Lady in the House Questions: Kelly Davio

When have you acted the fool?

When I think about my accidental surrealist phase, it’s not clear to me how long I was misreading words. It may have only been when things became bizarre that I noticed that something was wrong. “Dogmeats are in the mail,” the email read. Is that legal? What am I supposed to do with dog meat? I looked again, dragging a finger beneath a line of text. Doc— okay, no dogs. Hopefully non-perishable, too. –uments. Paper. Non-fleshy, no-refrigeration-required documents.

I don’t know whether it was the degenerative disease I carry around in my nervous system or the pills I take to function, but for several months last year, one of the two played tricks with the words on the page, with the letters’ serifs, with the logical sequences of language. It didn’t matter which was the culprit: the former isn’t curable, and the latter keeps me upright. Both are fixtures of my existence in a body, and I had no choice but to accept the fact that they were turning me into an insensible fool who was willing to believe that dog meat was being sent to her via U.S. mail.

For a writer, reader, teacher, and editor, my newfound inability to comprehend text–accompanied by my bizarre new tendencies to type phonetically and to speak in a shaky jumble–wasn’t just embarrassing. It was a blow to my life as a word worker. I’d read a few pages of a book before becoming exhausted, feeling as through I was parsing a foreign language. I’d manage to add a few hundred words to my manuscript in progress, then realize I’d spelled my own protagonist’s name incorrectly the majority of the time. I’d stumble over passages I read aloud in class, earning me odd looks from my high schoolers. During the worst of the short-circuiting of my language faculties, I questioned myself at every opportunity. Had I turned down the correct street? Did that recipe call for a tomato or an avocado? Keeping a mental catalogue of my misunderstandings exhausted me.

After weeks of self-scolding, I drove down a road under construction. Seeing an orange sign announcing crews at work, my mind filled with images of crows, man-sized and thwacking away at the asphalt with jackhammers. For once, I chose not to fight the free-association my mind had made, to chastise myself for a misread word. Instead, I decided to find the image funny, and to embrace the foolishness of my mind’s crossed wires as an imaginative gift. I added hardhats to the birds’ skulls and orange vests to their bulbed chests in my mental tableau. I gave one a Slim Jim stick of beef jerky he’d have to gnaw at with his beak, and etched another with feather tattoos of skulls and women’s names. I drove on, possibly down the wrong street, laughing.


Who is your favorite foolish character and why?

Hazel Motes, from Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, is simultaneously one of the funniest and most unpleasant fools in American literature. A young man from a family of semi-literate street preachers, Hazel returns to the American South after WWII to wage his own war against God and religion by founding the Church of Christ Without Christ. Hazel would go to any length to convince uninterested bystanders that he is an unredeemed, unrepentant heathen.

Yet Hazel’s own religious past haunts him, and he sees “…Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” Without knowing what compels him to do so, Hazel follows the local preacher around town, baiting him, waiting to be converted, waiting to be saved, hoping to be important enough to be fought for.

As a person who grew up immersed in various brands of pentecostalism–that strange, uniquely American and uniquely terrifying offshoot of protestant Christianity–I can relate to Hazel. He’s not just a repugnant character with no self-awareness; Hazel is also a look in the mirror for some of us who left the church behind, but who can’t entirely shake the hold it had on us. Yes, I’ve left the church, but it’s nearly impossible to shake the impressions it’s made on me and on the way I think about the world. If I’m honest, Jesus still moves from tree to tree in the back of my mind, too.


What is your fool’s gold?

When I hear the term “fool’s gold,” I think of it the way an investor would: it’s the can’t-fail sure thing that, in the end, is never quite all one hoped it would be. For me, my fool’s gold is always my next literary project. It used to be the next poem–the one that would show true craftsmanship married with the best possible expression of my ideas. The next poem was always far better than the poem I was writing. I never managed to write that next poem, because it was, by its very nature, never the one in front of me, ink-spattered and marked up.

Today, it’s often my next book-length project that feels as though it will be the one. It will be the novel that sells. It will be the collection that sings. It will be the book that publishers can’t wait to get their hands on. Readers will devour it, reviewers will prostrate themselves before it, and I will finally feel like a real writer.

Trying to feel “real” is the true foolishness, isn’t it? That strange, persistent need for validation is so often behind an inability to focus on doing good work in the moment. I often have to ask myself why I want to feel settled in as a writer. Is it because art would seem easier if I could validate myself as a poet? Why would I want the writing life to be easy, anyway?

The joke, it seems, is always on me: it’s a vain pursuit to look for the impression of reality in work that doesn’t yet exist. Nothing is more real, after all, than the work before me today.

Lady in the House Questions: Kelly Davio

HER KIND Discusses Die Antwoord’s “Fatty Boom Boom”

Fatty Boom Boom by Die Antwoord: Watch the video here

Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “The Answer”), with vocalist Ninga and Yo-Landi Visser, describe themselves, on their official website as ” a fre$, futuristik, flame-throw-flow-freeking, zef rap-rave krew from da dark dangerous depths of Afrika.


Rosebud Ben-Oni: Arisa first emailed me back in February to check out this video after she searched for white female rappers and “zed” rappers. I knew almost immediately the female impersonator was a satirical take on Lady Gaga– and then, after watching the video, how Die Antwoord was both critiquing the U.S. model for popular music and the rather superficial attraction to South African culture. But what does Yo-Landi’s black body paint symbolize, whether to someone in South African or the U.S.? Why did they choose to depict “Mother Monster” (explicitly) giving birth to a prawn?


Arisa White: The search for female white rappers was prompted by a conversation my partner was having on Facebook with several of her friends, and one person made a comment about that there aren’t female white rappers because they can’t move their mouths fast enough. As we all know, people say the most foolish things. Instead of getting in a Facebook argument about the insensitivity or offensiveness of that comment, I proposed that we look for rappers, with some lyrical skill and flow, who were using the rap form in ways that were genuine to them. After a few hours of searching on the internet, we encountered some interesting lyricists from all backgrounds (it was nice to stumble across Butterscotch, the first to win the World Hip Hop Beatbox Women’s Championship), but it was something about Die Antwoord that held my gaze. First, we didn’t know what Yo-Landi was saying, and she said it so forcefully and with swag. Secondly, the visuals were uncomfortable and in that discomfort there were the layers to pull back. Coming from South Africa, Die Antwoord is playing with race and American pop culture (and its iconography) in provocative ways . . . . The video opens with them spoofing safari tourism—that all of Africa is a place to see the wild beasts, the lion kings, the natives in their natural habit, and it makes we wonder about the notion of Other.


Emily Gordon: Arisa brings up a good point when she speaks to the notion of “other.” I think that there are elements of this video that are obvious to Americans as ways to poke fun at culture — i.e. the Safari taking place in the middle of the city, the Lady Gaga figure being overplayed, the man protecting his shop with his very own “black panther.” Then, the cultural critique feels less obvious. What are viewers to make of the gun violence in the beginning? Like Rosebud pointed out — what does the black body paint symbolize? It is difficult as Americans not to see this as racially charged in a sinister way, but perhaps we don’t understand what it means to Die Antwoord or to South Africans. The off-putting gynecological visit could also be seen as confusingly troublesome in respect to depictions of women or the treatment of women. The way the doctor examines the Lady Gaga figure is pretty violent. The prawn is lost on me. Are we to be trusted to understand cultural critique that gets lost in cultural differences? Or is Die Antwoord just being off-color or creative with their criticisms?


HER KIND readers, TALK TO US. How do you think this video pushes limits? Tell us your thoughts on performance, race and cultural boundaries. Leave us comments, questions, musings– anything you want to say.

HER KIND Discusses Die Antwoord’s “Fatty Boom Boom”

On Foolishness and the Abjection of the Exquisite

by Carina Finn

I remember thinking, “I will remember this outfit for the rest of my life,” and now I can’t remember the outfit at all. What I remember is the woman I spoke to on the train from Toms River to New York. She was dressed like a cast member of The Real Housewives of Atlantic City and was, bizarrely, the mother of a boy I’d gone to elementary school with, who I remembered because he had been odd and dark and I’d liked him. The woman was dating a rich older man who lived in the city and her son, who had been smart in addition to odd and dark, had gone astray and never graduated. I took all the wrong subways once I got there and my bear, Carrie Bradshaw the Bear, was hanging half-out of a tote bag resting on top of an enormous suitcase and I had my guitar on my back.

“That’s a lot of stuff,” said the first person I spoke to on my first day in New York City.

“I never leave anything I can’t live without.”

My foolishness is not special though it may be exquisite. Part of what makes foolishness so foolish is that it’s common; you should know better. What makes it exquisite is the pleasure one takes in it.

Eight days later I spend the entire day sitting outside of St. Mark’s church chain-smoking Nat Sherman Fantasias. These particular cigarettes have gold filters and come in baby pink, turquoise, yellow, red, and blue. I smoke a lot of cigarettes and then I drink a lot of free wine at a terrible poetry reading after which I continue drinking and this is essentially how I spend many days. Eventually I find a lavender apartment and begin a long process of acquiring jobs and quitting them out of disdain for economies. I learn that this is an inefficient manner of engaging with economics. I become a waitress and then a bartender in the West Village and live literally off of charm. I think about how I had always wanted to be a waitress living in Alphabet City and making art like the characters in Rent and then I think I might as well die, I’ve done everything.

The point is that one day you wake up in the middle of your own biopic and it’s the part where you’re either going to have a revelatory moment or actually die.

In late October I stayed out until four in the morning and then attempted to take a Bikram yoga class two and a half hours later. I got sick in class and had to leave and as I walked to work in the rain trying to see morning through the hangover I thought I’d live mindfully from then on; I did not. I kept crashing into people and I crashed up against them as though upon the rocks of sirens. I walked down the same streets. I was being all possible girls-in-cities at once. It was taxing, a Great Effort. One night a woman on the street took my arm and asked me to walk her home because she was drunk so we walked through the park and she told me her story and it turned out her home was literally a bar, at which many men alighted on me and I hadn’t yet remembered that fall becomes winter so slyly in the northeast so suddenly I was waking up in a sunny white room and I had all of these little pieces of pain and one great one. I spent some time sitting at a window considering causality. I thought, “I will be better at living.” I ordered an endless procession of hamburgers.

Previously, I had collected many boxes of natural light and inside of them was proof that I was in fact living the dream my literal childhood dream. I arrived over again at the same bars the same people were usually there I listened to the same songs. Some days I was reminded of the connections between madness and repetition and the benefits of routine. I developed an interest in measuring change. The interest became an obsession that became a 90s dramedy.

Like most dramedies it got trite before it got good. The highlight was walking three blocks to three different stores past one in the morning, sober and out of my senses. I went to a French restaurant with a man who said I should never take anyone there again. There is a large portrait of a pink poodle and several chandeliers in the restaurant. I drink mimosas there with my best friend on an afternoon and we do not get drunk.

If my foolishness is not special how and why is it exquisite? Potentially standing on line for a lighter at a bodega explaining the pros and cons of group sexoui, sitting in a staircase watching a woman being venerated. I kiss my lover in a public bathroom and then a man won’t let me blow him after he comes to my room and sees my art. I have a long conversation about the function of Anise. I think of how a mentor once told me Judy Garland had to be carried from party to party, then I sing Stormy Weather at an upscale gay piano bar.

I have a friend who is a real Calvinist. He says chosen people are chosen and all that they do must be exquisite, even in abjection; they cannot help but shimmer.

I walk home from work in the middle of the day and puke in the street. I puke all over the city I think, this is what young people are wont to do so I puke some more.

A friend tells me to take care with genuine emphasis on the care. I am smiling undead and wearing a leather dress. I start idolizing Lisa Loeb again. I listen to the commentary on Purple Tape at work and think about the difference between drive and ambition. I decide to lie in bed and not in front of a taxi. One day I am walking down the street and something is green. It’s so foolish to think that what’s next will never come, but I didn’t. I ate mostly antipathy and it was sort of exquisite. There is a little jade buddha on my bookshelf I’d never noticed and a plastic Chanel logo glued to my buzzer. I continue to wake up and live. It’s still surprising.

On Foolishness and the Abjection of the Exquisite

On Fools, Nakedness and “Challenging Octavio Paz to a Swordfight in a Mexican Park”: A Conversation with Nelly Rosario and Sheila Maldonado

HK: Welcome to the Conversation. Alice Walker once noted, “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.”  Have you ever tried to cover up acts of foolishness?



NELLY ROSARIO: I don’t discard the importance of the fool (and foolishness). Kings needed the no-holds-barred honesty of jesters to cut through all the court intrigues; we need Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to cut through all the media spin. It’s no coincidence that The Fool/Jester opens the tarot deck. His number is zero, the number that renders everything nada. He’s cleverness embodied, the madman and the child, the trickster whose sane insanity disrobes the king. The Fool walks the fine line between sanity and insanity, which is why he’s often shown walking at the edge of a cliff, carrying a white rose in his left hand and a bindle in the right.

‘Bindle’ is a word I just recently learned. As a kid, I’d always had this stupid little fantasy of running away from my wonderful home, if only because I liked those cartoon and sitcom images of a character walking around with his belongings all neatly wrapped in a bandana tied to a stick. So having no costume to wear to a party this past Halloween, I threw on my worst rags, scribbled on a unibrow with an eyeliner, and wrapped my iPhone, ID, and keys in a bandana, which I tied to a broomstick.

I walked into the party and immediately felt like a fool’s fool.  There was the wonder-butt Wonder Woman, the hour-glassed belly dancer, the long-legged Flapper, and raggedy ass me.

What the hell are you supposed to be?

Um, Frida Hobo.

I like the bindle.

Then Prince came on, and I danced like hell, not having to worry about sequins flying off or corsets slipping down or whether ass pads stayed in place. For the rest of the night, I drank from a brown-paper bag, talked mad shit, reveled in my zero place.

It’s too exhausting to cover up my Fool. As a reminder, I keep a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, who called himself ‘God’s Fool,’ in my garden.


SHEILA MALDONADO: I wouldn’t be successful with the coverups if I revealed them here. I do reveal them somewhere. That is what journals are for, that is what friends are for. The idea that I cover up yet more foolishness than is already apparent is kinda sad. But this I do, to spare you all. What is apparent is actually measured foolishness, I’m sure I won’t be believed. Or perhaps I will, there are a few who suspect I’m holding back.

OK, so I should have worn a bra for this little video my friend and I released on the interwebs recently: Self-promotion and confession yes. But, uh, it lent to the authenticity of the moment, sure, and it was a decision Ndlela, my director friend, and I came to, not just something we overlooked in some kind of haze or rush. I remember discussing taping my breasts down when I played husband me but I thought the black t-shirt was enough. The blue t-shirt was not.

I live for the mistake in art though. I try to catch me off-guard, to surprise myself. I think I’ve seen and read enough that the only way anything decent or somewhat original will happen in my work is if it is accidental, even or especially foolish. I love how underestimated the foolish is. There is something about that in that quote from Alice Walker, the facades we all love to keep up, how easily seen through they are.

Let’s pile up the coverups of foolishness/confessions of late. I fell flat and hard to the ground on 42nd street just last week with my phone in my outstretched arm while I was talking to my friend Bakar who was on the other end all, “You’re breaking up.” I fell for a friend this past year and almost did not get up from that but then actually kinda did. I googled stalked all kinds of writer peers on the internet, comparing, despairing, imagining a shitload of controversy to keep me from reaching out and moving on with what I have to in my work. I grabbed my gloves as I ran out the door to go to work late as always and then ran back in to take one last drink of water in the kitchen and threw my gloves in the garbage and when I get downstairs I pat myself down for another good minute looking for them and get to work even later. I drank so much coffee I made my right eyelid twitch and for a moment I kinda liked that short-circuiting.


Fresh from facebook, I see more foolish behavior. I don’t do this though, at least not to stay thin:

This makes me think of the alice walker quote. Something about the foolishness we hide that make us more foolish. I do recall eating little pieces of bounty paper towels when I was young, usually they had ice cubes in them that i had been eating too.


I also hear now from my director friend that another of our friends now calls walking around your apartment braless sheilaring, or sheilaing, or sheiling, any of those variations.


One last thing, my pms showing right now, obsessive. Ndlela, the director, and I both wonder why coming from the harsh places our families come from: him, South Africa, me, Honduras. We insist on our foolishness. I think we just stopped at wondering and didn’t really answer. But we stay watching Al-Jazeera or whatever other news outlet that tells us the homelands are deteriorating and we don’t know what to do but hold onto our particular ridiculousness. Maybe it is a helplessness. Maybe it is laughing instead staying tragic.


NR: It’s always good to talk to you, Sheila, because I know we stay laughing even when bawling. Yes, “we have to insist on our foolishness” in a world that insists on despair. It’s how my parents dealt with growing up in a dictatorship, it’s why the gallows humor of soldiers, doctors, funeral workers, etc. It’s why a site as full of depressing news as truthdig would be insufferable without its comments or cartoon sections. You and Ndlela and the rest of us fools are right to hold onto ridiculousness, even as we watch our homelands deteriorate on Al-Jazeera or Telemundo. And we’re not the only ones holding tight to white roses in one hand and bindles in the other. While teaching a graduate graphic-narrative course this spring, I came across the works of Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh, who was arrested without charge in Israel in February (five days before your birthday and eight days before mine), and of Egyptian cartoonist Dooa Eladl, who says, “The extremists don’t scare me…Whatever they do, I will continue to use my skills to poke fun at them.”

I did a doubletake at the St. Francis statue in my garden today, in light of my earlier post, imagining the rotundness of the stone booty under his robe. April showers in his beggar bowl, a fake bird on his shoulder. I love me some Francis AKA Giovanni AKA Francesco.

Every year in Catholic school, we were made to watch “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a 1972 Italian biopic of St. Francis of Assisi. We had to bring in signed parental consent forms because of the scene in which he disrobes on the streets of Assisi. No frontal, but the two nude scenes kept us from falling asleep. He really has a nice ass, Graham Faulkner-as-Assissi, especially when standing buck-naked in protest before Pope Innocent III. There I was in my plaid uniform, wanting to streak in the auditorium as St. Claire, frolicking in poverty and bathing al fresco with Francesco in sparkly Italian waters. The nuns freakin’ loved that film. As to St. Clare? It’s said that Pope Pius XII designated her patron saint of television because, when too ill to attend a Mass, she was able to see and hear the service on the wall of her room. Seeing the film again on YouTube after all these years, in a world so punch-drunk on consumption and materialism, I don’t feel like a fool for still liking it.


SM: I came to this page so tired from a day of teaching but so excited to see the new tidbit. You read my fishy mind. Spent most of Palm Sunday and Easter watching all those church movies on Spanish TV with my mama. Didn’t resist for once. Guess I’m getting old. Can’t fight Christianity as much as I used to. Got a poem out of flipping channels between one movie about the Virgin and this wicked reality show that is really an endless beauty pageant, Nuestra Belleza Latina. That I resisted a lot more but of course was a little bit enthralled, for poetry purposes.

I was the fool who gave part of an hour today reading some article pitting poetry schools against each other, some reaction to the new Norton Postmodern Poetry anthology. It made me feel like never writing a playful poem, as I did between the TV Virgin and TV whores, a poem with “a thread of melancholy” as a friend said about what I write but mostly made of some relief and joy, what I sometimes think of as anti-suicide poetry, something that fights that brooding tragedy, that black hole that I always feel like women of color in general are expected to write from. I really don’t know what that article wanted, I’m sure I’m projecting some of my own issue onto it. I just thought of Bolaño as I often do when faced with literary foolishness. I thought of his or his friend’s alter ego in Savage Detectives, a wandering, unanthologized, fuck-the-world poet— was it Belano or Lima?— challenging establishment poet Octavio Paz to a swordfight in a Mexican park.** That shit still cracks me up. That’s my kinda fool.

Here is his boy (and mine), Nicanor Parra, otro Chileno, with his idea of a fool: Montaña Rusa

Roller Coaster

For half a century poetry was

the paradise of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

and moved in with my roller coaster.

Get on, if you want to.

Clearly it’s not my fault if you come down

spurting blood from your mouth and nostrils.


(trans. Ron Padgett in Luna, Luna)


As a Coney Island child living for thrills, a refugee from institutions and all the misery that seems to come of them, I scream words like this from the top of the Cyclone in my head, hands to the sky. A sword to the solemn fools, a roller coaster plopped in the middle of so-called paradise. Man, this was a good teaching day, too. Imagine a bad one.

So yes, I feel every bit of those Middle Eastern cartoons, subversive in their foolishness, lacing jokes with questions, poking fun, needling, after and especially when revolutions are done. I hope they stay open with the questions and the laughs. I can get a little too disillusioned and all I’ve ever really had to suffer is the mindfuck of school, not the endless paranoia of a homeland turning on you. Granted, I might be the child of that as well; my father mentioned some of his activism when he was young in an even more repressive Honduras than today, but also seemed to live with a great deal of fear and immobility and feared for me when he saw I had those tendencies young, too. I am this pisces, though, this one who embraces and quickly rejects so fiercely, only age is taking the edge off that fast disillusionment. I’m trying to be the fool stopping short of that cliff in the tarot card but it actually was this sort of art installation ledge that I fell off of when I was talking to my friend on the phone on 42nd St a few weeks ago, manic from sitting in an office all day for a temp gig, trying to arrange a meeting between us and some beers. It was only Monday.

Back to the St Francis movie and the urge to streak that you had. I didn’t go to Catholic school but remember a whole semester of art history in high school that was spent looking at slides of every church in Europe, elaborate and ecstatic, walls and windows soaring. Architecture does some stuff to me. I like a well put together room, some good light. We were in the back room of the library, this intimate little cave of a room and inevitably I started picturing me naked on one of those golden altars getting it on with one of the many crushes of those energetic years. I figured if you shared your nakedness, I should too. Pisces fools leading each other off cliffs.


NR: I’m not gonna lie; I was thinking of looking up the meaning of the Spanish title in literal form. I don’t know why, but I imagined “Russian Mountain” to be an alp of orange-pink cotton-candy ideas. Then I saw the translation below it as “Roller Coaster,” and realized that I’d forgotten to remember the meaning of ‘montaña rusa’.  Yes, Parra, I’m bleeding memory through my nose and mouth.

And since we’re on the topic of bleeding, below are some of my week’s scribblings. I’m experimenting with a 12-year-old character who’s allowed me to play with Fool Voice. I’m jumping off a cliff here…

Dear My Parents,

This is to express my happiness in the world. Congratulations to me for releasing Egg #1 from my carton of two million!  Yes, my first blood came yesterday at 2:34 PM, Brooklyn time in the USA.  I went to the bathroom for a urine, and when I pulled down my underwhere did I find me a lucky penny.  Well, in a very way I did.

Thank you for talking to me about the sekso when I was just eight years old.  Since that time, I have been doing a lot of periodic thinking about those special ideas.  For an example, it is truly incredible that Ma once had eggs inside of her too and that I am one of them, but all hard and boiled and full of subeggs of my own, except that after yesterday I am only have 1999,999 left. I am a clock of biology, for another example, and the moon is my battery included!


Your Daughter. mother of your grand-eggs


SM: We’re losing all our language, replacing it with new nonsense. Nonsense, the language of fools of course. Looking up the etymology of montaña rusa would be cool, like why Russian mountain exactly for roller coaster? Is there something more nonsensical or outrageous about a Russian mountain as opposed to, I don’t know, a Chilean mountain?

I like the remade Spanish nonsense of your daughter character. I love “underwhere” and “sekso.” They sound odd and yet natural, what might become of our bi-multi-lingualism in another 50 or 100 years, a futuristic Spanglish.

Again, since you’re jumping, I’ll jump. This is a kind of nonsense, perhaps too straightforward but the ADD of existence now, can’t get away from screens nowadays, far too comforted by them, disturbed by them. I think I started this on the notes on the phone while watching TV and finished on a computer screen. Wrote this just as poetry month was starting, around Palm Sunday into Easter, also April Fools.

Flipping Channels Between Virgin and Non-virgins

(Ma’s Palm Sunday TV – Maria vs. Nuestra Belleza Latina)

All the baby boys in Bethlehem slaughtered

Mary and Joseph getting away with Jesus on a donkey


Beauties in spokesmodel competition slaughtering banter

making asses of themselves


Jesus all grown already, making water to wine, proud mama Mary looking on


Beauties as future video whores winding their bodies around Daddy Yankee


Joseph fainting while working and near death, Mary at his bedside


Beauty as actress dying onstage, fellow beauties as witnesses


Salome belly dancing before the court winning anything she wants

with her writhing, asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter

Mary Magdalene running out screaming no


Aflac commercial, the duck is in the hospital


Same commercial


The bellezas standing before the judges, one must address her nude pix on Twitter,

I did not consent that is my private life it does not affect my dignity as a woman


Mary Magdalene after turning to prostitution standing before a circle of men with rocks in hand,

Jesus stepping in with his line about sin and the first stone


NR:  The ‘remade Spanish’ you refer to in my Dear Parents piece–”sekso”–is actually Esperanto. Then there are words like “subeggs” and “underwhere” that’s just me playing with language, a big part of what I enjoy in writing. Word play, however much it may annoy readers, reflects how I negotiate being bilingual. I remember, growing up, all the hilarity of being lost in translation between Spanish and English–the common mistake of, say, me or my sister telling my father we were pregnant (embarazada ) when meaning to say ‘embarrassed’.

Poor Holy Mary, then, the literal embarrassed embarazada. Poor Magdalen, puta of ill-repute. But happy us, two writers caught between virgins and non-virgins, writing the (foolish) women in between. I laughed at how your “Flipping Channels” throws in the duck in the hospital, flips the script–how daffy of consumer culture to bridge the wide gap between María and Nuestra Belleza Latina with, of all things, a pato, slang for homosexual man.

It’s always great quacking it with you, Sheila.

I’ll sign off by altering a quote by Dostoevsky: “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the [woman] who calls [herself] a fool at least once a month.”

**Note from Sheila: In The Savage Detectives, visceral realist poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima both confront literary critics and enemies. Belano challenges a critic to a sword fight on a Spanish beach, and Lima has a series of odd meetings with sworn enemy Octavio Paz in a Mexican park.


Sheila Maldonado is the author of one-bedroom solo (Fly by Night Press, 2011), her debut poetry collection. She grew up in Coney Island, New York, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. Her family hails from Honduras. Her poems have appeared in RattapallaxCallaloo and Me No Habla with Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry. She teaches creative writing for The City University of New York and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She holds degrees in English from Brown University and poetry from The City College of New York. She lives in a one-bedroom in uptown Manhattan where she is working on her next project about a lifelong obsession with the ancient Maya.


Nelly Rosario is the author of Song of the Water Saints, which won a 2002 PEN/Open Book Award. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Review, CallalooThe New York Times, and el diario/La Prensa, where she is a regular columnist. She teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University and will be a 2013-2014 Visiting Scholar in Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT.

On Fools, Nakedness and “Challenging Octavio Paz to a Swordfight in a Mexican Park”: A Conversation with Nelly Rosario and Sheila Maldonado

On Clowns and Lords of Misrule: A Conversation With Lillian Ann Slugocki and Deborah Oster Pannell

HER KIND: Alice Walker once noted, “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.”  Have you ever tried to cover up acts of foolishness?




Lillian Ann Slugocki: Whenever I think of the fool, I think of the tarot card. I think of a person so entranced by the world around her— she might not be watching where she’s going, she could fall off a cliff, if she’s not careful. But it’s also the card of infinite possibilities.  As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace the fool. Every time I write something, whether I post it on Fictionaut, Facebook or on Tumblr, I’m always walking that fine line between feeling like a fool and feeling like an artist.  And I think it’s in that context, that I’ve tried to cover up my foolishness, quickly deleting something I’ve posted, or wishing that I could delete it.  On the other hand, I like that risk, that excitement— I risk being a fool every day because every day I might say or do or write something that could be considered foolish, but honestly that’s the fun of life.


Deborah Oster Pannell: You know, I always think I’m the only one who goes through these things. I’ll get these bursts of energy and inspiration, and write furiously, racing to keep up with what seems like an endlessly expanding idea, before it all dissipates. Sometimes I can catch it, and come away with a beautiful poem, or a section of prose that will work for one of my book projects, or a solid piece of a plan. Other times it’s crap. Hopefully I’ll recognize the difference, because chances are, I will probably publish or share some part of this with more people than I will feel comfortable about after the fact. The thing is, I do believe this keeping one’s self off balance thing is essential to my creativity. Of course there’s always going to be the risk of going completely off the rails. That’s part of it, right? As Lillian says, that IS the fun of life.

I’ve begun to realize that the real foolishness in all of this is the moment I hit delete. The moment I allow that impulse of “no, I can’t say that, I can’t do that,” to take over. Those are the moments I really regret. I end up feeling like I’ve torn away something precious from myself, which I can never get back. How do I cover that up? I don’t think I try to cover it up outwardly, as I am relentless in my continuing acts of self-exposure. If there’s any cover-up, it’s internal. I will try to pretend to myself that it doesn’t matter. That may be the most exquisite foolishness of all. Because there’s no way to hide from those feelings. In the end, they always come back, haunting, pressing…


HK: Who are favorites fools you’ve read? Written?


LAS: I think of Lucy Ricardo, the Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West.  I think of the Hopi tricksters like Mud Head and Hano the Glutton, I think of Falstaff, Pan, I think of exaggeration, slipping on a banana peel, I think of schtick, and Bozo the Clown, Didi and Gogo, Pozzo and Lucky, the court jester, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, the underdog that you root for, the ridiculous character that you love because it encompasses your own insanity, your own foolishness. I’m a big believer in the practical joke: the whoopie cushion, the exploding cigar, and Jerry Lewis.  Being a fool, is the place we subvert the hierarchy, make fun of the world, and in so doing, make fun of ourselves.

Deb, you told me a story today on the phone, an example of when you were the fool.  And I’m sure you wouldn’t want me repeating it here, but the story was genuinely funny, and I could certainly relate.  It was of a scatological nature, and this is also one of the defining elements of being “foolish” in the classical sense. I’ve been laughing about it all day.  I love people who can make fun of themselves, laugh at themselves, and I certainly like heroes in literature who can do the same.  My mother liked to tell this story about filling out a job application, as a young immigrant, fresh off the boat, in the wilds of Midtown Manhattan.  Her hat was on backwards, and when she came to section where she had to list her sex, she crossed out male and female, and wrote “no.”

In modern literature, I’ve really loved reading the fools in the work of Jonathan Lethem, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, and certainly Jonathan Ames. And I would argue that Hannah in Girls is almost the perfect embodiment of the fool.  In The Blue Hours, my novel published in 2012, the protagonist, in search of her sexuality, is never afraid to make a fool of herself in her quest for the perfect orgasm, the perfect man, because how else would we ever achieve any greatness, if we never acknowledge our innate exquisite foolishness?

DOP: As I work more on fiction, and particularly as I am structuring my short stories into a collection, I am really conscious of the thin line between comedy and tragedy, especially as embodied by the fool. Comics like Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, even Jim Carrey, harbor such sadness behind their humor. And then there’s this now legendary set by comic Tig Notaro when she went onstage last summer and talked about her cancer diagnosis, the death of her mother and her breakup… believe it or not, one of the most mind-blowingly funny things I’ve ever heard. There’s something about unflinchingly honest, autobiographical work that really speaks to me, particularly when the writer is able to look back over the years of his or her life and not take it all so seriously. In that vein, I actually adored Stephen King’s book, “On Writing…” It’s my favorite book about the craft to date.

As for literary fools, the first one that came to mind was Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. Truly a fool, and sympathetic even as he was quite repulsive. I find this kind of character appealing in an almost hypnotic, can’t-look-away-from-the-car-crash kind of way. I remember when I first read this book – I was pulled in by his vulnerability, at the same time as I was totally skeeved out by his behavior.

The second one I thought of was the character of Nathan Glass in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies. I particularly love this story of a fool who finds redemption, almost by accident. He kind of stumbles into it, but knows enough to make the most of what comes his way. Redemption stories are probably my favorite – the leveling impact of seeing the universality of imperfection embodied in the tale of one person’s very flawed existence. The more flawed, the better…

LAS: In the spirit of this conversation, or inspired by it, I deliberately played the *fool* the other day on twitter. A male author had posted tweets about his book events across the country and in New York City. He claimed he’d be “signing tits and slapping asses.” His book is about his no holds barred sexual exploits. He tweeted that he was going to explain the difference between bitch and cunt. I tweeted back, Waiting to hear you parse the difference. He invited me to his book event, and I wrote that I couldn’t attend because I had a heavy BDSM session that night, but wished him luck. I was laughing the whole time. I mean I really was having fun, partly at my own expense, but I knew on some fundamental level that I was seriously ruffling this feathers.

And that made me realize that as a writer of erotica for almost 15 years that I’ve been playing the fool there as well. Through a thinly veiled persona, I willingly exposed myself, both literally and metaphorically to again, subvert the hierarchy, which to my mind had said, good girls aren’t raunchy, good girls don’t write so explicitly about their sexuality because if you do, you will be in trouble. And of course there has been a fair amount of backlash over the years over this— people who didn’t understand that I was *playing* that I was deliberately upending long-standing conventions to make my point. That backlash has included male interviewers who figured I’d be an easy lay, people who assumed I had some secret, inner knowledge about sex (I don’t) family members who shunned me, and even losing jobs because all anyone had to do was Google my name and my whole *shameful* history would be revealed. The fact that I wrote feminist erotica was a distinction few people seemed to understand. But that’s alright with me. It’s now clear to me its been one long, wild ride of “exquisite foolishness.”

DOP: Lillian, I, too have been drawn to write about things considered improper or inappropriate for *polite discussion*. In addition to sex, I find myself exploring the themes of death and grief and sorrow and trauma, often with an approach that some may consider blunt or irreverent. And I say “find” because it’s not always intentional. I experience my most creative writing as a kind of surrender to an unconscious flow… I’m often holding on for dear life, typing or writing furiously as it pours out of me, trying to catch it before it dissipates. Of course later, I go back and do the necessary shaping and editing. But the impulses come from some deep place that I’m not really sure I understand. No, scratch that, I know I don’t understand…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the act of creation as a kind of audacious madness. The sheer thought of taking an idea and making it into something that can be perceived by others – a story, a painting, a song or a play (or some as yet unnamed art form)… there’s always a risk that someone is going to laugh at you, or castigate you in some way. How dare she say that! No one’s ever done that before? Just who does she think she is? What a fool!

So when it comes to the concept of “exquisite foolishness,” I think of giving in to impulses and feelings that may not necessarily be rational. However, I think this is the place where our greatest stories reside. The terrain that you cover in much of your work is to me, the home of the most complicated desires and urges that hold powerful influence over all of our lives – think about the way whole empires have been lost over the pursuit of some forbidden passion! I consider your writing very brave, precisely because you just go there… regardless of what it took to get those words organized and recorded, and what price you may have paid before, during or after the fact, you still put it out there. I continue to be inspired by your work.

LAS: It might be true that every woman pays a price to have a voice. It might be true that every women who writes is exquisitely foolish. If the job of the fool in the classical sense is to subvert the hierarchy, in other words, poke fun at the king, isn’t every word we write doing just that?  Women are not supposed to have a voice. We’re just not. I was told: learn to type.  But not your own words, someone else’s. I remember so clearly a conversation with my mother, on the front porch.  A small town in the Midwest, and probably summer.  I was trying to explain to her what I wanted to do with my life. I said: I really want to be a writer.  And she said: You can’t build a life on that. At least get some secretarial skills.  I said: No. I’m not going to be a secretary.

I remember this conversation so clearly, because she didn’t have a voice, and probably couldn’t imagine a world where I would have one either. It is still a struggle. For many reasons. But that decision to fly in the face of convention, to not be a wife, or even a secretary, but only a writer, is and has been for me, one long act of exquisite foolishness. And again, and again, I return back to the image of the fool in the tarot deck.  At nineteen, standing on the front porch with my mother, I was looking up at the sky and the clouds, and not at the road ahead of me.  And thank God for that.

Yesterday I posted on Facebook a black and white photograph of three clowns, which I’m attaching with this conversation.  They are vagabonds, they are tramps, dirty and scruffy, but there is something so endearing about them. There is the possibility of innocence, but also mayhem:

“You could be Anna Karenina again, but not a trashy mash-up. Instead of throwing yourself on the tracks and dying, Benito, a maintenance worker, rescues you at the last minute. As he pulls you to safety, his dark eyes blaze a trail through your heart. You find yourself in a supply closet off the main gate. He’s about to fuck you blind, but you don’t mind. He’s stupid, but that doesn’t bother you either. As he roughly unbuttons your silk blouse and rips off your expensive jewelry, you muse that fucking is better than dying. That would be a revelation worthy of your illustrious name.   So you don’t fall in love, not at all.   But at least you are not pulverized beneath the wheels of a locomotive” (Am I Anna Karenina).

I think its exquisite foolishness to want to re-write one of the seminal female protagonists in Western literature.  I do the same with Blanche DuBois.  But I do this, I like to play with this, in this spirit of subverting the hierarchy, because they are women written by men.  Famous women.  Women we all know, and maybe even love. But as As Adrienne Rich writes in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision, “ She goes to poetry looking for her way of being in the world, she comes up against something that negates everything she is about, she meets the image of Woman in books written by men.”

I think its exquisite foolishness to be a writer.  To be a woman.  To be a mother.

HK: Do you find clowns endearing? When are they not?

LAS: I find clowns as tramps or hobos endearing. Like Emmett Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. Like the image I sent Deb the other day. Circus clowns are scary; orange hair, red lips, giant flower, big feet.  They seem to belong more to the tradition of the Lords of Misrule. Maybe they’re the id. The stuff of nightmares. I wouldn’t want a circus clown in my face. Not at all. But the tramp/hobo model has a kind of innocence. Charlie Chaplin isn’t going to scare you, but he will point out your foibles. I still think the Three Stooges are hysterical, I like that slapstick humor, but even they ooze a bit of mayhem, just lurking beneath the surface. And Night at the Opera by the Marx Brothers, has withstood the test to time, those guys were just geniuses. They’re not scary circus clowns at all, more like a pack of wild wolves with a sense of humor.

DOP: I know many people have had traumatic experiences with clowns as kids, but I don’t recall them ever being frightening to me. I know it’s become a real cultural reference point. My son likes to watch these Disney programs, and there’s one called “Kickin It” featuring an ensemble of kids who train together at a dojo. One of the main characters has a huge clown phobia and they trace it back to this flashback of his 5th birthday party. The hired clown is an aggressive drunk who, to the horror of the kids, collapses in front of them. They think he’s dead, until he wakes up and announces that he just hyperventilated from blowing up too many balloons. The sight of the seemingly dead guy rising up again sends all the kids running, screaming from the room.

Yes, this is the kind of dark humor that permeates pre-teen television writing these days, and it makes me think about the loss of innocence behind the image of the smiling, silly, Ringling Brothers circus clown image. Beyond the melancholy of the smile, though your heart is breaking expression of the sad clown, embodied by Pierrot, Pagliacci or even that drawing of the big-eyed clown kid in Paris, there is a sinister, macabre element associated with clowns that is disturbing and frightening. The stuff of nightmares – the terrors of seemingly normal places like supermarkets, or playgrounds, or your own home, their images no doubt imprinted by their proliferation in horror movies…

Lillian, you mentioned that there is an exquisite foolishness to being a writer, a woman, and a mother. I think this is symbolized so poignantly by the absurdity of the joyful clown face, masking so much hidden grief and violence. When I think about what it takes to write, to create, amidst the myriad responsibilities of being not only a grown woman, but also a mother, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That I am able to be prolific against the backdrop of Disney channel situation comedies, video games, and yes, videos of video game play with audio commentary by the players… it’s nothing short of a little miracle, each time.

I’m pretty sure Virginia Woolf had no idea to what extent we, the women of her future, would have to go to find some kind of virtual room of our own in which to craft a creative existence.

LAS: It is absurd, Deb, and it is also exquisite.  It’s transpersonal.  I’m incredibly grateful to VIDA for the opportunity to have this conversation with you, in a public forum.  This has been our room for a week.  And I’ve really had fun. One week to explore the fool, one week to be foolish, funny, wise, articulate, but most importantly, one week to have a voice.  As I close out this last piece of the conversation, it’s getting ready to snow here in Brooklyn.  I have to walk the dog, and have another cup of coffee.  But I’m reluctant to close the door of this room, to leave this virtual space.  To say good bye to the clowns, the fools, the hobos, the tramps.  But hey it’s almost April, and that opens the door to another possibility.


Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer, project manager and event producer who focuses on the arts, innovative & socially responsible business, entrepreneurship, health, wellness, healthcare advocacy and spirituality. She is the founder of Project Mavens, a newly formed content development, event production and media relations firm. Her blog, She Says Yes, features profiles and interviews with notable figures in the arts community, and personal essays on love, loss and parenting. She authors the young entrepreneur interview series at, and has written about iconic NYC venues and events for, where she was the Director of Communications. She is also a regular contributor at and, where she writes about life, art and event production. Some of her recent fiction and poetry can be found at She is a Smith College graduate, DJ, musician, devoted foodie and the mother of a 10-year-old son.


Lillian Ann Slugocki has created an award-winning body of work on women and sexuality, including fiction, non-fiction, plays, and monologues that have appeared Off-Broadway, on NPR and WBAI radio, and online at Salon. Her work has been reviewed in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Art in America, The New Yorker, The Daily News, The New York Post, Time Out, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph,and The London Sunday Times. Her blog The Velvet Chamber, reframing the female narrative through myth and fairy-tale, was profiled on Her short erotic fiction has been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, American Theatre Magazine and The award-winning, The Erotica Project, written in collaboration with Erin Cressida Wilson, was produced Off-Broadway at Joe’s Pub/The New York Shakespeare Festival, and later staged in San Francisco, Seattle, Charlottesville, and London, and published by Cleis Press.  Her novella, The Blue Hours, was published by Newtown Press, Summer 2012, and profiled on Beatrice.comThe Big Book of Orgasm, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussell, Cleis Press, will include her story, “Are You Ever Allowed to Feel This Good,” Fall, 2013.  Lillian has also written on arts and culture for The Brooklyn Heights Blog and Dumbo NYC. She holds an MA in feminist theory and writing from The Gallatin School at NYU.

On Clowns and Lords of Misrule: A Conversation With Lillian Ann Slugocki and Deborah Oster Pannell

How to Ski Like a Fool

by Ann Beman

1. Sign up for the Traversée De La Gaspésie, a weeklong cross-country ski adventure across the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec, with minimal training and partial French. Do the TDLG with complete strangers, no friends, family, or even fellow Californians, to comfort you in your cluelessness.

2. Once you realize your head won’t explode from the rapid-fire Quebecois you are attempting to translate in your partial French, enjoy the nine-hour bus ride from Quebec City to the Parc national de la Gaspésie. Observe the snow-draped countryside—here a twinkling icicle, there a winter-naked branch reaching for the ever-greying sky.

3. Find a ski buddy among the mostly 50- and 60-year-olds, the great majority of whom will kick your 40-year-old marathon-trained ass on skis. Get over it, rapidement!

4. When you alone are responsible for clogging a narrow descent from a country road to an ice-covered lagoon beside the Gulf of St. Lawrence, tuck and roll, baby. Tuck and roll.

5. Ask yourself were you brave to come here by yourself? Or were you just stupid?

6. Take advice not to scale a cliff at Percé, a town of 100 inhabitants—all of whom have turned out to watch the fool skiers, dressed in tights, arrive among them. Instead, accept a short Ski-Doo ride to a military truck, which will transfer you to a navette (shuttle), which will bring you, whether you need it or not, to church.

7. Recognize that in Quebec, all roads lead to church, and you never know who or what you might find there. . . . When you enter the Église de Saint-Michel de Percé, remind yourself to breathe. No longer facing the altar, the pews, turned 90 degrees, parallel one another. Sitting between them, white-clothed tables, bearing blue bottles. Above the 300-plus aprés-ski-hued faces, above the naves bearing wooden saints, a soprano named Carmen stands poised in the loft. As her exquisite “Sposa son disprezzata” rends 300-plus hearts, yours included, you wonder: This isn’t just about skiing, is it?

8. When a rosy-cheeked accordion player offers you Caribou shooters (wine, high-test booze, and warm maple syrup) at the end of a harrowing descent from Mont-Albert, accept one, maybe two, then eavesdrop: “My thighs are on fire; where is the happy horse?” you translate amid the polka tunes. Despite the certainty of mistranslation, feel better about your own aching muscles. Not necessarily brave, but not stupid either?

9. Chat with local retired couples, mechanics, teachers, and schoolchildren as you lunch in a pew at the church of Val d’Espoir, a village only a few kilometers from the rocher Percé (pierced rock), the ship-sized limestone formation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Supplement your ski-chilled, brown-bagged sandwich with hot soup, cookies, slices of sheet cake, jam cake, and cupcakes homemade by the villagers. When they insist, “you must come back for the festival in the summer,” and, “you must come back next year for the festival du Marmotte (Groundhog Festival),” and, “we boil the turkey in a garbage can,” consider coming back.

10. Catch yourself speaking English with a Quebecois accent. End every sentence, even declarative ones, with eh, eh?

11. As kite-skiers buzz the line, ski conga-style under the Ville de Gaspé bridge and up onto the main street, where a carnival atmosphere reigns, complete with drumline and red-tuqued Bonhomme, the Quebecois carnival snowman. On that final night of the TDLG, attend Le Grand Bal Blanc in, where else, the Cathédrale de Gaspé, the only wooden cathedral in North America. Once again marvel at the transformation of a church, most of its pews cleared, jazz quartet jamming upon the wooden altar/stage, an oyster bar set up beneath a metal Christ. White diaphanous fabric drapes the festivities, lit by blue lights. Throughout the White Ball, fellow skiers, as well as provincial politicians, actresses, and astronauts, circulate, mingle, and drift like the snow outside. Join the conga line forming to the tune of “Mack the Knife” in French. Bob your head to how delightfully weird it all is. Peer up at a very mod brass sculptural Jesus, while below him the official big band of the Gaspésie, Le Mambo Sax, blows the cedar roof off the place with a swinging rendition of “She Bangs.” Let the surreality overtake you. Refill your glass. Giggle. Hug someone.

12. Attempt to relive the experience in an email on the hotel’s desktop computer. Realize that the keyboard is set so that certain keys create accented letters necessary for French. Instead of producing interrogatory punctuation, the question mark key produces an accent aigu é, as in the words traversée and Gaspé and amitié. Brave. Stupid. Foolish. These questions must wait, eh. Appreciate the metaphor.

How to Ski Like a Fool

Turn The Key: An Interview With Virginia Woolf

by Elena Georgiou

Why did I resurrect Virginia Woolf? I am British. (Working-class roots. Cypriot ancestry.) With this birthright comes an acute sense of class. So every time I hear about Virginia Woolf’s five hundred pounds per year inheritance, which relieved her from the worry and need to find work to keep a roof over her head and put food in her mouth, it pierces my heart a little.

I have been teaching creative writing in the U.S. for twenty-two years—seventeen of those years as an adjunct (in addition to a full-time office job), and now with a full-time teaching job that, on good weeks, requires me to read approximately 280 pages of creative work then write 34 pages of a typed responses per week. (On a bad week—final theses, etc.—I read approximately 1,400 pages of reading and 44 pages of typed responses.) The money I earn from this work does, however, enable me to afford a Room of My Own as well as the modern-day equivalent of five hundred (un-inherited) pounds.

Times have changed. Most of the women writers I know are working full time. Most are supporting themselves; some are even the sole providers for their families. Beyond this, most of the women writers I work with have more than one job—one full-time, plus another part time. When I hear women writers talking, it is not about wanting a room, but wanting time.

In the 21st century U.S., we are currently without free national healthcare and free college-level education, so this means we have to spend much of our lives working to pay off our student loans and dental bills, to pay for our entire family’s health coverage, to pay rent, gas, electric, heat; and what we have left, we use to feed our families.

Why did I write the following interview? As an undergraduate and graduate student I worked full-time and went to school at night. At that time in my life (and as the daughter of a formally uneducated man and woman), I was in desperate need of a working-class woman writer to inspire me. I was hungry for this inspiration; without it I would have felt that writing was only something that a middle-class or upper-class woman with inherited money could do.

I resurrected Virginia Woolf to encourage working women who are writers to ask ourselves what we really feel about the “room” and the present-day equivalent of the five hundred pounds per year? For me, the most important question is this: In the 21st century, what do we most need as women who take ourselves seriously as writers in the world?


Interviewer (I): First, let me say how humbled I am that you have granted me this interview on your one-day resurrection. I have prepared some questions, so that I don’t waste a single one of your precious minutes. What my readers would most like to know is if you find the world of today a far cry from the one you left behind in 1941?

Virginia Woolf (VW): Before I plunge into my sense of how the early years of the 21st century differ from the 20th, let me first say I consider it a privilege to return for this fleeting moment to address some of the concerns with which women writers of today must contend.

Since time is indeed precious, let us begin: Yes, your world certainly differs from the one I was addressing in A Room of One’s Own, but there is still a lot that applies. What might be most helpful for today’s woman writer is to contemplate how my words may be differently interpreted to allow one’s self the freedom to write.

I: My readers would love to hear you talk about how you are re-interpreting your own work. Would you mind speaking further on this subject?

VW: Not at all. What first comes to mind is that since my death Feminism has offered women many positive advances, but, as with every movement, it is never a linear path; along the way there are obstacles to overcome. (From my celestial vantage point, I have a clear view.) Also, when I wrote “five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, . . .a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself,” it was not part of my experience that women could sometimes be the sole providers for their families. It was also not part of my experience that women could attend college to study beside their brothers. So in this day and age, where this is now the case, I would advise women to seriously contemplate how they will make the most of their five hundred pounds. (What would that be in 2013 for your countrywomen? Approximately $50,000 perhaps?) I venture to add that the most important question a woman writer might now ask herself is: What kind of lock would I buy?

I: If you wouldn’t mind, I have an experience to share with you that might act as a shortcut to help you understand further how life has changed for women since your death.

VW: Please, go on. I welcome any information that helps me to understand the lives of today’s women writers more deeply.

I: In 1991, I was watching an interview on the television with two writers—a man and a woman—who had recently published new work. The interviewer asked the writers what it was like to work on their books. The man spoke first. “I locked myself up in my office and didn’t see my children for five years.”

Then the interviewer asked the woman the same question. She said, “I am a single mother with two children and a full-time job, so sometimes I sat at my typewriter with one of my children in my lap, pulling at my earring as I typed.”

I don’t remember the name of the male author, but I do remember the name of the female author: Toni Morrison. (A contemporary woman writer of great stature and acclaim.) For women writers of today, the child sitting on a mother’s lap is a symbol of our time. Women are constantly having to juggle their responsibilities. I wonder what you think of this snapshot? Many women writers are clinging to it. (Myself included.) Have you thoughts on how this might relate to your updated idea of how we should ask ourselves what kind of lock would we buy?

VW: Thank you for this anecdote. I am a fan of Ms. Morrison’s work. (The Afterlife has an extensive library.) Your story clearly demonstrates how times have changed. It also helps me to refine my advice. I can see why women writers would cling to this kind of inspiration. What you are talking about here is determination. What is evident to me in your contemporary world is that money can buy a certain kind of freedom and it can also purchase a lock. But it seems as if turning the key has now become the primary obstacle. If I were to revise my words for the 21st-century woman writer, I would add to my original sentiment in this way:

“Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, . . .

a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself . . .

turning the key means putting your work first.”

I: If I understand you correctly, you are asking the women writers of today to think about what it takes to put their work first.

VW: Exactly. What good is an unlocked lock? The focus of my advice is immersion, without the interruptions of others people’s ideas, needs, and demands. What hasn’t changed over time is how much women are expected to be all things to all people, and because of this it is a constant fight to put their writing first. Writing is a serious endeavor. It is not something to be done sitting on the sofa with children or spouses coming in to ask where you keep the biscuits or the automobile keys. Or to be interrupted by an employer who calls your home at night to ask where you put last year’s accounts. I’m sure that you must have your own example of how the world intrudes on your work. I’m interested to hear your story.

I: I wasn’t expecting the spotlight to fall on my own writing. On the one hand, it feels like a blessing to have Virginia Woolf’s ear, and on the other hand I feel exposed. Nevertheless, I will speak honestly.

A few years ago, I was given a backhanded gift that I have never forgotten: two months of unemployment. This was the only time in my adult life that I was not working full time. Besides looking for work, my only commitment was to my writing. This singular interval, in which time was abundant, was a revelation to me: I read and I wrote with a voraciousness that took me by total surprise—it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for this freedom. And something else equally surprising happened: during this short period of unemployment, when I sat down to write more poems (until this time I had only written poetry), instead, fifteen pages of prose spilled out. Then, two months later, I had thirty pages of prose. Once I was back in full-time employment, the prose kept coming (albeit in dribs and drabs). Eventually, I had to admit I was writing a novel, and not just any novel, but an historical novel, one that required me to do research on two women from the 19th century. One of these 19th century women was also given a five-hundred-pound-a-year allowance by her father, so, like you, she did not have to worry about money and was liberated to devote herself to her vocation. And as a result, her name became synonymous with heroism. The other woman—my main character—a descendant of people who were recently enslaved—was born into a working family, without an inheritance, but she did not let this deter her.

Working on this novel is teaching me, from the inside, about determination. And self-determination. And about the ways in which locks and keys can lock us in or lock us out. Ms. Woolf, I confess: the door to my room slammed closed behind me and I accidentally locked myself out, with the key inside.

VW: My dear, this is not something over which you need despair. A lock can be replaced. What concerns me is why you have not already done so? What have you been doing since you locked yourself out?

I: I’ve been writing in parked cars, on the subway, and even in airport terminals. I have also been writing at the kitchen table while the dinner is cooking, and at the Laundromat while the laundry is drying. I squeeze writing in wherever and whenever I can.

Ms. Woolf, I feel self-conscious that I have taken up your time with my own concerns, but then I know that my difficulties apply to others, and so I am emboldened to mention one last thing. Would you mind if I used another woman writer’s words to explain how I currently feel?

VW: Not at all. I am always looking for inspiration. Death has not stopped me from dreaming.

I: The writer, Hélène Cixous, once wrote: “One can die from being unable to write in time the book one has in one’s body. This is the book that must be braved, it demands of me a courage I desperately seek to call up in myself.”

This sentiment is exactly how I feel about my work, and I’m sure this sentiment is felt by a large majority of my readers. Therefore, my last question before you have to return to the Afterlife is: Taking into consideration Cixous’ words, do you have any advice to help those of us who have been locked out of our rooms?

VW: Yes, I do: Replace your lock. (But if this is too costly, a padlock will do.) Step inside. Turn the key.

Turn The Key: An Interview With Virginia Woolf

Lady in the House Questions: Carina Finn

When have you acted the fool?

In romance, almost every time, because I am idealistic and a troubadour. A fundamental part of being a troubadour is foolishness – the word having sketchy origins but coming probably from the Occitan trobar, “to compose, to discuss, to invent.” Invention presupposes a foolishness or at least a foolhardiness. What makes being a troubadour in the Contemporary Era particularly foolish is that to fight for the ideals of Chivalry and Courtly Love is not fighting a losing battle, it’s fighting a dead one. It’s not even bleeding anymore; it’s a fossil.

In Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father, Zizek notes that, in the trope of courtly love (“trope” being also etymologically related to “troubadour”), the Lady “charges her knight-servant with arbitrary and outrageous ordeals” – this is true. Both the Knight-Servant and the Lady foolishly accept these arbitrary terms the moment they enter into the romantic contract.

All of which is to say that any time I enter into such a contract I act the fool; as a Knight-Servant, the ordeal is the part I most enjoy.


Who is your favorite foolish character and why?

Ruth in Gaskell’s Ruth, because her foolishness is immaculate and pure. The foolishness of a character like Emma Bovary, whom I also adore, is calculated, a kind of suicide, whereas Ruth is the victim of her own charm.


What is your fool’s gold?

Poetry, for sure. I’m totally mad for it while still being acutely aware of its complete lack of economic value. As with fool’s gold, what I’m attracted to is the romance, the shimmer – what makes poetry the most authentic, genuine substance imaginable is the fact that it’s outside the shiftiness of economies. It (poetry, shimmer, romance) has a universal symbolic value, but the meaning of that value is mine to determine. Basically I’m a fascist and this is linked inextricably to the fact that I am a poet and lover of Poetry.


What has been one of your most important first experiences? And Why?

I tried to think of something better, but the day I read Ariel for the first time. I remember everything about it: my best friend and I had skipped school and baked three cakes. We watched But I’m A Cheerleader and The Hours. My mom was cooking live lobsters and I was sitting on the couch reading Plath and listening to the lobsters scream as they died. Then my mom, my best friend, and I ate lobster and I drowned every bite in melted butter and then we ate some of every kind of cake we’d made and the whole time I never stopped  reading Ariel. It was the day I first realized that I was A) monstrous and B) this was not necessarily a bad thing.


“You can fool me once, but you can’t fool me twice”—how has this proven true in your life and writing career?

It’s probably not true for me; I never learn.

Lady in the House Questions: Carina Finn

Writer’s Well Retreat Day 2: The Woman in the Mirror

by Norma Iris Lafé

“When I was a youngster, those nimble days of yore in the New York City hood of the ’60s, I stood on the sidelines waiting for my turn, to ready my undaunted stance against the two criss-crossing ropes in motion and with the utmost precision leapt into the jump zone of the BADDEST double dutch played on the streets of the South Bronx. New Yorkers who grew up in the ghetto will remember this ghetto-Olympics sport, a test of physical dexterity, speed, timing, and stamina—the swiftest and most agile Boricua and black sistahs from the block doing ‘the running man’ at warp speed, clockwise and counterclockwise pivots, spins and twirls, gravity-defying moves, breaking out in a cool, cold sweat on the hot summer pavement. In perfect unison with skillfully, synchronized turners rocking and be-bopping to the beat. Cylindrical hoops zooming at you left and right —Smack-Smack! Smack-Smack! Smack-Smack!—punishing the potholed sidewalks. The name of the game was ‘staying power.’ Who could stay the longest and jump the fastest in the jump zone without getting tripped up on the ropes (or breaking their necks, I always feared). Come my turn (a not-so-athletic-nerd-type) I was content to do my little dance in the ring, skip-hop long enough to proudly exhibit my one daring 360-degree turn. That was the extent of my double dutch prowess—my not-so-quick feet, got tangled in the ropes.

At 12 years old, I much preferred to watch the history unfolding on my black and white TV, the early freedom fighters of the Black Civil rights movement marching for equality, justice and the right to vote for ‘the coloreds,’ the right to live with human dignity, no bigotry, no hatred, and no scorn. I dreamed of the day when I too would grow up to fight for justice, better jobs, and decent housing for my people: Puerto Ricans, the dark-skinned, kinky-haired new kids on the block who spoke the foreign tongue of the ‘mira miras.’ I didn’t know it then, but the trumpets of freedom would go deaf for brown people, mulattos and mestizos of African, Indian, and Spanish blood. Because when Lady Liberty saw US coming, she quickly switched the sign in the window to: ‘Spanish-speaking Immigrants Go Back to Where You Came From,’ to stop the mongrels from taking over.”

I could still hear my words come to life from the above memoir, “Birth of An Activist,” delivered with the intonation and dramatic flair of an actor. I received resounding applause from Hotlanta artist who gathered the night before. It was like an out-of-body experience. I’d died and gone to writer’s heaven. Encircled in good vibes, it wasn’t a bad death. It was like Michael Jackson’s words from the “Man in the Mirror”: “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” The euphoria of the artistic village gathering the night before accompanied me to the first of my daily writer/coaching tête-à- têtes around the kitchen table.

The woman in the mirror took her first step to make that change. “Be gone,” I commanded the former me, feeling at moments undeserving of recognition, distancing myself from the limelight. In Adilah Barnes, the retreat proprietor and writing coach, I saw a reflection of the true me: humble, huge heart, high aspirations for other women, particularly women writers of color with a story to tell.

“Fix yourselves whatever’s in the pantry and refrigerator for breakfast,” Adilah yelled from her room at the top of the stairs.

Terra, a statuesque—curves to kill—Nubian beauty, whose smile lights up the earth she’s named after, was also on retreat from a busy, passion-filled, film-making Manhattan-style life. “I’ve got a taste for some grits,” Terra shouted back from the living room after a restful and tranquil sleep on the sofabed.

“You makin’ grits, Terra?” Fresh out of a soothing hot bath, I jumped for joy. “I haven’t had grits in ages. I loves me some grits. Can I help?” I offered.

“I found them. I got it covered.” In a New York minute, Terra put breakfast on the table.

Sister bonding and grits, what more could a Boricua barrio girl on retreat ask for? The one-on-one writer’s coaching and 10 page-manuscript critique was also on the menu.

“What are your expectations for your retreat stay? Adilah began. We were face-to-face in the cozy, rustic kitchen.

Outside the window was a view of 1.8 sprawling acres of Georgia pines, oak, and maple trees. We were immersed in wall-to-wall carpeted décor of my favorite autumnal colors, a calming palate of lime-green retro kitchen cabinets, passion red linen table cloth, and gold-accented place mats, luxuriant hardwood floors, and the soft luminescence of brightly-lit candles draping the mantelpiece; a perfect portrait of black and brown woman power and unity in a Norman Rockwell background of country living.

By this time, all the other guests had left the retreat back to their homes. We were alone at last to tap into the hidden wellspring of memories and secrets too painful to reveal, but I knew that I must. I was prepared with a draft of my memoir. “I think I need to write more descriptive passages and dialogue.” I pointed out my weak spots.

“We’ll do a series of writing exercises. Write one page describing the sounds you remember from your childhood. After that, we’ll do the other senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch,” Adilah directed.

I hurried upstairs, alone in my room; I plugged into my early childhood in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. I conjured up the spirit of my inner child:

The wide-eyed and supplicant 6 year-old little girl with a big Charlie Brown head, bulging brown and beady eyes, beneath a crown of kinky red curls. The child me was yoooo-glee. Everybody made fun of her; but it didn’t faze her because she had the big brains to go inside the big head. Still, it wasn’t fair. Of the four children, she wasn’t Shirley Temple, irresistibly cute. Papi’s recessive genes played havoc with his children. Born negra inside, outside she was a ginger girl, lighter skin, and the face of a chameleon of sorts, who could blend into her surroundings.

“Come,” her forceful little hand reached out for mine. “I’ve been waiting for the longest time. Let’s step into the flood. Come, our memories will wash away the sadness and open the window to a new and happy future. It will be good for you and others,” my inner child reassured me of the journey.

I tied my nervous fingers around her outstretched hand. I was always strong enough to stay afloat, but I never did learn to navigate the rivers of fate without the lifeboat of a safe, sound, and secure childhood.

Next in the series: Writer’s Well Retreat Day 3: “Peace is not just absence of tension, it is presence of justice”

Writer’s Well Retreat Day 2: The Woman in the Mirror