A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

Minal Hajratwala: I have to say that my first response to this prompt is kind of “Meh.” I’m not sure how much I resonate with the term bitch at this point as an identity, personally. It’s important as part of the range of female expression, of course, and I think in my angry 20s I was very excited about claiming bitch-ness as a right. But at 42, I find I’m more interested in how to be kind AND free. Which requires having a spine, of course. But at the risk of offending our publisher here, these days I think of bitchdom as more of a transient, and maybe even, adolescent stage or posture in undoing the conditioning of patriarchy—not necessarily a full-fledged, healthy, adult persona. I don’t think Claire Messud was being a bitch, really, just giving a sensible and real response to a stupid question.

Bitches as characters are super interesting, though. I’m writing one now in my novel and it’s so much fun. She gets to do and say very exciting things, and her destructive force is quite glorious to watch. I don’t think anyone would want to be her friend.

 

Sophia Starmack: I hear you on meh. When I heard the theme was Bitches, I felt a bit of oh-fuck-what’ve-I-got-myself-into, wondering if we were going to be asked to write on some sort of 90s-style bitch-as-insult-or-reclaimed-identity prompt. I’m younger than you at 32, but old enough to be a bit bored of that particular strand of ra-ra Third Wave feminism. Bitch isn’t a word I identify with, nor one I feel particularly triggered by.

I liked what you wrote about your primary interest these days being “how to be kind and free.” I think a lot about kindness, myself, and freedom, and wonder what it might mean to be truly both. What is the largest, most expansive state I can imagine for myself and the world? How do I practice living it daily? I must say though, being socialized as a super-girl from day one (be polite above all, be kind, be pretty, be sweet), and as someone who as an adult earns a living as a teacher (a traditionally female, caregiving role), I grapple with the concept of kindness. In my personal and professional lives I often feel I’m too accommodating. Real kindness must entail some amount of what you call “spine.” Real kindness must involve upholding some standards, I think, and lovingly (but not necessarily “nicely”) speaking up when those standards are not being met. And real art, of course, requires some space and time. I still need practice on that.

I don’t think Messud was being a bitch, either. What she did was speak up and raise the bar a bit during that interview. I admire her for turning the question to her own purposes. It reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s trenchant shutdown of Matt Lauer’s “dress malfunction” probing: http://feministguidetohollywood.blogspot.com/2012/12/anne-hathaway-shuts-down-matt-lauers.html (Whatever about AH and Les Mis, but she didn’t take that one lying down.) I admire people who can think on the spot!

I used to dream of having a consciousness-raising workshop where I’d get a bunch of women together and we’d all share the moments where we’d felt temporarily speechless in the face of some harassment or idiotic comment, and then we’d reenact them, changing the ending of the scene to include all the fantastic repartee and insightful lines we wish we’d zapped back with.

Messud’s novel is about a woman who’s deeply unfulfilled, right, who grapples with those sorts of “my needs or their needs”, “nice or real,” “art or survival” dichotomies that often attend a woman’s psyche, or maybe everyone deals with them, regardless of gender—I would like to believe are no longer relevant or simply the product of a repressed mind. But statistically women are still earning somewhere around 77 cents to the man’s dollar (women of color earn less than white women), women take the lion’s share of the childcare, housework, and domestic labor in a state that provides little to no public assistance, and a lot of traditional “women’s work” (teaching, caregiving, housekeeping) is grossly undervalued and underpaid. It does put a bit of a damper on the creative impulse, on the ability to dream big and wild of that state of “kind and free” you so beautifully named.

And yet, of course, the further you get from the center of privilege the sharper you see, and the more you’re able to imagine other ways of being. I’m not trying to make good here, but that keenness, so often either experienced or read as rage, is where I, at least, want to go. Not only women, but humans in general, are constantly being encouraged not to think, told our thoughts and dreams are impractical or offensive, or told to shut up and be grateful for what we’ve got. We must be sharp and clear if we’re going to move beyond the current desperate state in which we find our planet.

Tell me about writing bitch characters. Did you relate to the part of the prompt that asked if you find yourself censoring? Do you worry that you’ll be too closely aligned with your characters?

As a poet, my first thought was, “Um? I write poetry? There are no characters?” But of course, the poem is always speaking out of the self. Even if the poem is written in the third person, the implicit character is “I.”

Do I worry I’ll come off as a bitch? Not particularly. One of my jobs as a poet is to go for the discomfort, to live in the place where I don’t necessarily come off as a fabulously moral person.

However, I remembered that in my MFA program an enormous number of women-student poets fiercely resisted using the “I” in the poem. They would come right out and say how uncomfortable they felt in the first person. Uncomfortable in one’s very self! It was as though they were trying to write poems that literally effaced the speaker. When I tutored undergraduate and graduate students, I found that many women had the same struggles in analytical writing. They would come up with incredibly convoluted syntactical structures, all to avoid the occasional authorial “I.” I have not undertaken a scientific study here, but I haven’t come across any male writers who feel that writing the word “I” is such a deeply ingrained taboo.

Write back as you see fit, or if you’d like a “prompt,” I wonder:

  • What “bitch” characters are you writing about or have you written? How did they come to you? What do you enjoy about them or writing about them?
  • What do you find puts a damper on your imagination? What liberates it? How are these related to your lived experience? To your personal, family, geographic, cultural histories?
  • What’s your relationship to resentment?

I’ll wrap up with a poem; I write from a deep Catholic inheritance—ha-ha can you tell?

The Wisdom of the Virgins
Matthew 25:1-13

Not because they remembered to dress nice
—but not too nice—for the party.
Not because they kept their make-up natural,
or because not one of them outshone the bride.
Not because of the fork-and-knife lessons,
the nightgowned waltzes late in the parlor.
(In fact, they were somewhat bruised from studying,
and at least one had gone all the way.)
Not because their flasks were so chastely filled,
their wicks so respectably trimmed,
not even because they slept so slightly
the whitest sigh would wake them.
It was because they kept their oil to themselves.

They’d given so much already, the gesture hollow like a lamp.

 

MH:  I love your poem so much.

I am considering your prompts and meanwhile—wonder if you have something to say about virgins and bitches . . . bitchy (frigid?) virgins . . . being immaculate, staying pure, holding oneself apart?

I appreciate what you have said about the “I” and as it turns out today’s poem of the day is titled “I”: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15897

I want to send you some poems too . . .  if that’s OK?

 

SS: Hmm, virgins and bitches, bitchy virgins. The real-life matters of virginity never much intrigued or troubled me. (For that I must plug my friend Therese Schecter, whose fabulous film and blog on virginity can be glimpsed here: http://www.virginitymovie.com/blog/.) That said, literary virgins have always fired me up. I’m looking up “virgin” in Merriam-Webster right now, and interestingly, the first definition is “an unmarried woman devoted to religion.” Funny, nothing about sex in there. That doesn’t come in till definition two, “an absolutely chaste young woman,” or definition three (ha!) “VIRGIN MARY.”

I like this idea of a virgin as one who’s devoted to something, to her own vision? That’s what got in under my skin about Jesus’ parable. I happened to be at a church service one Sunday, and the text was Matthew 25, the wise and foolish virgins. In the story, there’s a big wedding celebration, and all the young girls have to go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom, who’s due to arrive late that night. Half of the virgins are prepared, but the other half are late and lazy and their lamps go out. They ask the first set if they can borrow some oil, and are quickly rebuffed.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that Jesus (the bridegroom) could show up any minute so you’d better keep on your toes, but the whole thing made me so upset. Why wouldn’t the first set share? Weren’t they being selfish? Wasn’t the whole point of Jesus about sharing and doing unto others, etc.?

I had to write the poem to reconcile myself to all this, and in the course of the writing I discovered a certain virginal wisdom in, if not selfishness, at least a healthy self-interest, a willingness to not give it all away.

My favorite literary virgins (besides Mary—I mean, come on!) were Joan of Arc and Jane Eyre. Joan of Arc (like Mary!) was not only mysteriously powerful, but she had this incredible sangfroid, an insane but beautiful faith in what she’d seen and heard. When Joan came to court everyone mocked the little peasant girl, but unfazed, she calmly said her piece and then ratted out the dauphin, who’d disguised himself to play a trick on her. It’s that unshakeable confidence, that unflappable adherence to one’s inner voices and visions, that I think makes her loveable to so many young women.

Jane Eyre of course shacks up with Rochester in the end (“Reader, I married him”), but she doesn’t give it up easily and there’s something in the torment she feels at love that I find archetypical. She’s a misfit, an intellectual, a poet, and as there was no place in her world for such a thing, she mediates her internal and external worlds by becoming a governess (a virginal profession, of course, and like Mary, she raises a child but doesn’t bear one). When she experiences passion, her whole world goes up (literally) in flames. She doesn’t know how to navigate that one—how to be the idiosyncratic, independent, deeply moral Jane and the Jane who longs to love and be loved.

I remember Joni Mitchell speaking in a documentary about wanting to get married and then suddenly being beset by the memory of her grandmother, who’d kicked in the barn door at age fourteen because she’d wanted a piano so badly, and knew she’d never have one. Joni said that in that minute she froze, terrified that if she went deeper into the relationship she’d end up beating the barn door over and over.

These days we’re supposed to believe that we can have it all, but these questions always plagued me, too. Can I be an artist and be in a relationship? I can, I am, and yet, the fear runs under the surface like a plucked thread in a stocking, always just noticeable, threatening to unravel the whole thing. What about all my women ancestors, who struggled to negotiate dreams and realities: my great-grandmother, who danced and laughed and drank and spent her life running her husband’s bootlegging business, later his bar; my grandmother, who wanted to be a scientist and settled for nursing (though her father found even that too risqué); my mother, who went to music school while raising three children? I often feel that I’m writing in conversation with them.

And on that note, another poem, one written (though she doesn’t know it) with my grandmother.

Yours very warmly!
SGS

***

I Interview My Grandmother

Q. What happens when we die?
A. Something leaves the body at this moment.
But don’t trouble yourself looking for its traces. It is colorless and odorless.

Q. Why is death so difficult?
A. It doesn’t have to be. Morphine is a wonderful thing.

Q. It seems to me that men die and women linger.
A. I don’t like to make generalizations.
But if you don’t tell anyone, I’ll agree with you.

Q. Why do we rage so against death?
A. Let me tell you this.
The universe is large and magnificent and follows an order we cannot comprehend. After death, we’ll see just how insignificant we here on earth really are.

Q. I see. I suspected this.
A. I hope I haven’t confused you. You still have to do a good job while you’re here.

 

MH: Yay! I am going to read this in more detail soon.

And also, wah! Our deadline approaches!

I feel like I’m still having trouble connecting to the center of this topic and I am wondering whether some sort of collaborative exercise would be fun/interesting to offer. I was re-viewing some writing prompts for another purpose this week, and wondering if you would like to do something like exquisite corpse or a cut-up collage or the surrealist dialogues (Q&A format) . . . that we could do via email or perhaps more expeditiously over a Google chat / Skype session? Something open and poetic and creative/assemblage-ish as a shared response?

If you want to talk or chat live as a way of developing or wrapping this up, I am in India, which is 9.5 hours ahead of NY time, so your mornings up till about 12-noon work well for the time difference. I am reasonably free Sunday, Mon, or Tues at that time.

Also I am interested in your teaching work and have been thinking about how as a teacher this question of the female student’s confidence/voice/right to tell her story or any story at all is such a terrible & predictable constant. Currently I am teaching an online course with 20 students, of whom two are male. This is a pretty regular ratio in my workshops, by the way, whether live or online. 🙂 The two men have no trouble posting, critiquing, etc.—they have their own writing struggles of course, but their right to be present, even in a place where they are a decided minority, is not contested. Among the women students, and this is a constant across courses & situations, a good portion of them are so paralyzed that they never or almost never share their work with the class, thus losing out on the entire workshop aspect of receiving peer feedback and affirmation. And those who do often preface their work with apologies and disclaimers.

In a 90-minute session, if I don’t explicitly ban them from apologizing before they speak, I have counted the number of “sorrys” from the women students and it is often in the double-digits. When called on in discussion: “Oh, sorry, is it my turn?” When sharing work: “Sorry, this is really rough, but OK—.”  When engaging in dialogue: “Oh sorry did I interrupt you, go ahead . . .” Ceding, ceding, ceding so much space and authority.

I am not totally sure what “bitchiness” has to do with this but it is certainly an antidote. And also, the female student who takes up “too much” space is much more likely to be labeled a bitch within her cohort—especially, I think, in competitive contexts like certain MFA programs—vs. the male student who takes up too much space, who at most is considered to be a bit egotistical or somehow lacking in social skills. (Another version of boys will be boys?) But even the occasional woman who cheerfully claims the title bitch for herself will still, usually, be plagued with the same uncertainty & hesitation.

So as a writing teacher & writing coach I feel like a lot of my work with women who are writing is really just to encourage and hold space and say, “Yes, you DO have the right to tell your story as you see it.” And I also went through this process myself in writing my own family’s story—so many doubts and fears and questions—some of which could really only be answered in the end by a firm “FUCK OFF” to the internal(ized) critics who were telling me that I could not tell certain stories or give certain interpretations because it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t good to spread family secrets, it wasn’t my right, people might not like me, etc.

Shedding the fear of being disliked, or of not getting (authority) (parental) (teacher) (peer) (critic) (etc.) approval for one’s writing is, I think, the key to growing up as a female writer. At least for some of us (obviously—this trajectory doesn’t apply to everyone). Growing up from the talented youngster who has something special that others approve of and like and encourage, to the adult writer who says whatever she needs to say without regard for how many people will be tweeting her praises. That desperate desire for approval, which social media can really feed, is necessary to outgrow. Or else it becomes a noose—another version of the “good girl” syndrome.

It makes sense to me that any woman who is grown, as a writer, will have developed this strength and fuck-off-ness to some extent. From Toni Morrison to JK Rowling, y’know!?

I am also interested in and think it’s important to note how bitch-ness is racialized. What it takes for a Black woman to be called a bitch is often so tiny, for example. Like, just existing. What are the things that different women get away with or not, based on race, gender presentation, class, age, and so on? As an Asian American/South Asian woman, perceived as being from a so-called model minority, when I express anger it is sometimes very surprising to white folks. I remember being in a poetry workshop, when I was quite young, in my early 20s, and I read a poem, and one of the other students, an older white South African woman, looked at me and said, “But you look like such a nice girl.” HA! Adrienne Su has some great “bitchy” poems that are stunning and tight and poetically superb.

Also: The relationship between bitch-ness and cute-ness. Like, the more perceived/standard cute-ness you have, the more bitchiness you can get away with. Maybe? A working thesis.

OK, that was all super stream-of-conscious but given the deadline, I wanted to just put out a bunch of text to then massage and work with (somehow—how?!) .

OK some writing—

***

Angerfish

…who ‘wrap up’ anger—that is, wrap around [themselves] repeatedly the anger based on the thought ‘he reviled me,’ and so on, like wrapping up the pole of a cart with thongs, or putrid fish with straw—when enmity arises in such persons, it is not appeased, pacified. —Dhammapada I.4

I.

On the first day
the fish wrapped in straw
starts to stink.

On the second day
if you walk by the barn
it enters your clothes.

That evening your wife
sniffs your suit
but says nothing.

On the third day
dressed in your skin
the fish begins to walk.

Your friends know
to hold their breaths.
This is not the first time.

If nothing else happens
the fish retreats
to its mean nest.

You shower.
It sleeps
waiting for you.

Fish oils
soak the hay
of the whole barn.

The chickens begin to dream
of seaweed,
of roe.

II.

In the middle of it
the fish
is the wisest
truest thing you know.

It whispers
sweet sauces—
We are brought here to love, yes,
but not blindly.

Its jelly eye
winks at you
codes of Morse—
No remorse.

Every oracle
takes its price,
skin for scales,
gold for gills.

Some days
it is a bargain.
Or else it costs
everything you have.

III.

I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Somehow in the cradle, rocking,
I caught a whiff; or in the crib clutching
at rails

a bit of fish caught
rough in my scream.
Swallow.

Since then the fish has grown in me
like bubblegum or seeds of water
melons.

Since then we’re bosom tight
thick as thieves sealed with a
kiss — kin.

Is this what I meant
when I longed for teeth?
Is this what they meant

when they named me fish?
Soon I shall slit my
belly

to stroke its silver scales
bilious, slippery
as love.

IV.

At last the fish
swallows its own tail

scale by creamy scale
orgy of self-

righteous     lips
on sharp bone

tongue sucking spine
vertebra by vertebra

teeth shredding
gummy ovaries

ripe with black meat
millions of living

egg of fish.
Belly full of self

soft pulsing
heart of fish

parallel eyes
forehead

white gills
filled

with the last sea.
When the fish

is all jaw
row of incisors

grinding plankton
coral     salt

churning oceans
like milk

into sweet fat
gold

then I will be ready
for you.

***

<Below is a snip—the first section of a longer prose-poem in several parts>

 Archaeologies of the present
“. . . a trained student can master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months.” —Margaret Mead
“Everything, everything is cinema.”  —Jean-Luc Godard

 

1-2000 The Beautiful

Luxury at this time in America meant white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, the material used in bathing towels, found in five-star hotels. The stars were a rating system indicating the quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one had generally to be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough to be projected upon: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides were enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means existed to simulate blood.

A sweetened, tomato-blood chemical sauce was the nation’s most popular food.  Others: Grainstuffs elaborated as stars, flakes, O’s. Dried strips of cow meat sold individually or trussed in plastic.  Tasteless tablets of all sorts containing nutrients & chemicals designed to manipulate the body’s reactions, at the cellular level.

At the cellular level the people had no awareness. The living world was mute around them; some wore devices to enhance their hearing, while others plugged their aural orifices with synthetic music. Synthesizers simulated joy, art, sex. Love was consummated not in stamens & pistils, but in leather & lace. Each woman’s thighs were obscene. Breastfeeding took place only in closets.

Elaborate & costly systems of organizing closets were available. Entire stores existed to sell containers for items sold in other stores: clothing & other forms of body decoration, scrubbing tools, pig fat in hundreds of hues to dramatize the lips. It was rumored that the color of a woman’s lips indicated the color of her labial arches. Archbishops denied all knowledge of the topic. Sexually transmitted disease was rampant among celibate priests, & debates raged over their homo– or hetero-sexuality.

Homogeneous vitamin-fortified milk was sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying desires for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, were white.

***

 

Minstrelry

My sisters & I write all day & night about silk
its delicate weft      golden peacocks & parrots
rush of wind through dark hair      waiting.       Just the word

chanted like a sutra     silk      silk      silk      silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on musks of exotic suffering.      Whatever

we say       love      war      race      hate
if we wrap it in silk they will take it
home, unminding.      It will live in their rooms amid demons

of jade      throw pillows      Chinese funeral papers
marble dust from the Taj Mahal.       At night
we will wriggle out in ribbons of soft meat      like worms

feasting.

***

*

Novel scene of bitch character getting her comeuppance—

 

Re: your prompts—a quick thought/note: I have loved writing this character and seeing the inside of her suffering. Although she is a total bitch in the story, I see the deep roots of trauma in her, and so she is also beloved to me.  And fascinating. She gets to behave in ways I never would, but maybe sometimes would like to.  (Since she’s a vampire, for example, she often just kills people who irritate her. Full entitlement & unchecked power — that’s sexy!!  As pure fantasy.)  The violence she does is intense but also teeny in proportion to the violence that has been done to her.  So she is a victim as well.

One theme I realized today I am exploring in this novel:  the actual & imagined victimhood of the powerful &privileged.

<Editor’s note: Novel scene excised by Minal because she doesn’t want it published at this moment.>

 

MH: Sophia, sorry to email you again without even waiting for a response! I got excited and wrote a poem (rough-rough drafty draft!) for you.

 What we bitch about when we bitch about “bitch” or What kind of question is that?
for Sophia Starmack

“Meh” to the old debate about rights,
the dated defense, the fuck-you to fuck all yous,

transient/adolescent posture for undoing
patriarchy, her destructive force

quite glorious to watch. Today bitch
is a verb & bee-yatch a joke/mace young men

hurl to bond with each other
over our bodies—swelled battlegrounds

ripe with blood, fat but intact,
lumpy like pickles, preserved in rage-brine.

I’ll give you Mina Loy’s virgins + curtains,
the slow testifying of Rachel Jaentel,

streak of women who claim the capital “I,”
stone in the throat of Juror B37.

You give me the wise & the foolish,
a series of prompts,

questions of liberation
& resentment. So much more to explore

than the -archy’s twisted mirror,
that evil genie grin:

Would you like to be my friend? Please will you be
my friend? We couldn’t friendbook her could we?

Let’s take our three wishes and run.
Let’s picnick on islands where kindness

is no excuse of doormats, but a spine
risen like datepalm into hot free nights.

 

Notes: Barbara Kruger, “Your Body is a Battleground.”  Mina Loy, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.”  Rachel Jaentel and Juror B-37:  women involved in the Trayvon Martin trial.  May 2013 Publisher’s Weekly: Claire Messud, to interviewer who remarked that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist: “What kind of question is that?”

 

SS: I love this poem, and I feel so gifted. Thank you. I am drawn to your vision of giving as a sharp vision, and I love the closing image of a savage-spikey kindness growing out of the dirt into the wild sky.

I woke up this morning thinking about language, about limitations, gaps, lacunae. There you are in India, hours, miles, existences away from me here at the sticky kitchen table in Brooklyn. Yet, we are sending each other packets of language, hoping that by paying attention to words, by entering into the logic of our poems, embracing their anti-reason, something will be created. It’s 6:30am here, and I’m skimming the NYT, glancing at the NYC sanitation guidelines posted in the foyer, steeling myself for the morning peek at the friendbook. Language. It offers infinite opportunities for dulling, creating easy and false connection, of soothing me away from seeing. It is also the dimension where with attention, I begin to touch the unknown. I write my way closer to you; we hold the space, we know and not-know, we write ourselves into being.

And here is a poem for you, too!

The Angry Ugly Feminist in Poetry School
for Minal Hajratwala

was just so exhaust—try—a letter with missing—
what wanted was—no—this too was cliché.
again. wanted to tell—no.
wanted to pour a long—glass—of milk?
deserved nothing but everything owed.
a story with missing—once was told upon a time—
god like the sun. shone. what wanted was forward—and burn.

 

Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach and author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by The Washington Post. She is the editor of Out! Stories From the New Queer India, a groundbreaking anthology of contemporary LGBT literature since the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Her first book of poems, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, of which she is a founding member. minalhajratwala.com

Sophia Starmack is a poet and teacher. She received an MA in French and Francophone literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, Best New Poets 2012, and others. Sophia lives and works in New York City. sophiastarmack.wordpress.com

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

by Lisa Wells

I’ve spent the last two weeks with a group of hilarious, mega-bright teenagers at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, an immersive writing camp in Iowa City. The other night, on our floor of the dorm, I listened to a girl’s passionate rant about the pressure to write “cisgender teen romance stories” about vanilla dudes who fall for quirky girls. “That’s how you win the contests,” she said. She wants to write about weirdos via hybrid text, but fears there’s no market for stories like that. It was a lament I’d heard from adult writers on countless occasions, in public and private, only this time it was delivered by a seventeen-year-old girl from New Jersey. I’ll admit, it floored me. She was born in the mid-90s for christ’s sake and already feeling commercial pressures? The limits of her gender? Yes and yes, as it turns out. The naiveté was all mine.

I decided to talk to a few of the girls about their experience of writing and gender on the record. Here’s what they had to say.

BINDU BANSINATH

I’m Bindu, I’m 17. I’m from Princeton, New Jersey.

 

What kind of writing do you do?

I write poetry, prose poems, flash fiction—that kind of thing.

 

How did you become interested in writing?

It’s kind of a strange story. I used to read my sister’s diary when I was very young and I thought it was funny how she would talk about herself. I wanted to keep a diary too, but I felt self-conscious about writing in the first person, so I started to fictionalize events. It stemmed from there. I wrote a lot and then teachers told me I was good at it.

 

Do you think about your gender as a writer?

Absolutely.

I’ve always felt that male writers and female writers write differently. I go to a girls’ school and I think my experiences and the way I observe things are extremely feminine.

 

Did you want to go to an all girls’ school?

I did. I found that sometimes I was intimidated to raise my hand in a co-ed school and now I don’t think that I would have that problem. I definitely think that I have grown.

Like you were liberated by the all girls’ situation?

Yeah. I’d definitely say so.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

Yes I do.

 

What does that mean to you?

It means that if no one else were to stand up for me I’m fine standing up for myself. I want equality, emotionally; I want equality in all ways. And I’ve been denied that so it’s very important to me.

It took me a long time to find my voice.

Do you think there is a perception about what it means to be a female writer as opposed to a male writer?

I appreciate literature; if it’s a good book it’s a good book. Women are acute emotional observers and I think there’s a lot to gain from that. . . . A girl will read a book centered on a male protagonist but it’s rarely ever the opposite and I think that’s a shame because women have a lot to offer.

You don’t feel like men want to read about women?

No.

It’s the same with television shows. I’ve noticed that women, you know, they’re never the main character. Their goals are limited to finding love, and they’re always in the same age bracket of maybe 18 to mid-30s. You never see a show about a woman outside that gap.

I think the experiences of women are not marketable unless they have some kind of sex appeal to them.

 

That’s really depressing.

It’s not just men who discriminate against literature and media about women, it’s also women. The demographic of television watchers is actually more women but it’s always geared towards men. And women tolerate that because it’s the norm.

 

Who are the women in your family?

I have an older sister. My sister is extremely, extremely ambitious. She is studying neuroscience at Cornell. My mother has an interesting story. She grew up in India, she was extremely poor, and she had an arranged marriage. She studied engineering; she was one of three girls in that college, and she was often harassed for it. She was set up in an arranged marriage with my father. He came over on a 15-day vacation from his job at NYU, married her, and left. She stayed with her in-laws for two years waiting to get her visa.

 

Will you be arranged?

No. Slowly my parents have begun to see that if they are going to live in a different country then they have to make sacrifices and I’m pretty grateful for that.

 

Was that ever on the table?

Oh yeah.

 

Do you plan to write? I’m trying to get a sense of how people are feeling about their prospects. Do you feel hopeful?

Not particularly. I attended the Yale Writers Conference and there was much talk with editors of literary journals about the differences in the market between women and men. For example, they talked about how when they send a rejection letter to a man the man will immediately send over another piece of work, whereas if you send a rejection letter to a woman, even if it’s not your standard letter, even if it’s full of comments that mean you were close to publication, they don’t answer—maybe not for six months to a year. Someone from The New Yorker came over and she was talking about how men will say, “Oh yeah, I’ll take that job” or take an article, even if they don’t know anything about it, but a woman wouldn’t do that. So I mean . . . I would like to be hopeful but I’m not, really . . . but I would like to be.

What kind of person is called a bitch?

It can range from any one who is confident in her abilities, or someone who really just knows what she wants, to someone who is genuinely meanI don’t know why it includes ambitious people. I don’t know why it’s derogatory towards people who are really just trying to elevate themselves. I think it’s a method of intimidation.

 

So a woman who tries to elevate her career might be called a bitch? What does that do to her?

I guess it feeds into this whole thing about how younger women shouldn’t want too much or expect too much. It’s a way to put them in their place . . . this domestic secondary place.

Check out Bindu’s TEDx Youth talk on female body image in the context of culture and history.

ELENA SAAVEDRA BUCKLEY

My name is Elena Saavedra Buckley. I’m 17. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Do you have a primary genre?

Poetry definitely. I went to the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop last year, and while we were there we wrote fiction, short stories, flash fiction, poetry—everything. I’m just realizing that my thoughts organize themselves as poetry, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on.

 

Say more about that.

I think I have a brain that likes to spread itself out and pick up little bits of information from a lot of different fields and a lot of different topics, and that just seems to create poetry.

 

You’re taking these disparate elements and finding the connections?

Yeah, exactly. Through my life I’ve been interested in a lot of different things—music and food and art. I’ve been really interested in science recently. I think the world of science intersects in these interesting and condensed moments with the art that I really love.

 

Can you think of any poets that work in the way you describe?

I think Wallace Stevens does that. His poems seem to encompass everything in the world, but they happen to be in the form of language. We just read an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “In the Waiting Room,” and oh, it was like a religious moment reading that poem. It was the intersection between being a person but also knowing about the world, and . . .

She’s looking at a National Geographic. That’s one of the last poems she wrote, right?

Yeah, but it’s from the perspective of when she was seven. Which is also really interesting.

 

And it’s one of the few autobio poems that she wrote. I remember this. There’s something about a confusion of voices—

And she’s with her aunt and there is the suggestion that she’s not really close with her aunt and that they have a weird relationship. It says so much by not saying, by just focusing on one moment.

How did you come to writing?
Since I was really little I’ve liked putting my feelings into words. I used to make a newspaper of my family, when I was six or so, and then I would roll it up and throw it into the room that my family was in and run away. I got really into classical music when I was twelve. I started a blog about classical music. So I was writing essays on classical music and the contemporary classical music world. And that was a really great way to give myself something to do.

 

Who are the women in your family?

My mom is a family practice doctor. My aunt Barbara lives in Berkeley and I’m really similar to her in a lot of ways. In the way that we view the world and spread out our interests. I’m really close with her. She’s a death row lawyer in California. Those are the two strongest women in my life.

I’m curious to know how having accomplished female figures in your life relates to your decisions.

My dad took care of my brother and I; he was sort of the stay-at-home dad when we were little. That was always something that I knew and accepted. I’ve always thought of my mom as a strong leader.

 

When you think about yourself as a writer, do you think about your gender?

I don’t really know . . . actually no. Because the experience that I’ve had being a writer has been at camps like this that have had such a strong female presence. I think I remember Alexa saying that a lot of the strong accomplished writers you see are male, but then it’s really interesting to come to these camps and 70 percent of the attendees are women. So I’m not really sure if this is an evolution or just a disconnect between development and success. My demographic is so dominated by females, I feel very normal being a female poet.

Maybe in your generation there will be more successful female writers?

Yeah, I think so. The percentage of people who go to college is shifting towards females, so yeah.

When I was your age I didn’t really think about gender issues so much . . . I mean I had some awareness but . . . I just wonder have you seen the VIDA count?

I’ve seen statistics released about women in the work place or women going to college, so I’m familiar with things like that.

 

Because as an older woman it’s easy to speculate as to what that might do you to you as a younger woman to see those things. But I don’t know.

Like it would intimidate us to see statistics like that.

I mean do you feel like the world is your oyster or do you feel like your gender is going to bar you from—

—Yeah, I do. I don’t think, “the world is my oyster,” but I feel like someone who can accomplish a lot. Being female, especially in the humanities, doesn’t really intimidate me.

I’m also really interested in astronomy and there are parts of scientific fields that sort of intimidate me because the astronomers—a lot of them have been males. But then again, I think those templates are disintegrating so it’s easier to feel power as a female now because we can see that it’s changing and we know that we are in the current of change.

That’s great. I’m interested in what it takes to be a bitch—what makes someone call another person a bitch. I remember as a kid I was often called a bitch because I would push back against guys in my class who tended to dominate conversation, you know?

That relates to what I was saying about . . . I don’t have to fight as hard because things are changing, and that sounds sort of passive, but I think there is power in recognizing that the fight is being won over a long period of time. Like, I do choose to be a calming presence in a lot of situations—not to be sneaky, I just don’t find that I need to be a bitch or feisty to—

—No, there’s nothing obsequious about you!

But I can see why the quote “feminist bitch” image has developed, because I think it has gotten people to a lot of great places.


ERICA CHANG  (not pictured)

I’m Erica, I’m 16, and I’m from Kansas.

 

What genre do you write in primarily?

I don’t think I’ve figured out what genre I like to write in yet. I write a lot of poetry and prose poetry.

 

Do you think about your writing in terms of your gender?

I do think it’s interesting that I’m not really influenced at all by female writers. I’m not sure why that is. All my influences just happen to be male. But I don’t think I consciously think of gender when I’m writing, more when I think about what’s influenced my writing.

 

Who are your influences, right now?

David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner, Donald Barthelme . . .

 

And what is it you like about them?

That’s a hard question.

I mean, those guys, there are certain neuroses at work. I wonder if that’s not as common in women writers.

Right. I think women tend not to put it out for show as much as men. It seems to be more acceptable for a man to be sort of neurotic, whereas for a woman it looks more like a weakness.

 

What do the women in your family do?

My mom does computer programming, before that she did architecture, but I feel like the women in my family can’t decide what they want to do.

But they have careers. Is it expected that you’ll have one?

Yeah, and a practical career, so probably not writing.

What would happen if you became a writer?

I’m sure if I was a successful writer they would be okay with it, but I think that until I reached that point it would be rough.

 

Were your parents born in the States?

Both my parents are Chinese.

When did they move here?

In their twenties I think.

 

Does that cultural identity find its way into your work?

I think I almost consciously try to reject that. I feel like, especially after Tiger Mom, there’s a stigma against Asian cultures. I don’t know. I think if you’re Asian there’s a stereotype that you just work hard, push hard for everything, and you’re not necessarily talented or trying to make a statement in the world.

So it sounds like that’s more of a concern in terms of how you’re going to be received than your gender?

Right.

Are you pretty high achieving in other areas of your life? Because it’s a big deal to get in here. Do they know that?

I think they had maybe an idea. I think part of the reason they let me come to the program was because they thought it was prestigious, not because of writing.

 

I hope you continue to write. You are a great writer.

Well thanks.

 

So, are you going to take this legal freedom by the horns when you turn 18?

I don’t know; I was always kind of worried that I’d collapse at 18 and not know what I actually wanted to do with myself, with the freedom.

NAOMI DAY

I’m Naomi, I’m 18, and I’m from Massachusetts.

And in the fall you’ll be going to?

Wellesley College.

Did you want to go to an all-women’s school?

I don’t really know how the all-women’s thing happened. In the end, after I got accepted, everything came down to financial aid offers and the sense I got from the campus. I would go to the co-ed schools and I’d stay in a dorm with women, and they were talking about parties or about guys they hooked up with. It was very focused on that . . . which was odd.

 

The fixation was on dudes, rather than education.

Yeah. Then I went to Wellesley. I was traveling a lot and I got sick with a cold right before, so I was doing the salt gargling thing, which is so disgusting but it works. I was in the bathroom at 11:30 at night doing that and a girl came in and she explained the chemistry of how it works—this is really late at night on a school night for her. I was like, “Whoa, okay, that’s pretty cool.”

At Wellesley they talked about academics and what drives them outside of the classroom. It was much more serious and less socially oriented than the other colleges, which I really appreciated.

Tell me about what kind of writing do you do.

I write realistic fiction at this stage in my life.

Recently I’ve been writing from the point of view of a mother who is either abandoning her children or doesn’t want children or somehow has a bad relationship with the idea of having her own, being responsible for loving or caring for a child.

What is it about that relationship that you find compelling?

Family dynamics are interesting to me.

 

What do your parents do?

My mom works at Williams College; she’s a music teacher. A music history teacher. My dad worked there when he was married to her, he taught piano, he still teaches piano. But his main thing is being a drum-circle facilitator, so he takes African drums around to libraries and schools and brings people together.

 

Do you think about your gender and how it might affect your life?

Yeah. I do. My thoughts have changed over the years, because my dad is African American and my mom is white. Growing up in my town, it was mainly white. My brother, who is biracial like me . . . I was watching him because he’s three years older than me. I was watching him deal with being a black man in this super white, pretty liberal, but not particularly accepting or welcoming town. And I was wondering what it was going to be like for me at that age, as a woman. How are guys going to view me, how are other women going to view me?

I see it more as an advantage, because people will look at me differently. For example, with writing, with these assignments where you have to follow people around—if I was a man, if I was my brother who is 6’2, it would be much harder for me to observe people like that.

What I’m hearing is that gender is wrapped up with your biracial experience.

Yeah. For me, growing up, gender was less important than race, just because race was a really obvious thing.

 

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

I don’t think about it very much. Because for me there are a lot of negative connotations associated with that. Like women burning bras for reasons—I don’t really know. There’s the we-hate-men type . . . which I know isn’t what feminism is, but I haven’t done enough research.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience in school? You were saying when you spoke in class, your comments were received differently?

The only class I took this year was an English class and my teacher was a white guy. I like him a lot, he’s been really helpful to me, but he comes from a very different place in the world. There were nine or ten white kids in the class and there was a black girl who came from New York on the ABC program. I don’t know if you know about that, it’s called A Better Chance; it brings inner-city kids out to places like Williamstown to give them a better education. Or, a different one, I think.


Well, that’s got to be weird, to come from an inner-city and to be in a school full of white people.

Yeah. We had some interesting conversations about that. I’m quieter and I have a hard time getting into discussions because I don’t like interrupting people. But in that class it was especially hard because I would start talking and people would jump in and override me. We did this assignment where we had to write a senior speech about anything we wanted, and I wrote about growing up biracial in a white town. It was the first time I ever addressed the issue in public at all, in my school at all, to these people at all. I was talking about how it wasn’t always the most accepting environment, that it was difficult at times, and it’s hard to convey that to people.

After I finished, we were having a discussion and eventually one girl said, “It’s not like Williamstown isn’t friendly to people, we tolerate everybody” and I was kind of like okay, I guess that’s fair. Then I went home and my mom was like, “Tolerating is way different than accepting.” I thought that was a really good point.

A lot of the comments were like, “This isn’t an issue.”

 

Why do you think those were the comments?

Some of it is people not wanting to think about it. I’ve heard the comment that we’re living in a post-racial society, and I’m like “Hmm, no, not really.” It’s one of those issues that have a long, really bad history and people want to say it’s over now, it’s done, we live in a fine town. But it’s not. People don’t want to think about that or talk about that or recognize that.

I think a lot could be said about why people would want to deny your experience, but the fact that you bring in this long traumatic history—which really is not so long ago—is so poignant. There’s this nervous energy covering the silence.

Right…

Well, thanks for talking to me, Naomi. I have no doubt you’ll do amazing things.

Thank you.

ALEXA DERMAN

I’m Alexa Derman and I’m 17 years old. I’m from Jersey.

What kind of writing do you do?

I write fiction, and I’m visiting hybrid text recently.

I read some of your hybrid essay about Ophelia, which was awesome. It seemed like you were drawing on academic sources in that one.

I’m not narcissistic enough to assume that I can analyze Hamlet better than anyone else in the entire world—I felt the need to see what other people had to say so I could get some perspective on it. That’s where I got the whole rue and miscarriage thing, from academia, so that was cool.

Talk about that—

Okay, so in Hamlet, you know in that mad scene when Ophelia is like, “flowers! You get a flower, you get a flower,” and she designates rue for her and Hamlet, and everyone says, “It’s regret, it’s so symbolic.” Someone on the internet was like, “Yo, rue was known as an herb you can use to induce a miscarriage.” I was like Whoa! Really wild . . . .

What writers do you admire?

I really like John Irving because his novels are so bizarre. Like Hotel New Hampshire, it includes incest, people in bear costumes, bombs, prostitutes . . .

Lorrie Moore will always mean so much to me . . . before her, all the short stories I read like “The Lottery,” I read “Harrison Bergeron” . . . .I felt like short fiction had to be truncated sentimental novels or something. And Lorrie Moore’s characters are nasty. People have arm hair, teenage girls are confused so they’re reading Playboy, people are stabbing people, there are people who are overweight, people sweat, they have weird skin conditions, they’re gross people and that was really interesting for me. I felt like I had to write about these pretty people with really pretty, attractive problems. Like too skinny, so innocent, you know like “my character is flawed, she’s overly trusting, and she’s too loveable.” I think nasty people are infinitely more interesting, so I love her.

The other night you were having a sort of epiphany. Something about fairness.

Yeah . . . I won this writing contest with a short story about breast cancer . . . I was like, “This contest is the be all and end all, this is the true definer of who’s a good writer.” And then the next year I didn’t win and I was like, “Shit. Okay. So either I’m the worst person in the entire world now and I have no legitimacy or it was a crap shoot.” And my parents said it was just a crapshoot . . . and I was like, “Wait, that means that when I won it was totally random.”

Especially with the college process, people always say it’s a crapshoot when you don’t get into Yale. When you do get into Yale, it’s never like, “I randomly got into Yale, even though there were 700 qualified people right behind me.”

Right. Or how about, “I can afford to go to Yale.”

Yeah, there’s that.

I think I said something to you like, “Get used to it because this is the life of a writer.”

It’s funny though, because it’s a thing that I thought that I knew.

All the time there are things that I think that I know, and then I find out . . .

I think I realized at 14, “Oh my god, my parents perceive me as their child, that’s why they treat me this way. They don’t think of me as their housemate who happens to be younger than them; they perceive me as their child.” It’s weird.

Can you talk to me about your feminism?

I call myself a feminist but . . . I’m not friends with anyone who isn’t a feminist. I was talking to some guys who said, “This feminist girl at my school…” and I was like, “Are you not feminist?” I don’t get it. How can you not want women to be equal and have the same opportunities as men? How is anyone not a feminist?

I don’t know, I’ve been talking a lot about writing and women and I keep seeing that now . . . every time I go into a bookstore. It keeps bothering me . . .

What do you keep seeing when you go into a bookstore?

I notice that every time a woman writes a book it has a high heel on the cover. Or a beach scene and the title is all in lower case . . .  it’s women’s fiction. But there’s no “men’s fiction,” it doesn’t exist; it’s not a genre, it’s just everyone’s fiction. You know what I’m saying?

Do you think it might be different with your generation?

I don’t know. I think that with big publishers it can’t make that much of a difference. Like I don’t think there’s ever going to be an enormous market for hybrid text about what it means to read a Suzan-Lori Parks play, you know? Likewise, I’m not sure about attitudes about women writers. It’s all about money.

I do feel there might be a shift. Just the fact that you threw down the term ‘cisgender’ the other night. Back in my day, which was not so long ago, it was love sees no color. There was no talk about the gender binary or that people could not identify with a gender, except in the academies and in those marginalized communities, but there was not a lot of fluency around this stuff.

Even in the gay community, like “It Gets Better,” Dan Savage is transphobic, and the Human Rights Campaign has apparently had transphobia scandals in the past. I think It Gets Better and Trevor Project are targeted towards gay white men. The next most socially active people at my school are straight girls who want to feel politically savvy and to have their white male gay best friend who they can go shopping with . . .

You feel like they’re tokenized?

Yeah, they’re also fetishized . . . my gay friends are really uncomfortable with it.

I bet. Are you socially active in your school?

“Feminist” at my school is synonymous with crazy lesbian. So the fact that I’m a lesbian, and if I say I’m a feminist, it’s like “Oh you’re one of those crazy-radical-man-hating lesbians.”

I’m in the GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance). But my GSA at times seems more into making straight people feel good about themselves. We had this whole ally week: “Wear red if you’re an ally, thanks for being an ally; you didn’t kick a gay person today, here’s a cookie.”

So what I’m hearing you say, the subtext is that they’re being phony. What would feel less phony?

I guess my point is, if the GSA could take all this energy spent making straight people feel good about themselves and channel it into writing a letter to Chris Christie to sign that anti-conversion bill that just passed in the Senate, that would be cool.

To me, an ally is someone who uses their position of privilege to help underprivileged people. You don’t get a day for being a decent person.

Can you talk about your privilege?

I’m cisgender, which makes my life super easy. I can go to the bathroom whenever I want, people look at me and don’t feel weirded out. I live in an upper middle class suburban town in New Jersey. I have money for an SAT tutor, I have a college counselor . . . I’m white! Jesus Christ, that’s huge.

I feel like I make an effort to educate myself about my privilege.

Do you think you’ll keep writing? This is what you love?

I mean, this is so pretentious; I was dictating poetry to my mom when I was like four. It’s a huge part of my identity . . . but I do other things. I do theater, I do political stuff. I do a program called Youth and Government which is like a mock legislature. My proposal at the national conference was, if you report a sexual assault they can’t use the content of your report to charge you with prostitution, because only 4 percent of sexual assaults on prostitutes are ever reported to the police compared to a national average of like 46 percent, and that’s mind boggling. . . . But writing is the backbone of my identity. It’s basically all I know how to do.

You might use your writing to further your political aspirations as well?

I feel like I do that by writing stories that have characters who are gay where it’s not the focal point—I just read a story in this Miranda July book called “Something That Needs Nothing,” and there were just lesbians in it. It was so surprising because, especially for teens, every story about gay people is about gay people. Like “oh it’s so hard being gay” or “I’m so bullied,” you know. They’re never just there as people.

Most of the people who will be reading this will be, I think, feminist women aged 20-50, do you have anything to say to them about where you’re coming from?

People think about teenagers . . . “You all have the internet and you text and you have no empathy and you’re all going to be terrible people.” But all this technology also means that I can read Wikipedia articles about the Dancing Plague, that even if I’m in the middle of Ohio I have access to other worldviews, infinite worldviews. I can read about Satanism, I can read about fundamentalist Christians, and I can form opinions based on all of it, and I can communicate with people all over the world who are in completely different situations from me.

Well said.

Thank you.

MADELEINE CRAVENS & ZOË SENISË

I’m Madeleine Cravens, I’m 17, and I hail from Brooklyn, New York.

I’m Zoë Senisë and I also hail from Brooklyn, New York.

You guys seem really bonded.

M: Once, a psychic told us that in another life we were twins.

Z: Yeah, and our auras are crazy compatible . . . and we shared a womb.

Tell me about your writing.

M: I do mostly creative nonfiction. I do some poetry and some fiction, but mostly creative nonfiction.

How did you start writing?

M: I started writing after my parents got divorced when I was thirteen. I was upset all the time, and if I didn’t write it down I’d be yelling at someone. It seemed preferable.

Z: I guess I started writing, well it wasn’t out of angst or emotion. I guess it was from reading. My ideas always seemed to be a little better than my writing. That’s why I come to these programs.

 

Nice plug. So, who do you guys like to read?

M: Whenever I get this question I end up spewing out a long list of middle-aged white men so that makes me feel sort of horrible. I love Dave Eggers, I love Jeffrey Eugenides, I love David Sedaris, I love . . . Haruki Murakami. He’s Asian. But I don’t read enough women. I mean I love Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan.

Z: To add to those lists of female writers I was reminded the other day of Margaret Atwood.

M: She’s f’ing good.

Z: Yeah, she’s f’ing good. Lately I’ve been reading Borges and Julio Cortázar. I like short meta-fiction. I like reading philosophy. Nietzsche and Descartes . . . not to be pretentious.

 

It’s not pretentious. Which female philosophers do you like to read? …Joking!

Z: But there are some.

M: Like Mary Wollstonecraft . . .

 

Would you call yourselves feminists?

Z+M: Yes, of course.

M. Anyone who is not an idiot is a feminist. I hate it when people are like, “I believe that women should be treated in the same way as men, and I believe in trying to close the wage gap. But I’m not a feminist.”

Z: It’s problematic that the word is stigmatized.

M: I feel like it’s especially important for men to claim the term feminist. My dad is really cool; my dad is a feminist. That shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re a decent human being—

Z: –A thinking human being.

M: Yeah.

 

Have you experienced sexism in your life?

M: We’re really privileged. I mean, before we say anything, we’re really lucky to live in America, especially New York City, and be white, and middle class, and go to good schools. So whatever we say is coming from a really narrow perspective of being a girl—because we probably have it the easiest of anyone.

Z: I’ve really started thinking about this in terms of playing music. It’s very different to be a girl with a guitar than a boy with a guitar, it’s more subversive—and it implies this rebellious nature even if you’re not. That’s where I’ve been the most aware of my femininity. When you’re the only girl in the band, you’re the token girl in the band.

M: To take this in a different direction, any girl who’s had a pregnancy scare realizes that her body could ruin her life. The options available to women in New York City are really important and the fact that in Texas they want to have six open clinics in the entire state scares the shit out of me as a teenage girl.

 

Sure. Good point. How does your gender affect your writing, if at all?

M: Almost everything I write has to do with being a girl.

Z: I mean, yeah, everything I write has to do with relationships, so far.

M: It feels like such a cliché.

Z: It is, but at the same time it’s what makes you feel so—

M: I don’t want to write about anything that’s not relevant and fresh and raw inside myself, and right now that’s sex.

Do you plan on becoming writers?

M: I mean it’s terrifying, because writing isn’t like other occupations where the amount of time you put into it equates to how good you are at it. You either have something or you don’t and you can’t move up in the ranks just by sheer willpower. The thought of something where so much of the achievement is out of my hands is just terrifying.

Z: I want writing to be a part of what I do.

 

Do you have an awareness of publishing being imbalanced in terms of women not being published as often as men?

M: Yeah. Just because my mom talks about it a lot.

Z: Mine too.

M: It’s not cool. On the teenage level, there’s a stereotype about girls being so much more into humanities than men, and then you hit a certain age and everything flips. As soon as it becomes a serious field.

You’re way more advanced than I was. What’s so disturbing to me about the VIDA count is—you guys are so smart and talented—I want you to have more than what the pie charts reflect.

M: It makes me so upset.

Why do you think more men get published than women?

M: Because we’re all bad writers.

Oh right, I forgot. One of the things they say is fewer women submit, which may or may not be true, but let’s be honest, editors reach out to authors they admire, it’s not all coming from a slush pile.

M: In school, starting from a really young age, girls are taught to say “I think” whereas boys are taught to say “I know.” It’s totally ingrained. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to connect these two thoughts but the fact that men are entitled to their ideas whereas women have to justify them really connects to every discrepancy we have in terms of occupation.

Is it okay to be angry as a woman? Does it make you a bitch?

M: I want to reclaim the word bitch. I feel like any girl who speaks out is labeled “cunty.”

Z: (Laughter)

M: We were trying to reclaim that word.

Z: And we did.

M: We have a term called cuntroversial. And then to adults we just say “cuntroversial, the philosopher.” And they say, “Oh. Ha ha, okay.”

 

You have a group called the cuntroversials?

M: No, just a few friends. It’s like a few days old.

Like Immanuel Kant?

Z: Yeah, that’s the joke.

You guys are geniuses.

M: Can I talk about how gay rights are women’s rights? The fact that same-sex relationships are so stigmatized stems directly from the fact that women and men are not seen as one and the same. To some extent there are really important differences, but their roles in society, in a utopian society, should be basically the same. Gay people are stigmatized because of the gender binary.

Z: It’s dumb to think of feminism as one gender’s problem, or one gender’s struggle to catch up with the other. I was raised to think of feminism not as a fight but being about love.

M: I’m going to cry.

Z: I do that on purpose.

M: Misandry annoys, misogyny kills. Hate against women kills women. Hate against men is irritating; it’s not killing anyone.

Z: I still wouldn’t encourage it though.

Who are your feminist heroes?

M: Zoë Senisë.

Z: Zoë Senisë.

M: You can’t say yourself!

Z: I’m joking. Madeleine Cravens.

M: Oh god. Kathleen Hanna. Basically anyone from the riot girl movement. That’s really annoying for me to say.

Z: I met Pussy Riot this year.

 

I thought they were in jail.

M: I thought they were in jail, too.

Z: Two of them got out and helped make a documentary—

M: Gloria Steinem, too. You have to say her or you’re a bad feminist. Also, Eve Ensler. Vagina Monologues are pretty fly.

 

Check out Maddie & Zoe’s blog here: http://el-feminista.tumblr.com/

Photo Credits: Julia Whicker

Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

Lady in the House: Hanna Andrews

This month, Bitch Magazine has provided us with questions for our Lady in The House feature. The Editors.

 

When was the first time you remember being called a bitch? What were the circumstances?

The first time I heard the word bitch I was about four years old on vacation with my family and another family. The other family’s daughter, who was my age, told me she heard about some bad words. I was intrigued. Later that night, she tried saying the word to her mother and her mother was shocked and told her it was a “strong word.” My friend asked, “Like a swear?” and her mom said, “Sort of like a swear but very insulting.” I didn’t have a sense for what the word meant at that point, but I was immediately aware of the the power behind it. The first time I was called a bitch was when I was 14 at summer camp–I wasn’t interested in a boy that thought we should be “seeing each other” (or any boys, for that matter) and his friends decided that I was, of course, a bitch.

 

What is your own definition of the word?

This word “bitch” has had a complicated history for me because, in my experience, it always emerged when a woman wasn’t doing something that a man, or group of men, thought she should be. I learned, via summer camp, that you didn’t have to “act bitchy” to be a bitch–you could simply be shy, withholding, afraid, disinterested, firm, strong, or any other adjective that makes up one’s character. The bottom line was that if you were not submissive, cooing, flirtatious, relenting–you were a bitch. Later, I would go on to have internships in corporate environments where I’d hear men talking about female supervisors both onsite and afterhours as “bitches”–for a variety of reasons. Maybe one of the men received a negative performance review. Bitch. Maybe the boss was silent about her personal life and was (gasp) businesslike at work. Bitch. You get the idea. I have male friends who are amazing, enlightened, sensitive beings who will use the word when they don’t like a woman. We all complain, get frustrated, and confide in our friends. But there have been occasions where I have said to a couple of these friends, “I have no idea what you mean by that or why she offends you. All I know from the word “bitch” is that you are talking about a woman. That word communicates nothing.” That may seem over the top in casual conversation, but it has become infuriating to me that the word ‘bitch’ gets tossed around as a lazy stand-in for “woman doing something I don’t like.”

The word became more interesting and nuanced to me as I discovered poetry a few years later. I will always remember the first time I read Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife”, and came across the lines:

 

I give you permission —

for the fuse inside her, throbbing

angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her

and the burying of her wound —

for the burying of her small red wound alive —

 

How fascinating to read a woman using that word to describe another woman—and to describe a type of power, no less! In fact, power is paramount in this poem—the man with a wife and a mistress (a typical patriarchal structure) has the obvious cake/eating it too complex, but in Sexton’s poem, the wife, wronged, also has power–she is strong, fiery, the bitch a FUSE inside her. And then, of course, there is the moment where the speaker, the mistress, declares that she gives her lover permission. Suddenly, it is not so easy to reduce the moment to historical power constructions. And so bitch, here, takes on a new context.

I also can enjoy how “bitch” has been reclaimed almost playfully in language outside of heterosexual power complexes. It’s complicated, of course, because those instances co-exist with instances where it is still a lazy, derogatory designation. And, of course, it’s contextual— and laborious to unpack. What are the implications when the drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race call each other bitch? What are the implications when leaders of girl groups in movies like Pitch Perfect refer to their members as bitches? What are the implications when Drake, on his emo-esque “Take Care” (an album I admittedly love), almost exclusively refers to women as bitches? What are the implications when Azealia Banks, on the track “212” does the same, while declaring she herself is “the beacon, the bitch that wants to compete” ?

Language is shifty. All of these instances seem, to me, more nuanced than the scenario where I was directly referred to as a bitch at 14 for not having an interest in a boy. Some uses of “bitch” are obviously catty and humorous; some simultaneously assert power and serve as a smokescreen for loneliness or lack of a meaningful connection; some are sharp-edged, cutting, and reek of institutionalized sexism. And lots of things in between or beyond.

 

Carolyn Kizer once wrote of “a bitch” inside her. What lives inside you?

To answer this question literally, right now, I have a daughter inside me. She’s present when I’m writing, reading, and thinking now in ways I couldnt have imagined. I think constantly about the language she will grow up with–what terms will be empowered in her youth, what widespread messaging she will receive from her family, friends, media–and of course about her own private engagement with language. How will she make sense of an unjust world? Where will she see the indescribable beauty that also exists, and how will she transcribe or communicate it?

.

 

Many women suffer from the affliction of “Bitchy Resting Face.” http://www.happyplace.com/24440/resting-bitch-face-psa-funny Have you ever been asked to “cheer up!” when in reality, you’re just thinking? 

Hahahaha, I am so glad this condition now has its own designation. I’m pretty expressive, but when “resting” (i.e. walking down the street, waiting at a bus stop, window shopping, etc.) I’ve been told my face is very “serious.” Which is fine, but I cannot explain the rage I would feel when out of nowhere, interrupting a thought, daydream, or even the beginnings of a poem, some dude would call out, “Smile!” Yep, I have heard ALL the BRF comments, with surprising frequency: “Who hurt your feelings, gorgeous?” “You should try smiling, you’d be so much prettier” “Cheer up!” “When a man gives you a compliment, you should smile.” When this happens, I go to a very specific place in my mind–when I was 23, and working for a literary agency, I was walking by Gourmet Garage in the West Village. There was a man in a small delivery truck yelling things at me as he drove–mostly of the “Cmon, give me a smile” variety. The more I ignored him, the more insistent he was. Until he was leaning out the window, yelling that I would have a lonely life if I couldn’t smile when asked. At that point, I turned the corner just in time to see his truck plow into a double parked car. True story.

 


If you had to choose between being perpetually angry or perpetually fearful, which would you pick?

Congratulations. This is an extremely difficult question. I immediately wanted to find a reason to say “perpetually fearful.” What does that say about the way I am socially conditioned? And yet, I couldn’t find a way to rationalize fear any more than I could find a way to rationalize anger. In thinking about fear as a stopping force and anger as a driving force, I’d probably rather be perpetually angry. I don’t think that anger has to be synonymous with aggression–it can instead be a call to action, to some kind of act, even if internal. I’ve been angry about injustice in ways that have taught me to find deeper modes of empathy. I’ve been angry about my own helplessness enough to want to understand it in productive ways–mostly through writing. But anger can only really be the first part of the equation for me–it can become its own stopping force when other emotions and strategies don’t mitigate it. And worse, it can be isolating, which feels antithetical to the work I’m trying to do, which is largely about how we are all in relation to one another. The bitch inside me is an interdependent bitch.

Lady in the House: Hanna Andrews

Foreign Study

by Sara Quinn Rivara

The house in Parchment was the nicest on the street, nicest in the whole neighborhood. White siding, blue shutters, green roof. When we looked at the house, which had been recently rehabbed for a flip, there were toads everywhere in the lawn. There were new fiberboard cabinets, almond ceramic tile, cheap Berber carpet.

It was a billion times better than the house that had no toilet, just a hole in the floor on Howard Street. Or the house made of cinderblocks across the street from the house made of tarpaper and plywood. Or the house in Cooper Township next to the shuttered Congregational Church that had termites crawling over the kitchen floor.

It had a bullet hole in the kitchen window. The neighbors across the street had duct-taped a trailer to the side of their house, cut a hole. An addition.

We paid Cooper taxes, though our address said Parchment. A mile up the hill, gracious homes flanked Kindleberger Park. Even those cost less than 200K. Even those looked down upon the hulking shell of the shuttered paper mill where dozens—maybe hundreds—of turkey buzzards roosted. Where an osprey had made its nest near the river, over the humpback of the toxic landfill. PCBs and sludge. The Kalamazoo River swung slowly past, dammed to an extreme, flat and wide and smelling sour and foaming at the mouth. Cedar waxwings darned the sky above the slow-moving brown water.

We’d been married for two years. I’d been cervical cancer free for a few months. I’d just gotten a tenure-track job at the community college where I’d been teaching for pennies, part time, since I’d quit my job as an assistant librarian at a small town library where everyone had Jesus in their heart. Where women went to college to be kindergarten teachers or to drop out to get married at 20.

I’d gotten married at 24. I’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21.

I called myself a feminist, or had—had grown up in Chicago and had such ambitions! And now I was here. Married, 26, happy to be making 40K a year— tens of thousands less than my male colleagues, I’d learn years later, the college not recognizing my MFA because, Jesus, I’d been so happy to not be making 10K a year and didn’t know to negotiate, didn’t know it was my right.

*

I’d gone to an exclusive private liberal arts college in the Midwest. I’d spent my junior year abroad, I’d lived in the Women’s Resource Center and been a member of the Women’s Equity Coalition, co-founded a feminist theater collective. Taken mostly women’s literature classes, creative writing. I spelled women womyn.

My husband had dropped out of high school. Had told me, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer—which, if you didn’t know, is only the result of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease which I only could have gotten from him, having lost my virginity on Devil’s Night my senior year—didn’t want me to tell anyone. He was ashamed. I should be ashamed: an STD? I was raised a Catholic. I had done everything right: had him tested for HIV, herpes, the lot. And still. Punished. Or whatever.

I had grown up in Chicagoland, gone to school in Michigan, and expected to move, post-graduation, to the Southwest for a gap year with my best friend, before pursuing my MFA in vocal performance or my PhD in literature. I was an honors student in college, second in my graduating class of English majors. I knew I was smart.

And then I was in Kalamazoo, still. My then-husband telling me that my shirt was unbuttoned too much, telling me he liked my body despite my mind. He said it was a joke. Why can’t you take a fucking joke? I knew my body to be a shameful thing.  I was fucked but I learned to leave my body. I began to think I must be a lesbian—please, God, let me be a lesbian—because I couldn’t scare up anything that was attracted to my husband. I wrote poems. I went to graduate school, got my MFA in poetry. I began to publish my poetry in journals. The woman who drove home from work every day transformed herself into something else. She wore only black, blue, brown.

I taught women’s literature. I told my students that I was a feminist.  As if that was something that would save me.

*

At 20, sitting on the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland, I figured my life would be prescribed by travel. A man in every port. I was going to see the fucking world.

At 26, I was pregnant. Married. I hadn’t traveled since I’d graduated from grad school.  The horizons were so small.

No one wants to hear your poems about breastfeeding or bread rising on the counter, a poet (male, prominent, editor of a major literary magazine) had said in a workshop in grad school.

At 27, I was in a hospital room, 26 hours into labor, my then-husband telling me I was overreacting. I pushed my sweet boy into the world, and goddamn, it’s a cliché. But that night, my husband gone home to ‘let out the dogs’ and because he had to work the next day, I held that small boy in my arms and felt something: what was it? I was terrified. I’d never felt it before, and it was overwhelming and I realized holy shit, this is what it is to be in love. And I thought if this boy had my life, would I be okay with that?

And I’ll be honest: if I’m religious it’s an academic pursuit. But there was a voice that rose up in me and it said NO.

*

And there was my life. Blue light flickering beneath the door as the nurses walked past my hospital room, my Bird nursing and my nipples raw and I was crying and I knew:  I have to get out.

It took me almost two years. In those two years, my husband began to sleep on the couch because a crying baby all night made it hard for him to go to his shitty job, my son slept in my bed. I went back to my full load of classes when Jonah was three months old, teaching five courses on 2 hours of sleep a night. My ex called my midwife to tell her I was crazy and needed drugs because I didn’t want sex. Because I thought—he told me—I was frigid. My episiotomy had healed the wrong way. I couldn’t sit or walk comfortably for months. We took a vacation to Munising, Michigan, on Lake Superior. All I wanted was to slip into the crowd with my son, disappear. But I was terrified: if I told my husband I wanted a divorce, that I didn’t love him, never had, that I had stayed out of fear, he would kill me. He would take my son. He would kill himself. And what about the house? The dogs?

And then I got tenure. And then I read every poem I’d written and realized: I’d known all along. I was miserable and couldn’t raise my son to think that was okay.

I told my husband I wanted a divorce. He hacked into my email, accused me of having an affair with a student because I exchanged a list of books. He told me I was a whore. He got his GED, got a Breathalyzer on his car to get his license— which he’d never had—back. He threatened to kill me, chop me into tiny bits. He took every cent we had, and no one would front me the money for a lawyer. He got exactly equal custody because I was terrified he’d take my son from me forever.

At thirty, I was divorced. Tenured. I’d bought and sold a shitty house. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I got a tattoo. I published poems.

But I stayed in Kalamazoo. I desperately love my son. I started to attend writers’ conferences, found my tribe again. Became department chair, union agitator. Published my first collection of poems at 36. Filed with the courts to move across the country with my son. And even all these years later, I am terrified. My son has been with his father for two days; his father won’t allow any contact.  I am still terrified that he can bully me, that crazy always wins. That I am the crazy one, because I’m a woman. And emotional. And admit that I don’t know everything. And am small and female and he could kill me, he could.

How can I be a feminist?  A student asked years ago in my Women’s lit class. It’s easy for you, she said. Assuming, of course, that because I was standing in front of her as a professor that I must have had a different life than hers. I just want my boyfriend to love me.

Don’t write about domestic things, that poet said. Write about what’s important.

Okay.  I will.

Foreign Study

Lady in the House: Shelley Wong

This month, Bitch Magazine has provided us with questions for our Lady in The House feature. We have also asked each Lady in the House to provide a writing prompt for our readers. –The Editors.

 

When was the first time you remember being called a bitch? What were the circumstances?

I want to say that it was a stranger and that it was in reaction to something I did in retaliation rather than something I said. I don’t remember the details. The last time was last month in New York when my Queens friend called me a bitch because I insisted on paying for her dinner to return a favor. She’s one of my best friends so I know that she says it with love.

 

What is your own definition of the word?

It’s most often used as a slur against women who speak or act in ways that others find threatening. Others try to diminish these actions by comparing a woman to a wild animal, thus taking away her reason. But now we’ve reclaimed the word as an empowered, unapologetic woman. Bitches disrupt the status quo, break the silence, and talk back. Labeling won’t stop a bitch.

 

Have you ever had to explain the word to someone younger, like a child? What did you say?

I haven’t, but that would be an important conversation to have. If I knew what the context was, I would want to talk it through and say that people sometimes speak out of anger and fear and resort to name-calling rather than explaining why they are upset.

 

Carolyn Kizer once wrote of “a bitch” inside her. What lives inside you?

The creature that lives inside me is rethinking and carefully considering the options. She has a burning need to speak out against silencing, injustice, and oppression, as well as a passion to create something beautiful and real. In the past few years, I have been moving closer towards my unapologetic self. Things seem to fall away in your 30s and it’s deliciously liberating.

 

Have you ever written a “bad” character? Who was it?

Intriguing question. In response to a persona prompt, I wrote a self-portrait poem as an assassin so I suppose that fits the category of “murder-bad.” It was unsuccessful and rather cartoonish because I wasn’t able to tap into what would motivate this character. On a serious note, and taking “bad” to the extreme of genocide and war crimes, some of the most searing poems I have ever read features a historical figure involved in an atrocity as the central character: Rita Dove’s “Parsley,” Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” and Srikanth Reddy’s collection Voyager.

 

Who are your favorite bitches in fiction or larger pop culture?

1980s era Madonna, my first and last idol, who taught me how to dance it out and so much more. Key lyric: “I’m not the same / I have no shame / I’m on fire . . .” from “Burning Up.”

Catwoman, especially Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. I love how she flips the damsel-in-distress dialogue to her advantage during combat (“How could you? I’m a woman!”) I just recently learned that it was written by Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters. Talk about your classic bitch movies!

Beatrix Kiddo, O-Ren Ishii, Vernita Green, and Elle Driver in the Kill Bill films.

Sylvia Plath. She is often reduced to a tragic figure, but her work is terrifically alive— biting, surreal, tender, arch, and, above all, formidable.

 

Many women suffer from the affliction of “Bitchy Resting Face.”  Have you ever been asked to “cheer up!” when in reality, you’re just thinking? 

It’s possible that my at-rest face could be seen that way, but I don’t recall any specific encounters. I’m an introvert; some people may interpret a reserved attitude as bitchiness or aloofness. Or some may assume that I don’t speak English (yes, Asian Americans are still fighting the perpetual foreigner stereotype). For several years, I lived in New York and perfected my impassive look on the subway. I tend to walk fast, so that gets me out of awkward male-stranger conversations most of the time.

 

If you had to choose between being perpetually angry or perpetually fearful, which would you pick?

I would choose anger over fear and turn it into a force of action.

 

Writing Prompt

Consider a spectacle where there is a performer (or performers) and an audience (of one or many). How does the silence speak? Write one poem/prose piece as the performer and one as a witness/audience member. How does the speaker confront the silence?

Lady in the House: Shelley Wong

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

Cassandra Dallett: I don’t write fiction, so I don’t create characters. My character is myself. I certainly do not write myself, or my family and friends, with any thought of likability. You will identify or not and I don’t really care. My younger self did a lot of stupid things—most people do—but I continued doing them longer and am probably more honest about the fool I am than most people would dare to be.

I am often published with a lot of men. Some of the content, in some of the magazines I have been published in, is pretty objectifying; but I like being the woman who talks about men as objects. It’s how we often talk between ourselves. But I talk about them out loud—about their small dicks and premature ejaculations. I beat them to it, and talk about my fat thighs and slutty behavior. Things that caused me enormous shame growing up—everything caused me shame in my life—now I’m happy to own it. I get a really positive response from men and woman, which is amazing, therapeutic, and free!

I do doubt that a male writer would be asked about the likeability of their characters—these are the mind frames we need to blast out of. With all the amazing woman writers in the world, it is absurd that we would be held to a different standard or expectation. Why should our characters be likeable? And more important, likeable to who? I am a fan of realness; I like to read things that ring true and I write truth, as I know it. My experience is only my own.

Sometimes in workshops, people say I can’t believe this narrator would do this thing and I say, I know, I know, but I did. I did do those crazy, stupid things, acted too tough and too weak, vulnerable and fierce. I shoot these tales out into the world and trust that somewhere, someone will identify with them.

 

Karyn Polewaczyk: I write mostly nonfiction—and to boot, a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on (pieces for women’s lifestyle magazines/websites) tends to be service-oriented, with the reader in mind. It’s not always about whether I’m likable as a writer as, it is whether what I’m producing is likable and relatable. There comes a point in every artist’s life, though, when she (or he) has to decide if she’s creating for herself, or for the public. The inherent wont to create something tends to be extremely personal, and doesn’t stem from the desire to please, but to make.

That said, though, I’ve published pieces on Jezebel and xoJane—two highly-trafficked female-focused websites that are as well-known for their content as they are for their notorious commenters (especially on the Gawker sites, where commenting is a sport), who will rip a writer to shreds. It’s why I often don’t read the comments, and it’s why I think anyone who wants to share their work publicly, whether it’s online, in print, or spoken aloud to a room full of strangers, needs to develop a thick skin (but not so thick that her vulnerability, which helps an artist connect with herself and her audience, is diminished). Writing for yourself is different than writing with the hope or intention of being published. Know what I mean?

 

CD: I do know what you mean. It is true, it depends a lot on the genre, and if I was writing a novel, say, I might want a character that more people could connect with, because as a reader, I like to fall in love with and miss the characters in my favorite books. You and I write in very different places, so of course yours is much more driven by what the magazine or site wants and needs.

I think staying away from comments on the internet is always a good idea. It can get very depressing reading how much racism, sexism, and general nastiness still exists when people can hide behind their computer. I really like what you said about having a thick skin and retaining our vulnerability—that is absolutely what makes a writer good and also successful, in my opinion. I agree there is a difference, but I would still say that I write for myself and hope to be published.

 

KP: Have you ever seen the TED Talk by Brené Brown? She talks about the power of vulnerability. Here’s the link, if you haven’t: ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

I’m really particular about my fiction reading. My favorite book, for a long time, was The Catcher in the Rye, but after discovering The Dud Avocado last summer—seriously, it’s so good, my heart beats for it—it’s since reached second-place contender status. Most of the books I love have a female character who’s strong, unnerving, unwilling to settle, fierce—and so on. I’ve always been able to relate to the bad girl, in books or elsewhere, and at the risk of sounding morbid, I get why Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven. (I’m sure my therapist would have a lot to say about that.)

 

CD: I’m glad you like bad girls because I am certainly one!

I have seen the Brené Brown TED Talk and I love it! I thought of it immediately when you mentioned the importance of vulnerability. I have also put The Dud Avocado on my reading list. I love a good recommendation. I have been reading mostly poetry and memoir because that’s what I’m working on.

But back to bad girls. My stories are about being a sexually promiscuous, alcoholic teenager in the punk scene of the eighties. Dabbling in drugs, managing to try most of them before the age eighteen. I had no adult supervision or direction, no goals or good education, so I floated through life landing where I did. I lived through some very violent situations. I didn’t know how to communicate without the physical and I found myself in some very abusive relationships.

It’s hard to know how your reader will react—admitting these things that are very vulnerable, but there is a toughness too. I’m the girl that buys a gun at the end of the story (which is of course the beginning of another disastrous story). I write about being the cheater in a relationship, which is not a likeable character by any means. And I write about things people don’t want to think about, like being a single mother working shitty low-paying jobs, and the pain and hopelessness of living in a community whose young men are getting shot and jailed at an alarming rate. These are things that should be talked about—I am no heroine, just someone who bumbles her way through, reporting on what not to do more than anything.

 

KP: I think it’s interesting that you affiliate, what some might call deviant behavior, with being “bad,” especially when you say you write about what not to do. To me, that signals someone who maybe just lost her way for a bit. Being bad, in my mind, is something inherent; it’s more about defiance than deviance. Bad can also be manipulative or seductive; at the risk of sounding like a misogynist, I also like the idea of a “bad bitch” (via hip-hop culture), which suggests a woman who owns her shit and makes no apologies about it.

Here’s a question for you, then: do you think you can “create” a likable character, if you’re writing memoir with a focus on situations that may rouse readers’ judgment? Do you care?

CD:
I did come up heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. My relationships have been with men who were misogynist, that is probably where I get the bad label from.

I am defiant, and I am a “bad bitch” to be sure. I am not the “good girl” my ex had hoped I would be. I tried but I am, in the end, very rebellious and only like to do things for someone when it is not expected. I have certainly lost my way many times, but in the end, I write about it unapologetically. I am only sorry for the harm I caused myself—much of which, in hindsight, was unnecessary.

To answer your question, yes, you can have a likable character that rouses readers with their actions—absolutely, that is probably the most common outcome. But I don’t think you should write them with that in mind; you write with honesty and the honesty tends to be what the reader likes about the character.

I certainly have an inherent need to be liked, but I try not to think about that when writing. I stick to the facts: this is how it actually happened. I leave it up to the reader to take away what they will. Every time I read in public, people come up to me afterwards and say they loved the honesty and found it brave. I’m sure there are people who judge as well—they just tend to keep it to themselves. If it were a blog, I would probably get pages of nasty comments.

I recently read the book Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso; it’s about her and her molester. They had a very complicated relationship that continued well into her adulthood. I read it with a group of woman. Everyone loved the book; it was one of the rare times we all agreed. We loved the writing; it was very good and the honesty brutal. She owned her part in the whole dysfunctional situation. She said things most people wouldn’t dare to. It confirmed my belief that you should just tell your truth no matter.

 

 

Cassandra Dallett occupies Oakland, CA, she writes of a counterculture childhood in Vermont and her ongoing adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published in Slip Stream, Sparkle and Blink, Hip Mama, Bleed Me A River, Criminal Class Review, Enizagam, among many others. Look for links and chapbooks on cassandradallett.com.

 

Karyn Polewaczyk lives and writes in Boston. Her work, which focuses largely on women’s lifestyle topics, regularly appears in columns at Boston.com and Dig Boston, and has been published in Jezebel, xoJane, LearnVest and More.com, among others. Follow her on Twitter @KarynPolewaczyk.

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

Home Movies

by Laura Bogart

As a memoirist who traffics in the petty savageries of family, I was eager to see Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell. The film’s plot may be driven by the question of Polley’s paternity, but it gets its narrative heft from posing a darker, more cavernous question, one that haunts any artist who relies on her own life as source material. How do we keep the “true” in “based on a true story” while digging in toeholds for our audiences, letting them climb inside our experiences and set up camp?

Polley juxtaposes interviews and voiceovers with grainy footage of her mother—flirting with a backstage Romeo who comes to see her on tour; hushing someone who’s caught her on the phone—that illustrates the moments being described. Polley seems lucky enough to have that history frozen in the amber of eight millimeter. Very few us get to say, “This happened exactly as I’m presenting it to you. Nothing in my telling is corrupt.”  Until, of course, she pulls the rabbit from her hat: these “home movies” were cast with doppelgangers, fully scripted, and staged for maximum impact.

The friend I saw the film with was pissed off by the reveal. He said that everything he’d become invested in as the truth simply wasn’t—it was an interpretation, a kind of fiction. I countered with “the writer’s toolbox,” and how, to get the most powerful, universal piece, we use elements from fiction—establishing stakes and through-lines and shucking anything that doesn’t fulfill them; dramatizing events to serve a certain theme; turning the self into “the narrator” who can hover above and flit down into other characters’ perspectives. Even if those “characters” are the people who raised you.

My friend’s assessment—an interpretation, a kind of fiction—has haunted me. I’ve built a byline excavating my damage; my back catalog is filled with images of my black eyes, of doors he broke down. Still, it is not my damage alone. Not just my broken nose. Not just my broken heart. But I have armored myself, armed myself, with what my father never had, what my mother was afraid of. I have words. And I use my words the way my father used his fists: I beat down. I dominate. My words unleash a gale-force fury against people who can never fight me back, not on equal footing.

Everything I’ve written about my family—my father’s rages, my mother’s fear—has been filed, rightfully, under non-fiction. I have the scars and the (slightly) crooked nose to prove it. The violence inflicted and the violence endured resides on my skin and underneath it. But memory is not a hard drive, a soulless repository of fact. It’s a watercolor stain just before it dries—messy yet delicate, unwieldy yet malleable.

At times, I look at the father I’ve rendered on the page—a man who smacks his daughter in the face for yawning when he tutors her in multiplication tables—and it’s unfathomable to imagine that man carrying that girl up to her bed, whooping, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Supergirl!” Yet he did.

He was as mercurial as a late summer sky: a promise of beneficent warmth or a smothering of heat that could only be relieved by a storm. When I was a child, I could not control him. When I write, I am Prospero: his thunder comes at my command. I gather his lightning into a box labeled with a million pitches: “pop culture,” “cinema,” “politics,” “phobias,” or “the novelty of female aggression,” and I pull out the flashes—memories of a particular beating or a tenderness that shattered me in equal measure—that illuminate a connection between my life and something far larger, something that other people can enter into, can rally around.

I wonder if my essays aren’t, in fact, like Polley’s “home movies”: facsimiles just grainy and faded enough to feel authentic. I wonder if the father who takes his belt off and teaches me to throw a punch, who calls me Supergirl and Pretty Girl and tells me he can’t believe how stupid I am, everyone knows that anything multiplied by zero is zero, hasn’t been cast straight out of the Brandoesque Academy for Nuanced Brutes. Sometimes, he was just a nondescript suburban dad. He wore loafers and mowed the lawn; he made pancakes for dinner and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on road trips. There is no drama in this.

I wonder if, every time I write, I whet my axe on the woodpile of my mother’s failures. If what I choose to remember of her—sponging foundation and brushing blush over my bruises and ruing the fairness of my skin; crying his name and never mine whenever I’d get between them—doesn’t illustrate anything but the fathomless chasm of my bitterness at so deep, so constant a betrayal.

I wonder if that something far larger, something other people could enter into and rally around is only me—a girl whose secrets were stones in her throat, a child so desperate to be heard.

There was no specific moment when I decided that I’d put my name to my life story. No radioactive spider bite or rescue pod rocketed from Krypton frames my origin as a non-fiction writer. At some point, funneling everything into fiction alone felt like telling my friends’ parents that I’d tripped on the pavement again.

But non-fiction workshops can, at times, feel like an atrocity Olympics: the gold medallist has the deepest scars, the most graphic nightmares. Yet the question that any good instructor will ask, the one that my instructors frequently did ask, is why. Why share this particular story? Why share it now?

I’m not sending dispatches from the eye of the hurricane. My father has not lifted his hands to me since I was thirteen years old. He’s worked all the steps, including the fourth step, the honest inventory, and the ninth step, making amends. He’s been sober for seventeen years. We’ve spent most of those years in various states of estrangement, though we have begun knitting ourselves whole. The work is slow, and occasionally we prick a finger, draw a little blood.

The truth is there is no tidy why. I can feign an unadulterated altruism, say that I write so that no other little girl should swallow stones; I write so that another survivor can spit his stone into the palm of his hand. But this isn’t the truth, not entirely.

Once, when a professor asked me that why, I sat mute, stirring embers in my mind. “It’s okay,” he joked, “if you write to get your pound of flesh.” Perhaps there is more truth in that than I’d care to admit; perhaps I write what I want to say when my mother asks why I never call her back, why I sound “so snippy” when I do pick up the phone.

Still, that isn’t entirely right, either. Yes, there’s that righteous thrill of testifying on your own behalf, of pointing your finger and slamming the gavel and saying “you sold me out, you wronged me.” It may be vindicating, even cathartic, but it will never smooth down my scars, and it will never blunt the edges of my dreams.

So why? Why turn my parents into players on the stage of my approximation, my interpretation? Archetype is an open hallway with naked walls, a place we ornament with our experiences. I enter my mother through her weaknesses, and I know I can’t repeat them.  I enter my father through his extremes, and I see something of myself in the man I recreate on the page. I see his quick wit and his quicker temper. I see how his own father unmade him, and how, without vigilance, I could be undone as easily.

I am my broken heart and my boiled blood. I will never be as objective as a camera lens. Then again, neither is any home movie. We film weddings and birthday parties and Christmas mornings, days when the family is all smiles. We film our loved ones in their brightest lights, blowing out the candles, letting the flower girl hold the trains of their dresses, laughing and giving a thumbs up to the Xbox under the tree. We never ask ourselves why. There is a power in sentiment—whether it’s elation or rage, joy or grief—that is as stripped and clean as an unvarnished fact. A power that is as pure as truth.

Home Movies

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

Thank you to everyone who submitted. Here is our final round of First Summers of Mischief.

 

Sarah at 15, before a mirror, I watched her watch herself. She lifted her tank top, examined her stomach and her breasts, pulled her underwear down to her knees. Her boyfriend, she said, wanted her hairless.

*

I was modest to a fault then. And often afraid, often embarrassed. Silent too. And nervous and glinting. Like a handful of hot sand. Like the burnt hood of a blue-black car in a parking lot at noon. Like a pot of milk on the coiled eye of an electric stove. A pot of milk near scalding. Scattered shards of glass in the sun.

*

Finally, the cool lips of midnight. Finally, we slept. The hills outside, yellow, dusty, combustible.—Mary Camille Beckman

 

17: no car, no job, no air conditioning. I read all of The Fountainhead in one reclined moment and felt an adolescent yes. Ignoring the sandwiches dropped off by my mother and the disturbingly erotic fantasy novels recommended by the Barnes & Nobles clerk, I discovered, in a book that no one had ever read, something that no one had ever thought of. Freedom is the most important thing, and some people are just better than others. Yes, I thought, succumbing to the lure of the sandwich. People need to know about this. A year later, at college on scholarship, the drip of money ate away the candied dream of my teenaged meritocracy.—H. V. Cramond

 

Night at Kennywood was magical. White lights strung around the lagoon illuminated paddle boats, earlier populated by rowdy boys splashing, now serene with pairs of adolescents seeking escape from the warning eyes of adults. “Don’t get too close,” said the sharp, mother’s glance as thighs pressed close on the sticky roller coaster seats and day-dirty fingers feed each other Potato Patch fries. My girlfriends and I ran past the funnel cakes and Noah’s Ark. Running, we transformed: the carnival lights revealing that despite small breasts and bruised knees we were no longer girls but rather women seeking dark corners and the eager fingers of those, who hours before, were just boys.—Erica Gene Delsandro

 

The sun was an enormous hot pearl. I lay in the warm sands, staring into an endless white sky. A little dog passed, the old man with him only slightly less scruffy. I waved. I wasn’t doing much else; I was just there, under some boy from Queens whose face I will forget.

I remember my bikini, with its irregularly sized, perfectly round polka dots. It made me a Bond girl—Pussy Galore or Plenty O’Toole. It would take countless forgettable boys until I was Holly Goodhead.

That boy from Queens? He wore a red bathing suit. And I wonder, does he remember my perfectly polka dotted white and black bikini?—Jodi Doff

 

For mosquito season, we sleep adjacent, along front and back seats in the pickup. I pulled out pictures of them building the log cabin; stakes, friends, ex-wife; his sharp chin looks bitter without the beard. Don’t worry, in winter the woodstove keeps the cold out; firewood stacked out back, the swallows dive bomb you, he smelling like bush and chainsaw oil; the guy he works for bulldozed up the pond, the dog comes in with me, I am fat, hot bike ride back, he puts his beer in the pond to keep it cold, we kick up silt, it is hot but it was cold the first night we were together.—Paula Eisenstein

 

Smirnoff Secrets

An American rite of passage is the 21st birthday; an opportunity to check off your proverbial to-do list of things you’ll regret, and boys. I spent the beginning of my Christmas-in-July birthday in a classy downtown bar, the next hour passed out in the park next to a homeless man named Wayne, and then counted down the last minutes to midnight in the emergency room; singing karaoke to a stomach pump and an epi-pen. My first, and last, drink of my adult life was a magenta rum cocktail called “Victoria’s Secret.” It wasn’t until halfway through it that I realized my own summer secret was an acute allergy to alcohol. —Pattie Flint

 

Three feet from the stainless steel toilet, I sat on a thin mattress and surveyed my surroundings. A metal bunk bed, secured to the wall, housed a thin woman wrapped in a grey wool blanket. A drinking fountain was attached to the toilet tank. There were two scarred plastic cups and a door with a six-inch window.

Brown plastic flip-flops hung off my toes, partially obscured by supersized grey pants. Underneath I wore issued stained-pink granny panties and an ill-fitting, well-worn bra. My wrists ached from too-tight handcuffs; my pride suffered from injustice, gawking neighbors, my crying children. I promised my chattering cellmate my breakfast; I didn’t plan to stay. —Andrea S. Givens

 

A moodiness claimed him and replaced the man I loved with a stranger. We sat side by side but between us was an 8-lane superhighway I couldn’t cross without sustaining grave injury. Motorists sped along as I stared across at him, waiting. Finding courage, he advanced and, weeping, purged. I put my hand on his back and felt hatred toward those who dared harm him. Then he told me about Trevor. My brain, heart, and ears filled with cotton and I was cold. He was hugging me but I was still freezing. I wanted my blanket, the torn pale blue one with the satin trim. And I wanted him to leave.—Stacey Givens

 

knees up throat clenched manubrium sternohyoid omohyoid sounds almost like, not yet. focus on sand, sun between our toes, her lips cut from rosehips, fingers measuring everything, remember it? scorch at the back of the sternohyoid omohyoid we pulse dock we grill muscles we kick up sweat, you warm asking skin, me salty eyebrows, a red car backing up into the ocean, the loudest singing, girl with the eyes that cut glass, remember it? salt stained, canoe dune, state troop, something thrust and buried in the sand, loudest singing on those shores before we had the word, before we knew the many muscled word, sternohyoid omohyoid sounds like, but isn’t yet.—Monica Gomery

 

I went to sleep that summer, shivering with fever, and I woke up six weeks later. There were, during that nap, some moments of lucidity. Someone talking to me, someone opening my curtains, a beeping intercom . . . quickly fading into the landscape of an endless dream. That otherworldliness so enveloped me that I preferred it there. It was a place of peace and possibilities where I was content. My awakening was as sudden and unexpected. They whispered and I heard the words “brain-damage” and “slow recovery.” The diagnosis was viral encephalitis. I am a phenomenon. Not damaged after all, having awakened to the beauty of a place of peace and possibilities within me.—Janice

 

Reading Michel de Certeau convinced me walking is a form of syntax. I tested this the summer I moved to a new city alone, recently heartbroken. I walked, making sentences to build a language-city inside, remaking the landscape of alone-thinking. But, then, how to reach out of myself again? The concepts of Wing Chun Kung Fu explain its motions. You move as if you have a center line, then do. Personal space makes a triangle if you think it that way. After walking, I learned the martial art. I built an armature to hang my violence on, retrained myself outward. Theory allows me to hit with all my weight behind it.—Jennifer Kronovet

 

Lorelle had a cigarette she was flipping around in her pocket, not a match to be found, and someone busted the lock on the kitchenette and Lorelle lit the cigarette on a burner coil, then put her whole palm on it—flat-assed down—held it there a good four seconds before Tag started screaming, so Lorelle punched Tag on the neck, and he went down like a bag of flour; Lorelle prancing around blowing smoke out her nose, flipping the bird and wiggling her hips like a whore. I can’t remember a better night except after that they took away our butterscotch pudding and the binoculars for six weeks—those fuckers.—Rebecca Loudon

 

Every afternoon, a greasy bag of churros sees me past the reek of the abattoir. It’s 1966: I’m 17, still virgin, summer schooling in Santander, and vulnerable as veal. Holed up in my nunnish room, I alternate: Sex and the Single Girl vs. Sense and Sensibility. Paths will soon diverge, but not easily. Extremes will test me throughout my twenties, with sex, sex, ever more sex assuming the upper hand after years of fearful repression. Repatriated, at Barnard, I do not get pregnant the very first time. Neither do I fall in love, except with the wonder of tumescence. Let’s see if it works again, and again, how and with whom.—Sandy MacDonald

 

July of 2008: The Return of My Sense of Self

I wasn’t in the process of suffocating, I was finalizing the act. Imprisoned by a husband-turned-tyrant, I felt further trapped in a state I saw as a black hole. Although at my lowest, I realized that I was not powerless. I declared divorce. Air! And when that damn Colorado border continued to taunt me, I loaded the kids into the car and drove right over it. Freedom! My tumble into adulthood had somehow made me forget that we are either jailers or liberators—of ourselves. So, to keep myself reminded that limitations are self-inflicted, I continue to cross borders: Mississippi. South Dakota. Chicago. Lost my job—kids, lets drive to Florida!—Lesleigh Nahay

 

You were always prettier—but that summer they liked me best. We pretended to be French—you speaking with an accent, translating my nonsense sentences. They believed us until we confessed, but still they wanted to meet us at the beach to watch the sunrise. It was the first time I snuck out of my grandparents’ shore house, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt that smelled of sun and salt. We climbed on top of a boardwalk pagoda, using a pay phone as a ladder. When mine yelled “Police,” I leapt off the roof in the dark, trusting the sand to catch me, sealing their attraction, and led the way to escape.—Randon Billings Noble

 

Some Sort of Exchange

Shortly after my boyfriend tried to kill himself, we drove with his mother through the night to Georgia. I didn’t meet his father until the morning. We had coffee on the screen porch. A Japanese businessman learning English was staying there, too, some sort of exchange at the college. “It is my pleasure to meet you.” During the day, my boyfriend and I had the house to ourselves, soaking in the hot tub, watching hawks through a telescope. One evening we all had supper, soft shell crab. We clinked glasses—kampai! Lifted, my boyfriend’s stitched wrist emerged from his buttoned sleeve. Maybe only I saw tears roll down the businessman’s face.—Deirdre O’Connor

 

Worst of times; best of times. Age 12: a new set of boobs and strange fuzzy hair “down there”; a new baby brother who screamed; a father who’d died; a mother who . . . wasn’t “present”.

I was shy in my red-and-white polka dot bikini. It lies in a drawer 50 years later. That was the day a (nice, tanned) vacation beach boy met me in an ocean rock shelter. “Can I just look?  Please?” he’d begged.

Not knowing, I channeled Gypsy Rose Lee.

He ran, leaving me the sweetest softest juiciest ooziest tingle, unknown to my little-girl body. Opening the drawer, I can resurrect that sandy memory. It gives me new power.—Diana Perkins

 

small pricks of hot gravel made me Coal Walker outside a Timbuktu of Canada. heel-to-toe, asphalt bubbles popped. by my piggie that went to the market. by my Tyrannosaurus Rex dewclaw. by miles of empty road, the verge a brushtop tinder of grass, soles burnt into a red-hop step. friend’s dad slowed his bulgy-fendered pickup. want a lift? he turned off into pastures, not to my parents. the cab, the exhale concentrated boozy. over ruts behind the enclosure of cedars. forest shadows were my fingers, closing cold. ordered to the ground, my reply command: take. me. home. now. low, level, controlled as all that is most dangerous.—Pearl Pirie

 

The beach reaching, just below the sky, where else would it be? The ocean, not as blue as I imagined, next to sand, hotter than I could ever imagine, towels, tanning oil, magazines, Marlboros, what else would you need? The tall cool blonde, the auburn haired athletically built beauty, and I, the curly topped companion to both, who else would be there? The day, just on the edge of July, most are away on vacation, but we are not most, when else would we be here? The bodies, all bent back boldly, all breast, hip, thigh, over extended in repose and response, searching, seeking, why have I never been here before?—KP Ponzio

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the conversation. In her poem “Photo of a Girl on a Beach,” Carmen Gimenez Smith writes: “Try being/a figure in memory. It’s hollow there.//For truth’s sake, I’ll say she was on a beach/and her eyes were closed.//She was bare in the sand, long,/ and the hour took her bit by bit.”

Looking back on your own relationship to the water, how has it influenced your own work?

 

MARGO LANAGAN: I was trying to think what my relationship with water was. Early memories of the Hunter River flooding; we lived over looking some fields that flooded regularly, and it was always a wonder when they disappeared under that sheet of water. Also, we weren’t madly coastal, even though we were near Newcastle. I was quite afraid of the sea until my early teens, when I guess I got strong enough and brave enough to cope with surf. I’m still pretty nervous in the sea. Only just learned to snorkel, which has opened up wonders, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to scuba dive.

 

KIRSTEN TRANTER: So you grew up with the river as a primary reference point for a big body of water rather than the ocean?

 

 

 

ML: Yes, definitely – it was the Hunter River; crossing it on the ferry, ambling around the fields near it, always having it in sight, hearing speedboats buzzing up and down on a Sunday.

 

KT: I admit to sharing your fear of the sea, Margo. I got caught in a rip when I was a kid, and was not a strong swimmer, and it was very scary. Deep water still terrifies me in some primal way. Lisa, I imagine you must be a diver, given how much you write about it in The Sunlit Zone? What’s your relationship to the water?

 

LISA JACOBSON: I love water as an element, although my relationship to the sea is ambivalent. I find that I am frequently writing about it but not naturally drawn to it in that I don’t head off to the beach on long weekends like many Australians do. I did spend many holidays at the small coastal town of Somers, Melbourne, however, with my family. My grandmother had one of those classic holiday houses just across from the beach. My best friend Melinda would always come away with our family on these holidays and the beach was very flat and safe – so we spent many hours on the sand and in the water. This place has always held a kind of enchantment for me, and was firmly in my mind when writing The Sunlit Zone.

Quite some time ago I had a travelling scholarship to visit Israel and write about my Jewish heritage, but I was somehow drawn instead to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, where I did a scuba diving course. I too am fearful of waves. I often look out to the horizon and imagine a tsunami coming, kind of an intrusive involuntary thought. But the diving course was amazing. Like dipping one’s head into an alternate reality. All that magic going on beneath the surface of the sea, that we are not usually aware of. And it exists!

 

ML: I remember loving the beach and the sea for just a couple of summers when I was 14 or 15; the beach seemed a very romantic, wild place. I liked the idea of the winter beach, and striding up and down that with my hair blowing. But also the summer beach, that can be a damn’ sexy place. 😀

 

KT: It’s interesting that our childhood and adolescent experiences with water are so profound and shaping. There is something fundamentally nostalgic about the beach for me, always.

 

ML: I think, not being a very physical person as I went into teenager-hood, the fact that being in water let you move any way you want, and in secret, was a very powerful thing. Also, the beauty of watching a wave from underneath; diving under it and finding that safe place beneath it, were very powerful impressions.

 

KT: I was thinking about this question and wondering if there’s something about growing up in Australia that establishes a certain relationship to water and the ocean in particular – the sense of being on an island, surrounded by water – and also with so much desert in the middle… so much of the Australian population is clustered in coastal cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. Growing up in Sydney there’s the beaches, so beautiful but with all the beachy culture that goes with it. And the iconic harbour, this piece of water that defines the city but also divides it. It’s an ambivalent relationship, especially for a bookish girl who didn’t really learn to swim; it was a kind of alienation from something that I felt I was supposed to be really connected with, as a proper Aussie. I did have something of an epiphany though when I stayed at Clovelly one summer a few years ago and learned to snorkel, and made friends with the incredible blue groper who lives there. Though there’s that horrible, fear-filled moment of sticking your face in the water and trusting that you will breathe through this plastic tube…

 

LJ: That is so very true. For the first few lessons my instructor was exasperated with me, because I would be breathing underwater through the device (it’s called a regulator), and then I would think, “Oh my goodness I’m breathing. I can’t be breathing, I’m underwater!” and then I would panic and shoot back up to the surface.

 

ML: Snorkelling has been a revelation to me; my partner has done a taster dive and raves about it, and it sounds as if there are even more wonders to be discovered that way. Just…my ears! And all that water above! I already have mild claustrophobia nightmares…

 

LJ: Margo, yes, the beach can be both melancholy and sexy. As my best friend and I grew into teenagers, our experiences of the beach became less childlike and more exploratory with boys. But she was very beachy, lean and tanned. I always felt like the short slightly chubbier friend tagging along. 🙂

Diving can be claustrophobic. You can also get vertigo where the water is very clear, and your brain tricks you into thinking you are in air, not water. Jacques Cousteau writes beautifully about all this in his book The Silent World.

 

ML: But yes, Lisa, that sense of having entered another world is amazing. So many creatures, and so various. And you can just fly around there, like dream-flying.

 

LJ: And as in a dream, you can also go too deep, and just want to keep going deeper and deeper. A bit like Margo’s characters being called into the sea. It’s called nitrogen narcosis.

 

KT: Lisa, there’s a passage in The Sunlit Zone where your protagonist North is stuck underwater trying to save her sister Finn, and she seems to be under there for such a long time, in such an extended, dream-like state – were you thinking of nitrogen narcosis when you wrote it? I thought it also had affinities with the idea of fairyland, a place beneath the normal world where time moves differently.

 

LJ: Actually, I don’t think I was thinking of nitrogen narcosis whilst writing that passage – although I can see why you did. I did, however, stick my face in the sink and inhale water to see what it felt like to drown, sort of. That was an odd and challenging day. And I have always been fascinated by stories about places where time moves differently, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia.

Cousteau’s book with all those salty “men of the sea” and their hefty equipment got me thinking about how we are so unequipped to live in water now, although we originally clambered up its shores so many millions of years ago. Unlike seals, which move so easily through it and in it.

 

KT: Margo’s comments about the sexiness of the beach made me think of the way the beach in The Sunlit Zone is definitely a sexy place, but also very dangerous, and those two things are connected so strongly.

 

ML: I didn’t mean actual sexy. I suppose I meant sensual. I suppose it’s just where, there’s very little between you and nature, and you’re plunging your body into moving surf, then hauling it out and having the sun dry you off, then plunging back in, flinging yourself on the mercy of this big cold creature.

 

KT: Margo, this description helps me understand what might have drawn you to selkies. It’s really interesting to me that you have this ambivalence and claustrophobia about the sea, and yet you were drawn to writing about these creatures.

 

ML: I think I was always pretty envious of seals. They had the breathing thing sewn up, for a start; but also, they were so smooth and fast in the water. Humans could never quite achieve that degree of swimming expertise. Otters the same, of course. (This is visits to the Melbourne Zoo speaking – didn’t see a seal in the wild (or a sea otter!) until very recently.)

 

KT: Margo, can you describe the central elements of the selkie myth for us, and explain how the story that became The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape?

 

ML: I think I always knew the selkie myth; I can’t remember not knowing it, so it must have been a very early story that was read to me, or that I read as a very young child. The main component is that seals change into humans – male or female – they come up on land for the purposes of, I don’t know, just dancing or trying out human bodies. Then humans catch them at this, and in the case of the female selkies, most tales have the observer (male) falling in love with the selkie and immediately needing to prevent her returning to the sea, which he does by stealing her shed sealskin. The male selkies, of course, generally tend to have more self-determination; I don’t recall any versions where women entrap them quite the way men do female selkies. Then there is a romance of some kind. Usually reasonably happy, except that the woman is constantly yearning for the sea. Then at some point the woman accidentally finds her skin, and returns QUICK SMART to the sea. Sometimes she comes back and visits, you know, every Midsummer Eve or something. Sometimes she just goes and leaves her husband and children pining for ever.

 

KT: My impression is that male selkies are seducers of human women.

 

ML: Yes, male selkies are just more active all round. The female selkies’ allure is usually very passive; there seems to be very little intention in their seducing land-men. They’re just irresistibly gorgeous. But as for how The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape: It took shape as a novella first, and that ended up being the “Daniel Mallett” section of the novel, where the hybrid son of a selkie and a land-man organises to get his mother (and eventually all the selkie-mothers in the town, for there are no other women BUT selkies) back into the sea, for her happiness. Then, when it came to turning it into a novel, I poked and prodded at that witch figure, Misskaella (except she was called Messkeletha in the original novella, and I rather wish I’d kept that name for her) to find out what had motivated her to bring forth all these selkie-wives for the men of Rollrock Island, and the rest of the novel came from that search. It really turned into Misskaella’s story in the end, though it had begun as Daniel’s.

All sounds so simple now, when there was in fact a lot of switching and changing and trying-out of points of view and wondering, “What the hell is all this about anyway?” : D

 

KT: You’ve connected so strongly with the element of the stories that is about children, and the way these women are torn between their incredibly strong love for their children and their need for the sea. I like the way Daniel is so much at the center, the hybrid child who acts from deep compassion and love for his mother. This felt reparative to me in relationship to the selkie story, which I’ve always found to be such a tragic sort of myth about the incommensurability of male and female, masculine and feminine.

 

ML: I think the children’s point of view was the most powerful thing about it for me. The blokes who brought the selkies onto the land, they kind of deserved what they got, and they had the wit to know that their wives might leave at any time if they didn’t hide the skins properly. But the poor children, it must have seemed utterly mysterious and awful when their mothers disappeared. So I kind of let Daniel and his fellows have their cake and eat it, spend a bit of time in the sea with their mums and experience that life; know, to an extent, why she chose it over the land life, why she belonged there.

 

KT: Yes, at first the sea and the land seem like utterly separate incommensurable environments – but Daniel and the other boys manage to move between them. Did you also have The Little Mermaid fairytale in mind?

 

ML: Not strongly, no, although certainly there’s something of the mermaid’s pain at being on land that afflicts my selkies. In that story, her misery is much more highlighted than in selkie stories. Generally selkie women suffer silently. And selkie men don’t seem to suffer at all.

 

LJ: I think for me the notion of being drawn “back to the water” has several levels. It is about the way we, like the selkies, yearn to return that state that Daniel in Margo’s novel says was his experience of the sea – utter lack of anxiety, or time and all human things like worry and the general daily challenges of what it is to be human. Also, that we spend 9 months of our lives in amniotic watery fluid. So the sea is a returning of sorts. And then we evolved from the sea, grew feet and clambered up the shore.

 

ML: Lisa, I never thought about Daniel’s spell in the sea as being a return to the womb, but of course!

 

LJ: Yes, I was most struck by the oceanic sense he experienced quite literally in the water. The twins in my novel are in a sense joined – North is a “land girl” and Finn, who is born with fins and gills, is a “water girl”. But when one goes too far from the other, there is a tug, like they are joined in some way. So in a sense we all live on thresholds, those liminal spaces between land and sea. Always returning to the sea and leaving it. The pier is a good example of this, neither in nor out of the water.

 

ML: I think also we’re just set up to yearn. Possibly it’s an evolutionary thing; the yearniest humans get to survive. But all this searching for the perfect placement in the world, the perfect state of being, the trying out of different roles, the disappointment with what we’ve got and what’s easily accessible to us; all that’s going on in this type of story, in the background.

 

KT: I really like this idea of evolution selecting for yearning.

 

ML: “Yearning” may just be a nice way of saying “competitive” : )

 

KT: But makes competition sound so much more poetic! Lisa, Finn struck me as being something like the Little Mermaid or a selkie herself – literally a fish out of water.

 

LJ: I think that for Finn, at least, there is a sense of homecoming in returning to the sea.: For me, seeing goldfish out of water is one of my big phobias! I once came home to find our large fish tank had cracked open and all the fish were lying gasping in the room, some up against the wall, on the carpet, behind the couch. And I had to run around putting them all back in a bucket. It was terrifying!

I love these lines about water, from the American poet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones”: “But water is a question, so many living things in it, / but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming / generosity, how can they write you out?”

 

ML: Water is a question, I like that. I found it much more of a question before I snorkelled in it; the sea was just this lid, hiding things. Now that I can see some of them, it’s less closed-off from me. But yes, still, swimming in the local pool, in this handy resisting-but-yielding matter, the question arises! And I tend to think it’s living, in itself. But then, I remember even when I was REALLY small, assuming things were living, things like grains of sand, and stones. So I’m just naturally anthropomorphic in my thinking. 😀

 

KT: And/or seeing the world as a writer of fantasy fiction might tend to see it… Lisa, I love all the Mary Oliver lines that you use as epigraphs in The Sunlit Zone – that one about the soft animal of the body is one of my favourites. You also use a marvellous epigraph from Winifred Snow that seemed so right not only for the section it heads, but the whole novel in a way: “The ocean is tonic incarnate for the technological world.”

 

LJ: Yes, Winifred Snow is one of my favourite poets…as I worked deeper into The Sunlit Zone I became more aware of the ecological layer of the work, about how in mid life I stand astride two worlds: the world of fast-paced technology and the slower world of the past. Jack’s slow art of boat-building in the novel (couta boat building is knowledge passed down the generations), the fact he reads “hard copy”, and North’s parents’ resistance to technology and hybrid vegetable crops etc is part of this. I worry about the fast pace of our world, at the same time as I enjoy its benefits, like being able to do a three way skype interview…So the ocean as a tonic is really, for me, about a returning to the natural world that we have become so distracted from, and lost touch with.

 

KT: Lisa, sci-fi/speculative fiction is not a genre often associated with verse so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

LJ: Yes people have been asking me if I know of any other verse novels that draw on SF and spec fiction,  and I don’t. I didn’t sit down and think, now I am going to write a verse novel using those genres. But I guess it is an instinctive way to write for me, to blur the line between reality and enchantment. Also, the work usually tells me what kind of animal it wants to be, rather than the other way around.  I had been writing spec fiction short stories before this also.

Because The Sunlit Zone is set in 2050 in Melbourne, I also wanted to create the kind of world in which the reader could easily slide from our present way of living to the future, without feeling the gear change. So iphones become skin fones, real whales are now cloned whales, resort sand is coloured pink, floral goldfish are the norm to match the decor of your couches, that sort of thing. Margaret Atwood does it in Oryx and Crake and she was a big influence.

 

ML: I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history for my next novel, and last night I came across a wonderful section on water in a book called Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends, by Pamela Lukin Watson: “A clan or person of this totem must regard all water as sacred, and similarly water-bearing things such as hakea trees and certain water birds; each must be acknowledged as sharing the same substance as the person or tribe involved. People of the water totem needed to be very circumspect in their behaviour to any body of water; they could not shout before it, but had to take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink; they could not foul the water, nor could they tramp angrily about the creek banks.”

 

KT: The complexity of the water totem is really fascinating to me. Some Aboriginal people in Northern Australia have a very specific water totem, the sparkle on water.

 

ML: Yes, she’s talking about Indigenous people of the Channel Country in Queensland. I always think of a visit to the beach as a form of rinsing out my head; the noise and repetition of the waves, and of course the fact that they look very much as if they’re intent on scouring the beach clean. It seems like a naturally healing thing.

 

LJ: That’s nice – the ebb and flow of the waves as cleaning the beach and cleansing us at the same time. And I think, at least in the west, we are at risk of losing our capacity to be able to talk to elemental things such as water. That is why Mary Oliver is such an important poet to me. Also, I love the way those waves just keep on rolling in and out, in and out, no matter what. The way river water runs around stones in the same pattern for years on end, without changing its course.

 

ML: Yes, Lisa, the attitude of having to “take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink” is so un-Western, yet seems so right to my mind. The idea of acknowledging the whole system that you’re contributing to and taking from, every time you do the taking. Just this morning when I was on my bike ride, it was a misty morning and several people had come out and hosed down their cars to get the condensation off them. Water all over the road, no one using the cars yet; it seemed very profligate. Wouldn’t have used that much more energy going over the windows with a squeegee. <–Curmudgeonly thought. But there was no respectful speaking to the water before using it, that’s for sure… (Not that I do, every time I turn on a tap. But perhaps I ought to.)

 

KT: I guess the drought is really over! Lisa includes “Water Police” in her future – very convincing.

 

LJ: Well, I thought of the roller coaster at Luna Park in Melbourne, and how close it is to the sea shore there. That was when I was writing the book. Then after I finished it, I saw all these maps people have been drawing of rising tide levels that are predicted to actually cover this area and flood it in the decades to come, and then I saw a photo of the roller coaster washed out to sea in NY when Hurricane Sandy hit. I think the water police are not far off!

 

ML: We definitely had patrolling rangers monitoring water usage during the drought.

 

KT: I remember that. No hosing down the driveway, etc. I still have that attitude, which I think is particularly Australian in some way, driven by that drought consciousness.

 

LJ: Yes, and I think all these things are very important. But do not go deep enough into us establishing a more profound connection with environment, the way indigenous people have. One of the things I’d like to say about Margo’s book is that after I finished it I felt like I was still in its world, in the dreamy underwater word of the selkies, and also in the town.

 

KT: Yes, Lisa, and this is exactly what I want from a book, to take you under and let you stay there, like a dream.

 

ML: That’s a lovely thing to say, Lisa! I did want it to be very intense – I think because the selkie tales (and a lot of fairy tales) are so very matter-of-fact about their magic. Outrageous things happen – people turning into animals, ghosts, magical swords – but in fact the stories relate them as if purposely avoiding evoking a sense of wonder; they’re just the baldest, barest plot devices to move things along in the right way. I really wanted the weirdness of the change between animal and human (and I guess between animal and human environments) to come through strongly.

 

KT: Margo, what you’ve just said about the everyday-ness of magic as it’s represented in fairytales is really interesting – your work definitely has a sense of uncanny estrangement about it, an almost uncomfortable sense of going into another very different world. I wonder if you have read Among Others by Jo Walton? I love the anti-climactic low-key descriptions of magic in that book but in her case it actually elevates the sense of weirdness I think.

 

ML: I totally love Among Others, for exactly that reason. Love those prickly, cantankerous fairies! And it made me think, oh, maybe there IS a way to write the more memoirish story-ideas I’ve been having, without being as literal as memoir generally is…

 

KT: That sounds very interesting and makes me wonder if there will be cantankerous seal people in your memoir.

 

ML: Oh definitely. Possibly a cantankerous sea elephant or two as well!

 

KT: Bring on the cantankerous quotidian fanciful creatures of memoir!

 

ML: *embroiders that on a sampler and sticks it above writing-desk*

 

KT: Lisa, I wanted to say how beautiful the cover is for The Sunlit Zone – I used an image by the same artist, Samantha Everton, on the cover of The Legacy, my first book. I love her work.

 

ML: Have either of you seen Martine Emdur’s paintings, of people floating in water – mostly women? Beautiful things.

 

KT: Uncanny! They are so like Samantha’s pictures. Margo, do you have any pictures of selkies that are particular favourites?

 

ML: There aren’t many very good ones – they tend to be a bit My Little Pony in style. But my selkies scrapbooks Flickr set gives a good idea of the kinds of images that inspired me. Selkies tend to be very sentimentalised-over, bit like mermaids. It’s hard to find really good images that capture their mystery.

 

LJ: Margo’s selkie figures are so dark – I think her book cover also captures this. I love the idea of creating a scrapbook like this, Margo. I have collected a few images myself, mostly news items (but striking images) from the world that have occurred after I wrote my novel. I have one of the rollercoaster submerged in the sea after the New York floods

 

ML: Phoargh, that rollercoaster is terrific, especially the wrecked-ness of it. Did you see the flood picture of the lit-up merry-go-round, surrounded by water? Similar kind of weirdness.

 

LJ: Oh…my…god. Thank you – that is truly haunting and amazing….

 

Post script

KT: a couple of days after we spoke, the submerged roller coaster is finally being dismantled.

 

 

Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. The Brides of Rollrock Island, a modern versionretelling of the traditional selkie myth (published in Australia as Sea Hearts), won the two 2012 Aurealis Awards (for Best Young Adult Novel and Best Fantasy Novel), and was shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize and the a 2013 British Fantasy Award. Her short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Black Juice was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Red Spikes won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year,  and a Horn Book Fanfare title, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s’ Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was also a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Margo lives in Sydney.

She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.

 

Lisa Jacobson is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her new verse novel is The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012). This book was recently shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize (University of Melbourne) and, as a manuscript, for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work has been published in Australia, New York, London and Indonesia. She shares a bush block in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. More at http://lisajacobson.org/

 

Kirsten Tranter is a co-founder of The Stella Prize and the author of the internationally published, critically acclaimed novels A Common Loss and The Legacy. The Legacy was a Kirkus Reviews Debut of the Year in 2010, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, the Indy prize for debut fiction, and the ABIA literary fiction award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Kirsten completed a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University in 2008, and is widely published as a critic. She grew up in Sydney and is soon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. More at kirstentranter.com

The Stella Prize is a major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. It is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a prize of $50,000 and recognizes writing across genres by women that is excellent, original and engaging. Extracts from The Sunlit Zone, The Brides of Rollrock Island (aka Sea Hearts), and all the shortlisted works are available at thestellaprize.com.au

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan