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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

Home Movies

by Laura Bogart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Movies

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

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

 

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

*

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Smirnoff Secrets

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

July of 2008: The Return of My Sense of Self

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

 

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

 

Some Sort of Exchange

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

 

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

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

Not knowing, I channeled Gypsy Rose Lee.

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

 

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

 

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

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Post script

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Other Girls

by Meghan Maciver

When I saw Mina again, it was almost the first thing we talked about – that summer twelve years ago in Istanbul, and all the drama that had happened with Darren. I was surprised how quickly she brought it up, but I didn’t miss a beat.

“It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out immediately.

“I know,” Mina replied, with an exasperated sigh.

Of course, I had been telling this story for years. I’d just never thought Mina had been thinking about it for the past decade as well. I picked up my tiny glass of tea but paused before taking a sip. We were supposed to have passed though our lives, but had found each other again, like so many people do nowadays, through social media.  A warm breeze came off the water and it felt good to be together again. I smiled to myself, as I remembered everything like it hadn’t been so long ago.

Darren had tried to remain inconspicuous, but he’d stood out nonetheless amongst the other travelers, ex-pats, working-holiday folks and Turks who made up the cast of characters and social misfits who hung out in the travel scene of Turkey in the sticky, hot summer of 2001. Darren was a tall, blonde Kiwi with a hard, muscular body, Maori tattoos, pierced nipples and a perpetual tan, which in the concrete interior of Istanbul was hard to achieve. He had also stretched out one earlobe, which held, at different times of the month, a pencil, an eraser, or dirty money. Despite his attempts to disfigure himself however, Darren was unstoppably attractive, not only because he was confident, but because he was clean. He smelled good. The fact that he was into sex, motorcycles and anti-American politics only made him more appealing.

It seemed that everything Darren did was different from other people. He talked about traveling over-land from India – infamously invading a full moon party on the back of a yak – then doing the work/party/drug/rave thing in England before making his way to Turkey before anyone else was here. One time, he told me about the quiet beauty of stepping out alone at night on the beach at Olympos and watching the phosphorus under the water, before the days of it being overrun in the park. I remembered how he told all of his stories openly, in his sharp, Kiwi accent, inviting you into it, and never coming across as if he was bragging. In fact, it genuinely seemed like he was trying to connect with you, on some level of risk and adventure. I had been traveling for a while at that point, in India and Costa Rica, but I hadn’t met someone like Darren before. It was hard not to be somewhat infatuated.

Not only did Darren like to do things differently, however, he was also known for his brutal honesty – to the point of being offensive. Our friend Dawn once told me that she had walked in on him shagging a girl in the dirty dorm room that she sometimes used to crash in on her way through Istanbul. It was a rank room, with clothes and food lying around everywhere. One night, plucking her way through the debris to get to an empty cot, she walked in on him having sex with a girl who was face down on a bunk bed. He was wearing Mickey Mouse ears and goggles. He looked up at her mid-thrust, lifted up the goggles and said matter-of-factly, “I can’t look at her eye, mate!” then put them back on and kept going. As she was backing out, the girl lifted her head up and Dawn caught her eye. Sure enough, it was lazy, which threw Dawn into a fit of laughter before she closed the door behind her. Dawn thought Darren was dead sexy and said she would be up for a shag with him any time, but privately I thought she didn’t have a chance. A guy like Darren was going to end up with some model, or no one at all.

Currently though, Darren was staying in Istanbul because he had recently moved in with his Turkish girlfriend, Sima Gul. Gul means rose in English, and Sima was certainly that. She was the most unique looking Turk I’d ever seen with big, black dreadlocks, large earrings in extended earlobes, a tiny frame and clear blue eyes. I only saw her once, when I spied her from the upstairs patio of the hostel where I worked. I couldn’t help but notice her visit to Darren, the whole street paused at her presence as she strutted her way into the travel agency where he worked. It was official, I thought to myself, Darren was king.

Although Darren wasn’t travelling, he said he didn’t mind because of all the money he was making. Darren worked the front desk at the biggest backpacking travel agency in Turkey, just next door to the hostel I worked at in the old city of Sultanahmet. Back then, it was just a street with two hostels, a bar and a few travel agencies, unlike now, with its hotels and restaurants straddling each other side by side as far as the eye can see. At the time, it was mostly housing, with conservative families living inside. But in the summer it got busy and it was common to see old women walking to their houses with long coats and headscarves, alongside young foreigners wearing short shorts and carrying backpacks.

Darren could be intimidating to some, but in general he was well liked, especially by the Turks. He was a good salesman and had deals with everyone in the neighborhood to take a commission, Turkish-style. While he worked the front desk, other young Westerners would show up for the season to work as tour guides for the agency. They arrived slightly prior to Anzac Day, when thousands of young Aussies and Kiwis descended upon Istanbul and jumped on tour buses to head down to Gallipoli to mark the fall of the ANZAC troops in WWI. I knew nothing about Anzac Day, but I learned all about it from Mina and Yasamin, the two small and well-known Iranian girls who also spent their summers in Turkey on the backpacking circuit learning English, working at the hostels and having all the fun in the world, especially compared to their boring and stifling winters in Tehran. They loved it here, they said and backpacking had changed their lives. Turkey was like a fun version of their own country, while meeting so many travelers had exposed them to a way of life they wouldn’t have had access to in Iran. Neither of them had much money though, so they worked in the hostels to make ends meet.

Mina and I were the breakfast girls at the hostel. I had been on my way to get a nanny job in Spain earlier that summer, but I’d landed a job at the hostel within the first few days of arriving in Istanbul, and it looked more and more like I wasn’t going anywhere else. Everyday, we’d wake up early, go out and buy fresh bread from the bakery and then walk up the seven flights of stairs to prepare food each morning.  Breakfast consisted of boiled eggs, fresh cucumber, tomatoes, feta cheese and bread served with bottomless glasses of tea. Our patio faced the Marmara sea, so even if we were hungover, the process of making breakfast was always somewhat of a magical experience for which we were both grateful.

“Gorgeous,” Mina would say, sucking in her breath as the sky lightened around us, and I’d nod back in approval.

Mina was very short, with dark skin, dark eyes and even darker hair. She had a round face, nose and eyes, round hips and breasts. She’d picked up a lot of English from Aussie and Kiwi travelers, so even her words sounded round to me, saying things like “roight” and “noice”. Her hair curled up in a round bob and she had a small rasta hat that she’d gotten from a fellow traveler that she wore like a beret. She always had a smile on her face and perpetually appeared to be laughing at something. When I asked her what made her so happy, she attributed it to the fact that she (and Yasamin) had gotten out of Iran.

“Really,” she said rolling her eyes, “we don’t do one thing there.”

We’d serve breakfast, being careful to select only the mellowest of musical tunes for atmosphere, then clean up and play endless rounds of backgammon with each other. It was never that busy, despite the spectacular views of the sea.

One morning, Darren came in with flowers and a small gift. Looking across the patio, I saw Mina smile and blush with excitement and while he bowed in front of her and I walked over to find out what was going on. It turned out that it had been Mina’s birthday recently, and we’d all missed it. Yass had informed Darren that morning and he had come straight over, he said.

I could tell that he had given the gift a bit of thought, but I was surprised to see him so intent on making things right with Mina for missing her birthday. We discussed that we should re-try a party for her sometime in the week and Mina looked so happy.

“Yes, yes we should make a party,” she said, exuberantly.

A few nights later, when I walked into the hostel’s downstairs patio Darren and Mina were already at a table chatting.  If Darren hadn’t left yet to go home, I knew it meant that he would stay all night as he sometimes did, in the dirty dorm room above the offices of the travel agency that were meant for the guides to sleep in during their stays in Istanbul. As we sat there, I noticed what appeared to be a small ball of light in Darren’s mouth. Then I noticed Mina had the same thing. I squealed in delight.

“What is that?” I cried.

They both stuck their tongues out at me, revealing miniature glow sticks. Not the big ones that people decorate their bodies with or hang around their necks, but small, thin, perfect tubes about two inches long. I’d never seen anything like them. The key was to crack them in your mouth and leave them in there while talking to someone to startle them with the color. A backpacker in the hostel had plenty and soon we had a table full of guides and random tourists popping them in our mouths.

As the night wore on, we reveled in how silly these gadgets were, and laughed at the absurdity of all of us having them in our mouths. The Turkish barmen looked at us like we were crazy, which made us order even more rounds of beer and drink at a maddening pace. We spent most of the night outside, but eventually we made our way into the tiny bar and started dancing wildly, while sharing the tiny tubes of light between ourselves. I was suddenly kissing one of the bar boys and other random people. I even kissed Mina, passing her the wand of light with my tongue. There must have been over 50 people packed into the small cramped bar, but no one seemed to mind. The booze was flowing, while everyone was dancing and laughing, singing and hooting in ecstasy.

“Well, this was good, yah?” Darren said, coming up to me with a big grin on his face.

I lifted my arms up and embraced him as he twirled me around.

Suddenly, Mina was beside us and I grabbed hold of her.

“Happy Birthday to you!” shouted Darren to her face, and we both squealed.

“I did alroigt,” she said proudly. I hugged her tightly before I went off to dance, leaving her and Darren behind.

It was shortly thereafter then, that I began to notice that Mina was gone when I awoke in our shared dorm at the hostel. Acting out of discretion, I kept any questions to myself. It was only when she smiled at me one morning on the patio and said softly how she loved the way the stars looked at night from the roof of the travel agency that I understood what had happened.

She was positively beaming. She told me Darren had dragged a couple of mattresses out of the dirty dorm room onto the upstairs roof so they could sleep under the stars. She said Darren would tell her about camping in New Zealand, how sleeping under the stars reminded him of home, and he explained to her how the stars looked different in New Zealand. Then, in a lower whisper, she asked me how many people I’d slept with. I smiled and replied, not that many. She smiled secretly back at me and told me she only had slept with one person, and began humming a private tune to herself.

Mina seemed almost in a dream. I couldn’t tell if she was entertaining notions that Darren would carry her away to New Zealand, but I hoped she had enough sense to not be doing so. She turned to me again.

“Darren says to just have fun this summer,” she smiled happily. She suggested we throw a party on the roof of the travel agency and I nodded in agreement that it would be fun.

A part of me was concerned, however, for Mina. In terms of the relationship, she was the one who was going to have her heart broken. As an inexperienced woman from Iran, I wasn’t sure if she understood what kind of man Darren was. I commiserated with some of the female guides and we agreed that the whole situation was bad news. Mina simply couldn’t handle Darren, we decided. Really, it was a cultural thing, we said. Mina just wouldn’t understand that he was only looking for something casual. Did ‘casual’ even exist in Iran?

In the world we inhabited that summer, ‘casual’ seemed like an understated word to describe the sexual encounters of our scene. Random female tourists were always sleeping with any of the eager Turkish bar boys around, Dawn had “boyfriends” in every town nearby and several in Istanbul, and the backpackers were notorious for hooking up with one another for one night stands.

“We’re just so free here,” Dawn remarked once, after recounting yet another sexual escapade with a young guy she’d picked up the night before. I nodded, but kept my mouth shut. It just seemed so meaningless, but I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t get it. It was the travel scene after all, not exactly a place of firm commitment. But as fun as it was supposed to be, it always seemed so lonely.

Sitting out behind the terrace on the back fire escape one day, Dawn and Lori, another guide at the agency, and I discussed in hushed tones about warning Mina about Darren. Mina was washing up the dishes and I kept poking my head around the corner to make sure she didn’t hear us. But we decided it might lead to drama between the two or anger Darren if it got back to him. And without speaking it, we all knew why we didn’t want to say anything. In the travel world, it was considered poor taste to meddle in anyone’s business; especially in these places where we were all unlikely to have met in the first place – and were more unlikely to ever meet again. I felt guilty though. After all, I worked with her every day, and it was becoming increasingly clear that she was falling head over heels in love with him. And Darren was no one to fall in love with.

Still, when they had their barbeque on the rooftop of the travel agency, it was wonderful to see them together. Somehow, it made everything seem more real. We had a great dinner with drinks and music and watched the bats fly around the minarets of the Blue Mosque, while the lights twinkled from the boats on the Marmara. The air was soft and warm, and it was good to feel like we were at a private party with real friends, especially after being so long on the road.

Near the end of the night, Mina had drunk too much and ended up vomiting in the dirty bathroom. Darren didn’t leave her side, and rubbed her back, scolding her gently with “Canim, canim,” meaning darling in Turkish. It was obvious that he cared for her. But would it be enough? Darren seemed like someone who could never have enough. I remember looking worriedly at him when I came down to check on Mina’s and asking, “You’re going to take care of her, right?” I don’t remember him giving me an answer; he just turned to Mina and kept rubbing her back.

It was shortly after the party then, that I noticed Mina back in our room when I woke up. Quiet. After weeks of being absent, morning after morning she was there, until one day I found her weeping in front of the eggs and cucumber. I didn’t say anything. I felt horrible. And I was pissed off. I knew Darren was ruining everything, and really hurting Mina. Unlike other girls I knew, who brushed off these kind of rejections with “Well, I don’t know if I was that into him anyway”, or “It’s not like we’re really together” that week was positively solemn around the hostel, with Mina pouring herself vodka orange juices at the beginning of our shifts and stumbling around the hostel like a teary, wounded animal for the rest of the day. Fuck you Darren, I thought privately. Not that he was anywhere to be found, or that I would have said anything anyway. I had always known that nothing could have ever come from this arrangement.

Finally, after three or four days of this, Darren appeared on the patio. The sun was blaring and he squinted hard before jumping under the awning where the tiles wouldn’t scorch his feet. One moment, he seemed defensive, with a puffed out chest, the next he was hesitant, like he really didn’t want to be up there. I never thought Darren would be scared of something, but it certainly seemed like he was now. I went over to the sink, where Mina was facing the wall. When she finally looked at me, she had tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Do you think it is possible for him to be sleeping with someone else?” she asked in a shallow, ragged voice. I paused. Darren was the kind of person who did exactly what he wanted, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one to call him out on this. I tried to look at her squarely and say yes, but I choked hard instead and ended up standing there lamely, shaking my head as if I didn’t know what was going on.

I felt so awful I was shaking as she headed for the table where Darren had sat down. From the corner of my eye, I could see them speaking as the harsh sunlight glared down on their heads. I could see Mina, the tears still streaming down her face. It looked like Darren was half trying to explain something to her, half trying to plead with her. Mina was shaking her head slowly back and forth, until she finally tilted it down and uttered some final words. All of a sudden, she got up and walked downstairs. For a while, Darren sat there looking out at the rooftops of the buildings that surrounded our hostel, ignoring the beautiful view of the water behind him and suffering in the hot sun. Finally, he got up and walked over to me. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot, like he’d been crying, too. His face was red and beading with sweat. “Do you think I’ve lost her?” he stammered.

Was it actually possible that Mina had broken up with Darren? I had assumed that he was going to smooth things over somehow, and convince Mina to continue on with him. A guy like Darren, I didn’t think it would be hard. I bit my lip and replied, “It’s possible.”

Darren turned away and sniveled. Then, without another word, he headed back down stairs. A few minutes later I heard the rumble of his engine and I watched him drive away down the road. It was early morning; prime tour-selling time. Where was he going? I poured myself some tea and changed the music.

When Mina came back upstairs, she walked towards me with sad but determined eyes.

“I told him that he could sleep with me, or he could sleep with other girls,” she said with a shrug, “but he cannot do both.”

I stepped back. I would never forget that moment. I was twenty-two, and I’d never seen anyone do that before. Here was this small woman standing in front of me, her chin slightly raised, her little hat hanging off her head, telling me as if it was the most matter of fact thing in the world to ask for a little honor – from Darren of all people.  It was so fiercely empowering, it changed everything for me in an instant. Being true to herself, she was just so strong. I felt sad for her, but not sorry for her, and there was a difference, I realized.

“Thank you,” I said finally. I’d been holding my breath and finally exhaled.  She looked up at me and I paused again. I wanted to say more, like how I felt vindicated for something I never knew I’d needed, but I just tucked all the information into the back of my head to use at a later time.

“You’ve given us a good excuse to have a drink early,” I said, managing a crooked smile.

“Roight,” she said, shrugging again and then moved with a resignation towards the bar.

“Well,” she said turning, “C’mon then”. She grinned back at me, faintly.

So it must have been hours later, while I was sitting downstairs on the street playing backgammon with some visiting travelers, when Darren rode back up to the travel agency, balancing boxes behind him on his motorcycle and carrying a massive backpack on his back.  With his head down and a strained look on his face, he moved quickly, carrying the boxes in and out and I realized he was moving into the travel agency, permanently. My world was turning upside down, or maybe right side up. He didn’t seem big or cool or anything in that moment, in fact, I don’t think that anyone besides me even noticed him as he brushed himself off before heading into the hostel. I knew the front desk would direct him to Mina, who’d been resting in our room since the end of our shift. Later in the evening, after I finished up at the bar, I headed to bed. When I got there, Mina’s cot was empty. In the morning, I found her on the rooftop, setting up our kitchen and humming to herself.

“Really,” she said, turning to me. “Sleeping under the stars is so beautiful, mate.” She laughed and I laughed with her.

Now, sitting at a tea shop in a small town on the south coast of Turkey, it felt surreal to be sitting in front of her again. That day had given me a reference point to cut through so much bullshit in my own relationships; a way to feel okay when I was being authentic to myself. I’d happily pointed to it as one of my big lessons from my days of traveling. I started to talk about that morning on the roof but she interrupted me before I could say anything.

“She contacted Darren, you know,” she said. I noticed her Kiwi accent so much stronger than back then. “On Facebook,” she continued. “She wants to see him this summer.”

“Who?” I asked, truly puzzled.

“Sima,” Mina replied shortly, and obviously annoyed.

I paused at this. Sima had been such a small part of the story. It was strange to hear her name, and think of her as a real person in the present.

“So I wrote her an email back,” Mina continued. “I told her how we could all meet, and her kids could meet our kids.” She stopped and looked at the sea wall, meters away, and her children playing with each other.

“Do you know what she did?” Mina said turning back at me. “She wrote to Darren and said I shouldn’t be contacting her. That it was none of my business about her, that she had asked him, not me, to meet up,” Mina looked outraged.

“That, canim,” I said, “is strange.”  Not about Sima’s reaction, I thought to myself, but about meeting up again. Why would she want to meet up with Darren after all these years? Especially after that parting.

“She’s a bitch,” Mina said, disdainfully. I looked up. I didn’t think that I’d ever heard Mina swear before. “Other women wouldn’t be this patient if another woman was writing their husbands,” she added, defending her outburst.

“I . . .” I paused. “Then why are you being so polite?” I hadn’t seen Mina in twelve years and it felt strange to be asking such intimate question.

Mina looked at me and frowned miserably. I realized that she was sharing this with me because I was the only other person who knew the story. And suddenly, it wasn’t like some travel story anymore. It had real people involved, and more complicated endings.

“Do you remember,” I started, “how Darren just moved that day?” I had always wrapped this part up in a neat bow, but now it was being unraveled by a frayed edge. “It probably wasn’t nice,” I finished.

She looked at me, with a perturbed look on her face. Either she was annoyed, or she didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt a bit sick at the thought that maybe I’d been remembering everything wrong all these years.

I tried again, “Do you remember that morning-” Thankfully this time, I didn’t have to continue.

“Of course!” she said almost gasping, catching on finally.

I felt myself relax. The recognition felt like talking with the only other astronaut who has been to the moon. I wanted to melt into the details of that morning, relive that moment again with someone who had been there.

“I knew what I had to do,” she added quickly. “Yass and I saw what was happening that summer, and,” she paused, “it wasn’t for us,” she finished.

I nodded, but I felt myself flush before I could say anything else. Hearing Yass’ name had thrown me off. We’d all shared that hostel room together, the three of us, with the orange carpet. Even on the hottest days it remained cool, and Yass and Mina would lie on their beds quietly talking back and forth to each other in their lush Farsi. It surprised me to find out what they had been talking about. While I’d whispered with Dawn and Lori about the challenges posed by the casual sex scene on the street, I’d avoided sharing my concerns with them, because I was embarrassed by my culture. Now, my mind was struggling to put together what Mina had known about, and hadn’t.

“Shityah,” I said, in English-Turkish slang, “It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out again, resisting the urge to enquire about Yass and how she liked living in Melbourne nowadays.

“I didn’t know about Darren and her,” she insisted, “I didn’t know!”

“It’s okay,” I reassured her. I knew I certainly hadn’t said anything. I felt my face grow red from the thought and took a sip out of my tea in an attempt to cool down.

“I just didn’t want to be like the other girls,” she said, shaking her head at the whole memory of it all. It was a vague statement but I stopped myself from trying to figure out what she meant. Whatever Mina had known or hadn’t, it was clear we’d all been acting on the idea that there would be no consequences for any of our behavior. No one had imagined something like Facebook would ever happen, and I gave a fleeting thought to whether it disrupted or had changed travel from back when we were doing it. My small guilt subsided after that, but Mina still looked trapped in something she couldn’t get out of and suddenly I felt sorry for her.

“But,” I said gently, “you were the other girls.”

The words sounded so strange coming out, it’s like they broke a spell. As a travel writer, all of my friends had become mythical figures in my stories–Mina, my heroine.  But just like that, my story didn’t seem so great anymore. It seemed as small as gossip.

“I never thought of it that way,” she replied, carefully. Neither had I, I thought to myself.

“It must have been hard for her,” I continued, slowly, “and then you know, the wedding, down here.” I looked out at the sparkling water. The air was filled with jasmine, and the sea.

“Oh God,” she put her head in her hands, “Yass says not to worry, but you just never know about these women.” She seemed so flustered compared to my memory of her, I felt frustrated all of a sudden.

“Mina!” I exclaimed, “this is Darren’s fault,” I pointed out for the third time. She seemed so reluctant to confront this that I wondered what it’d been like to have been married to Darren all this time – what he looked like now and if he was still as selfish and irresistible. Then, I wondered if Sima had been wondering about all that as well.

Mina looked up. “He still drives me crazy, I swear Meghan,” she said sighing, “but, I love him,” she added helplessly.

“Oh God, Mina,” I groaned, “only you.”

She looked down, and slowly smoothed out the rumples in her shirt. Despite having two children, she was leaner than she had been years ago, I noticed. She was thinking about something when I saw her faint, grin spread across her face.

“Exactly,” she said to herself. Then she grasped her tea glass in her hand and looked at me with a familiar determination, “only me.”

Other Girls

Lady in the House: Natasha Marin

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?

Honestly, I can’t remember the first time someone called me a bitch. I remember the first time someone called me a nigger though, but that’s a different kind of story. Bitch is the kind of word that isn’t as polarizing. Ultimately, there are worse things a person can call you, right? I don’t even remember the last time someone called me a bitch, because I’m not sure anyone I know would actually do that to my face, except as a joke, or perhaps as some acknowledgement of perceived fortitude, as in “bad bitch.”

 

What is your own definition of the word?
Bitch (noun) most commonly, a derogatory term for someone whose behavior is akin to that of a female dog—aggressive, entitled, spiteful, and reactive. Bitches are often regarded as either dangerous or volatile. From a biological standpoint, facing off with a female animal, especially any creature who may be protecting their young, should be done with caution. Non-animal bitch counterparts of any gender, should be approached with similar forethought. A bitch will do and say what others are afraid to and that particular brazen quality is often what signifies a bitch as such.

Personally, I’ve never really understood why humans are so sensitive about being compared to animals. We are animals. I’m sure if anything, calling someone a bitch (as an insult) is probably more insulting and abbreviating to the non-human party being referenced.

 

Have you ever had to explain the word to someone younger, like a child? What did you say?
I have not yet had this opportunity as my son is two years old and my daughter, Roman, is only nine and spends half her school day learning in Mandarin—not a lot of time left over to practice swear words. Thankfully, her friends are quite tame in the diction department and she has other more pressing questions about her rapidly changing body, her interpersonal relationships, and the dynamic world around her. But, I’m sure when we discuss the word “bitch” it will be after the term has been carelessly lobbed in her direction, probably by someone who is supposed to be her friend. I’m sure I will have to explain the concept of jealousy once again. It’s really easy for people to forget how illogical envy and jealousy are and the moment you are injured, your mind wants to make sense of the injury, but some wounds cannot be healed with logic. She’s barely been on the planet a decade and I am certain she has already been exposed to too many people who are likely to diminish her into a stereotype than to celebrate the incredible (and multifaceted) person that she really is.

 

Carolyn Kizer once wrote of “a bitch” inside her. What lives inside you?
The bitch that lives inside of me likes to pull up electron micrograph images showing the X and Y chromosome side by side and casually include this as a visual rebuke to the regular tides of male entitlement. The bitch that lives inside of me has teeth, a keen sense of smell, and a taste for blood, just like a real animal. She has no tolerance for people who want to stay in that privileged place of neutrality, stubbornly refusing to engage, or take sides, or make change actually happen with their own hands. The bitch inside is most terrifying when she is silent, but when she speaks, she knows what you don’t want to hear and says it anyway—right to your face.

 

Have you ever written a “bad” character? Who was it?
I gave myself permission to get emotionally entangled with another artist this year and have been continuously stimulated—writing a good deal as a result. During the course of this nameless, category-less relationship, I created a synaptic cluster of idealized metaphorical selves that could be attributed to this individual. I gave him wings with delicately hollow bones and black telephone wires to alight on. I was proud of the work and the vulnerability I was manifesting until very recently, when I realized how unfair it is for me to place anyone in the upper echelons of the Ideal—what easily becomes a cage. You think you are paying respect and giving validity to a character by making him or her have traits that seem unattainable, but inevitably this character must risk the hobgoblin of inconsistency because anything else would leave behind a bloodless and truncated persona. After the shame subsided, I realized that it’s our very stink that makes us complete. When we put each other (and even our imaginings of ourselves) on a pedestal, we are in fact robbing ourselves of a fully pixelated rendering.

 

Who are your favorite bitches in fiction or larger pop culture?
The Downton Abbey Dowager gets two thumbs up from me—so much restraint. I admire that kind of control.

 

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?
When I’m thinking, my husband calls it “Johnny Depp-ing” (apparently I look quite zoned out, like Willy Wonka trying to remember the trauma of his parents), so I’m thinking that my “resting face” is rarely confused with my bitchy face. I’ve seen my bitchy face on video and it’s pretty unmistakable. But yes, in general, it seems that men think it’s charming to tell women to smile as they walk by on the street, as though we are dancing monkeys born to entertain and provide them with unending pleasure. You can’t see me rolling my eyes, but I’m rolling them.

 

If you had to choose between being perpetually angry or perpetually fearful, which would you pick?
It is far too dangerous to be either a perpetually fearful or a perpetually angry black woman in America.

 

Writing Prompt: Red Lineage
I’ve been working on a project for a few years now called Red Lineage. It’s a simple writing exercise, in that it really only requires filling in the blanks like a Mad Lib, but the work and thought that goes into the activity of recording and distilling your immediate family history is pretty intense. Many of the Red Lineages I’ve collected have been incorporated into video, sound, and performance work and presented around the world as part of Miko Kuro’s Midnight Tea. I’d love it if your readers would consider adding their own Red Lineage poems to the collection by submitting at www.redlineage.com. Here’s mine:

My name is Redbone.
My mother’s name is Staunch Red.
My father’s name is Red-eye Red.
I come from a people known for flagrance and survival.
Remember me.

 

Lady in the House: Natasha Marin

Confessions of a Cockblocker

by Deborah Pintonelli

Uncle Sammy was poised for his goodnight kiss, his grey stubble just a couple of inches from my face, his watery eyes pleading. Usually he didn’t care about what I wanted, but for the all-important kiss, he wanted a clear answer. A nod would do. We were finished playing doctor, to which I always said no. My mother had more than impressed upon me that I needed to be nice to him. Free babysitting. Each time she left me alone with him, I felt that she was expressing her hatred of me. The opposite of a mother’s love. She was sick, and her sickness played itself out in vaguely Buñuelian scenarios, complete with shattered, puke-colored interiors and bony, ancient evil doers. I see her self-satisfied figure in retreat, always, her stubby-fingered pimp hands trailing an old wood banister.

The nod “yes” for the goodnight kiss was a sigh of exhaustion, my eyes heavy and wanting to close for many hours. He had pulled a militaristic green wool blanket up under my chin. It itched, and threatened to ruin my rest. I would not let it. The stubble and the wool were irritants that would vanish as soon as the kiss ended.

He thanked me. “You are such a good girl. Goodnight my good girl.”

He was missing his teeth, and so always I could at first see, then feel, the sliminess of his gums. His breath was not bad, as I recall. Bad were the overall smoothness, wetness, and warmth— that I did not want. But I had to say yes to make him go away. The long day with him, to my child’s mind, was endless. Centuries seemed to pass. The earlier image of my nude body prone on a table near the big loft windows, as seen through his eyes, was overly fresh in my mind. I wanted to make it stop, at any cost.

It is a sad thing to have this be your introduction “sex.” Worse still to be so cognizant and that age of the microthin nuances of the negative and the positive within this new context. But the worst by far is having your mother pick you up the next morning and say that you are lying. It is her word against yours— even though she was not there for any of it— and she wants to win. But you don’t give up. It was so clear to you. It takes all your strength to stand up to her, but you do. Goodbye, Uncle Sammy. Hello, Mother, who has it in for you now.

It was a battle that I would not give up, and eventually win. The idea that truth should prevail, that my memory of events was not the cloudy perceptions of a baby, was something worth fighting for. Right or wrong, it set me up for life. I went to live with my Godmother, and my own Mother was forever relegated to the special place where liars live. To her dying day she lived by that code, and to this day there is nothing I despise more.

I have gone through the rest of my life, living in various households, even with her again, armed with this knowledge and the belief that I was forever immune to any more abuse. It is everywhere you look. But it did not happen to me again. What happened to me is what happens to everyone: a society’s interpretation of the sexual that is force-fed at every turn.

At times I have found it necessary to take a break from this and forgo anything intimate. Celibacy, as a way of drawing a polite curtain, opaque or sheer, that says No. Not with you, or anyone else. Not now.  Each time that I have, it is because I have found myself so profoundly confused by what it means to be sexual that I cannot be sure of what it is that I really want. And if this is true, then I know I am in danger of making some very bad choices. And I am leaving the door wide open for others to do the same.

This bout coincides with a time in our culture that is electric with reproductive rights clamp-downs, rape, slut-shaming of women and girls, and rape being formally acknowledged as a weapon of war: “The Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, endorsed by the G8 nations”. Then there is the never-ending roll call of violations by members of the Catholic church, and other institutions entrusted with the welfare of children, that it is as numbing as it is breathtaking.

None of this is new. What is new is the truth being brought to light, like a layer of bright, writhing maggots on a bag of old garbage.

To some, it feels as if we are at war. To many of us, it is a war that is never-ending. Not since I was an undergrad reading Mary Daly have things been so edgy. I remember poring over the treatises of the group S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) while curling up on the couch with my cat, Sid Vicious. Every once in awhile I’d twitch involuntarily, sending him flying. I never signed up for the hate. It just doesn’t do any good.

My anger knows no bounds. It has gotten me into barroom brawls, screaming fights on the street, divorce court, and more. The only time that it crystallizes into something like power is when I am able to articulate it, act upon it, and make a change.

We have to take control of our sexual lives. We need to explore what it means to say yes, or no in this culture. Yes to all of the freedoms we have fought for, and no when we do not choose to exercise them. Women cannot be viewed in one breath as strong and sensible, and in another as incapable of making a decision. Violent people will always be around, making us do things we do not want to do. They can kill us. But they cannot kill what is in our hearts.

Anna March recently wrote an essay in Salon, which drew a very fine, and very brave, distinction between bad sex she had as a teen, and rape. The piece details reactions, pro and con, to an encounter in the season 2, episode 10 of Girls. The scene in question involved a difficult, unpleasant scenario with Adam asking Natalia to get on all fours, crawl to the bed, whereupon he takes her from behind. Then he cums on her chest. She never utters the word “no,” but afterwards says she “did not like that at all.”

March quotes from a 1994 essay in Harper’s by Mary Gaitskill who relates a story about a similar bad sexual experience to a girlfriend. The friend agrees that yes, “it sounds like you were raped. It sounds like you raped yourself.” The fact that both authors were under 18 at time of their encounters simultaneously obscures and heightens the issue. That they knew then, as they do now, that theirs were not rape experiences, is clear. That Anna March had to spend a lot of time after the essay was published arguing the finer points of statutory rape with commenters (it’s different in every state) actually bolstered her argument.

Teaching young people that sex is dirty, demeaning, and that they do not have the wherewithal to make choices, leaves it right in the gutter where perpetrators would like it to be. Then it doesn’t matter what answer the violated person gives, if any. March says, “Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent are two different things.”  She warns that “If [women] don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control.”

Amen.

There is a song called “Date Rape” by the band Sublime that high school students find amusing these days. “If it wasn’t for date rape,” the song goes, “I wouldn’t have any sex at all.” This is the sort of irony that imbues the songs my teens listen to. If you tell them that the song is not funny, their eyes roll back into their heads. If you show them graphic pictures of girls being carried around frat parties while passed out, they smirk because they think that living in a cool city enables them to be exempt from such humiliations. All while strapping on their Victoria Secret padded bras and calling thirteen-year-old girls “hoes.”

It is time to acknowledge that we have not done a good enough job of teaching girls and boys about sex. To arm them with that power. We cannot protect them or ourselves with hatred, sanctimony, male bashing, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, or any of the other forms of negation that are so readily available. None of that matters when it is a contest between what one or more persons want, and another does not.  If you have a firm grasp on what you did or did not want, then even if it does not go your way, and even if you are hurt, you retain a level of dignity which is healing. If you do not, you are, as it were, fucked.

Blaming the victim, shaming him or her, is society’s way of piling shit onto more shit. Calling someone a victim who is not is the same as denying that they are one.  In either case the result is the same: it means that they have been effectively silenced. And that is where the bad work begins.

On my birthday not too long ago I was treated to an extravagant night at the Drake hotel in Chicago. I was not prepared for the amount of paraphernalia my date brought with him;

Two bottles each of champagne, red, and white wine

Fresh berries & chocolates

One brand new five foot length of coated black rope

Tweezers (miniature)

A small mirror with a kickstand

Assorted Q Tips, cotton balls, etc.

Fresh cigars, shirts, and other stuff he needed

I was astonished. I’m a divorced mother of two, and I’ve been on my own since I was seventeen. I am not a prude. Not much surprises me. And contrary to what one might expect from my having had my first experience at age five, I really, really like sex. Still, it wasn’t the first time I’d set up shop in this particular sexual flea market. Reasons abound. For acceptance, or power, or out of pity for someone. In exchange for a place to live, or for a whole life. Out of boredom, or loneliness. For all these reasons, and just because I could, I have laid it all out.

He had been sexually deprived, he told me. His wife, overweight, neurotic, and bored with him, refused to let him see her naked. He needed to see. He showed me his scarred, uncircumsized penis. The scars were from years of masturbating alone, with a pint of ice cream by his side. I was already in, but I wondered why we had to go this route. I’d just gotten off another, similar track, and now I found myself doing it again. Visiting sex shops. Tied up with rope. Then more regular fare for a few years, and finally, a break up.

Nothing I did, or agreed to do, could penetrate that lonely place of his. My lonely place was of no interest to him. I’m not even sure I have one. His eyes said to me, and to everyone, that his was not accessible. If asked outright why this was so, he would smirk and prevaricate. Or cry. “I’m broken,” he would say. The anger that knows no bounds unleashed itself upon him, but it was too late. I’d already said yes, what more was there to say?

Not much. Except this. I’m pretty close to saying yes again. I want to, but something in me recoils. I know what’s out there, and it’s become tiresome, like a restaurant that can never change its menu. It makes me better understand the reasoning behind seeking out the young. Can it be different? Have they been able to avoid the shame and disgust associated with sex so that they can have it without producing a length of rope? Or is there just a whole other segment of the population that is not damaged in this way? I hope so.

Confessions of a Cockblocker