This month, Diamond J. Sharp of ZORA 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.
Many artists have been exiled from their home countries. If you were exiled, what three literary figures would you take with you and why?
“Literary figures.” Well, this could mean writers or characters in stories. So if I were exiled, I’d want Scout Finch by my side. I think I could learn from her fierce sense of justice combined with her utter innocence. I’d also like Lipshaw Morrissey, from Louise Erdrich’s novels with me, just because I like him so much. He’s quirky and wise in a way that would keep me grounded and not as fearful or alone as I might otherwise feel. It would either be Lipshaw or Thomas-Builds-The-Fire from “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” by Sherman Alexie. But the most important literary figures I would want with me are any number of my friends who are writers of the “lesser known” ilk (usually my favorite kind). If I have not met someone, no matter how “great” they seem on paper, I would not choose to take them with me anywhere over those I know and love. That’s why my first two choices are characters in novels. I know these fictional characters more than I know any ultra-famous writers of the past or present, even though they are fictional characters.
What does “womanhood” mean to you? Is it an inclusive or exclusive term?
I have never thought of this before. I’m not that into “hoods” that are tacked onto the ends of words as if that word can then become, or create, an institution. Womanhood. I don’t know what it means. I suppose, though, I do like the ‘hood I grew up in, a place that defined me, to some degree, early on, and a place that held me accountable to things in my past (in a good way). Aside from the word, “womanhood” itself (a word that reminds me of any number of 1960-70s pop songs. “Girl, You’re a Woman Now,” or something by Tammy Wynette or Billy Joel), there is a certain collective power that women share. In that sense, I think, yes, we are, by default, an inclusive group. I mean, on the most obvious level, we–as a collective group–give birth to males and females. That’s inclusive of pretty much everything that is born into the genus and species of Homo sapien, regardless of gender, etc.
But women, collectively, are oppressed, to one degree or another, in every culture I know of, and so, again, by default, we have to be inclusive. I mean, we have to code-switch to communicate clearly in a man’s world (lean in, gals!), but we are also excluded in very real ways. My partner and I were once on a panel, and someone in the audience asked her (a fantastic athlete) if she did anything “feminine.” Her reply: “Yes, I make 75 cents on the dollar.” So there you have it! I know “excluded” and “exclusive” are two different things, but I have never found that much power in separatism in and of itself. By default, we’re very fluid in our inclusivity and exclusivity. This fluidity gives us a kind of power that far exceeds anything that a word (womanhood or anything else) can begin to embrace. And (though this is mildly off-topic), I do very much like what Virginia Woolf says in Three Guineas on the topic of war and women: “Therefore if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country.
‘For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ But I digress.
If you had to ban a word, what would it be?
I don’t think bans of any kind work. They give power and attention to that which the ban seeks to disempower or defuse. A banned book is a powerful book. (But there are many kinds of powerful books.) Instead of banning anything, any word (if I found it “offensive”), I’d work hard to change the cultural ideologies at the root of the word. Words, in and of themselves, are of course arbitrary grunts, when spoken, and arbitrary scribbles, when on a page. It’s culture that imbues them with meaning and power. So I would not waste time scratching the surface with a ban. I’d work daily to change the culture, which would, by default, change the nature of the word, and then the word would not have to be banned. Once anything is created, it can’t be uncreated, only redefined, reshaped.
Discuss your favorite banned novel.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my many, many favorite banned novels. I like the cultural anthropology, folklore, and mythology she brings to it. I prefer to let her speak for herself. Here’s a beautiful passage that demonstrates the folklore/mythology aspects of this beautiful and important novel:
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.
What line, in either a work of prose or poetry, inspired you to pursue writing?
I can’t begin to remember what line first inspired me. I have been writing in an intentional way since (earliest I can recall) second grade. But this line of poetry stays with me. I hear almost daily in my head. It inspires me to write every day:
“Eternity exists for us like a tongue for a deaf mute.” –Odysseus Elytis, “Axion Esti”
Creating a short writing prompt for our HER KIND readers, based on our October theme of BANNED:
Grapes. Wine. I love them both. Want to know how to make a good wine? Plant your vines in bad soil that has very little “nutritive value.” What happens then? The grapes struggle, and they develop thick skins. The skin is what a vintner wants in a grape. As writers, as women, we sometimes grow up on difficult ground. In other words, our roots are not as “nutritive” as they could be for what we want to become. The ground is not “inviting.” We are not generally expected to have a prominent voice. But of course, that’s utter bullshit. We do have prominent voices that shape our world as a whole. We have voices that shape our culture. So here’s the prompt: Write a few paragraphs about your own native soil, how it formed you, nurtured you, gave you a thick (or thin skin); write about how you made this ground luscious and intoxicating.
One last thought: Dionysus was the Greek God of wine. He was also bi-sexual in the very real sense of the word. (He was sometimes a woman, sometimes a man.). In other words, his gender was fluid. Somehow, this fluidity has everything to do with growing and thriving in theoretically “tough” soil. The fruit of the god of wine was mind-altering. It’s a powerful thing to recognize that no matter how nutritive our soil is or isn’t, our words can always become powerful, even mind-altering, and yes, pleasantly intoxicating. Imbibe!