the fictional Kendra Rae’s, and Adero’s former assistant, Krishan Trotman, is now an Executive Editor at Hachette. Scaffolding other Black women is consistent with who Adero is—a culture worker who ran the Up South Book Festival, is a folklorist and vernacular dancer, and paints. She is what we call a sistah, meaning a down Black woman, one who, in Larsen’s time, might have been called a Race Woman and definitely would have been called an artist. So, it’s altogether fitting that Harris’s novel would include a woman actually named Malaika who, like her real-life namesake, embodies The Culture. And it’s significant that Harris’s Malaika is one of the few characters in the book who does not work in the publishing industry or in some other rarefied space in the literary world. The author suggests that true Black female artistic and intellectual freedom only exists outside the industry gates, which is the direction Harris fled when she quit her own job at Knopf to write this stunning debut novel.
The timing of this book’s June 2021 pub date couldn’t be better. The Other Black Girl is perfect summer reading: smart, engaging, and meaningful. Larsen wrote about the horrors of American racism as Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s journalism fueled and organized the Anti-Lynching Campaign. Harris’s novel does the same in the year following the George Floyd protests, the largest public demonstrations in world history and an international cry in support of Black Lives Matter, the movement fueled and organized by the online writing of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
The dystopian reality of Black life in white spaces is 400 years old and also just last week, an enduring contemporary theme, one explored by Black creatives in work as different as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the first season of Issa Rae’s Insecure. The anxiety and dread Harris’s female protagonist experiences also position the author in the ranks of her living literary sister and first daughter of Nella Larsen, Danzy Senna. Senna’s award-winning Caucasia launched her career as a writer who examines the Black-white binary with tense narratives that center women characters who fit in neither racial category. In Symptomatic, Senna’s second novel, the first chapter concludes with her main character collapsed on a bathroom floor. Harris’s novel concludes in a similar setting, but the character that provokes the protagonist into submission is the other Black girl.
The Other Black Girl is for Black women who want books that help them make sense of the ways we are trapped and, through art, encourage us to think carefully about ways to be free. Harris interrogates white supremacy in fresh ways, identifying, as Larsen did, the terror of American racism as it forces Black women to mask their authentic selves before they can move, literally and figuratively, up. What happens, Harris asks, when the mask becomes the wearer, and the 9-to-5 performance of corporate assimilation becomes a permanent condition? With her witty conclusion, Harris also examines white supremacy as it enters Black women, poisoning the Black woman’s head, and turning them against their counterparts, the other Black girls who are, in fact, them.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen (she/her) is the author of Crystelle Mourning (Atria), a novel edited by Malaika Adero and described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.”