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HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

What Makes Books Dangerous?

by Jenn Monroe

This is the question I pose to students in my Banned Books course as their final exam. I ask because I know they are hungry to tell me why sexuality, race, religion, and politics fire people up, and what the attitudes toward censorship indicate about the interplay between these things.

We’ve been talking about this since day one, when I gave each student the list of the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books. They were not surprised to find many of their favorite authors—J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut—or noted classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye—but others totally shocked them: “Who would want to ban Captain Underpants?”

Literature has been suppressed since at least the advent of the printing press, and for one (or a combination) of four “reasons:” religious, political, sexual, or social. While few books in the U.S. are actually banned today, ALA statistics show many are challenged every year. The majority of these challenges are made to materials in schools or school libraries, by parents.

These figures do not seem to surprise my class. Collectively they express an understanding of a mother wanting to shield her own child, but they bristle at the idea of complete censorship. Some ask how banning can be possible with “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. What perplexes most, however, is why anyone would care about what they wanted to read.

As we begin to read, the answer takes shape. To examine literature suppressed on religious grounds we read Confucious, Kant, Darwin, Luther, Goethe, and Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve. Then we tackle those suppressed for political reasons: Machiavelli, Marx, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun. Next, we move to those considered obscene: Go Ask Alice, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We end the semester with one text suppressed for “social” reasons: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Along the way we take up the “free speech” question considering cases from recent news and Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. At the end of his prologue Hentoff welcomes readers with this: “As you will see in the chapters ahead, censorship…remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second.”  We also debate Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too. In his introduction he argues “…the First Amendment does not in and of itself…direct a politics but will display the political ‘spin’ of whatever group has its hand on the interpretative machinery…”

In the early days of book banning, religious leaders and monarchs alike maintained control of vast populations as long as they controlled the messages about God and country. It was in their best interest to ban, and burn, contradictory texts (and often their authors). Later, more democratic governments concerned about obscenity and controlling the spread of Communism, banned texts that promoted those ideas.

My students see the relationship between controlling messages and power, and agree this cannot be the reason why individuals work to remove books they deem dangerous. Eventually we decide people must feel threatened by texts that offer ideas counter to their own. This, however, confounds my students even more. Most say they have read materials they disagree with, yet they did not, and would never, try to ban them.

Thus another question arises: how does someone move from simply holding a different opinion about sex, religion, politics, race, gender, etc. to pushing for a ban on the materials that put forth another perspective? What is so scary about diverse ideas? What are they afraid will happen?

I am lucky. My students are all studying to become creative writers or visual artists, and most of them were allowed to read whatever books they found interesting. Few come from dogmatic backgrounds, and if they did, they have done enough individual exploration to come to my class with a wide-open mind.

Because of this, it is not easy for them to grasp that many people find the unfamiliar scary and often reject “the other” out of protection. One could assume, however, the more experience with people and ideas that are different, the less frightening they would become.

But are we naturally drawn toward those experiences?

I ask my students how often they read articles or listen to programs that offer ideas, beliefs, and opinions that differ from their own. Then I ask them to consider whether or not the messages that support their thinking offer facts to bolster their opinions or simply deny the validity of “other” ideas. Do they promote their position as “right” and others as “wrong?”

We take it further: what would happen if we chose to censor all other points of view? If we insulated ourselves only with messages and people who agree with us, closing ourselves off from opportunities to learn about alternate approaches. Would we ever overcome our fear of difference? Would we ever not feel the need to protect those we love?

From this perspective, a book that promotes a reality counter to our own is inherently dangerous. It is a direct threat to our core beliefs and suppressing it would appear the most effective way to keep it from doing any harm to our family and community.

My students understand, but they cannot accept how someone could ever be that afraid. I know their struggle is personal—they cannot see themselves taking that step—so I joke that if they want to be famous, they should write a book that will be banned. We laugh, but I silently wish none of them will ever need to.

Jenn Monroe’s Banned Books course syllabus

What Makes Books Dangerous?

My Personal Haircut

by Lynne Schmidt

I’m seven years old and naked in the shower. To my right is the typical things you’d find: shampoo, conditioner, soap. But there is also a pink single razor staring back at me. My sisters are both old enough to shave, and they ask my mother for new razors when theirs rust. Two years behind my older sister, I haven’t begun the rite of passage.

I know two things at this moment: I’m a girl, and because I’m a girl, I’m supposed to shave. But…what exactly am I supposed to shave? I look down at my prepubescent body. My leg hair is fairly stubby, but mostly invisible thanks to the blond hairs. I look to my arms, which kind of resemble a hairy monster. It’s like my body is telling me what’s right. For the next six months, I shave my arms because that’s what girls do.

Later, I was informed women shave their legs, so I left my arms alone and began doing what girls actually do. It wasn’t until late into middle school when my formerly blond pubic and armpit hair began to darken. I knew to shave my armpits, but no one ever said anything about my crotch hairs, so I left them alone.

Adventures and sexual escapes in high school never told me otherwise. Plus, I figured that if a guy had his hand down my pants, perhaps that should be the last thing to worry about. Adventures and sexual escapades in college would have guys tell me, “No one will ever go down on you if you have pubes,” yet their advice was wrong. The few guys who did give me oral sex never complained about my pubic hair cut, or lack thereof.

As a sophomore, I dated a timid yet beautiful blue eyed, dark haired boy. He’d never had a girlfriend before. As his hands began to dive into my pants, and mine into his, he stopped short. “Does my hair bother you?”

My hand stopped moving. I chuckled, surprised by the question. “No. Does mine bother you?”

“No.”

And like that, we continued along.

After feminists raved about The Vagina Monologues, I dragged a different significant other to a show. In the audience, I listened to a woman recount another woman’s story. Her husband was cheating, because “if she’d shaved down there, I’d find her more attractive.” Their couple’s therapist suggested shaving the wife, together. They did, and she bled. She recounted pieces of herself falling into her hands. It hurt her, but they continued despite when the razor would slip and injure her private area more.

In the end, she was shaved.

In the end, her husband still cheated.

Sitting in the audience as I heard this story, I made a promise to myself that I would never shave anything for a guy.

Still, when my body would be explored, and underwear would be moved to the side, my little black hairs would get caught, and tug, and hurt. So I began to experiment with my hair style, eventually settling on a “landing strip” and barely (but still there if I’m lazy) there under area. I didn’t look or feel like the seven year old girl lost and confused in the shower. Instead, I felt like the twenty-something-emerging-woman taking control of what I wanted my body to look like.

Adventures post-college would have guys hovering above me, mid thrust asking, “So, next time we do this, can you trim up a little bit?”

“Sure,” I’d answer, but I would remember The Vagina Monologues. I’d remember the promise I’d made to myself. If he’s still able to get off, my pubic hair should not be a big deal.

I have met and been with guys who have told me with and without clothes on I’m beautiful. I have been with guys who have manscaped themselves, and guys who’ve been hairy. I have been in unhealthy relationships where my significant other and I emotionally destroyed each other, and I have been in healthy relationships where we’ve pushed each other to do great things with our writing, our careers, our lives.

In the years since my pubic hair has grown in, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on whether or not I want to keep them there. I’ve continued to shave my legs, and my armpits, and from time to time chop my head-hair very short. I make these decisions. I decide if and when I want to shave or cut anything.

In the end, after I’ve had several men disparage me from keeping my little black hairs on my otherwise blond body, I’ve determined that it’s no one else’s decision to make but my own. If I am with a man who prefers me to look like an eleven year old girl, chances are I don’t actually want to be with him. If I’m with a man who truly values me, not just my body, he’ll accept all of my bodily hair styles, not try to push me into a hair cut I’m not comfortable with.

Unless, you know, he’s willing to get all of his hair waxed.

My Personal Haircut

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

by Christine Clifford

Twenty years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty, my biggest fear wasn’t about dying: it was about losing my hair. I don’t know why it was so important to me, but at the time, I was a busy executive; I had young children and it just seemed so . . . visible.

It fell out with a vengeance; and I wore my wigs and my hats for one year, four months and twelve days. But who was counting?

Fortunately for me, my kids were only ten and eight at the time. So when my older son, Tim, approached me and said that all the neighborhood kids wanted to draw on my newly bald head, I happily complied.

My mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 42, but I always knew if I ever had to lose those particular assets of mine, I always had my best asset: long, thick, curly luxurious brown hair. My friends all kept saying things like, “Christine, don’t worry about it. When your hair grows back, it will grow in thicker, curlier, and more beautiful than ever.”

I don’t know about any of you who may have been through this experience, but when my hair grew back, I looked something like a cross between Andy Warhol and Lyle Lovett. It came back all gray. It was absolutely stick straight. But I have to tell you, it felt wonderful to be able to say, “I’m having a bad hair day, instead of a no hair day.”

And what cancer and my bald head did for me twenty years ago was to reiterate one of those life lessons we all learned as children: beauty is only skin deep. It’s what’s inside that matters. So now, here, I find myself twenty years later, and breast cancer has come back into my life again. This time, I had to have double mastectomies as opposed to the lumpectomy I had in 1994, and reconstruction is a topic I could write on for hours, if not days. But once again, I am bald.

It’s funny, though, actually. I’m treasuring each tiny little eyebrow or eyelash that still clings to my body. Shaving my legs? Wouldn’t even think of it! After all, it’s hair! It’s amazing how different you look without it, and yet, it is far, far easier! Getting ready in the morning has become a ten-minute ritual instead of an hour ordeal.

I’m reminded of a book I read when I faced this baldness the first time around. The super model of my era was Cindy Crawford, and she wrote a book titled Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face. As I read through the book, Cindy talked about how even one tiny little eyebrow could make all the difference. I figured if she’d just give it to me, I’d plant it on my head!

I’m reminded of an awkward situation that played out in my life many years ago. The year I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I decided to take a break from my treatments and the cold Minnesota winter. We flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, where there was a professional golf tournament going on: The Tradition on the Senior PGA Tour. We bought tickets, and we were standing on the third tee, watching my three idols in golf tee off: Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, and Tom Weiskopf. A gust of wind came up and blew my hat (and my hair!) right off my head and into the middle of the fairway. The gallery went silent. My golf idols stared at me as my hair was in their flight path. I took a deep breath, slipped under the ropes, wandered into the middle of the course, grabbed my hat and my hair, and turned to the golfers. “Gentlemen,” I offered, “the wind is blowing left to right.”

They said the laughter could be heard all the way back to the clubhouse, and I realized that once again, laughter is the best medicine. Don’t forget to laugh!

I’ll get through my treatments, and reconstruction. My long-term prognosis is excellent. And I know, too, that one day, I shall have hair again.

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

To Hair or Not to Hair?

by Millicent Borges Accardi

OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a hippie. Or if not a complete tree-hugging commune living hitchhiking 1960s hippie I am at least hippie-esque. My god babies think I am the epitome of hippidome—through and through—and, with my hippie shack in Topanga, with its river-rock bathtub and my bearded-artist husband, backyard veggie garden, and an aversion to all or most things artificial, except for plastic picnic dishes, I have come to embrace at least a small part of the psychedelic 60s earth mother package. I do after all live in the hippie capital of the United States—Topanga Canyon, a rural zone filled with creekers (poor hippies) and peakers (rich entertainment-type hippies) about halfway between Santa Monica and Malibu, off PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).

Long ago our mothers and our mother’s mothers gave up girdles and burned their bras to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Jane Fonda on a loud speaker, yelling about the Vietnam War and the dangers of antiperspirant. Our mothers grew their hair long and stopped bathing. We ate sprouts and avocados. My mom threw together shakes made of wheat germ, dates, raw eggs, and soy.

Flash forward to 2013.

The world is suddenly filled with New Age hippies, crystals, gluten-free bread, and Om chanting. In yoga classes no one wears perfume; outfits are organic cotton or hemp. We all bring the requisite, glass or aluminum, refillable water bottle and rubber mats. We pour on essential oils and drink baby coconuts when we are thirsty. We shop at farmers markets or CSAs. We can fruit and make our own juices from kale and beets. We meditate and look for new and better ways to reduce our carbon footprint and expand our womanly goddess out into the universe—stronger, fierce, defiant, true, brave and wonderful. The earthly-female quotient of the goddess. We expand our Kundalini and chant Ha-Ha-Ha as if we were Amazon warriors off to battle the universe into peaceful submission. We sing Shanti, shanti, shanti and nod Nameste to each other in our blessed-out, peace-loving humankind existence.

And yet.

Why the heck do we all STILL shave our bodies like secretaries on Mad Men or Jackie Kennedy? Look around and see the free modern women of this millennium. We have embraced every opportunity to grow as spiritual beings and women and au natural is de rigueur—legs shaved, or waxed, underarms prodded and scraped until smooth, hours spent at spas to achieve the perfect Brazilian, hairless sex organs!

What IS this?

Why in this day and age is packaged food seen as bad and yet women still feel compelled to shave their bodies? In a casual survey, if you ask ten women, you will get comments like this: “It’s “gross” or “Ew,” or “It LOOKS bad.” (Same is true with plucking eyebrows or going grey.) Vegan, gluten-free, Yoginis who swear by their raw foods and hemp pajamas think nothing of coloring their hair, getting a wax, plucking their eyebrows, and shaving their legs on a daily basis.

When I peel off my sweatshirt at Topanga Days or the Reggae Festival I get stares about my glorious hairy pits. In the land of freedom and naturalness, why are hairy underarms seen as an abomination?

Why are we still buying into this male-dominated view of what is beautiful? In France, women proudly strut hairy patches visibly under bikinis and raise their hairy armpits in sleeveless smocks to grab the strap on the Métro. Why is hair such a hang-up in the U.S.?

Victorian John Ruskin was supposedly so horrified on his wedding night by his wife’s hairy nether regions that he never consummated the marriage. I suppose he never imagined women had hair too?

It’s clear that decades of advertising and conditioning have embedded in us this fear of the natural state of hair. Why have women rebelled against everything BUT hair removal? Why can’t we learn to love our hair, wherever it grows?

I stopped shaving my legs and armpits when I took a job as an artist model in college. Perhaps it made me feel more covered up? I just found I liked the look and feel of it. It was a great relief not to have red rashes under my arms, to throw away my razors. And, yet, for many years I still shaved for “special occasions,” like formal parties or weddings, places where I had to wear stockings and/or a sleeveless dress. I caved to public opinion and did not want to be abused or to draw attention to my lack of, shall we say, grooming? Recently Julia Roberts was lambasted by TMZ and the gossip media for showing up to a movie premier, in a sleeveless gown, with visible underarm hair. You would have thought she committed murder, the stories that were posted. People were aghast.

I remember my grandmother and my Aunt Lucy not shaving under their arms. In 6th grade when I decided to shave my legs, my grandmother warned me that once I started it would be impossible to stop. She told me shaving made legs hairier, and the more I shaved, the more I would need to. And, she was right. I just did not know it then.

I wear tank tops in yoga and usually go to the same studio, but I still notice stares and weird faces when people look at me. After awhile, people are trained and their eyes, avert. And yet, in the 8 years I have gone to this studio, no one else has joined me in my quest for being truly au natural. Initially, I thought I would have a few hippie sisters in crime. Us bold, daring chance-takers. But no. It has not happened quite yet.

Hairless armpits have been called more sanitary. But why? It seems to have started around the time of the first women’s revolution in the Jazz Age of flappers. For the first time, arms were let out of their clothing-cages and someone, somewhere, decided hair was unpleasant. Silent films like Cleopatra helped establish this hairless trend.

However, we have grown as a society, why do we still today? Are our hippy-dippy, new- agey lives STILL ruled by fashion? Advertisers?

Hair is sensual. The Joy of Sex even says hair adds to the overall experience of touch. It is and can be its own erogenous zone, ripe with scent and a gateway to the skin, our largest organ. Why shave and lose sensation?

In short, what is so horrible about body fur? I like the way my pits feel with hair. I like my legs in their natural state. It feels comfortable. I also like men with chest hair and beards. I like the touch and feel of skin and hair and bodies being natural bodies together.

Underarm hair in particular has a job. It cushions the air around the armpits so the sides do not rub against each other. Like every other part of our body, it is functional, providing ventilation, cooling, and less chaffing.

Why do so many people consider underarm hair vulgar, unclean?

To Hair or Not to Hair?

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

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.

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