A Freedom is a freedom is a free DOM

by Ren Powell

A diary means yes indeed.” – Gertrude Stein

Sixteen months ago, the man who abused me for a decade, and who robbed me of my extended family in the almost thirty years since, committed suicide. He drove his car into a semi. I watched a stream of coverage from the local news station, in what was once my hometown, just to reassure myself that it was true.

At that moment, watching the computer screen, I anticipated relief. I expected some part of me to be reborn like a phoenix from the wreckage strewn across the highway, half a world away.  Or at least some spell would break, like at the end of a fairy tale. Ding Dong, the witch is dead.

I thought I would finally have my freedom.

*

In my first semester of college I managed to wriggle my way into an advanced special topics course in Philosophy: Technology & Human Values, 4-oh-something. It was a course that put ethics into praxis through thought experiments. I loved it. All the thinking. Imagining. Writing.

Second semester, I took two big steps back – trying to catch up – and I took an introduction class that covered everything from Plato through Arne Næss at breakneck speed.

I got sick around Being and Nothingness.

And I got married.

And I wrote my first play.

And I burned my first manuscript.

And I got divorced.

And I started taking lithium.

*

In 2005, I was one of three European women to attend a women writers’ conference in Kyrgyzstan. The writers in Bishkek told us a story about a poet who published a book of sensual poems that her in-laws interpreted as evidence of her infidelity. Her husband left her. The translator tried to paraphrase: She says that, if she had lived in Europe, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

*

Freedom is a fluid and free signifier. Context is everything.

*

Last winter I took an improvisation workshop with my colleagues from the high school. We were partnered and told to give each other small tasks to mime. “Say the first thing that pops into your mind. Don’t censor yourself!”

The first thing that popped into my mind? Masturbate.

*

Last Friday I saw a performance work that featured an actress with Down syndrome. “Anti-abortion themed Agit prop theater,” I complained. “Not my thing.”

My colleague said, “But she is free to express her opinion.”

When I worked for PEN I came to realize that there is a sea dividing the right to free speech, and the privilege of being heard.

And that no one is free from consequences

  • I know a writer from Eastern Europe who is living in New York and teaching at a reputable university. He has dinner parties with his respected colleagues, but is not able to return to his homeland to work. Because he exercised his freedom of speech.
    And his government didn’t like it.
  • I know of a once-respected writer from Kyrgyzstan. Her colleagues don’t know where she is living today.
    Because she exercised her freedom of speech.
    And her relatives didn’t like it.

*

When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors invited me to stage three of my own performance pieces within the larger context of a series of storytelling projects that he was working on for the autumn production. About a week before the premiere, I heard rumors that there was trouble. Another professor in the theater department had asked the dean to stop my work from being produced.

It wasn’t the word fuck that was the problem. It wasn’t the subject matter of sexual abuse. Or even the blasphemous texts. The professor was concerned about the work being too personal. He wanted the university to protect me from myself.

This was the same professor who, in playwriting class, would raise his voice and gesticulate like a Shakespearean actor, declaiming his slogans: “Write to the Pain”, “Never Censor Yourself”.

*

In 1933, Gertrude Stein published someone else’s autobiography.

*

I have written things.
I have written things that I have lived.

I have written things that I have lived to regret.
My chronology is never explicit.

*

Ask me, while I am staring at a blank page, and I will tell you that freedom is a value-neutral state.

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A Freedom is a freedom is a free DOM

In the Arab Spring, Egyptian Women Writers are Perennial

As thousands of citizens flood Tahir Square to fight for democracy after a struggle for fair elections, Egypt is in an extraordinary and difficult transition. But what of its women, asks the online Bikyamasr, which also reports that Tahir Square, a symbol of fledging democracy, has also become a hotspot for sexual harrassment. Nabila Ramdani of The Guardian believes women fared better under Mubarak, while Aline Sara reports in NOW Lebanon that women’s rights have to go on the backburner—for now.

But for how long? Despite these trials, women in Egypt aren’t waiting. Whether marching against sexual harrassment or protesting for being told to cover up, they are giving voice to their own demands and rightful place in the emerging social and political discourse. HER KIND pays tribute to 5 Egyptian women writers whom, despite persecution, intimidations and even threats on their lives, give voice to the fight for women’s writers as a necessity, not an option.

 

Mona Eltahawy has been at the forefront of covering the revolution: on November 24, 2011, she Tweeted (@monaeltahawy) to her followers “beaten arrested in interior ministry,” was assaulted by her captors and suffered fractures in her left hand and right arms. In the controversial “Why Do They Hate Us?”, Eltahawy frames the question around the famed writer Alifa Rifaat (see below) and does not shy away from revealing the war on women in Egypt.

Dr. Nawal El-Sadaawi is an author, doctor, activist for social and gender equality—and legend in her own right. Last year she spoke to The Guardian  and The Nation on the eve of the revolution in Egypt, and why she believes the country has a long way to go. And as she proclaimed to The Independent, she’s in it for the long haul too.

Miral al-Tahawy writes in Classical Arab, and widely considered the first novelist to capture the plight of Beoduin women whose traditional culture clashes with modern desires for independence. She recently won the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for literature.

Alifa Rifaat explored the patriarchal hierarchy in her stories about rural life in Egypt through the themes of sex, marriage, widowhood, death and female genital mutilation, which have long since been considered taboo. Distant View of a Minaret is considered one of her finest and most provocative works. While she passed away in 1996, her legacy for women’s rights lives on.

Rehab Bassam legitimatized the importance of blogging when the must-respected Dar al Shorouk published her collection of blog posts in 2008, Rice Pudding for Two. Follow her on Twitter at @hadouta.

 

 

 

In the Arab Spring, Egyptian Women Writers are Perennial

Is There Something Beyond the Human?: A Conversation With Poets Cheryl Clarke and Vanessa Huang

This is a conversation rich with history and history in the making. Cheryl Clarke and Vanessa Huang are poets, activists, mentors to each other in many ways, vital and crucial beings. Here, they traverse intergenerational bridges and they have stories to share, people who you will want to know, movements and collectives you will want to Google. These are radical women, politically and poetically—their poems are part of this conversation! Their evolution as humans, thinking bodies, “sensate witnesses” unafraid of their queerness allows us to meet our edges, even when they flex and flow. Read on and enjoy.

HER KINDHER KIND: Thank you Cheryl and Vanessa for welcoming us into your Conversation! It’s a pleasure to have your voices here. Let’s begin: Gloria Anzaldúa asks in the foreword to the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back: ¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo? (What to do from here and how?) As a woman and writer, what are the bridges you’ve had to cross, burn, and forge? What came of those experiences?

 

Cheryl ClarkeCheryl Clarke: The notion of “Bridges” brings up many correlations for me as a post-World War II black person. I suppose another way to term “bridges” is as transitions. Getting from one change to the next. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Mississippi, Watts, Alabama, Memphis, Georgia, Detroit, D.C. . . . . I see myself of a generation whose experiences join and jettison that space between the changes, that site of ambiguity, that liminal place.

If only one could talk about oneself without using the personal pronoun, “I.” My first “bridges” are those writing ancestors who gave me the bridge to permission—to be a writer, to put my work out there, to publish, to write. Baldwin (1924-1987) comes to mind as the first “homosexual” writer. Another Country—eloquently and grittily—gave me the vaunted “permission” to imagine same-sex sexuality. (I have written about this elsewhere.) And then Gwen Brooks (1917-2000) who made poetry seem so fabulous and elegant. I can name other writers’ backs I have walked across, who have helped me make a transition from naïve self interest to and abiding knowledge of the richness of black culture. That could be a book in and of itself. And I don’t think I am all the way across yet. (I suppose I don’t want to get all the way across.) The 1970s was a decade of study and unsettling transition for me in preparation for the “lesbian-centered” 1980s.

My writing has been, since 1979, enlarged by the networks of independent publishing and print communities. In fact, I participated in that print movement as a member of the Editorial Collective of Conditions Magazine from 1981 to 1990. It is difficult to believe that twenty years ago the final Collective members closed Conditions as an active lesbian feminist publication. I placed our existing journal stock in storage for 17 years. But back to the “independent publishing and print communities” comment: “Bridges” has got to make me think of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color! Yes, Cherríe Moraga wrote me to say Barbara Smith had told her that I liked to write, was an “out” black lesbian and might be willing to write a piece for her and the late Gloria Anzaldúa’s anthology. I agreed to write the piece, which became “Lesbianism: an act of resistance.” Not only has that article become a classic of feminist writing but This Bridge is an enduring work and continues to shape and shake the field of women’s studies. So, I feel “Lesbianism: an act of resistance” as well as “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community,” which appeared in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, have been bridges of pride, anger, and fortitude for lesbian and gay generations of all colors over the past 30 years. And for that I am happy.

 

Vanessa HuangVanessa Huang: Life so far, in 28 years, has been full of opportunities to both cross the bridges you and others in and around This Bridge Called My Back have made before, and to build upon them in the ways we need and want de aquí, both across my experience inhabiting “woman” and the fluidity of gender, and in learning how to be human in this world, a yearning at the core of my intention as a writer.

CC: “Learning how to be human” is a provocative notion. But do you feel that what you call fluidity gives us something beyond “human?” Is our ability to “inhabit” gender(s), sexualities, political stances, “race(s)” beyond “human?” If so or if not, can you give specific examples from your writing of these “yearnings” at the “core of your intention as a writer?” (Beautifully said, by the way.)

VH: It’s taken over two decades for me to begin living into my own experience feeling human with a sense of my own two feet on the ground, my own heart’s desires for freedom and aliveness, outside of the influence of this now embedded, though unraveling notion of two genders, male and female, that have played its role in allowing patriarchy and heterosexism and capitalism to flourish as they have. I don’t know about fluidity being beyond “human.” Perhaps? You remind me how impressed I am by the ease with which strangers and friends alike project our human notion of gender onto our canine friends, whether voicing the go-to “is it a boy or a girl?” or assuming “he” or “she” based on our human conception of how our sexes determine who we are or how we be. Friends who know my dog read Shani as super butch, and I find that lots of strangers “he” Shani by default. In Mandarin Chinese, my mother tongue, “they” is just “they”—one pronoun to reference someone you’re not speaking directly with. I’ve felt relief and joy of late witnessing friends and acquaintances allow the young ones they’re rearing to answer how they identify and express themselves.

Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” comes to me—“You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.” I channeled a poem in conversation with “Wild Geese” a couple years ago, in the voice of this body of water covering our precious earth, in prayer amidst some of the horrors of human delusion I was grappling with in spring 2010, between BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and Israel’s military raid on a fleet of ships sailing in international waters to bring aid to Gaza. In “Gaza waterprayer” the ocean water speaks to our human body: “You do not have to be good or bad./ You do not have to pray angelic,/ veil each thousandth tide this dying body./ You only have to let each shrivel/ loosen and tell what it tells: fire from the air, fire from the sea./ Love me, shrivel to shrivel, as I’ve loved each unwanted red flower.”

I also channeled a poem in conversation with Nina Simone’s expressive yearnings in “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” and more, alongside those of my friends in present time through the unfolding of Occupy/Decolonize Oakland. I performed it at the Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant amphitheater at Oakland’s General Strike on November 2, 2011:

[…]

WE BEDBOUND GENDERBOUND JAILBOUND

WE HOMED & UNHOMED WE THIS SACRED FIRE

WE WISH WE COULD GIVE ALL

WE LONGING TO GIVE

WE A CELEBRATION

WE WISH WE KNEW HOW

WE FEEL A TASTE OF IT, FREE

WE HUNGER LOVE STRONGER

WE SOUNDING THIS LOUDER

WE SMELL A NEW DAWN

WE TASTE THIS NEW POWER

[…]

WE STILL WHISPER

WE STILL WONDER IF THERE WILL BE A PLACE FOR US

WE LAND IN BODY

WE OCCUPY OUR OWN LONGING

WE REMEMBER THE ISOLATION

WE KNOW EXPLOITATION

WE HOLD ITS SHAPE

WE’VE LEARNED TO CONTAIN IT

WE UNKNOW THIS BODY WITHOUT IT

WE KNOW WE DON’T WANT IT

WE LOSING SHORE

[…]

 

CC: I am a little speechless at your response. I still have my question about the “human.” Perhaps I would prefer to just be designated “they” or “the person” to differentiate me from those who gunned down the ship in the Gaza waters and those responsible for the explosion in the Gulf that killed eleven people and scarred the region. But then, who am I to differentiate myself and be beyond human. I need to claim it and hold myself accountable for the wrongs committed in my name. (See, I can’t not say “I.” But you manage to use the pronoun so infrequently. Think it’s cultural?) I connect with Mary Oliver’s work too, particularly the poem about the snapping turtle, which she kidnaps but puts back into the river. I can’t channel.

VH: I don’t know if I believe you. What are we poets but channeling the human condition, our human discomforts, our human yearnings, including this deep push-and-pull yearning you speak of here?

One of the first times I gathered with women and gender-variant people of color writers with collective purpose was in 2006. We’d all answered a call from Chrystos to “Let me Rest Here” at a social justice retreat center in Michigan. I met two queer Asian poets there, whose paths continue to dovetail with my own. I remember being picked up at the airport by a sweet white butch (I believe) working at the retreat center with my now friend, then stranger, Ching-In Chen, also a queer Chinese-American poet—whose work has laid bridges for me to cross—and our long drive and conversations along the way, arriving sometime after dusk. As we settled in and met fellow spirits in person for the first time, I learned from some of the black women writers of their absolute mindfulness about arriving well before dusk in order to avoid white vigilantes.

CC: The type of experience you recount above is so very crucial to one’s development as a lesbian, queer, LGBT, butch, dyke, stud (first heard this term in 1967 by an ultra straight black man) bulldagger, of color radical writer. I had similar experiences between 1977 and 1980 with the Black Feminist Retreats, organized by Barbara Smith and other members of the Combahee River Collective. Kimberley Springer talks about these retreats in her book Living For The Revolution. But the life-sustaining importance of this experience of coming together with those who one shares life and art (writing) is never to be taken for granted or forgotten. These Retreats were essential to my ability to produce the work I have done over the past 30 years. These experiences were truly “bridges” for me. I think we need more than three days to answer this question. (But we don’t have the time.) This really points to Arisa White’s brilliance in doing her work. I think each generation of us must have those coming together experiences because they keep us going—to know there are others, that there is/are community/ies. Right on Chrystos, always a woman I have admired—since This Bridge.

And yes, the black women’s insistence upon arriving before dark is intensely viscerally crucial. A poet living in Austin, Texas, recounted to me two years ago an experience, while visiting her girlfriend in Michigan, certainly since 2006, of being stopped by a black cop even, interrogated, made to spread-eagle, because he thought she was dealing dope to her girlfriend, who happened to be a white-skinned Latina. (But a cop is a cop is a cop. You know that “wall of blue.”)

VH: Having grown up mostly in the Bay Area, and having been born into a family whose skin color hasn’t been a target in this way, I will never forget meeting this insistence at that moment.

CC: Not to diminish the African American’s continuing oppression and being under surveillance, victims of the carceral state, and just plain “starved” and murdered—it amazes me still—but what is the Asian [American]’s oppression, besides the “model minority” stereotype, and how do you address this in your writing?

VH: I can only speak to what I know, through my own lived experience and what stories I’ve received or invited, searched for. There’s such a range, and it’s always evolving. I guess “the only lasting truth is change,” as Octavia Butler penned. White supremacy as we know it in the United States is premised on the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement and forced migration of Africans to this continent and beyond. I hope my work invites bridges across the spectrum of these experiences and the experiences of my people held at Angel Island, as well as of peers in the South Asian and Southwest Asian/North African diaspora as we’ve watched the state’s control, reach, and use of its range of tools expand through its “War on Terror” (something I tracked as a news columnist for ColorLines for a couple years in the mid 2000s). I guess my approach to the writing reflects my principle of liberation for all, or as comrades who have directly experienced lockup have asserted through their organizing initiative of the same name, “All of Us or None.”

CC: The surveillance of Arab and Muslim peoples is so like the surveillance in the 1970s of so-called “black revolutionaries.” New York Public Radio announced yesterday that the suit against New York City police for stalking people and “surveilling” homes and mosques of Arab/Muslim citizens in New York City and New Jersey was dismissed. Yes, stalk us all or stalk none.

VH: Yes. Early on, as a high-schooler, just before 9/11, working in Barbara Lee’s district office I saw an example of a woman of color with collective purpose using the privileges she had to build bridges in a way I could relate to. I wouldn’t know until later on just how difficult building bridges can be, whether across lines of institutional power or even human to human amidst all we’ve internalized. Along the way I’ve crossed so many bridges laid down by fierce Asian-American women activists with collective purpose, too, like Yuri Kochiyama, and those of later generations.

CC: I knew of Yuri Kochiyama from my Assata days. And in fact about 25 years ago, I had a phone conversation with her. I forget what occasioned the phone call, but I remember that she invited me to a celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday. Yes, she is definitely a “bridge” for all of us, across the generations, across the ethnicities, across the regions, and across the genders. And can you name the Asian [American]s in Michigan whom you refer to above with whom you have continued to have contact?

VH: Ching-In I mentioned already, and the other kindred spirit sojourning with us in Michigan that weekend, who I’m still in contact with, was Jai Dulani. Both of them are poets and activists, and co-edited (alongside Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, in which my poem “Manifesto” lands in call and response with some of the activists and work it’s directly and indirectly labored with towards the lives we need and want.

Did you go to Malcolm X’s celebration? How much, and what was the dialogue like across the circles and communities surrounding all of you?

CC: No, I didn’t go.  I am who I am and shy away from calling myself an activist, because so many other people, like yourself, have a richer history of doing the “heavy lifting.” However, activist peoples have always surrounded me from the time I was at Howard University 1965 to ‘69 at the height of the Black Power Movement, until now, in my work with the Newark Pride Alliance in supporting and promoting the work of those ministering to LGBTQ-QTS youth (if we have to add any more letters, I will be retiring from the community) in that homophobic town. I have learned what I can and can’t do, as I mentioned. I consider myself a good “follower” with a talent for identifying excellent leaders.

VH: I’m reminded of some insight Chrystos shares on the back cover of my copy of Fire Power: “Telling the truth is powerful medicine. It is a fire that lights the way for others. When we speak our “Fire Power,” we join a long & honored line of warriors against injustice.” I’ve been inhabiting a phase of slowing down after some intense years of “heaving lifting,” taking the time to honor and tend to secondary trauma and my own through this work while also inviting deepened connection and awakening towards my “sacred direction” as Chrystos offers: “Each of us is born with innate power & purpose, a sacred direction for which we have been created. Our task is to find the place where we belong & do our work there.” These days I’m also asking and wondering how we might shift the work of this honored line of warriors from “heaving lifting” by a few and growing towards an integrated part of life for all of us, even beyond what we’ve seen and are continuing to effort towards in mass-based organizing, towards a place where all our contributions and abilities and sacred directions are valued? How do we love and labor together in ways that unravels ableism and its hold on capitalism?

I continue to carry the teachings I’ve received always. Some pivotal political mentors and comrades, also prison abolitionists, both white cisgender women and lesbians outside, and black studs and bois and First Nations activists inside through an organization here in Oakland called Justice Now, have influenced my outlook and leadership practice by passing along the teachings and learnings on coalition building as offered by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the Combahee River Collective, and activists imprisoned at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for “women,” struggling with the AIDS epidemic. And I have crossed and continue to cross the bridges of gender self-determination and fierce courage patience and resilience laid by my friend, comrade, and elder Miss Major, and other women of color resisting transgender oppression leading up to Stonewall and for those still alive like Major, in the decades since.

CC: Could you talk about Miss Major? Who is she? Why is she important to you? Perhaps quote from your poem.

VH: Miss Major is “mom” to courage tribes of transgender women here in San Francisco and Oakland, and actually around the country. We met through the love and labor of building relationships, campaigns, and lines of accountability across prison walls and across experiences of trans/gender oppression in the mid 2000s in California while the legislature was trying to push through a host of prison expansion packages, including by co-opting liberal feminist rhetoric to justify “gender responsive” prisons that would only further consolidate the state’s trans/gender oppression and control and reach over communities of color and poor communities. Knowing Major through these efforts and beyond as friends through battle has provided me a place of refuge, simply by knowing her presence today and survival through decades of transmisogyny and historical amnesia and denial. In refuge I can breathe knowing the blood and sweat and tears, from Stonewall and Attica till now are holding me up, and safeguarding all of our freedom to simply be and breathe in peace one day.

Major and I have traveled some together to bridge our work here in the Bay Area with that of our comrades across the country. “Driving with the top down sun/ out & wind blowing all over the place/ xoxo, mm” (which you refer to, and graciously offered feedback to before publication) I channeled from the stories in the air, in our bones while driving together one day in a convertible in Texas. The poem is meant to be a portrait honoring her resilience, courage strength, and fierce patience over the years:

 

[…]

 

Attica is all of us

 

 

& I know

  someone waits

for me/ ‘Til he holds me I wait

 

impatiently/Where the boys are black flowers stemming without

light or water black that whispers I can’t tell you

what the yard was like I cried it was so close everyone together castle

a flowers thick & bitter/ where the boys are/ We shall overcome

these birds a prey firesky deaths

& stripped naked / Where the boys are/   We are not afraid

 

We are not alone some day/   column a flowers shake shadowmemory

out a hostage echoes knuckled under ‘til spirit crawl & beat down

on trouble & trouble plea guilty

 

/ some day                accordion dreams

promise

 

 

someone waits for me

 

[…]

 

¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo? Out of necessity and choice, a bridge that my current project—the poetry manuscript you’ve been supporting me in moving towards completion this year, which this poem excerpt is a part of—has been forging over the last eight years is between the outward physical labor of our lives as political beings who take responsibility to care for each other, and what largely has become the internal work tending to collectively untended grief, trauma, hurt, loss, so many layers of wounding we experience from the worldly conditions we’ve inherited, where our relationships and ways of being so often are rooted in exploitation and delusion. Arab poets Suheir Hammad and Elmaz Abinader both have been guiding lights along the way, encouraging me in word and by example to write to my edges, into the flesh, into the heart.

CC: What do you mean by writing “to my edges”—I love that image? But what do you mean? What do we have to do to write to our “edges”? (I don’t know if I have the courage to do it.). How do you address the grief, trauma, hurt, loss, wounding in/with your poetry?

VH: I remember Suheir inviting us to “write to the edge of our water” or something to that effect. How far can we reach to share of ourselves? How much is too much at each moment? Since that invitation I’ve learned that the edges can ebb and flow, and what I can tolerate within myself, and tolerate expressing to invite collective healing, too can ebb and flow. Though I must say I think the practice of poetry is a practice that stretches my feeling muscles, the core of my permeability. I’m deeply sensitive—to external suffering caused by these wars of delusion, to the connected internal suffering we create within, and more recently to the growing toxins all around us. To borrow a phrase a friend and NYC–based artist Samara Gaev has penned in her work, I feel like a “sensate witness.” Are all of us poets so sensitive? It seems like poetry has become a way for me to steward my senses.

And I fancy we all have the courage within to do it. Sometimes we’re not ready; perhaps the conditions don’t want to allow it; perhaps we don’t have the support we need—but I think it’s always there.

CC: Perhaps some of us don’t have the courage for some work. I know I don’t have the courage for prison work.

VH: Yes, perhaps sense of courage has shifted and will continue to shift over time as external conditions and my physical and emotional body changes and evolves.

This body of poetry, the fabric of the poembody you’ve witnessed and been in dialogue with, and my practice around it—channeling and offering poetry in call and response with dear ones and the work that’s dear to us—wants to bridge the work of transformation we so need and want across these inner and outer worlds. They have been teaching and encouraging me to live into the places where stillness needs/meets movement, quiet meets sound, humility meets power [Beautiful]. They labor to honor the relationship and deep connection between cultural work and direct organizing; and dances the tensions between the wisdom of our bodies and heart, and the sometimes-brilliance-sometimes-delusion of our brains and ego. They’ve carried my strength, resilience, and healing across some of the sweetest joys as well as bitter disappointment building and burning all sorts of bridges in service towards life-affirming worlds where all of us are deeply cared for, and no one is thrown away or deemed unworthy of love and support.

CC: I consciously burned one bridge or relationship in 1993, which I don’t care to dwell upon here. And I have no regrets about its burning. (There may be others who believe I have burned bridges, but I don’t know who they are.) However, above you speak about the cleansing, re-vitalizing burning. The hope that comes from the so-called burnt offering. I think this may be a certain type of burning that takes us beyond the human. Where does sex, e.g., fucking, fit in here?

VH: What fucking? Talk about writing to my edges, Cheryl . . . I’m not going to lie. I often blush when my friends get up on stage and perform about the wildness and brilliance of our uncontrollably hot queer and trans sex. There’ve been times I’ve amply written poems about sex directly to partners, or lovers, as you say, mostly inspired by the creative life force in my erotic connection with them. Living into this first poetry collection has commanded my focus on listening for and channeling the music that not all of us hear around us or that I haven’t always heard within myself through the unrelenting and untended to grief and trauma we hold through the generations and through genocides of all sorts. A specific project, and a project that has been patient for years and is now calling me to birth it already. So I haven’t been writing many poems about sex. Or any writings about fucking. Besides text messages. Not that that isn’t a connection; there is. Audre’s “Uses of the Erotic: the erotic as power” comes to mind: “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.”

What about for you, then and now?

CC: I suppose, Vanessa, I am not just talking about writing about sex or the erotic, but deploying it within ourselves and our writing. (And, as one woman said to me years ago, ‘I’m not talking just about masturbating while writing’—though as far as I’m concerned that’s good too. And “text messages” sounds good as long as you don’t plan to run for office. Yes, yes, yes Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” always a beautiful fall-back to any discussion of queer sex/sexuality, because Lorde tells us to have the courage to harness erotic energy for our work. I use it every year when I teach my graduate course at Rutgers.

Sex for me then, when I was in my thirties was disappointing, exciting, and important. Crucial, in fact, to my creative work. It is still crucial. But in a different way. I find I live for it in the imaginary (which isn’t always productive) but it’s easier. But I feel I must address sex, desire for sex, sexual longing and wanting and missing it whether or not I am experiencing the fucking, because it is good for my poetry and my life. And fantasies are so good when they’re good. Always were when you learned how to use them.

Here’s a newish poem, the latest in a long series of poems entitled, “Living as a Lesbian. I have them from “Living as a Lesbian at 35” to “living as a lesbian at 60,” which is the following:

 

still pass after dark as butch

the only ever safety in times of war.

one turquoise pierced ear

 

memory of that sharp initiation

into femaleness before the malli-

fication and the wildfire among men

(sporting both ears in bling and hoops of bullion)

 

the 14K hoop   thought to be a custom

of savages by white girls’ mothers whose daughters

wanted the stud and the wire instead of the clip-on

tried to make the holes into a stigma  

some colored daughters

too.

 

i got the attention.

 

*

VH: This project you’ve been accompanying me in completing is a bridge of sorts that asks how we can really create the ways of being in this world together that we crave and love and labor for. I’ve spent time lobbying Republican staff in Sacramento through policy work speak to help expand ways for our imprisoned loved ones who are terminally ill and medically incapacitated to return home, and in many ways am still recovering from their responses. I think these poems are reaching to understand how this world has come to be this way, where it can be so excruciatingly difficult to connect on the heart level, human to human. It asks us: how do we reach the human in police uniform, the human under gavel’s learned command? I’m still forging this bridge alongside my peers and readers, so we’ll continue to see what may come.

CC: This is the question I am still asking: is there something beyond the human? Something beyond the ‘human’ in the police uniform. And, I know, you all in the Bay Area (Occupy Oakland) have had to deal with the human in the police uniform in a way we have not had to deal with them here on the East Coast at Occupy Wall Street. After seeing the way in which the human in the police uniform have to deal with gun violence in my town—Jersey City—I begin to understand their human-ness, their vulnerability, but also the vulnerability of those they (cops) shoot or shoot back at who shoot at them. And then, I think about the maleness of this mess, the masculinism of it all. So, what do you say to this?

VH: Well I think the prison industrial complex as we know it, we know to have borrowed heavily from the military industrial complex, a culture steeped in patriarchy and rape culture. One place we’ve begun to acknowledge as a prisoner rights and anti-prison movement in terms of where we’ve seen ourselves get tripped up in pushing back against the prison industrial complex and making plain its growing reach on people of all genders (not just “men”) from communities of color and poor communities is pointing fingers at “men” or “masculinity” as the root of our culture’s delusion with prisons and the violence they enact. As we’ve seen and grappled with in the growing circle of voices in solidarity with people in women’s prisons and transgender women most often held in men’s prisons, “women” officers—as with officers of any gender or sex—are tasked to do the same job as any other officer when it comes to the big picture, that is, guarding a population of people the state has decided to take away from us and assert its control over to help maintain our social order. I experienced this all too plainly when a friend and I recently attempted to observe a large and growing group of cops detaining a few young Latin@ youth in the Oakland redwoods. Initially, the female officers’ tone was friendly with us, but upon reminder from their higher ups, they quickly assumed an abrasive, threatening demeanor with us.

I’m not denying the violent intensity and legacy of patriarchy and normalization of rape culture in our cultures over decades, or the somatic imprint it leaves us with individually or collectively and that we feel so viscerally when faced with bodies and/or ranges of gender conformity that have systematically been granted privilege and power within these norms. Nor am I denying that there can be and most likely are cops who live into this role with the intention to do more good than harm within their own practice amidst this large and growing system. And, at the end of the day, we all face the question of what is wise livelihood for us, and how do we make choices and interact with institutions and their impacts in a way that is least harmful?

CC: I wish that were the only question we faced at the end of the day. I feel I am connected cross-generationally—with my past and present students at Rutgers, with younger activists who have read my work and respect it (and me), with younger scholars and writers with whom I am involved in various projects, with friends and colleagues my own age who, like me, are still working on relevant issues and projects. For example, I am working with Julie R. Enzer (not my age), a poet, scholar, and archivist, who is writing on feminist publishing, to bring Conditions Magazine back into the realm of the living by getting extant issues out to libraries and archives and people who knew it. As I said, twenty years have passed since the Collective closed the magazine in 1990. I kept the remaining issues in storage since 1994. And Julie wrote me last summer and gave me a reason to get it out and put the work women did in Conditions, from 1977 until 1990, back on the lesbian feminist/queer/LGBT radar and historical agenda. This is the importance of cross-generational contacts—on the street, in the academy, and in political organizations. This is also the importance of commitment, which I think I have, to certain ideals that have to do with bridges. As a black person, I learned many years ago how easily oppressed communities become forgotten in history. So, I think as a lesbian I have learned to guard against my own amnesia and others. But I cannot do it by myself. I crave community.

Younger queer people and my younger colleagues at work continue to push me to do more, that is, to write, to speak, to blog, to tweet, to Facebook, to even answer my email. (Believe me, I want to do these things.) I continue to remind people of the work lesbians have done over the past forty years and continue to do around diversity, social justice, developing sustainable systems of knowledge like the work of Arisa White, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Lisa Moore. And, I am certain, many, many others are doing.

As one example, working with you, Vanessa, over the past year has been a deep experience and continues to be as we exchange these ideas. You remind me of how difficult prison activism still is, which I haven’t been involved in since 1976, when I worked on the political defense committee for Assata Shakur from c.1973 to c.1978. And I see how crucial and unbelievably difficult the work still is. Prisons have only proliferated. So, your work—both your poetry and the political work— have brought me into greater contact with the intersection of culture and politics, more specifically the intersection of poetry and politics, i.e., how a poet says what is happening in the world of wars, violence against women, violence against LGBT youth, of urban and rural poor people, of impoverished students, of women in prison. I feel I go off of consciousness and must be brought back to the ground of what must be done or written or published or posted, or shouted about in the town hall space and the street.

I am 65 years old. And I say this tentatively. I am in another space of transition. So, if anyone wants my back to be a bridge, some bodies better be down there helping to hold my ass up.

VH: Cheryl, something I love about you, and something I—and I think we—so need is this directness and wit, especially in a world brimming more and more with delusion-run-amuck at the hands of people and institutions controlling and containing our communities and aliveness through the force of direct, state-sanctioned violence (surveillance, policing, imprisonment, from COINTELPRO to today’s grand juries and more) and the more evasive violences they create to infuse our intimate, spiritual spheres (the media’s persistent enemy production of black and brown and increasingly Arab and Muslim bodies, capitalism’s ongoing creation of standards of “beauty” that reify the use of toxic fragrances and exacerbate the deep environmental imbalance that is showing up more and more in our individual and collective bodies and wellness).

Your directness and insistence on claiming space for laughter amidst it all have been keeping me alive in so many ways through this past year phoning each other. Yes, we better be there helping hold your ass up. While I no longer can do heavy lifting through my own transitions, I can make the invitations, make my calls. I want us to be there for you, as dear ones have shown up for me through the changes life inevitably offers up. We need this for you and for all of our friends and elders who have come before, who have shared your stories navigating those liminal places that hold our lives and legacy together, whose blood and tears are holding our backs. If you’d like to share here, I’d love to know more about “that space between the changes, that site of ambiguity, that liminal place” as you’re experiencing them now, de aqui. How can we best show up to hold you up?

CC: Deer [as our sister Chrystos would say] Vanessa:

I am exploring that liminal (my Word program keeps changing that word to “luminal,” which is a good word too) space. I have been thinking about and using this concept ever since I read an article called “Anyone” by Jason King in Callaloo’s special issue on “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Literature and Culture,” in 2000. It was a beautiful article on the late Luther Vandross’ ability to render himself “queer” through his expression of “affect” in his style of singing and his refusal to say what his sexuality was. Thus, rendering him a kind of ambiguous and liminal figure. So, the writer lovingly calls our attachment, as consumers and producers of Luther’s performance, that “in-between space of kinship.” (Of course, King’s argument is much more complicated, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read it. And Luther is dead. Poor Luther, all he wanted to do was to sing and be a pretty boy. Well, he definitely could sing.) I later used that notion in an article I wrote on black gay writing and its rejection of black macho. Of course, it is too late for me to not claim my sexuality, especially since I have been claiming lesbianism, lesbians, and the imperative of the pussy since 1973.  But, as a middle child in my family of five (including me), an “unknown,” I like to play with that idea of the liminal, the ambiguous one. So, now when people say “sir” to me, I don’t correct them. I accept my liminal/ambiguous manhood, which I sometimes call butch, dyke, bulldagger, stud, which I no longer refuse either.

VH: I share your desire and commitment to guard against amnesia and your need for community. This, perhaps why I chose you as a mentor

CC: [Thank you.]

when invited by Arisa (White) and Cole (Krawitz) to cultivate a new artistic relationship sustaining our lives and work, this layered with my need for intergenerational relationship. This spring we lost Adrienne Rich in the same breath that we lost Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, and so many women of color to transphobic violence. Through these breaths of transition I became aware in a more conscious way of the deep influence Adrienne had on the lives of so many. The communities surrounding my life and practice testified to her impact in both positive ways and hurtful ways. I learned through the world of social media and my landlord/neighbor that Adrienne’s work has deeply made possible the journeys of specific white lesbians and queers of all colors (mostly female-assigned, many of prior generations, some of my own) who’ve shown up for me along the way and made it possible for me to go on. I also learned online that Adrienne was acknowledged by Janice Raymond (of The Transsexual Empire, which I haven’t read but have heard to be an infamously anti-transgender treatise) to have “read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” I’m learning to hold and grow in this life with all its and our complexities.

CC: Yes, I am certain Rich mentored her. In fact, Rich suggested that she be invited to lecture at Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers, back in 1977 or ‘78. Raymond was indeed invited, and it was just after The Transsexual Empire was published. Rich was teaching at Douglass at the time. And Rich, herself, had not been out as a lesbian all that long—under ten years. But she was trying to build a “feminist empire,” as it were, along with the rest of us. Rich was there that evening, and so was I. I am not defending Rich, but I think she was really taken with Raymond’s argument against male to female trans people, which Raymond mainly talks about—not that I am defending either Raymond or Rich. (I never read the book [at the time] just an article from the book that was published in a feminist journal no longer in print.) Raymond really impressed me with the way in which she could dismiss the humanity/personhood of the people who opted for sex reassignment surgery. (Did we call it that then?) I was in social work school then and asked Raymond, “I am a budding social worker. I just wonder aren’t transsexuals people?” And boy did she blow me out of the water by calling me a “liberal.” Then a transsexual woman, well known in New Jersey because she was a middle school teacher whose “sex change” had become quite public, asked a question. I think she had to sue the school district for trying to fire her during her transition. (Did we call it that then?) Raymond had talked about her in Transsexual Empire. She identified herself as transsexual and took Raymond to task for her critique of transsexual people. Raymond said, “Yes. I recognize you.” I didn’t know Rich then, but I knew her work. I went over to her that evening and said something to her about Raymond’s attitude. She said, “Oh, you’re the budding social worker.” We (Rich and I) later became friends.

VH: It’s so human in some ways to want to selectively curate and glorify our ancestors, especially warriors whose backs have become our bridges.

CC: What do you mean by “curate” here? And I don’t know if I care for “glorify.” Am I ready to be “curated” and “glorified,” Vanessa deer.

VH: We all are curators I think, as with those who came before us. What words we gather, which we leave behind? I guess I’m wondering how to honor our collective body in all its flawed, evolving magnificence, how to meet each other in the stuck places, even and especially within those of us who are so deeply fed by the flames of rage and fury and love towards transformation?

CC: Rage and fury are important as long as we don’t stay there long. Move on to anger, because anger enables transformation. I think of “Uses of Anger” by Lorde.

VH: How do we support each other in taking accountability for and shifting the ways our words and silence, actions and inactions impact each other in present day and in years to come?

CC: We just take accountability for what we say, which obviously is not ever easy—and why should it be? I guess I would say, always be ready to be called to account for what you (not you but all of us)/we say and write. For example, my article “Lesbianism: an act of resistance” is always a point of contention for younger generations. Up until around 2002, I had been asked to come to college classes to answer up to my words in that article, especially regarding bisexuality and biracial people. (I even wrote about this in my article in This Bridge We Call Home in 2001). This is as it should be. We need to be held accountable for our words, our speech. This is what I say to my students when they go around exercising their so-called “free speech,” i.e., no speech is free. Silence is another matter. Some silence is strategic or “golden,” and some is cowardly—and all of us have our moments, years, decades of cowardliness. I certainly have mine, which only my therapist knows. Of course, some silence is more purposeful and evil, like the witness to domestic violence or police brutality who won’t intervene or call for help.

VH: My private and public worlds are swimming in these questions.

CC: Keep asking them.

VH: I’ve been writing to Adrienne through a poem after her death to honor her legacy and explore her relationship and engagement with transphobic and transmysoginist work and practice. The poem asks: what kept this starved song hostage? I was blessed to have a peer, Navajo poet Nazbah Tom (whose work is featured in Turtle Island to Abya Yala: A Love Anthology of Art and Poetry by Native American and Latina Women [How can I obtain this?]), amongst other friends, read and respond to the poem in its early stages.

In response, Nazbah offered, “i think it’s important to converse with our ancestors in spite of their imperfections and the distance death puts between their memories and our experiences. […] as i read this piece over and over again, i was struck by the idea of having a conversation with a river…how it changes all the time, the course of it slowly unfolding, and how it’s never the same river even though we might put a name on it and call it by the same name.” Nazbah wrote of the ways that “the building of a dam, or denial/transphobia, work similarly […] in that people and environment “downstream” or in the area where water is collecting, suffer from the building of the dam, while very few benefit from the dam itself. damned water offers some reflection in that it […] sits there holding back a lot of water/sustenance [from] and all of us years later downstream, and […] all those who drowned in transphobia while the water collected.”

CC: This is, of course, a brilliant analogy. Rich was indeed a river. Coursing, changing, overflowing, ebbing, channeling into something much, much larger. But she could be wrong. And she could be rigid. (She was, after all, a Taurus. Like me. We have the same birthday—May 16.) But she could change. Pity she never met you or knew your work. She was never the same river.

VH: Cheryl, how has the river around you shifted along the way? How have you seen us be able to notice the building of such dams, and steward a river for us all? As Nazbah’s wisdom offers, how can we continue to not leave others, humans, fish, birds, and other animals, thirsty? How do we replenish ourselves?

CC: I think you must ask Nazbah. How do we replenish the fish, birds, coyotes, wolves, deer, bald eagles, etc.? When we answer that, we will know how to not leave “humans” behind. [Some humans need to be left behind.]

VH: You mean we need to accept our losses?

As I continue in these explorations, I find myself grasping for pieces to hold onto, weaving to mend.

CC: Don’t “grasp,” just “hold onto.”

VH: In your essay, Cheryl, “Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance,” you passed along some of Adrienne’s words from her essay “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Constantly Have to Expand:” “our foresisters, millions whose names we do not know, were tortured and burned as witches, slandered in religious and later in “scientific” tracts, portrayed in art and literature as bizarre, amoral, destructive, decadent women.” It saddens me that these words can so easily be applied to so many women, cisgender and transgender, queer and straight, then and now. As my friend and collaborator Reina reminds us, WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT OUR LIVES! (http://thespiritwas.tumblr.com/post/21834409223/dear-michael-freemen-we-cannot-live-without-our).

CC: I believe Barbara Smith originally said, “We cannot live without our lives.” Somebody needs to break that down further. But not tonight.

VH: Yes, this oft-circulated photograph documents Barbara Smith and other Combahee River Collective members protesting the murders of black women in Boston, 1979.

In conversing with Adrienne’s river, I came across this offering of hers:

“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two [or more] people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

CC: What is “truth,” anyway?

VH: It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

CC: Yes.

VH: It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

CC: Yes.

VH: It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

CC: Yes.

VH: How do you hold and grow with complexity, along the way, and now? What pieces have you held on to?

CC: I think I have held onto my belief that others are only as brave as I myself am willing to be.

VH: Lately the work of some of my peers here in the Bay Area, Indira Allegra (indiraallegra.com), m.a. brooks, and Sheena Johnson (sheenajohnsonrebelhome.blogspot.com/), have been bridges for my own breath aliveness, permission to be brave and go on through these complexities, grief, trauma of our lives and legacies. I wish I could teleport you here so you could experience each of their work in person. As we write, m.a. is riding the AIDS Life Cycle to Los Angeles in honor of her dance partner, whom she lost to AIDS. Before she left, we bid her farewell at a fundraiser gathering where she and new collaborator shared some new choreography on the theme of trust, which I’ve been leaning on since. The other weekend I had the privilege of witnessing Indira perform a blues song she wrote as part of a production here called Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance. Her performance and the song were full of historical and present day rage and humility and power, which I’m still letting sink in and hoping to have the chance to be with and breathe with again this summer.

CC: I wish I could hear it. Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite literary events, so to speak. Actually, one of the early queer historians, and not an academic, Eric Garber unveiled the queer figures of the Renaissance before a lot of people got into it. He was from the Bay Area. Died of AIDS in early 90s, I think, but maybe later. A good friend of Jewelle Gomez, who lives in San Francisco. Call her up. She’d love to meet you. Tell her not to wear her perfume, though.

VH: And Sheena is working on The Yellow House Project, the story of her “entrepreneurial great-grandmother, Ida Sue Brown, and her queer son, Billy Brown (who was murdered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1982 because of how he dressed).”

CC: I must meet them.

VH: Sheena shares in describing her project: “Shortly after his murder my great grandmother died (it is said of a broken heart). She left a beautiful large yellow house to the family where she also housed her successful beauty parlor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Our family lost the house many years ago. It was condemned and bulldozed. Today a green field is all that remains—as if the house never existed. The Yellow House Project is an attempt to re-imagine and re-build my family’s home in hopes of honoring the legacies of both my great uncle and my great-grandmother, and ultimately all the LGBTQI legacies we have inherited. How do we heal from intergenerational wounds of poverty, racism, and homophobia?”

CC: A colleague of mine, Donna Jean Murch, is from Erie, Pennsylvania. She wrote a book on the Black Panthers in Oakland, called Living For The City, a good but tragic story. I grew up with my Aunt Doris, who “did” our hair from the time we were four until we were in our teens. She owned successive beauty parlors and schools of cosmetology and only died two years ago at 90.

That is crazy-making. How whoever can come into a place and remove what was there as if it never needed to exist, as if no people were there, no persons were there, no they. Cover it over like a toxic bed. Or bury it. But as Lorde said, our dead, including land and buildings, behind us. And as “Baby Suggs” said in Beloved, “Ain’t a house in this country full of the screams of some dead negro.” And that goes for all of us who are screaming or hearing the screams. Yeah! Ghosts.

Total healing may not be possible. One always has trauma and wounding. I want the wounds, because I can live with them. It is like the sudden death of my 14-year-old nephew in 1989. This event changed all our family’s lives, especially my sister and brother-in law. I don’t want to heal totally from that trauma. I want the grief at some level to be fresh. I don’t want to stop living or thriving. But I don’t want to forget. I want my dead behind me, goading me on, holding me accountable. In some ways that is how I am able to keep going.

VH: Cheryl, I’ve been so incredibly honored to receive the gift of your accompaniment and support as I steward the completion of my poetry collection, and of your affirmation of resonance. With each companion along the way comes our dead behind us, as you say, holding us accountable. I would love to hear more at some point about your work on Assata’s defense, and transition.

CC: I loved Assata, a truly charismatic person. But charisma is not enough. I resolved at the point (1976, but I continued to visit her for two more years), when she no longer needed a political defense committee, when she escaped to Cuba, that I would not devote myself to a single political issue or person again. I am happy that prison work has gone to a different level these days—and even Mumia is no longer on death row. Other people are talking about it than the few who were doing it when I was involved 1973 to 1976. I think that a Tribunal needs to be held in this country on its human rights (we can start there, though I believe rights may be too limiting) violations of women in prison. I think we can raise money internationally to do it, like the one that was done in Japan on its history of the detainment of the so-called “comfort women” during World War II.

VH: I too am holding that sometimes continuing to write has been difficult. I wonder and invite you to ask: From here, what do you and we still need to write? What are you and we still healing from? “For those of us who live at the shoreline/ standing upon the constant edges of decision/ crucial and alone” (I too would be wandering in a fog without Audre)—what are you, and we, afraid of, de aqui?

CC: Vanessa, I don’t know that it is always fear “de aqui” that keeps us from writing. Those of us who write to reach out and communicate with audiences will continue to write, not always as well as we can or think we should, but we will write. I want to stand on that “edge,” sharp as it is. I am and am not afraid. I am crucial and not alone—and you are crucial and neither are you alone.

Love to you, CC

 

Cheryl Clarke is a poet and essayist. She is the author of four books of poetry, the critical study, After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry 1980-2005. She is at work on a new manuscript of poems, Baltimore Aureole. Clarke is a Dean of Students at Rutgers University New Brunswick, where she has worked and studied since 1969.

Vanessa Huang is a poet, cultural worker, and activist whose practice draws on teachings from the prison abolition, migrant justice, gender liberation, transformative justice, disability justice, and reproductive justice movements. Currently, Vanessa takes refuge in the breath aliveness of song through voice and cello and is stewarding the completion of a first poetry collection, quiet of chorus, which was a finalist for Poets & Writers’ 2010 California Writers Exchange Award. A Macondo and Kundiman fellow, Vanessa lives in Oakland, California, and consults with social justice organizations.

Is There Something Beyond the Human?: A Conversation With Poets Cheryl Clarke and Vanessa Huang

Living in Parenthesis

by Cris Mazza

Famous exceptions[1] aside, it seems it would be difficult to dispute the existence of age-discrimination in literary publishing.  Yet, as with the VIDA’s The Count, members of “the majority” will always want to claim: (a) false or incomplete data, or (b) there are very good reasons the gap is in place (i.e. “I can’t help it if the majority of the quality books in the fields I read are by men.”).   For some reason, though – perhaps because it’s far more difficult to “prove” with numbers – more are willing to acknowledge that “in literature, we now seem to value youth above all else. First novels by 20-somethings are treasured commodities, as if the young regularly have something interesting to say.”[2]

When VIDA’s first Count came out in spring 2011, I thought then of writing a brief essay for VIDA offering the possibility that my androgynous name  probably helped me become an early exception to the (never-compiled) statistics for the 1980-90’s, when my first novel, How to Leave a Country was awarded the PEN Nelson Algren Award from judges who admitted to not knowing my gender. Before that my first 2 books of stories were widely reviewed, although not in most of the places from which VIDA gathered numbers.  So I’m aware of how exceptions work, and how they don’t disprove the primary hypothesis.

Similarly I could also begin these thoughts on age-discrimination by offering myself as an exception, again with the PEN Nelson Algren award novel, about which the judges said, “… would seem to be the work of a young person but only because of its freshness. Its clarity and simplicity, however, suggest an older writer’s attention and experience.”  To Grace Paley and Studs Terkel, I was of both unknown gender and age.  But the judges of this award also proved themselves to not be concerned with a book’s marketing viability, and the novel went 8 more years without finding a publisher after landing this award.

The prize, the 8 years, and that it was my first novel were enough of a platform for its eventual (and audacious) independent publisher (Coffee House) to launch a promotional campaign that resulted in a greater-than-average number of reviews, mostly in big city daily newspapers, plus the “big three” review publications: Kirkus, NYTBR, and Publisher’s Weekly. This anecdote serves to prove many things, among them (a) that books are reviewed as much because of the story of their (and their authors’) journeys into print as for what is between their covers; as well as (b) how much the book-reviewing industry has changed in 25 years.  Recently VIDA has proven how much it has not changed.

While it appears age-discrimination, especially against women, cannot be rooted out of the societal crevices into which it has settled, seemingly with permanence, the publishing industry’s age biases seem to be mostly with 3rd , 4th (etc) books, especially by “older” writers, and not necessarily only the commercial publishers; and not necessarily only in whether or not a book gets published, but in whether or not the literary world’s media machine, blogs and social networking, and general readership are willing to pay any attention.  Still true: it is not the quality of writing, not the art of forming language into an entity, often not even a writer’s rare take on a topic that makes a book “worthy,” but whether or not a reader’s friends are talking about it.  Buzz.  Once it’s there, it snowballs.  And it seems lack of age – or lack of experience – can more easily start the first hum.

I now tell my students they only have one first novel; don’t waste it.

Years ago, a talented student (while still a student) published two books with an independent press, one of them a novel.  For personal reasons, she used a pseudonym.  A dozen years later, she placed a book with an agent who placed it with a medium-sized commercial press.  On advice of both agent and editor, the book’s promotional copy begins with; “A sparkling debut …” and her bio includes “… now working on a second novel.”  Despite her attempts to justify her newly created first-novelist persona as “I’m not the same person anymore,” (and “I’m willing to write under my own name now”), it is still an obvious marketing/promotional ploy to claim the new book is her “debut” – to essentially pretend that she has not written a novel before this, so that she could take advantage of “first book” marketability.  The first novel was not entirely published into a vacuum, and there were countable readers who knew who she was.  It’s not nearly what white middle-class Margaret Seltzer did when she published a memoir as Margaret B. Jones, adopting the persona of a biracial woman from a gang-infested urban neighborhood.  But isn’t my former student adopting the guise of a debut novelist for the sake of gaining the kind of attention seen as a first-novel’s “right”?

I admit to have been shaken down to my born-into-a-whole-new-world toes, not only by her attempts to justify the new version of herself as a writer with no previous experience writing and publishing a novel, but by the agent’s and publisher’s apparent complicity in changing the facts to suit marketing … and changing those facts to facilitate a “younger” writer-persona.

And then there was this: another former student, this one still unpublished, reported this conversation with an agent:

Him: Do you have a blog?
Me: No.
Him: Any kind of website?
Me: No.
Him: Facebook presence?
Me: So what I’m hearing from you is, it’s important to build an online presence prior to having a book published.
Him: I’m glad that’s what you’re hearing, because that’s exactly what I’msaying


She summed up: “What I find objectionable about that style of self-promotion is that it’s like you have to build a character out of yourself. You can’t blog something like, ‘Didn’t sleep well last night. Wrote a little. Will go buy a new broom now,’ because then your would-be readers think that you’d be dull at parties. You have to be fun! And quirky! Because that’s the only way to get the following before the book, right?”

How is “gaining a following before the book” related to age-discrimination? Maybe only in my own already-anxious head.  It certainly should apply only to first-book authors, but I’m sensing otherwise.  I’m sensing that writers like me – writers who used to be able to rely on some reputation built on a body of work, and who used to be able to rely on what was contained on the pages themselves without the personality of the (possibly reclusive or at least introverted) author playing much of a role – might also be expected, now, to have a persona, a quirky or exotic or controversial one, to use phrases like “kickass” or “sexy” or “in-your-face” or “rocking” or “wicked awesome” to describe things that are, actually, books or interviews or articles or reviews, because then you’ll be more apt to be viewed as kickass or sexy, because aren’t those qualities necessary to prove your book is worth being read (or to prove you are wicked awesome enough to use those words in that way, which, already, by the time you start using them, have been settled into the lexicon of the perpetually hip for at least 10 years )?  And look how female author photos are trending away from the clichéd somber/pensive and assuming glamorous model poses in alluring wardrobe (have agents and editors actually started to ask for “more cleavage?”), so as to deserve the adjective “crazy hot” to describe the book.

“So,” my former student concluded, “I find myself wasting time trying to make a blog entry about the bland interaction I had with a cashier at Target even remotely interesting, because I am the spunky protagonist of my own life and I have a blast wherever I go.”

This reminds me of high school, when the enduring hope some of us had to hang onto was that someday our life’s “real” accomplishments would demonstrate how shallow and flimsy being cool and popular really was.  But here we go again:

… in high school, whether we knew it or not, whether we were aware of it or not, … there was an underlying understanding that boys wouldn’t like girls who were pensive and smart or who looked serious and intellectual, or worse yet, somber, gloomy, reclusive, or a snob (i.e. shy). … Is this like that? The bubbly, effervescent [or cool, sexy] girls [and women who act like them] will succeed as writers too? (from “The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me” by Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman.)

So, am I talking about age discrimation, or about those who get left behind by the social-media revolution?  How many of the independent publishers who carry my most recent books have any authors besides me who are both (a) female & (b) my age or older?  Is it legal to ask the question?  Is it ethical to ask, or viewed as embittered chip-on-the-shoulder cynicism?  Why does the word embittered seem to invoke the image of a hag (i.e. older woman) while the less prejorative synonym cynical conjurs an older/experienced man?  Why is there no male parallel for hagGeezer?

What bridge have I crossed to get here?

I’ll conclude with the promised more complete citation for the quote in my opening paragraph: Remember when we used to wryly complain about being called “women writers” — or worse: that we wrote “women’s fiction” — as though regular no-need-for-definition authors were men, and no-need-to-categorize fiction was “male” ? Now, when we’re included, even in this way, it’s in parenthesis as it by Pauls Toutonghi’s “In Praise of Older Men (and Women) Writers.

Why couldn’t his title be “In Praise of Older Writers?”  Was that so complicated?


[1] Toni Morrison was 56 when she published Beloved.
Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she published The Secret Life of Bees.
Annie Proulx was 57 when she published The Shipping News.
Jaimy Gordon was over 60 when she won the American Book Award for Lord of Misrule.

[2] (Pauls Toutonghi in Publisher’s Weekly. A more complete citation will come later.)

Living in Parenthesis

Lady in the House: Five Questions with Ren Powell

What has been your ultimate journey?

Would mapping a journey would mean assembling, in hindsight, some kind of a linear pattern from something so wonderfully chaotic? Would it involve trimming the truth of my life into what creative writing workshop groups call a “tight narrative”? I’m not sure I want to do that.

Maybe it is my fear of straightjackets and confined spaces, or maybe it is my total lack of orientation skills, but it seems I have achieved very little of what I have set out to do. And my achievements have been incidental discoveries. I don’t say this to discount the work I have done. I’ve earned what I’ve achieved. I work hard – at every turn.

I like the idea that in another twenty years, I might look back on myself with compassion and see – no matter how far I’d thought I’d come, no matter where I thought I was heading – I didn’t have a clue what I was really doing. In another forty years, I’d like to be able to map out a life that is like a tight, thick fabric: a tapestry of retraced steps in intense and varied colors. Something well-defined as a whole. Maybe something beautiful. Maybe something banal, and useful, like a kindergartner’s handmade potholder.

What I think I have learned thus far: to find a balance between steering and flowing; to accept that all destinations are the mirages along the stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles; and that shame is a waste of energy.

Where do you start? Where do you end?

I start with a recognition, and a need: “This. This moment, Here, is what it is to be human. Right?”

I start with a need for recognition: “You see this in me, right? You see what I see? We can meet, Here, and agree that this moment is True.

I start in the moment my childhood’s faith dies, and I am no longer here because God loves me. Or because You love me.

Experience demands meaning. My experience demands justification, belonging.

Each Truth is indivisible on the periphery of our comprehension. We can only gesture towards it with works of art. These objects of closed systems that express Truth through their medium only once they have  broken free of their medium. So it starts, for me, with contradiction: to create and to destroy simultaneously; to point right and gesture left; to beg the reader to believe the constructed singularity of A in order to experience the commonplace truth of B. And then I pray that the commonplace truth is a common value.

So, it ends as an act of faith. Or hubris.

Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

I think that “Pity the Platypus” would be a great title for a collection of poems. When British scientists were introduced to the platypus, a venomous, egg-laying mammal, of course they wanted it to be a hoax. More than two hundred years later the platypus is still an animal that blows the minds of England’s second graders because scientists and educators cling to their neat systems.

I believe that systems of classification are practical tools, but when reality is confounded or forced to masquerade as a fiction in order to serve the system, we get creatures labeled anomalies. At best. At worst, we pave the way for evil.

Anthologies, themed journals, mission-driven publishing houses: it can be difficult for a writer to avoid classification and still reach an audience. And I think there is a point where not wanting to be known as a “certain kind” of writer for political reasons sounds disingenuous. We really want to be the best of the best, not the best of the subspecies. Let’s just own up to that, shall we? On the other hand, classification can be deadly. It can be a way for people to denigrate whole peoples, sexes, experiences. It can be a way to re-contextualize a coldly scientific word like subspecies into something reprehensible.

I have, in turns, called myself a bipolar poet, a survivor poet, a white trash poet, a political poet, a nature poet, an essayist, a playwright, a play-text author. I have signed my name as R.K., as Ren, as Ren Katherine. And tied myself in knots about it. Fear of labels has stopped me from writing on certain subjects. It has, at times, funneled my poems into strange shapes. Prevented me from writing honestly.

On second thought, “Be the Platypus: or, when I stopped worrying about the politics of classification.” might be better title to keep in mind while writing.

When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

I grew up in Southern California, with walls everywhere. Apartment buildings with locked doors and covered breezeways, cinder block facades with cubbyholes that held secrets of all sorts. But now I find myself in this part of Rogaland, where the shoreline is naked and the earth vomits up her secrets seasonally. Farmers have had to clear the heavy stones from the fields year after year for generations. They’ve hiked up their skirts and their sleeves, lifted with their legs, and gotten on with life out of doors. They’ve dealt with it. They’ve built beautiful stone hedges that the wind can whistle through.

I’ve decided to knock down every wall that I haven’t built myself with joy.  I knock each one down when I’m certain that I’m ready to face what’s behind it.

I’m building a long hedge with the rubble, just to hear the music it makes.

Lady in the House: Five Questions with Ren Powell

The Ground of It

by Rebecca Seiferle

The ground, the tiles set into the plaza, are all covered with yellow snow, the pollen of the mesquite trees, which hangs in tassels, then begins to fall. Too thick to be swept up, too thin to be raked, the pollen is a drift of yellow footsteps, the snake like trail of the hose dragged across to water the plants blooming in pots, each pot assigned to a particular place with light enough to grow and enough shade to keep the leaves from crisping in the desert sun, the footsteps of the dogs running their rounds to this tree or that one or along the wall barking at the strangers that they can only hear passing by but not see, our footsteps, tennis shoes, sandals, flip flops, all leaving their marks in the drift, changing as a gust of warm wind blows the pollen into some other configuration. The steps are ours, going back and forth, walking out here to the other part of our house, the back building, where I write, in an office lined with books and swelter as the wall air-conditioning unit struggles and fades. Most of my writing life, I have been in my house but outside of it, on the margins, close to the threshold. In my house in New Mexico I wrote in the submerged solarium, below ground level, with windows slanting overhead, subject to the weather, hot or cold, as I was on the unheated, uncooled other side of the French doors that lead into the house. When I was a teenager still writing, I wrote on a typewriter in a bedroom that I shared with my sister, and my writing, the hours spent on a novel that I would later, after a few days of critical silence, burn in the fireplace, or the poems that I wrote gave me a way to make the space mine, and in a way, to take the space over, because the sound of the clacking keys would drive my sister out into the living room. And what does that phrase mean: “living room” as a definition of space? Not that I meant consciously to take over the space we were meant to share, but it became an inevitable consequence. Living in a trailer in the New Mexico desert when I had young children, I wrote at a table in the living room, on the other side of the room away from the TV and the kitchen, and the space that I had was that table against the outer wall. In Boston, I wrote in a room at the very front of our second story apartment, against the wall, looking out into the leaves of the street and into the street. So always outside the house, or at the farther margins of the house, against the wall that faces that street, in the room attached but outside of the house proper, in this office, which is on the other side of the plaza and the yard with its yellow drift.

Theft? What is the nature of it? An accidental encounter with a text, a name, on the Internet has just reminded me how more than once a friend, a fellow poet, has carried out the theft of my words. The words of one of my letters lifted wholesale into someone else’s poem, the passage that I had shared out of friendship, now caught in a poem bordered to look like a quilt (though it’s not by accident, I just typed “bordered to look like a guilt” and then corrected), given a title of girl’s names, and there (is that what bothered me the most?) the names of my children? For this theft bothered me more than another theft where again a passage in a letter to a friend became the substance of that friend’s poem, I didn’t mind so much that time, perhaps because it had just to do with me, not the names of my children, and that passage had in a sense been written for that friend, as if seeing through his eyes, so it had been ‘given’ to him in some sense in the mode of its inspiration. Well, who will ever know this? Does the thief know it? Or does one simply appropriate in the same way that one can be oblivious to privilege? A sort of assumption that whatever space is within one’s grasp belongs to one, is ours? So we pick up the drift of words, phrases, letters, and they become part of the ornamentation of our own poetic house. And is that house, like all others, partly defined as “private property?”

“A room of one’s own,” is Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase, though just as important is that so many pounds per month she included, the surety of a fixed income, in creating the independence to create. Women who are often ‘the lady of the house,’ where the house is defined as belonging to others, have had to struggle in order to create those separate spaces, wherever they are, in order to have the freedom to create. “The only museum solely dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements in the visual, performing, and literary arts,” is the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened in 1987 in Washington, D.C. In three and a half decades, not another museum with the same mission has been built. Why? Is it the idea that one museum dedicated to women’s achievements is enough, or, perhaps even, that one is more than enough? How much has changed since the Women’s Pavilion was opened in 1876 at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, and a controversy erupted over whether the Pavilion was an inclusion of women, showcasing their expanding opportunities in society, or an exclusion, giving them a separate space where everything to do with women could be circumscribed in one area?

Recently I taught a class Women, Art, and Society, based upon the book of the same name by Whitney Chadwick. Women, Art, and Society is described in the publisher’s note:

This acclaimed study challenges the assumption that great women artists are exceptions to the rule who transcended their sex to produce major works of art. While acknowledging the many women whose contributions to visual culture since the Middle Ages have often been neglected, Whitney Chadwick’s survey reexamines the works themselves and the ways in which they have been perceived as marginal, often in direct reference to gender. In her discussion of feminism and its influence on such a reappraisal, the author also addresses the closely related issues of ethnicity, class, and sexuality.

And, yet, more than once, it seemed to me incredibly ironic that Chadwick’s book which documents carefully how important women artists were to various eras became the basis for a course which looked at the role of women, as artists, as subject matter, in terms of social, class, ethnic structures, as if in isolation. Rather than incorporating the work of Leyster or Kauffman or Charpentier into the respective art courses where their work would fit by time frame and style, women artists are often still left out of the conventional courses, and given one course that is meant to cover everything to do with women in art and redress their having been forgotten. They are still kept in a room of their own, even if that room is one made of time, like “Women’s History Month, ” as when the Guerilla Girls in performance said “oh, we have an invitation, it must be Women’s History Month!”

Where I work, we have had a good number of meetings lately, sometimes with an emphasis upon the core meaning of words. The idea being that if I can say why I teach this particular course of art history, that I can make a more vital connection with the student’s curiosity than if I only describe and give them what’s. At first, I think I resisted, for the language of meetings is often pedagogical or psychological or bureaucratic, not poetic. And yet I began to see that this search for the why, the core meaning of the words bore some relationship to my poetic and translating practice. When translating I will look up every word, even those so common words that I can assume the meaning of, just as in writing a poem, I may go back to the OED and look for the root of a word, that origin where the concrete and abstract are entwined. So in a sense the division between my work mind, my translating mind, my teaching mind, began to dissolve. I realized the space, partitions, I kept between the various aspects of my daily life were not a defense or a strengthening but in fact a weakness, that as soon as a separate space is created, the process of dismantling its separateness must begin. For what happens in those margins, is that the margins become part of the space of the house; this office with its separate enclosure for books and writings becomes a gathering place as my son comes out to chat, to ask about dinner, to tell me something from his day, or as my partner does likewise, while the dog sleeps under my desk, and the yellow pollen that was plastered all over the ground outside can as a result be found drifting across the interior concrete floors. Under my feet, on my feet, in the separate space of this office, the same yellow drift of desert trees flowering.

Pollen, the seed of it, the beginning, the origins of roots, the ground of it. In my latest collection, which I’m still putting together, language itself is envisioned as a kind of space, a field, a forest, or even as the particular space that is created in random encounters between strangers who may not speak the same tongue. As a child, what was in the house often drove me out of the house. I had three lives, one at school where I wished mostly to be invisible and learned that good grades were a way to avoid any difficulty that might make my presence obvious. Another was in my parents’ quarreling house, and the third was outside, in the forests of Vermont or Colorado, the wild berry patches of Montana, the plains of Wyoming. The third was my real life, by which I mean, the life of my imagination, where with a group of friends I would invent these elaborate games and characters that we all would embody and play out, though, just as often, I spent time alone in the woods or whatever wild place was near our house. It was another kind of house, one made out of pine branches, selected for an overhang of tree and rock, a kind of natural shelter that could be improved upon, fortified with extra branches, leaves for shade, the floor swept clear of pine needles or yellow pollen. The house of the imagination, and it was in that space that I first felt the ability to create and embody in external realities what I felt within. When I began writing, it was at the age of being on the cusp between childhood and being a teenager, when it was no longer possible to play those old games as seriously as they were meant to be played, and yet it was not possible to give up that house of the imagination either.

So language itself became that space, a place in which the interior is embodied forth, what is unique and mute becomes tongued to speak to others. Language is a house that belongs to no one, where if one clears away the property markers, the stakes defining the terms and the limits, a space is created that is both welcoming and challenging. In a sense it is like being in a forest where by not being, not claiming, not asserting, just sitting on the edge of the meadow, some rare creature may step into the clearing into full view, and that rare creature may just be oneself. So I’ll end with a poem that plays upon Deleuze’s idea of “becoming woman,” of expectations of femininity, how our culture is in many respects on one hand creating spaces which include and spaces which exclude any she who already exists.

that girl of endless becoming

shy as the hind who steps only into the flowering quiet

of the meadows, who knows her translucent body

makes her a target of desirous arrows, she does not

speak in a room full of barbed nets and wire, does not

step forth into the snaring gaze, the eyes rolling toward

the ceiling and the contempt of the back of the head, how

else do you think this happens that one so delicate

and soaring of gesture, whose body itself is a living word

becomes unknown, numb, incognito, is never heard from,

whatever you say about the silence of or the silence in,

it’s the sound of beauty fleeing from you, withdrawing

at the sound of the hooks, the knives, the beaters

driving her out into a clearing, a shadow beneath

the moon smoking with fires, no space within

ear, heart, meadow, or world for what

she is, an ephemeral gesture of possibility,

where she already exists

and yet you will say she never arrives

The Ground of It

Reading the Future: On Teaching The Handmaid’s Tale While Undergoing IVF

by Nicola Waldron

A woman’s entire life story is designed with the express aim of making a success of pregnancy and birth…The ability to produce children has been woven deeply into the fabric of what it means to be a woman.

David Bainbridge, Making Babies

 In the year 2000—the ‘future’ the world had been anticipating, or else dreading, ever since I could remember—I took up an English teaching post at a Dominican high school in Northern California. It was an all-girls establishment and, in that sense only, similar to the middle school in which I’d been educated over in England twenty years earlier. I’d been a skinny precocious teen in a navy polyester uniform and dental headgear designed to space out my over-crammed teeth. Two steel wires emerged from the corners of my mouth, attached at the rear to a thick band of elastic. My orthodontist claimed the twentieth century jaw had failed to adapt, a fact I found fascinating and slightly disturbing. I wore the barbaric contraption to class, there being no boys.

I was introduced to the opposite sex in high school, a change in circumstance to which I adapted with alacrity. Freed, like my teeth, with sudden violence from the restraints of my previous environment, I over-compensated. I slept around. Then, as a rising sophomore in college, I met an American boy on a beach in Maine—Jim. I slowed down. Ten years later—another tale—we married and I emigrated. We’d been moving around ever since.

When Jim enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of California, I found myself, after five years of displacement, in a kind of Eden, able at last to settle.

The school that employed me was a small, progressive coop, if you will, whose campus sat on five hundred acres of wild terrain. From the wall of windows on the far side of my classroom, I was blessed with a view of golden hills and pink-blossoming gingko trees. Fair weather clouds floated outside in a brilliant sky decorated with turkey vultures. Deer came down to munch at the roses and vegetables of the community garden: the Garden of Hope, as it was called, at whose gates stood a small stone likeness of St. Francis, holding out his hands in welcome.

My new principal gave me free reign. “All right!” I said and busied myself with seeking out works of literature that would appeal to my young charges, while challenging them as women of the new millennium. I would offer them an educational opportunity I had only briefly glimpsed. Slated to teach fiction, I decided to pair Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a work to which I’d been introduced around fifth grade, or the Upper Fourth as we had called it.

We would examine the concepts of utopia and dystopia as they were imagined in the previous century. We would look, in particular, at Atwood’s presentation of a world gone awry due to ecological disaster, political imbalance, and gender-related oppression. The girls would love it! Those young West Coast post-feminists would be treated to a revelation, for though they understood the environmental degradation of the planet they’d inherited, they’d barely ever discussed sexism. For them, brought up in the giant liberal enclave that was Northern California, that term was as obsolete as vinyl records, or, as it turned out, my reproductive system.

I’d been at the school almost four years when I finally admitted to my OB, and eventually to my principal, that Jim and I had been trying, in a quiet, stressed-out sort of way, to get pregnant for quite some time. I was 38. We were sent for test. One of my tubes was blocked, the other scarred; the level of my Follicle Stimulating Hormone—the one that provokes ovulation—suggested my body was struggling to do just that. Jim’s sperm weren’t swimming with the vigor they might.

We ended up at the office of a reproductive endocrinologist, who gave us what amounted to an ultimatum: “Choose IVF now,” he said—“in vitro fertilization—or risk never becoming parents.”

We signed a lot of papers; we handed over our credit card. We would try just one round of the treatment. It was all we could afford.

It wasn’t what we wanted, not what we’d been taught to expect.

When I’d read Brave New World back at that girls’ middle school, right on the brink of womanhood, I’d been immediately taken by Huxley’s clinical futuristic imaginings: titillated, especially, by the freewheeling sexuality of Lenina with her handypack of contraceptives. It may have been the first adult book I read under the covers with a flashlight.

Though I knew better than to confess to my excitement publicly inside the walls of our hundred-and-fifty-year-old classroom, I remember discussing with no such sense of taboo the horrors of Huxley’s “hatcheries” where babies were formed ex utero. The whole class agreed with our glowering, tweed-suited teacher that it was an abhorrent scenario. “Disgusting!” we said. “Unnatural!”

I plucked at my braces.

Though we’d all been born into that remarkable age of moon landings and organ transplants, we considered this kind of technological progress tantamount to evil. It was a devastating threat. We had all only recently started to menstruate. What would it mean if our bodies—if we—were suddenly deemed unnecessary?

My cohorts and I—thirty college-bound, potentially world-changing young women—were never encouraged to examine the science behind the literature, nor the idea that such a development might be of future benefit to unhappily infertile couples. The notion that there were infertile couples was never raised. These wretched figures appeared briefly in the stories I heard in Sunday school—osteoporotic crones stooped over their sorrows. Sometimes, rarely, the subject popped up in overheard maternal chatter:

“She can’t have any children, you know.”

“Oh, well, then. That explains it.”

The childless were presented as witches: we’d all read Rapunzel and Snow White. Those women would hurt us if they had the chance: they were closet kidnappers at best. The idea that men might suffer from the condition of infertility . . . but we were forbidden men. We were young ladies and they were not our concern.

By the time the spring semester of 2004 rolled around—all bright gusty, Birkenstock-wearing days—Jim and I were well on our way along the rutted causeway of Assisted Reproductive Treatment: ART. Huxley would have kicked his writing desk for missing that one. I began—strange irony—by taking contraceptive pills to wipe clean my hormonal slate in preparation for the drugs designed to stimulate my ovaries to produce an abnormal hoard. In the bathroom, I put up a calendar, at the end of which, on the proposed day of “implantation,” Easter Day as it happened, I drew a childlike, eight-petaled flower.

At the same time, I set about preparing my classes: rereading, among other things, The Handmaid’s Tale.

It started with the epigraphs: the epiphany—the shock. “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” Give me children, or else I die. I hadn’t thought about it much before. I’d always been racing ahead to the narrative: Chapter One: Night: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” Now, I ripped over the title pages and saw, with a kind of horrified delight, how pertinent Atwood’s story was to my present situation. What did I have to teach those shiningly fertile girls who greeted me each morning around the seminar table? It was me, after all, who was to get my lesson in the transformative power of literature.

Atwood’s futuristic novel was first published in 1985, the year I went off to college, the year before I met Jim. It presents the story of a world radically altered by a combination of human-induced nuclear mayhem, woefully inadequate ecological stewardship, racial inequality, and patriarchy. It’s a world in which the rights of women have been drastically devalued, and the story acts as a caution against contemporary complacency over such hard-won freedoms. Atwood fairly pummels the reader with examples of the abuse visited on women in this fictional Republic of Gilead, predicating these events, she claims, on real-life injustices. A novel for our times, indeed.

We are drawn into these disquieting scenes by way of a young woman of the handmaid class of this reordered society. It is her fate to live embedded in the home of an older, childless couple, a commander of the new republic and his hapless wife, Serena Joy. Names are important here, and the handmaid’s adoptive moniker, Offred—the one who belongs to Fred— operates handily both as a reminder of women’s continued status as chattels, and as a priceless joke on the way a name can diminish the stature of that which oppresses us.

Our young heroine struggles to stay sane within the confines of her new home, where she is held prisoner. Her partner has been murdered, their small daughter abducted, and she longs but is forbidden to go out in search of news. On ovulation, she’s required to engage in a bizarre sexual ceremony with her captor, with the alleged intent of achieving pregnancy in a place beset by infertility.

The narrative builds around a series of atrocious scenes that demonstrate the dangers of this kind of social engineering and radical conservatism. Along with the publicly endorsed rape of the handmaids, the reader is, as it were, forced to witness through the eyes of the narrator the dismemberment of accused but untried “rapists,” (in actuality, would-be political exiles). There are “disappearings,” too, and hazings worthy of Abu Grahib.

The vast majority of Offred’s female compatriots are barren or post-menopausal, destined to become “Marthas,” slaves of the domestic, unless they’re “lucky” enough to marry a man of rank. Offred’s mother, a fearless feminist and political activist, has tried to warn her daughter of the direction their country (clearly the United States) is headed. As a result, she’s been consigned to the “Colonies,” among the other rebels and “unwomen,” discounted from and literally shipped out of their society like nineteenth century ne’er-do-wells to the Antipodes.

Till now, I’d focused my teaching on these abuses of power, on issues of fanaticism and logic, control and surrender—on the subjugation of women. Atwood’s masterful characterization of a young woman who’s lost everything as a result of her country’s extremism—family, home, career, identity—and who yet triumphs in a modest way, spoke to my disquieted, and I thought, similarly fertile self.

I read the book in bed, balancing it on the belly I’d begun to pierce, twice a day, with needles attached to hormone-filled syringes, and I came to an unsettling understanding. Here I was, engaged in my own pursuit of parenthood, just weeks before the “harvesting” of any eggs my body might produce—my own bizarre “ceremony”—teaching a story about both the individual and mass effects of childlessness. Atwood’s book, I realized, was a treatise on the effects of wholesale human infertility; a deliberation, no less, on mortality. How had I missed it?

“I think that this is what God must look like,” muses Offred over her breakfast: “an egg.” My own eggs, those tiny pearl-like gametes that had lived inside my body since I was conceived, had been most terribly wasted. They had sat trapped in my ovaries, waiting for the embarkation of a ship destined never to sail, and now they were to be evacuated from my body through a tube.

The experience was an exemplar of what literary theorists call “reader response”—my own perspective dictating meaning above and beyond authorial intention, or else, in this case, I suspected, directing it exactly at the heart of that intention. After a lifetime of suppressing the desire for children—I’d watched women burn their bras on a black and white TV; seen them splash in the fountain of their newfound sexual freedoms—I suddenly realized that I wanted a family. And Atwood, that high priestess of feminism, seemed to be saying, yes, without children we lose our reference point, our direct line to love, our personal and collective identity; we risk, potentially, our humanity. How do you live, she seemed to ask, when you have lost—or never had—the one thing that connects you to the future, to the great continuum? Her heroine, Offred, is deprived of child-future, mother-past, and partner-present in one fell swoop. Little wonder she begins to lose her grip—just as I had begun to lose mine.

As my students approached graduation and we worked our way, chapter-by-chapter, through the novel, so I neared breaking point. I cried in the shower; I cried in the car on the way to work; I cried myself to sleep. And I knew it was more than just the effect of the witchy brews I’d been injecting. The day we came to the description of Offred’s dream about her daughter—“the little girl who is now dead—” I had to grip the edge of my desk and will myself to continue. This might as well be the child I would never have, dragged from me by my body’s own merciless militia—the enemy organisms that had snuck in, years before presumably, to destroy my tubes.

In the final pages, Offred escapes from Gilead across the border, helped by a male lover. It was an outcome about which I’d previously felt optimistic, but now everything felt beset by tottering uncertainty. Maybe she was just being fed into another, different trap.

Outside the classroom, the blossoms on the gingko trees unfurled, burst open, and fluttered to the ground. Inside, Atwood seemed, as great writers must, to be speaking directly to my condition, and she forced me to reframe my whole experience—past as well as future.

As a student, I’d rented a room in the house of a couple who told me they were trying for a baby: my bedroom sat right across from theirs. The bouncy wife had seemed slightly deranged, the husband disconcertingly garrulous, his frustrated desires breaking through the big gap of his desperate smile. I did my best to avoid them both.

I thought of them now. I hoped they had been granted their wish.

I thought, too, of my early working life, first as an assistant in an art supplies store and later as a copywriter in a London basement, frittering away my days composing puns about underwear and baby carriages. I’d worked alongside older women who’d turned mean, I was told, from the grief of childlessness—an irascible manager who went home early because of “women’s troubles;” my icy-tongued city boss. When my colleagues filled me in during the women’s absence, you could almost see the flames licking around the delighted eyes of the teller; the wisps of smoke.

I looked at the victims, when they reappeared, with surreptitious pity. As if I understood anything. It was no different really than those games we played in childhood, knocking on the doors of middle-aged spinsters and then running away, hiding behind bushes to watch them squint out into the empty street. If we were lucky, they’d shake a fist, threaten to call the police.

I swore I wouldn’t become one of those women. I refused, I said, to let the ambition for a child eclipse my life, little realizing how this was now as much a part of that life as my job, my marriage, and whatever other ambitions I harbored. It didn’t take long before I began to understand just how far I’d underestimated the destructive power of sustained reproductive hankering. In the midst of numerous blood tests, doctor visits, and a whole re-evaluation of my status as a productive female—I was “of advanced maternal age;” I was “nulliparous”—I was jolted awake. I looked into a childless future I did not want and finally understood the envy and the anger, the painful conflict created by a once carefree couple’s recognition of their failing bodies.

Give me children, or else I die. In the Bible, Jacob responds to Rachel’s emotionally loaded challenge with ire and comes off as a merciless curmudgeon: how dare the little wife blame him for God’s failure to make her fertile? Certainly it’s not his bodily functions at fault (men had decided in that age of “preformation” to believe that a baby pre-existed in miniature within the mother, its failure to materialize having nothing to do with the venerable master’s sperm count). Jacob’s decision to take a lover as a solution had always seemed particularly cruel, but now I began to sympathize. There is much at stake here for everyone involved: three identities and fates, the social order, and a marriage begun in earnestand so a surrogate is arranged in the form of Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah. The desperation for legacy and the scientific and social innovations we develop as a result are nothing new.

It came to me with a chill then that I wasn’t Bilhah as much as I was Rachel; that I no longer identified with Atwood’s nubile heroine, Offred, as much as I did with her captor’s unlucky, unfruitful wife, Serena Joy (cast so perfectly in the film adaptation of the novel with former Hollywood starlet, Faye Dunaway). These older women, I saw, were as much slaves to their cultures as their younger counterparts, forced to suffer the intolerable humiliation of witnessing first-hand their displacement as sexual beings. Serena Joy is actually required to participate in the adulterous activity her society condones: to clench Offred between her dried-up knees—the same arrangement Rachel offers Jacob.

I was reminded, reading those scenes, of the chirpy redhead who generally accompanied my endocrinologist during his frequent probing appraisals of my uterus down at the OB’s office: she who clutched at her clipboard as if it were a shield against contagion.

Commander and Mrs. Joy; Jacob and Rachel; Jim and I: sad case studies perhaps, but a whole populace without children would of course spell an end to something much greater than our feeble individual hopes. As I inched ever closer to the day my eggs would be sucked from me, then plopped in a glass dish along with Jim’s sperm, I began to articulate what may be at the heart of the matter of infertility. The affected person—say, me—feels a sense of personal defeat and pain, along with a deep sense of injustice. Why can’t we do something we were born to do, something others seem to achieve with paradoxical ease—all those unplanned pregnancies and friends of ours who lamented the “accident” that had made them parents?

The right, or privilege, of procreation ought to stand as the paradigm of a democratic society, but when it comes down to it, the fertility gods can be pretty elitist. The affected person or couple cannot create family, tragedy enough, but there is despair, too, in the greater sense of purposelessness at not being able to participate in nature’s great plan—the urge to propagate the species, to help out in the war against extinction.

We are forced to acknowledge, those of us who struggle or fail to conceive, that we are of that most pathetic of castes: the biologically unfit. We come from a line of forebears that has survived through adaptation, only to find that the line stops with us. We have, as it were, let down the human team, the eons of family that came before us. We look afresh at the body’s genetic imperatives and say, why not us? It is then that the simple existence of humankind—the acts of conception and giving birth—begin to look miraculous.

Jim dealt with our conundrum the only way he knew how. He got on his bike and rode off into the hills that stretched towards the Pacific, or else he drove the long round trip to Berkeley to work on his dissertation in a café whose frenetic youthful energy made it impossible to focus on grief. I barely saw him.

I couldn’t avoid the evidence that sat on my desk and in the bathroom—the phials and alcohol swabs and explanatory charts; the cautionary notes. The proof of my unhappy status burned like a beacon from the red welts on my belly: from my overheated, swollen face.

Atwood’s tale, meanwhile, reminded me I was living a story of yearning for things I, like all humankind, was powerless to keep a hold on—love and family and health wrenched from us by time and history, by a future over which we must finally admit we have no control. So I simply surrendered. And yet, in the act of putting down our savings and undertaking the IVF, I did feel I had taken charge, and though I suffered, I felt absolutely vital in a way I can only, poorly, compare with falling in love.

The experience was nothing short of a rebirth. A rereading, you might say.

I decided – with the help of a whole legion of therapists and self-help tapes—that it didn’t matter, in the end, if I got pregnant. What counted was that I, who had felt so often displaced, living outside of the historical moment and my geographical comfort zone, was for once engaged in my life a way I’d never truly experienced before. I was finally living my own story, whatever that might turn out to be.

As The Handmaid’s Tale amply demonstrates, conscience and imagination come to their greatest fecundity during periods of chaos—as an effect of the process of adaptation to fill the vacuums created by deprivation and denial. That heightened spring tide, I filled my syringes in the early dawn light, pinched together the skin of my abdomen and inner thighs, and stuck myself. Then I drove to work, to a school whose mission was to “recognize God’s presence in ourselves and in all creation.” As I walked from the parking lot up to my classroom, breathing in the smell of sage, rubbing at my injection sites—the way a pregnant woman caresses her growing bump—I was met by statues of St. Francis and St. Dominic, and finally, at the top of the hill, by an image of Mary, she who supposedly knew all about unorthodox conception. I had abandoned long ago my faith in any church, but why not, I thought, become, as she had done, a kind of handmaid?

I stopped struggling against the “brave new” route to parenthood at whose trailhead Jim and I had been so rudely deposited and began, on my frequent visits to the doctor, to present my body as a willing vessel. “Here I am!” They must have wondered what had happened when I burst into the examination room, smiling like Malvolio.

At home, I built an altar. I got down on my knees.

I began to embrace my chance to collaborate in what I saw as an experiment in miracles. I stopped joking that what we were doing was part of some futuristic gamble and allowed myself to imagine Jim and I as part of something thrilling: a tiny step in the ladder of causation that creates progress. We were making history, the kind for which humankind reaches in dark times, and we were part of a story peopled with thousands of individuals not so very different, in the end, from us. So, good. Just as Huxley’s ideas were revolutionary for their time, so here we were—a grad student and his ailing, alien wife—breaking taboos that threatened to end conversations merely, not lives or reputations. No one would kill us for trying.

I couldn’t be the revolutionary scientist I might have become if I’d been so encouraged all those years ago, but at least I could be his pioneering monster. I could be a living example of technology’s redemptive, healing power. Those skeptics who said we were messing with the natural order; playing God? Let them rail.

Jim and I found ourselves at the edge of an era not so different from the one imagined by Huxley all those years ago—one organized around, one might say at the mercy of, technology, but I felt we were setting out on our journey in good company, among scientists, literary prophets, and even, perhaps, the odd saint.

At Easter, the doctor harvested fourteen eggs from my body—a relatively small clutch. Of these, eight became successfully fertilized. Three embryos survived: all were implanted in my uterus. One, said the doctor—the one that looked in the picture he handed us like a perfectly symmetrical spring flower—looked promising.

Reading the Future: On Teaching The Handmaid’s Tale While Undergoing IVF