Writing In & Out of Disaster

by Marisa Crawford

During the past two weeks, I’ve found it hard to think about much of anything except for the hurricane, and also, briefly, the election. I live in Brooklyn, and am very lucky to have been barely affected by the storm personally. And the past two weeks have consisted of a weird mixture of excitement, boredom, frustration and sadness swirling around the whole city. Thinking about this month’s theme, Writers In Community, it felt strange to me to write about anything other than this very recent, dramatic impact to my own community—even though, and in part because, I find it really difficult to respond in art or writing to a disaster in a way that feels sincere; that feels more than self-indulgent or performative. So I wrote this piece that touches on the unsettling amalgam of emotions that I’ve felt as a New Yorker, an American, a writer, a woman, etcetera, among other things, during a period of time that has highlighted in so many varied & complex ways the importance of community.

I saw Lucy’s Facebook post with a picture of Ocean Beach in San Francisco and it said, “The beach. Not a bad place to do homework.”

The newscaster said after a disaster it’s normal to feel a sadness deep, deep, deep, deep, deep inside your heart.

Go to work. Work from home. Care about the election. Watch The Sopranos. Not respond to anybody who asks about anything other than the storm.

Things I did in the past week: Survived a hurricane. Dug out a flooded basement. Organized clothing donations by type. Went to a company-wide seasonal kick-off. Went to a birthday party. Went to a Halloween party. Danced to the Ramones. Saw a mouse in my living room. Took a car service to work. Walked home from work in a snowstorm. Ran across the street in a hurricane. Bought a pair of short brown boots. Formed a human chain. Voted for Obama. Drank champagne.

I was in yoga and she said something like imagine that you can hear the sound of the ocean in your breath. And I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. And I was thinking about the storm and the sanctity of the ocean and of the city. How when my dad finally went to a yoga class after 9/11 he started crying, and the women all hugged him. How the instructor says to imagine yourself lying on a pleasurable piece of earth. Grass or sand.

I like going to the beach because it’s the only place in New York where you can sing Janis Joplin out loud into the wind without anyone looking. Where you can dance while you’re taking pictures of the surfers, and you can write the name “Janis” in the sand.

I like listening to music because music triggers memories, just like smells and foods and fabrics and people do.

I was walking by the post office on 3rd Avenue and the sun was shining off a woman’s pea-green velour bag/ it took me somewhere.

The vegetarian/feminist restaurant/bookstore in Bridgeport was the first light in the tunnel. Community/

& I was trying to think about how on earth I could write about something like that. How Benny said, “how can you write about that?” about 9/11 the fall semester of 2001. But I kept thinking how couldn’t I? And how couldn’t I? How can you write about it? I mean how?

I liked the image of holding your father’s hand with one hand, and your heart in the other.  A girl in my creative writing class used it, and I stole it from her the next semester. I can see thinking it sounded trite or sentimental now, but then I just thought it sounded accurate.

I was in yoga and I was thinking that I should have been able to reach enlightenment. I should have been able to reach contentedness. To let go of my thoughts, one by one and not get caught on them. I should’ve been able to feel totally self-contained.

On Election Night, I took a picture of us with our arms in the air. We were performing “sheer joy” even as we were feeling it. In 2008 I took pictures of people screaming and crying and dancing in the street.

I baked a quiche on Sunday. I lit a candle on Monday. Made a playlist called “Female Pain” on my iPod on the train. I drunk-dialed Chrissy. I told the city I missed it. Watched the red, white, and blue confetti pouring down like rain.

Writing In & Out of Disaster

Breaking the Binary/Bi-lateral Ideologies of Black Womanhood: In Conversation with Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Rachel Eliza Griffiths

HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. In “Homage to My Hips,” Lucille Clifton writes of her hips: “they don’t fit into little/petty places. these hips/are free hips.” Tara Betts, in “Switch,” describes a girl’s “pelvic metronome” and being “pinned into rivets of denim/pressed into thighs rockin.” Mecca, when HER KIND first contacted you, you brought to light just how vital it is to understand the complexity of the black female body in both Western and World literature and culture. What issues in particular influence each of your work and that of women writers you’re reading? More importantly, what conversations are you having now?


Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Thank you for this question. I love how you’ve framed it, placing black women’s written bodies in a linage that joins a canonical figure like Lucille Clifton to a newer writer like Tara Betts. This is so appropriate, for me, because it really gets at what it means for a black female body to “fit,” both in the most literal, corporeal sense and in terms of larger (or more abstract) discussions of culture and social reality. Both Tara and Ms. Lucille urge us to think about the impossibility of black female bodies—the ways in which they must “fit” and the ways in which they cannot fit, by definition.

What do you do when your body is made to both define womanhood and to exempt you from that same standard? I always think about Toni Morrison’s idea of the “Africanist presence” here—the ways in which the black body is used in American culture to define and privilege whiteness through negation. Black female bodies are literally saddled with an impossible confluence of attributes—hypersexuality and brutishness and sexual pliancy and an innate talent for emasculation—in order to construct femininity as the opposite of all that—carefully controlled sexual availability, commodifiable beauty, and so on. Of course this conversation includes figures from Saartjie Baartman to Hattie McDaniel to Beyoncé to Michelle Obama to Venus and Serena Williams. Black feminist critics and scholars have had a lot to say about this state of what Evelynn Hammonds calls the “black (w)hole” of black female sexuality—this sense simultaneous of invisibility and hypervisibility that surrounds black women’s bodies.

But I’m very much interested in how this plays out in black women’s writing. How we can—and often must—re-make the page as a place where our bodies can fit. Or re-fit the page to our bodies. This happens in the works of so many phenomenal black women poets, playwrights and fiction writers, as well as those that defy genre altogether. I think about Audre Lorde’s “Biomythography,” Zami, where she constructs a genre that includes autobiography, fiction, memoir, myth, poetry and much more to make a space where her identity as a black Caribbean lesbian feminist poet can fit. And even Lorde doesn’t depart from the body as a major axis there—she talks about what it is to be “fat, black, nearly blind, and ambidextrous… in a West Indian household,” and creates the genre of the Biomythography as an alternative home for her body and all that it represents. It’s something I definitely find myself doing in my own fiction—molding voice to make spaces for my black women characters—for their hips and their stomachs and their sexualities and their desires—all the things they are not supposed to have.


Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Wow! Where should I begin? Thank you both for inviting me to be a part of this conversation. So, Mecca asked an important question to how our discussion opens: What do you do when your body is made to both define womanhood and to exempt you from the same standard? This question you posed reflects an interstitial conflict. It is interesting to think about how we, as black women writers, are often placed inside of questions and spaces by others and sometimes by each other that is polarized, reactive, and too narrow to fit the diaspora of our flesh or any Other. Anger and animalism is often expected and assumed of us, both in language and image. As I began to read your words, I could not help but think of all the longstanding and recent conversations of body politics that have angered, saddened, and sometimes, simply bewildered me. Those lessons began when I was young, whether I wanted them or not. I mean, you mentioned Michelle Obama.  That recent cover of Michelle Obama as a half-dressed slave, published in Spain, got me. I took out some paper but the pencil wouldn’t move. I was so shocked I couldn’t even write about it. Then I tried to dismiss my intuition. Intellectually, I could dismantle what I was looking at but that did nothing for my heart. How does such an image answer language? Answer the past, the now, and the future? Why does the world still need us to be this exposed, colonized, pleasure-less  nipple? Again – the extreme climate where survival and language is a matter of freedom or slavery. What do you when your language is made to both free you and to render your experience as illiterate?

And I think, for those of us who write and are trying to write into and against the pages that have written us out of history and other narratives of power and visibility as well as open those very pages to the anatomies of our own imaginations, this is a task that is often segregated from many conversations, even amongst women. And if you begin to talk too much about it, you will be exiled from the cipher (that seemed uncomfortable whenever you spoke or asked “difficult” questions in the first place).

I just finished reading Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women and in each story there is a sense of struggle between the interior and exterior language and geography that presses against each woman in a way to define, dissolve, and/or destroy her. These women’s bodies become distinct spaces for warfare and psychological internalization where the impenetrable forces of sex, class, violence, exile, and culture collide in each woman’s story.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a question I am often asked wherever I go: What are you? The curiosity, however well intentioned or pointedly racist, reluctantly grants me the option of humanity or simply removes it. In this question, my interiority is only relative in regards to who, which races and to what degree, have forged my blood. When I’m writing and I ask myself this question, seeing it behind the page as the ink opens me: What are you? It’s not the same question anymore. I can name and answer myself however I please.

Then I think of Sojourner Truth, Lucille Clifton, Marie Cardinal, Buchi Emecheta, Hélène Cixous, Nikky Finney, Susan Sontag, Natasha Trethewey, Adrienne Rich, Toi Derricotte, and so many, many more. I also suddenly think of Ai’s work and her direct gaze at the brutal ways in which women and their relationships to their identities, their work, or to men are hurled into a void. In this void and when I specifically think of (in)visibility and violence, I hear a question, the last two lines of Michael S. Harper’s stunning poem, “American History” – “Can’t find what you can’t see/can you?”

When I think of my own writing, I hear sister poet Audre Lorde’s wisdom: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.”

There is always pressure as you begin to write. At least on the page you have choices. Or do you? You are, perhaps, empowered. You perhaps reveal, question, share, or withhold your fear and your courage. If you are writing you are risking losing fear. That’s important. Or you do something else that may or may not have anything to do with truth, love, power, or intimacy. Your “other” is not a matter of distance or alienation because it’s a dream, a form unto itself, which you made in your own body. But even that. Is it all politics?


MJS: You know, I felt similarly when I saw that image of Michelle Obama on the cover of the Spanish magazine, Fuera de Serie. I felt anger to the point of speechlessness, not because I had no words, but because there were too many words to be said. I think of the title of jessica Care moore’s poetry collection, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. That sense of being so overwhelmed by the urgency of language that the result is either total silence or unstoppable speech. And, there, again, is this idea of words as metaphors for bodies, as corporeal things that cannot fit into physical spaces, or that do the work of fitting where bodies can’t.

That feeling of speechlessness always frustrates me, because there are so many of these kinds of images, so many stories of women’s bodies being willfully and violently misread on the public stage, that the words literally can’t fit. There’s not enough ink, paper, time, battery power, digital memory in the world to write all the stories I want to write about the misreading of disenfranchised bodies. So we have to live with this unspeakability, which for me, is a really biproduct of the ridiculous distillation of black womanhood into consumable archetypes, bytes of identity. Some of us get written out. The ones with pink hair. The ones without rhythm. The ones with advanced degrees and maybe even some degree of social/political power, or who choose to be sexually unavailable to the general public. None of these bodies are supposed to exist.

But I think the Audre Lorde quote you mentioned is on point here. It’s a problem of language, of our lexicon of identity. There’s such a limited view of what black women and women of color can be, what we can say and what our bodies can mean. And that’s no coincidence; it serves to keep certain power dynamics in play. We know that, and I think, for some of us, that’s why we write. Because you know that even though you and I have stopped short (so far) of writing the story or the poem or the play that gets at that image of Michelle on the magazine cover, somebody somewhere is writing the hell out of that piece. She’s pulling her pen around the lonesome curve of that breast and fluffing the yellow of the background into a string of flaming adjectives and she’s telling that story. And she may have to make her own language in which to do it, like Audre and Ama Ata Aidoo and Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison in Love—all these brilliant works where language and genre change shape to fit black female bodies and selves.

I think about this idea all of the time, and for me, yes, at the end of the day it’s always political—I think that’s what the Spanish magazine cover is reminding folks right now. Political history makes an imprint on the cultural imaginary that doesn’t just go away; it looks and sounds and surfaces differently in different contexts, but it’s always there. But what I think is often missing from the conversation, and what almost all of the writers we’re mentioning urge folks to see, is that our joy and our confusion and our love and intimacy and our aesthetics are political as well. Our right to be apolitical is political. Our art for art’s sake. Our style, both on the body and on the page.

It’s interesting how you and I experience this so differently, yet so similarly, in public spaces. I’ve never had the experience of being asked what I am, but I’m told what I am all the time. I’m the big girl with the pretty face. I’m the exceptional one, in the most literal sense. The one whose body lunges out beyond standards and confuses people, sometimes happily, sometimes not. But the assumptions are always racist, sexist, fat-phobic, sometimes homophobic, and many other things. And for me, the political act of naming those things frees me to the realm of beauty and fullness you mention. The idea is that there is a set mold of what a black woman’s body is supposed to be, to do, and to mean. And we are not that.

And for me, that’s beauty. What a great provocation to be fully oneself, to invent oneself on one’s own terms, in one’s own language.

That feeling is everywhere in everything I write. It’s why I write—I am baffled by how insistently people misunderstand each other when they brush against each other in the physical world. And I always want to brush back.


REG: Mecca, I’m going to shift gears a bit because you’ve brought some things up that I’ve been also thinking of. Speaking of beauty and the physical world and what you powerfully wrote, “What a great provocation to be fully oneself, to invent oneself on one’s own terms, in one’s own language”. I’ve been circling the visual and cultural politics of characters in recent films – Hushpuppy (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Alike (Pariah), Aibileen (The Help), Precious (Precious), Sparkle, Sister, Dolores (Sparkle), and trying to figure out what the center is and how the black body holds center or does not and who is holding the third eye of this hurricane. It holds center in a way that is often filled from everywhere but within. I’ve also been thinking about three other films that have yet to be released but which have already stirred some bonfires, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (starring Anika Noni Rose and Thandie Newton), the film that focuses upon a relationship in Nina Simone’s life (um, Zoe Saldana as, Nina), and Winnie (Jennifer Hudson), a film about the story of Winnie Mandela. There’s also a remake of Steel Magnolias forthcoming on the Lifetime channel that features an all black women’s cast. I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Kerry Washington in Scandal because I don’t have cable. I’m sure I’m likely forgetting some other recent key works so please feel free to add.

You mentioned beauty, well we both have been speaking of it, and I guess, of course, the noir-body itself. And cinematic representations of black women’s bodies have been mostly schizophrenic, in my opinion, and narrow when you compare, if you can compare, their breadth and depth to other women characters or the stereotypes that exist for other women characters, involving bodies, race, and sexuality. I’ll try to keep it focused in the literary realm by sharing an excerpt from an interview that I recently and gratefully came across on the Indiana Review’s blog. The interview takes place between Rachel Lyon and poet Vievee Francis, as she discussed her newest collection, Horse in the Dark. I felt that many of the things she shared resonate with our conversation here at Vida and with our individual focus as poet/writers.

Vievee says [about some of the questions she asks in her new collection], “I’m thinking in personal terms about the black female body politic: How we’re viewed, how we’re seen. I think we’re still often seen as superwomen, überwomen, strong and constantly there – which is a kind of servitude, I find, a kind of oppression, to be looked at as the one in the room who can handle it all. And I don’t think we can handle it all. I think a lot is put upon us. And I think that might result in some of the illnesses that so many of us have, of body and spirit. It’s almost a kind of bestial servitude. And I still think that black women are very much burdened by that kind of view of us.”

I don’t even know how to transition here except to say that it often appears that black women are the only race of women to whom an idea of “naturalness” and its opposite, “unnaturalness” has been applied, forcing and pushing beyond hair and body to include character, imagination, and morality. It’s been strategic how we now use this language to form a floating ideology, which encourages us to judge, neglect, segregate, and classify each other often without context based upon our “natural” properties. There are also economic factors that benefit from this global imagination. Why does it appear to be easier to focus on the body than to consider our interior and individual lives? Maybe this is a rhetorical sigh on my part. But it remains unanswered as such vocabularies and visual tomes help to mass-reproduce and sell the images, which are grossly unbalanced and exaggerated, as a wrongful notion of a monolith continues to be perpetrated. I don’t know, I just finished reading Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California today and it seemed to be synchronicity – an arresting voice in her character Avery, that is complex and expansive to our conversation. I felt like Johnson’s character, Avery, was speaking to Denise (a sort of predecessor character), from A.J. Verdelle’s unforgettable The Good Negress. And I’d place the fiercely powerful work of poet Khadijah Queen, from her collection, Black Peculiar, into this conversation too for its truth, its risk, and its bodies.

And then, my mind moves to it – because it’s indivisible from the “beauty” – and that is the violence. I mean the woman who died after being beaten by the police and having a female officer kick her in the genitals. I mean the little girl, there is one or more every day, who is shot and killed while playing in front of her own home. The mother who thinks nothing of tying her daughter to a chair or placing her son in a cage. The schoolgirl who hangs herself or cuts because she is seen as fat, gay, ugly, or undesirable. I mean the abductions and the industry of sex trafficking and sex slaves. I mean the girl who is impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend or the same girl who is being held captive in a closet or basement and forced to drink her own piss. The adored black singer who is found dead. The woman who throws her baby in a dumpster or her children off a pier. The “reality” celebrity who refers to her cast members as “old ass Harriet Tubman bitches”. The superstar who urges both independence, bondage, and submission and then presents a disfigured face to us. Forgive this, forget this, we are urged by both parties. For public consumption and public affirmation? Is it the face that lives at the bottom of the Atlantic between the continents? Is it the vestige of a new Pecola Breedlove? Is it simply nobody’s damn business? Or is it exactly that – a business?

I’ll risk coming off as an extremist here for a moment but the thing is that this is the daily news. And I’m trying to figure out how it connects to my mention of the films I listed earlier. The news is visual and it is made up of words. We’re paying for all of it, whether we’re at the theater or not. Last year, Roxane Gay (who is simply amazing!) and I spoke of this in a conversation over The Rumpus when she asked me about the binary/bi-lateral ideologies regarding black womanhood and was it possible to break them, and more importantly, offer solutions for changing or opening those binaries, which is what we’re after when we have these conversations, when we write narratives, even if they’re not our own. It seems as though we are expected to be fluent, to be polyglottal when it comes to memory, narrative, erasure.

What do you make of any of this?


MJS: Yes… that’s an interesting question: how beauty and violence merge on black women’s bodies in all these forums–film, “reality” television, and of course the lives of black women, including how they’re reported on the news. I think the common thread among some of the films you began with and the news stories you ended with is that the films do some kind of violence to black women’s bodies and voices, or are actively engaged in un-doing those same kinds of violence (in the case of Pariah, for example). And I think the former often happens through some misconstrual of “beauty”: it’s either the choice to privilege ridiculous western standards of physical beauty over substance and story in casting (yes– Zoe Saldana as Nina. Wow.) or it’s a writerly move in the name of a social, utopian “beauty” where black women’s bodies, as such, don’t matter, because there’s a larger, more important story of Americanness or humanness to be told (as in The Help, and perhaps in Beasts of the Southern Wild too, though I’m still thinking about that one). We could also say a lot about adaptation here. What does it mean that so many of these films either began as novels or plays, or are revivals of earlier films in which the dynamics of race, color, power are markedly different?

Ultimately, I do think it’s business. And I think characters like Morrison’s Sula, Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Sissie, Hurston’s Janie, Bessie Head’s Life, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy and so many others make the body their business. They re-write the narratives we’re talking about so that they can come to own their own bodies. Sometimes the characters escape those commodifying regimes of violence and whatever kind of “beauty,” and sometimes they don’t. But I think that’s what they set out to do. I mean, I love your phrase: “is it nobody’s damn business or just that- a business?” I think when body is made to be business—as it so often is for women— it either becomes everybody’s business or nobody’s body. And I think that’s what we’re often writing through, against, away.



Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Griffiths is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books), The Requited Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press), and Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus American Library Association. A Cave Canem Fellow, Griffiths is the recipient of numerous fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony, and more. In 2011, she was featured as a rising poet in the first poetry issue of O Magazine. She is widely known for her fine arts literary portraits and her photography about women, identity, language, and race. She is at work on her first, extensive film project, P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), an intimate series of interviews, which gathers more than 50 contemporary poets together in conversation to discuss poetry, culture, and personal human stories. Griffiths is also directing the first, authorized documentary, Beware The Dog: Poetry, Race, An American Movement, about the Cave Canem collective. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.


Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is from Harlem, New York. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Best New Writing 2010, Crab Orchard Review, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, The Minnesota Review, 2010 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing and others, and her non-fiction prose has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Ms. Magazine Online, Jacket2, and The Feminist Wire, where she sits on the Editorial Collective. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, and scholarships, residencies, and other honors from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Hedgebrook, Yaddo, and, most recently, a 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She received her Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Williams College, where her research focuses on poetic strategy and identity in Afrodiasporic women’s writing. Her short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, will be published in 2013.

Breaking the Binary/Bi-lateral Ideologies of Black Womanhood: In Conversation with Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Lady in the House Questions: Marisa Crawford

1. What has been your ultimate journey?

My ultimate journey as a writer involves me sitting in my apartment surrounded by stacks of marble notebooks—most of them are black but some of them are purple, some are red, some are wood grain or floral-patterned or have butterfly or band stickers or pictures of Barbie all over them like they were transported from the 90s, and some of them were. I have kept a journal consistently since about 1999, when I was 17, and every once in a while I need to go into a room and close the door and read through these notebooks, often out loud. I was reading Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem recently, and in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” she says, “we forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were,” and she talks about keeping a notebook as a way to keep in touch with the people we used to be. This essay really resonated with me because that process is so important to me. When I read through old journals, piecing together entries from 2001 or 2011 or 2005, I reconnect myself with who I used to be, and who I am, and it feels like I’m grounding myself in a kind of “ultimate journey.”


2. How do you start? How do you end?

Everything that I write usually starts with an idea that inspires me, or a line or phrase that comes to me, and I write it down as soon as possible, in a notebook or on a scrap of paper or in a text message or email to myself. Then I type it up when I have more time, and sit with it for a while—expanding ideas, arranging and rearranging lines, bringing in discarded lines from abandoned poems, tightening language, etc. This process is what really makes a piece of writing into a poem for me, and it often leads to me hating the poem, and to wanting to give up on it and throw it away. Figuring out how a piece of writing ends, or when it’s finished, is the much more difficult part for me. Lately my poems have been getting longer and longer, breaking off into many numbered sections, picking up loose lines from other discarded poems or text messages or pages in my notebook and growing and multiplying to a point that feels out of control, or hard to control to me. Like a batch of gremlins. Right now I’m at a point where I’m trying to find a new balance between crafting my poems and allowing them to feel somewhat out of my control. For me, this is where showing my work to other people comes in. I show my poems to my boyfriend, to my awesome all-girl writing group, I read them out loud in public & I see how people react to them, then gauge that reaction against my own deep-seated feelings about the piece, and I go from there. Being part of a writing community is so important to me as a writer, and to my understanding of my own work. Maybe I’m just codependent by nature, or I have a crippling lack of confidence. But I definitely rely on other people to guide me in my writing, to figure out how a piece feels “done”; how it ends. Having that feedback and that human interaction is really important to me.


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

In terms of my writing, I try not worry too much about classification—as far as conforming to the traditional structure of a specific writing genre, or feeling the need to choose a genre at all. I got my MFA from San Francisco State, and being in the environment of that program and living in San Francisco, communities where there’s such a rich aesthetic tradition of cross-genre and experimental work, I think I was really lucky to kind of find my voice as a writer in an environment that encouraged experimentation over tradition, and where the lines between genres naturally bled into one another. That really encouraged me to not be too intimidated by genres outside of poetry—to feel like nothing was really off-limits, and to feel some sense of freedom in terms of form in how I approach my writing.

In terms of my politics, I think of classification differently than in writing. I think it’s really important to have an understanding of how our own intersections of social identity such as gender, race, class, and sexuality impact how we experience the world, and in that sense I think that “classifying,” or being aware of how these classifications play into my identity, is very important. I think of classifying and contextualizing oneself as a way of honoring and/or acknowledging the history that came before you and undeniably informs your world.

I think writing and politics are inextricably tied together in terms of what is canonized, what becomes tradition, what is valued aesthetically. Where I stand on the political and social spectrum—as a woman, a white woman, a feminist, etc.— necessarily informs my relationship to literary and artistic traditions, and how I relate to those traditions informs my writing.


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

My book The Haunted House is made up of poems that I wrote in graduate school, when I had a lot more time and space and discipline in my life that forced me to write and to revise and to finish my work. In part because of that I think the poems in it use more kind of layered metaphors, more veiled language, more narrative distance, which makes them feel more polished than my more recent writing. Lately I’ve been writing on my phone while I’m on the train, walking down the street, taking a break at my job. This writing feels more immediate, in a way, in that it feels more about dailiness and at least in part about navigating the “real world.” Later on, when I’m sitting with them on my computer, I have to resist the urge to sort of translate these pieces into more metaphorical, less overt or direct or narrative language. My hope for using veiled language and layered metaphors in my writing is that they’ll act as kinds of fake walls, swinging bookcases, hidden doors that lead into secret passageways. More colloquial poems with more elements of the everyday in them have a looser sense of openness, I think, which in a sense feels like a knocking down of walls.


Lady in the House Questions: Marisa Crawford

Female Genital Cutting: A Continuing Tradition

by Mariya Taher

When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition.
-Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Female Genital Cutting. Some refer to it as Female Circumcision; others call it Female Genital Mutilation. As a child, I knew it as khatna. No matter the name, it is the process of removing part or all of the female genitalia. Within the Dawoodi Bohra religious community, it is a ritual performed on young girls. According to the UN, it is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a practice criminalized in the United States by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are presently living with female genital cutting (FGC), and every year about three million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure. Within the United States, the Center for Disease Control, found that in 1990 an estimated 168,000 girls and women were living with or at risk for FGC. In 2000, based off of census data, it was found that an estimated 228,000 women had undergone the procedure or were at risk, resulting in a 35% increase from 1990.

In graduate school for my master of social work, I decided to investigate female genital cutting for my thesis. The practice was categorized as violence against women, yet the community I was raised in, often praising themselves for their emphasis on the education of women, practiced it. My thesis sought to answer the question of why FGC was continued in this day and age.

Upon initial research, I found, to my dismay, that the reports on FGC within the United States, only included women who had immigrated from African countries where the practices was widely known to occur. Excluded from the statistics were women like me, born in the United States, growing up in a community whose origins were from Asia, who knew FGC to be an important tradition in their community’s religious practices. Further, few qualitative studies, depicting the stories of women, American women, who had undergone FGC or had first-hand knowledge of the practice within this country existed. Here then is my story and the story of six women interviewed for my thesis, who live in the United States, who underwent khatna, and who all hold varying positions on the practice of khatna, otherwise known as Type 1 FGC by the World Health Organization.

These women shared their experiences due to a promise of anonymity. They had to. They did not want their loved ones – those who may have performed the khatna or agreed to allow their daughter to undergo it, getting in trouble with the law.  Within the United States, consequences of performing or contributing to FGC on a women or girl without their consent can result in removal of child custody, prison time and/or deportation.

The Khatna Stories

The summer before I began the second-grade, my family went to India to visit relatives. One morning, my mother and aunt took me to an apartment inside a run-down building located in Bhindi Bazaar, a Dawoodi Bohra populated neighborhood in south Mumbai. Inside the apartment, several elderly ladies dressed in saris greeted us. Initially there was laughter and much chatter. Then I was asked to lie on the bare floor. The dress I was wearing – one of those frilly dresses that make all little girls look adorable – was slightly pulled up to reveal my midriff and my underwear was pulled down revealing parts I had been taught were to remain private. I couldn’t see what it was, but suddenly something sharp cut me and I began crying out in pain.

You’re given a pain injection, pain medication, to numb the area and the piece of skin that’s removed is not even a centimeter I mean not even a millimeter it’s so tiny.

Once the procedure was complete, everyone began comforting me.  My mother embraced me and the elderly ladies, trying to be friendly, handed me a soft drink, called Thumbs-Up, to chase away the tears streaming down my face. Moments later, we left the dilapidated building and I hid the painful memory from my conscious for the next several years.

As a teenager I would learn that what happened was known as Type 1 FGC, where all or part of the clitoral hood is removed, sometimes along with the clitoris. But that is not the image brought to people’s minds with the mention of FGC. Generally, Type III or infibulation, the most severe form of FGC, involving removal of all or part of the external genitalia, was the form that garnered the most attention, and leaving Type 1 to be understudied.

A lot of people try to generalize the practice. They try to put it in a box and so when you think of FGM you think of tribal communities in Africa. African girls getting sewn up and glass bottles and shards of glass cutting them and you think of the worse, you think of the extreme.

Once I learned that the khatna was a human rights violation, I became angry with the Dawoodi Bohra community and for a few years, I emotionally struggled with what had been done to me. I also began to question if the khatna played any negative role in my sexual abilities. Gynecologist today cannot distinguish any difference, so perhaps there were no adverse effects. I do not know. But it was a fear I was not alone in sharing:

I was really scared because my mom always talks about how much she hates sex and it’s the worst thing that God ever created. It’s probably because she doesn’t fucking enjoy it. Geez, I wonder why ya know because who knows how much of her clitoris is gone.

Yet since learning what happened to me, I never once grew angry at my mother. She was only doing what she believed was necessary for me to be a good Dawoodi Bohra girl. My mother was only following the traditions that she had been brought up with. And tradition is a beast that is hard to slay:

My mother told me she had been approached by a woman in the community, an elder like the priest’s wife and she told my mother it was time for me to get it done. And my mom didn’t question it because she felt it was something that we all had to do. And she herself had done it and her mother before her had been cut.

Harder to slay, if the practice becomes normalized and the community begins to view it as mundane, common, like getting your period:

It was kind of just something that we all knew we had to get done at that age [7]”, she goes on to explain, “It’s kind of like when you get your period…if other people have already gotten it then it’s just like a rite of passage and you’re like ok.

Like any tradition, to those with family and friends who have also undergone the same procedure, and to see them come out okay, the fear and uncertainty of the unknown is taken away.  But for others, there is an emotionally scarring that cannot be erased.

I just felt violated. I felt like it was a situation completely out of my control and this happened to me and I’ve suffered this trauma. I actually went through everything you go through in a trauma- although it happened so many years before. I went through that trauma at 19 and it lasted for years. I was depressed. I was acting out.

Some suffered. Some did not. There had to be a reason why this centuries old practice was being continued generations after generation. I learned there were many reasons:

I don’t know if it’s a definition of being Muslim or if it’s one of the criteria for having to become Muslim, but it is a pretty important factor like when people convert to Islam they have to get this done…I mean not just like for an external appearance or just for society to know that it has been done. I mean not for that reason alone, but like it somehow affects your mind and body and that change is necessary for you to become a Muslim. In that regard I would get it done, but to be honest I would probably just continue it because of the tradition.

I’ve asked around as to why it has been [performed] and I’ve gotten different answers like some of it’s just been for religious purposes, but our bhen sahab (wife of the religious clergy) told us it enhances your sexual experience but I’ve heard otherwise. I think it’s just more done because they’ve been following it for many many years and they kind of don’t stray away from tradition.

Tradition constitutes the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. Tradition was the overarching theme for the continuation of khatna among the Dawoodi Bohras. Khatna was practiced because it had been done so for generations. The practice was believed to connect them to their culture and for those who agreed with the practice, it was a part of their identity. Even when communities crossed oceans to establish lives in new parts of the world, this tradition continued, providing a sense of comfort not often felt in a new alien world.

I found through observation that people within the United States overcompensate for the fact that they’re not living in India and are far away from their homeland. So they have to really make sure that they stay within the culture that they know so for that reason I feel they probably practice it more than maybe people in India who have probably left the practice because they’re  around that community all the time and people here it’s like we don’t want to lose that culture, we don’t want our kids to lose that culture, so they make sure to abide by every single rule more so.

The need to hold on to culture is a strong pull within this community, perhaps more so in the United States, where the ideals and values often feel contrary to the ideals and values of their homeland.

I also think it’s still done by a lot of our immigrant parents to their children here because of the western temptation and sex and partying and all of these things that their children are exposed to…that might not normally happened in India or Africa

Not all agree with the practice within this community. Yet, opposing it and speaking against it can come with consequences.

I didn’t want to [speak up and] make it so bad for my parents to where they couldn’t come because all that they have is this community and they want to be a part of it and they choose to be a part of it. I don’t identify with it but it’s all that they have. They’re here. They’re immigrants from another country. They’re not going to find people like them anywhere else outside of this community. So they need that and now they’re old and they want it even more.

She goes on to explain:

It’s the social ostracism that people in our community are worried about. Not belonging and the gossiping and the reputation trashing.

The need to belong, to feel socially accepted, a universal feeling, can prevent some who would oppose FGC. It may be a tradition that they do not agree with, yet they feel in the minority. They do not want to be socially excluded. They do not want to get loved ones in legal trouble. FGC or khatna is considered a private issue, not discussed openly. That may be the first step in trying to bring an end to this centuries old practice that imposes violence on women.

I shared my own story as well as excerpts from these women’s stories, not so that any of us can be viewed as victims of an intolerable act, but to illustrate that FGC is a complicated custom. It cannot simply be considered an act continued by ignorant people, the reasons given for its’ continuation have been rationalized and been given cultural or religious significance. My wish is not to disgrace this community but to demonstrate the role tradition plays in continuing a practice oppressive to women. By sharing this information, I hope conversations can begin to occur openly about khatna and the various opinions held by those who perform it. With the eventual hope, that regardless of the form of FGC practiced, that it will all lead to the end of FGC for all women and girls.

Female Genital Cutting: A Continuing Tradition

Fluttering at the Margins

by Randon Billings Noble

When I was a graduate student in NYU’s MFA in Fiction program, I gave a talk to fellow graduate-student instructors about being a writer in the classroom.  I used Aesop’s fable “The Bat, the Beasts and the Birds” to show how I felt like a bat, trapped between being an academic (with the beasts) and a creative writer (with the birds).  I had just left a theory-driven MA program, and I felt too intellectual to be a writer — but too creative to be an academic — and was pained by Aesop’s moral:  “He who is neither one thing nor another has no friends.”

At the time I thought I was caught between spheres, but a third sphere existed: that of the essayist.  And that’s what I became.  Then, in early 2011, I had twins.  And I found myself trapped between worlds again, this time between being a writer and a mother.

My “bird” life as a writer still flutters at the margins.  But now I spend most of my time not among academics but with two little beasts (now 20 months old) whose animal needs trump my creative ones.  At times I wonder if I am a pterodactyl more than a bat – the twins feel like two awesome asteroids that have crashed into my quiet writing planet, knocking it out of orbit, sending up dust clouds of iridium and noxious fumes from the diaper pail.  For a while I feared that my writing self would go extinct, but I am committed to helping it evolve.

When the twins were six months old, I started to take action.

I began by reading biographies of women writers and artists who had successfully combined both creativity and mothering.  Carolyn Heilbrun, in her excellent book Writing a Woman’s Life, claims that “lives do not serve as models; only stories do that.  And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by.  We can only retell and live by the stories we have heard or read.”  So I looked for stories to live by.  I read about Elizabeth Gaskell writing over 15 books while raising four daughters.  I read about George Sands and her insistence on living an independent life, regardless of society’s ideas of what women – especially mothers – should or should not do.  I read about Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, and how she was just as fiercely committed to painting as she was to her children.  These three women – long dead – were my first community of writers after the twins were born.

But reading was not enough.  I needed to write — but I didn’t have the time to delve deeply into the essays I was used to drafting.  So I started a blog.  I leapt from the 19th and 20th century lives I had been reading about and into the 21st century medium of blogging.  I called the blog “From the Hatchery,” named after my first writing room, the room I had christened “The Hatchery,” the room I lost after the twins were born and needed – more than I did – a room of their own.

A blog would be me thinking in words again, I thought.  It would be a commitment to writing – three posts a week, say.  It would be writing that was public, writing that needed to be something more than a shorthand journal entry.  It would be writing – that was the most important thing.  Every other day I wrote short posts that I treated as essay sketches, or essays-in-the-making, hoping to return to some of them when the twins were older, and I had more time to write.

To promote the blog, I joined Facebook and Twitter.  And by reaching out to others through various posts and tweets, people reached back.  I found a different kind of community of writers – ones who were living in the present with me, even if I only interacted with them in short bursts, sometimes only 140 characters at a time.  During my long days home alone with the twins, sometimes that’s all I’d have time for.

But now I have taken time, actively hewn it from my day-to-day life, to focus exclusively on my writing and my life as a writer.  I have seized ten long days, 240 glorious hours, to rejoin a community that I have missed terribly – that of a writers’ colony.  For the first time since the twins were born I have returned to the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts.

In the past I had been reserved at residencies; I kept my head down and worked hard during the few weeks I had there.  But now I’ve come to see the rewards of communing with other writers and artists – not through biographies or the Internet but in person, with the sound of a living voice across the breakfast table or on the path to the Studio Barn or at an evening reading in the warmly lit Residence living room.

Here I am away from my little beasts, my twin asteroids.  Here my writing life is no longer jostled to the margins.  Here I can stretch my mind and spread my wings, reminded of the sophisticated way bats navigate and communicate.  I, too, can echolate – but the sound waves I am sending out are sentences full of words, and the echoes I am getting back are not mere reverberations but actual, thoughtful, adult human conversation.  I am listening hungrily to all kinds of stories from all kinds of writers – many of them women, many of them parents.  These are stories that show me variations on the path ahead, and how I might shape my life so that I can be both a mother and a writer, both a beast and a bird, a bat who is neither one thing nor another but simultaneously and integratedly both.

These are stories I will take home with me.  These are new stories to live by.

Fluttering at the Margins