HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

HerKind has had an exciting run, but has now been retired. Don’t fret! VIDA activity is now all centered on one site: VIDAweb.org! There, we’re hard at work bringing you the most relevant, insightful, and evocative articles and updates. All your favorite past articles and essays will still be archived here, as well, but make sure to visit the new VIDA site for all of our up-to-date content!

If you’re interested in writing for VIDAweb, check out our new content and contact us at VIDAweb.org!

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HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

Lady in the House: BK Loren

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!

Lady in the House: BK Loren

Lady in the House: Robin Ford

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that I have the kind of head (big) that requires a certain amount of hair. I’ll never be able to rock Halle Berry’s pixie or do a buzz cut the way India.Arie did. I’m envious of those with cute small round heads, but that’s the head I was born with, so what can you do?

Back in the eighties and early nineties, I tried tons of different styles. I hadn’t found my own identity yet, so I copied everyone else’s – the severe Grace Jones from “A View to A Kill” (bad idea!!!), New Wave’s short cut with long floppy bangs (although I didn’t have the guts to dye the bangs blue or purple), and just about every iteration of Janet Jackson: from the big 80s hair of Control to the loose curls on the cover of Janet.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually walked out of a salon with a cut I loved– as in didn’t have to do anything to it to make it look like I wanted. It just worked. And it worked the next day, and the next, and even after I shampooed it. I was going home to California for a visit, and I wanted a new look. I had been growing my hair out so the stylist had a lot to work with, and I finally understood what a good cut can do. When I walked out of the SoHo salon that day, I was definitely feeling it – I was fierce, I was New York City – “California, look upon me and tremble at my awesome NewYorkness!”

 

Is hair a performance?

It depends. There was a time when my hair was as much a performance as the fifty-something shoes I had. It was all a very specific style designed to say, “Don’t you wish you were this cool?” What it actually said is something I don’t want to think about. I had blond stripes at the temple, one time I shaved lines in the sideburn area. Nothing too crazy, nothing I couldn’t wear to work, but just enough to be unique.

You have to be brave to fully commit to performing hair. A green Mohawk is performance, dreads on white people used to be performance; anything that shouts out, “look at me!” is performance. Willow Smith has performance hair. She wrote a song about it, then cut it all off! I admire that kind of bravery.

Now that I’m older, I don’t feel it’s necessary to have performing hair. I’m happy to have my hair sit quietly in the audience and watch the others perform.

 

What is your “hair politic?”  

You are not your hair.  There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” hair – there is hair and then there is bald. It’s your hair do what you want with it – don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

 

In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

As much as I wish it wasn’t so, I’d be very unhappy if I lost my hair. I’d love to be confident and daring enough to just shave it all off, but I’m not. And if I lost it due to sickness, I’d be very upset.

Other black women have always told me that I have “good” hair, which simply means it’s not as kinky as theirs. But I was taught that just like skin, everyone’s hair is unique – not better or worse just different, so I don’t take it to heart. My hair is what it is:  a combination of my mom and dad’s.

When I was young, my hair was a pain in the neck as far as I was concerned. I had very long hair that reached my waist at one point. It would take my mother hours to do it, first washing it in the kitchen sink, then combing it out (this was the worst part), then setting it and finally I’d have to sit under the dryer for at least an hour. So I didn’t know what was “good” about that. After it was styled though it didn’t look much different from the other little girls in my school, so I never gave it a second thought. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized the importance women put on hair, particularly black women.

I can clearly remember my great aunt in Tennessee telling me to never cut my hair because it was so beautiful and long, and that the Bible says that, “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.” Of course I cut it shortly after that. It was just too much to deal with. I kept it relatively long until my sophomore year of college, when I just couldn’t take the upkeep any longer. That was when I got the Grace Jones look. Since then, it’s been long and short and in between.  I know that some women have been envious of the way my naturally curly hair, and think I must not be fully black, which annoys me, but I know who I am.

I’ve never thought of my hair as political. I wear it the way that I feel is most flattering and easiest for me. I’m glad that we’ve evolved so that black women don’t have to straighten their hair for it to be acceptable. There are still some old-school ladies hanging onto the idea that natural hair is messy or dirty or something, but that’s their hangup— don’t put your issues on me.

I’ve been blessed with strong hair that grows quickly and that I have finally learned to manage – that’s all that’s important to me.

 

If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be?” 

The “Afro Puff:” A slightly controlled form of non-fiction that encourages the writer to use their natural language and style. It would allow the writer to use their authentic voice while utilize more formal strategies when desired. Plus, Afro Puff is fun to say.

Lady in the House: Robin Ford

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

A few years ago when I moved to a new town, I was advised to use a local salon. “They really know curly hair,” I was told. It cost me a couple hundred bucks.   This poem, “Beauty Salon Love,” appears in my newest book, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, came out of that visit.

Beauty Salon Love

He says, Oh, I understand your hair; you need

and rattles off a litany that includes

coconut oil infusion

after, of course, a clarifying shampoo,

and talks curl shape and cuticle health

and color, Oh, we’ll talk color next time;

your red is so good, we don’t need to go there yet,

but when we do, you’re in the right hands,

and I admit, I started to weep,

not a lot, but yes, like when you’ve finally made love

rather than had sex,

the whole sweep of your future

opening both out to that future

and back to the dream

you had as a little girl of being rescued

and loved for ever and ever and ever

and suddenly I could make love to my new hair-guy,

but instead buy close to two hundred dollars worth of products,

everything he says will transform me,

and I nod as he takes my money,

would kiss him if he let me,

and then go home to my husband,

and tell him, I like the new salon,

but in our bedroom I hide the bag

with the shampoo, curl activator, and everything else

I will rub in my palms,

apply to my head, every day until I can go back,

spend a little more,

hoping the husband won’t find it,

knowing he will,

knowing he’ll forgive me my desperation,

this lapse in judgment,

and he’ll say, you always look beautiful to me,

and I’ll smile with gratitude,

and won’t tell him

how that’s just not enough.

 

The “curly hair expert” really was great at making me feel fawned over, but he cut my hair in the standard way he cut every woman’s hair, and in a few days, the stepped layers he’d done made my hair look a bit like a Lego stack. This had cost, to me, a huge amount of money, the first time I had paid so much, and now I was certain it would be the last.

I began stopping curly haired strangers in the street to ask them about their hair. Women were always willing to talk about their hair, the products they use, where they get cuts.

One day, a woman sighed, looked around each shoulder as if someone might be listening in, and leaned toward me. “Listen. This is crazy, I know,” she peered at me over hipster Warby Parker frames, “I go to this place over in Eatontown.” She put a hand to her chest in an, “I swear to god gesture. “Ten bucks.”

“Seriously?” I asked, thinking, Holy Grail.

“Seriously,” she said, pulling a card from her shoulder bag, then holding it out, so I could read the name of a “fast food” hair joint. She mugged a face. “I know. I know. Don’t judge it. It’s dirty. No frills, but ask for Linda.”

I took the card. The following week, I had an appointment with Linda, who turned out to be very heavy, who wore a cut off Harley Davidson T-shirt with the neck ripped low to expose sweaty cleavage and a bosom not bolstered by a bra, and who smelled like an ash tray and disinfectant. The cut cost ten bucks, and I gave her ten in tip. The cut was great, too, just right, not fancy, but a disciplined, careful, and loving cut, so my curls layered gently and with bounce. I’ve gone to her ever since. She never blows it dry. She doesn’t use fancy product. We talk about her chopper, her divorce, her kids, her health, my health, my kids, my marriage, my writing. Sometimes politics, money, the culture, her fears for her kids, my fears for my kids; kids, kids, kids. We like each other. We understand the fears.

Recently, I called for an appointment, and they told me she was gone. Gone where, I wanted to know. Don’t know, they said. I’d been going to her for four years.  I haven’t gotten a shaping since. My ends are getting stringy and splitting. I guess I could start talking to strangers again.

 

Is hair a performance? 

Three things have happened recently to collude in me growing my red, kinky, curly hair long:

1. I realized that I cut my hair whenever it gets to the length my mother cut my hair when I was a kid. Back then, there were no “hair products,” and my mom had straight hair and no idea what to do with my mess of red frizz. She begged me to comb it every night to get the knots out, then, “Do a hundred brush strokes to make it shiny.” That just turned my hair into a straw broom. My hair can’t take a comb or a brush, but it would be years before I had black friends to show me how to use a pick, to turn me on to Cream of Nature conditioner to soothe the cuticle of my hair shafts, so it could curl instead of kink, and so my mother is to be forgiven for losing her patience one day, standing me in the bathtub, and with her sewing shears, cutting my hair straight across just below my chin.

It took me well into adulthood to understand that some voice echoes in my head from that day, “Your hair is a rat’s nest! If you can’t keep the knots out, it’s coming off!” sending me into a panic for a hair cut came from that childhood event. Now that I know this, I am working against the sense of chaos on top of my head.

2. My hair cutter is gone (and I do need a new one, but I won’t pay for the salon-spa pampering bit of show-biz nonsense).

3. I met a curly haired women at a conference with tresses to her shoulder blades and made a pact with her: I will see you in a year, and except for shaping and trimming to keep the cuticle from splitting (split ends are real and get worse if not trimmed—the shafts shatter from the bottom up!), I won’t cut it.

So I am letting it grow. And yes, I can see that it is a performance. I am constantly asked about my hair. People comment on the color, the texture, the wildness of it. It is bright. It is bold. It is a defining element of my physicality. Growing it now is a statement of authority and ownership of self. But my head of wild red hair seems to elicit all kinds of reactions.  Just this week, I was in Atlantic City for a few days. Here are some comments I was on the receiving end of:

From a man on the boardwalk: “I love that red hair!” Pause, as I passed, then, cheekily, “Are you a real redhead?” (I have been getting asked this one since ninth grade, when the boys in science class selected a representative to ask me this, the actual query, of course, being about what was behind my skirt, and the boys, perhaps–I’d like to recall it this way– as embarrassed by my silence as I was inside my silence.)

From a woman in a store, but to her companion: “Oh, I just love redheads; they are so cute!”

From a man I had just met in a lobby as we exchanged friendly conversation: “Wow, you have some amazing hair.”

From a child at a public pool: “Can I touch your hair? Is it like wool?”

From a friend, during a gathering, “God, I felt like somebody’s redheaded step-child.” They were discussing someway they had been treated poorly.

When being introduced to read from my new book, my hair was mentioned multiple times: “Dazzling.” “Wild.” “Fiery.”

In a thrift store, from the clerk: “Is that really your hair color?”

But I am being disingenuous.  My hair communicates, and people respond. This is not a bad thing. I don’t even really mind, though I used to and though I am still astonished. I choose how to respond, or not. Sure I let the kid touch my hair. I thanked the man who commented in the lobby. I said nothing to the stranger snorting and chuckling behind me on the boardwalk. I rolled my eyes at the woman referring to me as “cute” (I am a grown up, and nothing about me is cute anymore). I explain gently that “redheaded step-child” is a fraught phrase on many, many levels. And I always say I was born a redhead, yes, which is true while also allowing me not to launch into an explanation of beginning to go gray and now using a plant-based henna to cover the gray, staying as close to my original color as possible, and yes, I have kids pics to prove it.

Which means I am performing something with my hair, because I could just shave it (I have several times done so over my adult life) or not henna and watch it dull (which happens to red hair) and then go gray. So what is the performance?

There is a billion dollar industry out there dedicated to hair. A New York Times article reported not long ago that curly haired women buy hair product more than any other hair demographic. I will buy almost any jarred or tubed thing if it promises to soften my cuticle and make it bouncy and shiny. For a long time, I desperately wanted straight hair. The performance I wanted was simple: make me beautiful, average, regular, skinny, and popular, normal and desirable.  Once a year for many years I would freak out and spend a hundred bucks on a hair straightener and some products, invariably burning my hair (or my neck) and spending hours only to have it look like a witch’s wig.

“What’s wrong?” I begged my husband once. ‘Please, please, tell me the truth.”

He sighed, and I could see him working up the courage to go against the good man code of telling your woman she looks beautiful no matter what (One marker of maturing relationship is about honoring truth not illusion). He said, “When you straighten your hair, it is stiff. It doesn’t move.”

Bingo. That was it. Hair needs to preform with gentle movement, too, to be sexy, alluring, touchable.  Now my desire for my hair to perform is shifting. I own this red, damn it. I suffered as a child with it, withstood the mean bullying comments about my nasty hair for years and then lived in stunned shame as that turned into intrusive sexual comments from men and boys when I was an adolescent (Oh, I have stories! When I was sixteen, a man pulled up next to me in a car and held a rose out the window to me. “I can’t resist a redhead wearing white,” he said. “What a vision you are.” Or recently,  “Every man remembers his first redhead in the back of his car,” a poet told me.   Yeah, dude, I have been hearing about that one for a long, long time.) Redheads are sexy. Redheads have a temper. Redheads are hot. Redheads are magical. Today, my red crazy curls say, I am in the room, and you can’t render me invisible nor make me feel ugly.

 

What is your “hair politic?” 

I have probably already given a sense of politics, though not directly. There are politics of black hair that are more discussed, but red certainly has its issues, and frankly, women are identified by their hair in very profound ways.

Here’s a story: For some reason, with the birth or arrival of each of my four sons, I cut my hair quite short, nearly crew length. The last time I did this, I’d been a full time professor a few years. I noticed my students responded to me differently with my hair shorn, and I had the worst student ratings that semester! I was also regularly asked if I am a lesbian, a question that deserves no answer, in my view, as my sexuality is no one’s business, but answering or not answering is fraught because one wishes to be politically and socially responsible. One of my older sons gave me an answer: he came up behind me one day after I’d cut it when we adopted his youngest brother, and said, “Mom, you look like a lesbian.” When I turned around, I realized our hair was about the same length and cut, so I exclaimed without thought, “So do you!”  He never mentioned it again.

But your question was not about politics, but a hair politic, an art or craft of hair, and for that I have a few cunning little points nearing a manifesto for curly red hair:

  1. Leave-in conditioner is your lifeline.
  2. Do not over wash.
  3. Lock in curl with a brief blow dry with defuser, and then finish with hair dry.
  4. Use orchid clips to keep it out of your face. (I love when people give me an orchid as a gift. I steal the clips.)
  5. Rock your red. Henna to cover gray; don’t dye it. They never get red right, and it fades. And most dyes have carcinogenic.
  6. Honor Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus as a hero. Talk about Lucille Ball’s beauty, not just her comedy. Admit Bette Midler is a gorgeous diva and so was Queen Boadicea.
  7. Red heads should breed; we are an endangered species. And no, coloring doesn’t count. It’s genetic.
  8. When it comes to your genes, know the deal: Red heads need more anesthetic, but often need less pain killers, two very different things. If you are a “real” redhead, meaning by genes, or if there are red heads in your family, make sure to bring this up with your doctors. I have the stories to prove it anecdotally, but the science is there and easy to Google.

 

In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

OMG, how is it not? I think many women of all races and ethnicities would say that hair is inextricably linked to the way a woman is perceived by others, but of course, the real question is how we link it to ourselves. Most of my life, I have had a real love hate relationship with my hair. As a child, I was ashamed of my unruly mess of frizz, bright as a copper penny. Until I was 18, I tried to flatten it in every way possible, and even slept with a book under my pillow and tried to never move my head. Lost cause.

Once in college, I was offered a part in a musical, but conditioned upon my dying my hair dark. I wouldn’t do it.  I hated my hair, but it was me! What would I be without it? WHO would I be??

A few years ago, I was helping someone I loved die in hospice. It was a grueling several months and the stress was enormous. One day, my husband pointed out that my hair was falling out at the top of my head in front. I ran to the mirror. He was right, but I had been so absorbed in the family issues that I hadn’t noticed.

I stood in front of the mirror, my hand in my hair, seeing how it was thinning, my scalp shining through. The family member who was dying was also a redhead, and she’d lost all her hair months before. Suddenly, the grief, the impending loss, my own mortality, my sense of my physical self in the world came bursting into my consciousness, and I disassembled into tears. We lost her not long after, and the healing began, and my hair filled back in. Since then, I have loved my hair, and I am letting it grow. My hair isn’t me, but it is emblematic of living life now and larger, while we can, loving as we go. My hair says, I am here, world; until the dying, I am alive.

That’s how I see my hair right now. Maybe someday I will be dying and lose it all, and that will be okay because it is not what makes me—or anyone—beautiful; being is what makes you beautiful, but owning my age, owning my hair, my big butt, whatever it is that makes me physically represented in the world, that’s where I am at now.

 

If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be? 

Write it all now, edit later. That’s what orchid clips are for.

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Lady in the House: Anne Eston

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

The first time my husband cut my hair really short with the clippers, I felt a freedom like never before. Not only the obvious wash-and-go ease, but the freedom to be that bold. I received many compliments. Some were wistful: “I wish I could get away with wearing my hair that short.” Other people told me I had a perfectly-shaped head for it. But it was actually a woman who told me she liked my hair better longer that confirmed my certainty that, yeah, this is the way I want to go with my hair, and I’m not going back.

 

Is hair a performance?

It certainly can be, but it doesn’t always need to be. It depends on the circumstance. For instance, sometimes you meet actors who are always “on,” as if they never left the stage, even though the show was over hours ago. When really, it would be nice to just experience that individual in a more subtle way. We don’t always have to shout, “Look at me!” with our appearance. We don’t always have to be “on” or “perform” publicly in that way.

 

What is your “hair politic?”

For a long time, having become mostly comfortable in my own skin—and hair, in this case—I held the extremely self-righteous opinion “be happy with what the good Lord gave you.”  One day, when, standing in line at Starbucks, I glanced at the CDs they keep up by the register. I was still several feet away, and all I noticed on the cover of one of them was a platinum blonde woman. I confess I assumed it was Britney Spears. When I got closer, I saw that it was a well-known African-American pop diva. I was a little more than outraged. But I heard my mother and grandmother telling me “to each his own.” I also had a great discussion with another friend of mine who offered the perspective that it’s not always the belief that weaves and wigs are more beautiful than one’s natural hair behind such style choices, but for those women with children and/or who are entertainers of some kind, a matter of convenience.

More recently, I found myself equally upset by a comment posted on Facebook on a friend’s picture of her new hairstyle: “Thank God a sister with no puffy natural afro!” Do with that what you will.

A much richer and more understanding point of view is one, writer Bridgett Davis is quoted as gleaning from her mother in this month’s edition of O Magazine, which, by the way, offers a comprehensive approach to hair that includes all ethnicities and hair types, and the cover of which shouts a support to the afro in a big way: “ ‘Hair is only hair. It can’t be good or bad; all it can ever be is healthy or unhealthy.’ ”

My growing perspective and I ventured into the salon a while back, with the intention of trying some outrageous colors, as well, like electric blue or bright purple. Being a brunette, they had to bleach the section I wanted to color, and lo and behold, I ended up loving the blonde streak. Now, my whole head is just sprouting more gray, and I’m due for another trip to the salon. Perhaps one day I’ll have the courage to let it all go.

 

In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception, and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

Well, first of all, I wish that we could infuse that kind of self-understanding in all of our young women. I wish I’d had it at the age of thirteen.

The texture of my hair is very fine. It’s always had a kind of wave to it that, if I let it dry naturally, it would look more like snakes than the curls I wanted. If I blew it out, and it wasn’t the dead of winter, humidity would turn it into a fuzzy mess.

In terms of identity, I never associated my hair with the questions I got about my race throughout my school years. I just always wanted my hair to do something it wouldn’t do. I did the relaxer thing for awhile, until my aunt said to me one day “In ten years, you’ll have nappy hair!”

“The concept of “good hair” and “bad hair” (and all of the related assumptions about and perceptions of lighter- and darker-skinned people) wasn’t solidified for me until adulthood when I saw School Daze. And then a whole history of what I’d experienced but had not realized was happening to me at the time became clear.

I will say, though, that even the idea that my hair might fall into the “good” category, according to one set of standards, never really made me feel more beautiful or worthy. My deepest insecurities were rooted in being a bookish sort, terrible at sports, and shy. Nothing about my hair helped me overcome these. That all had to come from someplace deep within.

 

If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be?

I think I would call it Unbound, meaning to invoke a sense of uninhibited creativity, in which there is no self-censorship, and initially, no self-editing. Just unadulterated expression.  In terms of hair, this could be any style from the untamed attitude of a wild mane to the smooth ambition of a shaved head.

 

A Hair Writing Prompt:

I’d like to offer a stanza from a poem I wrote called Plantation, as a basis for readers to create their own poems about hair:

 

As the world’s winds

die down

and

my

hair

grows

down

my

back

again

I

walk

wearily

home.

Lady in the House: Anne Eston

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

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