Not Quite Feminist Punk

It’s funny how sometimes, a confluence of events offers up a little epiphany. This is the story of one about feminism & punk rock that I’m still processing.

A week or two ago, I was on a long car ride with my daughters and a pop song came on the radio. Talking about our love of pop, my nearly-16-year-old said that she thought it was unfair that many put pop music down and that she suspected that it’s because pop is designed to appeal to young women. Not a new argument, but fresh to hear it coming from her mouth—as it came from mine decades ago. I got mad all over again at the way that, without vigilance, we let patriarchal culture tell us that our taste, whatever it is, is second best.

Last week, I read Claude M. Steele’s wonderful 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi, which details, for a general audience, his decades of research on stereotype threat and how to combat it, especially in colleges. Stereotype threat, if you’re not familiar with it, is that phenomenon when your performance will falter just because you know that the stereotype is that people like you (people who share a salient identity category with you) don’t do well on the task at hand. Again and again, Steele and his colleagues have shown that making, say, women aware of their gender before a math test, or whites aware of their race before athletic competition, decreases performance. At the same time, performance goes right back up if you tell test-takers that the test shows no differences along gender lines, or offer some of the growth-mindset affirmations that Carol Dweck (who’s cited many times here) espouses.

One of the things Steele talks about is how, when you’re a minority, you become really adept at reading the context clues of the room—of counting if you’re alone or if there’s only one other member of your group, etc.

So, on Friday, I went to a meeting of a group of English professors from around the city who all work in my field. Some of them I know well, some I’ve only seen or met in passing. They’d been meeting as a group for a while, but I had missed the first two or three gatherings. NJTransit was not my friend and I was late as it was. In short: this meeting had all the ingredients to make me just a touch more nervous than usual about entering an unfamiliar room.

I got in, I counted: yup—I was the second woman. I sat across from her and smiled. We were two. Not quite critical mass, but not horrible. The meeting went well. My colleagues are, in fact, lovely and thoughtful and interesting and not interrupters and, when the convener invited us all to join for lunch, I confirmed that the other woman was going and I went.  


At lunch, two men about my age started talking about the punk shows they went to back in the early 80’s and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I love music of all kinds. I have been to some really fun shows. I wanted, so badly, to participate in the conversation, but I couldn’t figure out how to put my oar in without their mockery. I sat there, racing through my options from all the shows I saw in Seattle. What would they think if I told them the one about how disappointing Grandmaster Flash was? Or how my friend that I had a crush on made us miss the Thompson Twins, which was the main reason I’d wanted to see The Police at the Tacoma Dome? Or that I used to go to SubPop when it was a record store and get mocked by Bruce Pavitt (who was such a snob) for buying OMD and Culture Club while my friends bought the real punk? Or just how cool it was to be friends with the Bernstein boys and go to their dad’s club to see a local band? Or to see Joe Newton’s posters around town? Or seeing UB40—a show newly tainted by the newest Justice-cum-sexual-assaulter-and-drunkard at a roller rink? Or the Ramones, way after their prime but still amazing, in New Haven? Or how amazing Black Uhuru was at the Paramount? I sat there laughing at their stories—which were good—but frustrated at myself for being so tongue-tied.

I knew my transcendentally happy time seeing the Psychedelic Furs with a girl I’d met at a writer’s conference for high school students was out—but why? I had gone away for a week on a writer’s retreat for high school kids. I’d lived in Port Townsend and made friends with a girl—I don’t remember her name—from a tiny town, a couple hours outside Seattle. She and I both loved the Psychedelic Furs and she got her parents to drive her to the show. We met, sat together and it was great. In those days before cell phones and email, arranging such a meeting was not easy and it felt so cool to be the cool city kid welcoming her cool country friend to this amazing show. As anecdotes go, this seems pretty acceptable & worthy of sharing. Why is it that my story felt less good to share than my colleague’s story about knowing that some punk shows were too dangerous to attend?

To the rescue came my friend, who had cool punk stories, but also listens to himself and he said, “God, we sound so old.” And then, another colleague, younger than us, made a joke about going to see Dickens speak and that turned into a riff that was an actually deeply hilarious mash-up of a story of a punk rock brawl (“they were unscrewing the lightbulbs and breaking them to use as weapons”) and Bloomsbury—“and then, John Maynard Keynes beaned Leonard with the andiron….”

That was a relief.

Then, yesterday, just to make me feel less a fool, a made a joke about the Butthole Surfers in a very high-level meeting at my university and got a high five from a VP for my quickness.

L’esprit de l’éscalier.

My tentative conclusion has to do with analogies. I was glad to read Steele’s generous assessment that analogies do, in fact, help our understanding. In my experience, analogies are critical to our understanding, but they need to be wielded with care. It can be too easy to say “I know just how you feel,” when really, what we can know is “I am better able to imagine how you feel because I felt something similar.” My stress at lunch was real, but extraordinarily low stakes, but I might not have noticed it absent the conversation with my daughter about what music gets to be cool and my reading of Steele. But it was stereotype threat and it did mean that, for ten minutes of a really lovely and pleasant lunch, I was anxiously flipping through the rolodex of my brain, trying to figure out how to join the conversation, desperately wanting to, and, in the end, never figuring out how. Boy, it’s amazing how complicated life is.

Personal History

One of my pastimes of the long, depressing spring (which was, sadly, not nearly as depressing as this summer is turning out to be) was to read, for the first time, Katharine Graham’s rightfully acclaimed memoir, Personal History. While reading it, Barbara Bush died. At the same time, accolades and admiration continued for The Crown and praise for the House of Windsor continued in the lead-up to the Royal wedding.

I thought about Graham, Bush, and the British Royal Family a lot as a consequence. In this moment of political turmoil, it’s interesting to turn back to these conservative figures who embodied (and continue to embody) the meaning of conservatism: the desire to preserve the culture of the past.

No feminist at first, Graham was slow to come into her own power. She was slow even to realize the damaging and dangerous hold her charismatic but mentally unstable husband had over her. Raised to imagine herself a wife and helpmeet, she continually describes her content at being one. Even when her women friends take her aside and fête her because they worry that her husband puts her down too much, she professes herself astonished at this observation, one she claims to have been new to her. Yet, in her husband’s final illness and then, after he committed suicide, she realized how profoundly committed she was to the success of The Washington Post. The rest, you probably know: Watergate, bravery, friendship with Warren Buffet, the Black and White Ball (she was the honoree), a long and prosperous old age.

When I was young, people talked about these figures, these stately women who slowly rose to authority, with derision. The cool ones were the men on Harleys, the women who ran away. I love rebels, too, but it makes sense to me now that when we talk about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, it’s not as a precursors the sexual revolution, but as spoiled fascists whose abdication was not merely the abdication of a stupid formality but the abdication of adult responsibility. It might indeed be a new kind of awful to be born so privileged that your future was set forward for you—as a monarch, as the publisher of a newspaper, as the bearer of your family’s name and legacy. But I think it makes sense that in this moment, when almost no one bears that kind of burden, we are interested anew in the people, maybe even particularly the women, who accept that mantle with all its limitations and all its possibilities.

William—An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919)

William—An Englishman is a pitiless book. “Pitiless” is not a word I often use, but it came to me when reading this tale of a couple of ordinary bourgeois bohemians on honeymoon in Belgium in August 1914. Hoping for a quiet three weeks, they avoid the papers until it is too late: the War breaks out and William of the title and his bride are caught behind German lines. It’s the first Persephone Book and remains a bestseller for them.

William and Griselda’s first encounters with violence are pitiless and painful to read. The young couple are so appealing, so naïve, so idiotic, and so very like many of us who have never experienced war. It’s an uncomfortable reading experience, and I oscillated between thinking that this discomfort was a gimmick and thinking that it made the book deeply moving and effective as war literature.

A moment that struck me as particularly terrible is also one of the subtler moments of the book. William and his wife have been taken prisoner, forced to witness the assassination of several Belgians, and then separated. Forced to repair the railway lines, William breaks free during a moment of chaos and goes house to house in search of his wife. He finds her, terrified, cowering in the upper room of one of the village houses, a shadow of her formerly brave, suffragette self:

His heart cried out to him that she had struggled merely as a captive, had been restrained by brute force from escaping—but his own eyes had seen that she turned from him as if there was a barrier between them, as if there was something to hide that she yet wished him to know…

And suddenly, as Hamilton writes a few sentences later, seeing the effect of a sexual assault on his wife, the phrase “licentious soldiery” takes on meaning.

I cannot quite say, with Nicola Beauman (the publisher & author of the preface), that this is a masterpiece. I will say that it held my attention, disturbed me, made me think about war and how we talk about war from our safe home. The satire on Bloomsbury socialism and the way that suffragettes spoke of their struggle as a kind of Civil War is pretty devastating.

The book falls apart at the end. And yet, even there, William’s upsetting encounter with a traumatized soldier who must narrate all that frightens him about the air raid they must endure together is terrific and terrifying and claustrophobic in all the right ways.

Plus, the fact that Hamilton wrote this in her tent during war service (after a few years as a volunteer in a Scottish hospital, she became an organizer for concerts at the front) adds much to the book: I share Beauman’s sense that the book is full of an amazing, quiet intensity.

Some of the writing is very beautiful. All of it is strong—although I occasionally wished she would cease explaining and essaying, I almost never flinched at a misstep.

I do not know if I will teach it in the fall in my World War One class or not.

Cathi Hanauer’s Gone

I read this book because I needed a summer beachy read and saw that Hanauer was the editor of the collection The Bitch in the House. Knowing she was a feminist, I hoped that this would be a light book that also wouldn’t make my reading stop short with some moment of feminist outrage.

It was all right but not nearly as great as it could have been. Boy, does it ever capture something about the zeitgeist, though—both of my own life right now and, as I understand it, of a big sliver of lives of people in their 40s. So, on balance, I am glad I read it to the end. Gone tells the story of Eve Adams (that name! So unsubtle—it in itself almost made me stop), a nutritionist, and her husband, Eric, a sculptor. When the novel starts, Eric has run off with the babysitter. I can see why.

Eve is my worst version of myself: wound way too tight, working way too hard, primarily responsible for the home, food prep, and children, she is also having a great moment in her career: things are really taking off for her. Eric, by contrast, is struggling. Uninspired, he hasn’t completed—or sold—a sculpture in a long time and is wondering if he has it in him to ever create art again. (Now, since I’m identifying, let me clarify and say that this—the dry spell or the running off with the babysitter part—is emphatically not a parallel to my beloved’s life.) There’s no room for Eric in their lives at home and he’s frustrated with his career. They need a marriage reset. It’s a great and interesting problem and the unfolding of the novel is interesting—just the right combination of surprising and predictable to make it a reasonable read. And, having spent time this year renegotiating some of the balances in our marriage now that I’m (still) working too hard but that our youngest is in school and the demands of parenting have changed, too, I was interested in their problems.

But I was disappointed to see Northampton, Mass. given a fake name: after all the pleasures of recognition in Goodbye, Columbus, I felt the lack in Gone (which I read first) all the more keenly: why not name the town where the poor, obese white client lives? The juxtaposition of poverty with the appealing, fancy, yoga-and-tolerance filled communities of the Happy Valley are one of the most interesting things about that region.

More than that, again and I again I found sentences that I wanted tighter and assumptions that I wanted looser. Too often characters are identified by their census categories and shown to be lovable for conforming to what we expect of the black teen mom, the plump chatty Jewish lady, the hippie white girl in the coffee shop. It was never offensive, but it felt lazy and unimaginative. When Eve plays her “game” of trying to see if she can find twenty people in the food court who do not need to lose twenty pounds, I hated her. Listen, Eve, I wanted to scream, stop being so judgy!

Still, as a fictional counterpart to those lifestyle pieces about families where the wife outearns the husband, Gone held my interest even as it made me feel like I’d be boxed into one of Eve’s narrow categories: just another tired mommy in the food court who could stand to lose a few pounds.

This morning's mystery

I'm off to read 'The Rape of Lucrece' for Mrs. Dalloway and it strikes me as a pretty grim task. I was summarizing Cymbeline yesterday, trying to describe how Imogen's husband makes a bet that she is faithful, sets up a friend to test her, and he sneaks into her bedroom and spies on her while she's asleep. Later he pretends to have raped her.

Then, I spent all that time re-reading Clarissa last spring which is all about rape.

And the other Clarissa in literature is the rapist's accessory in 'The Rape of the Lock.'

And Jane de Gay's book pointed me to the links between Clarissa's thought that there will be no more marrying and Hamlet's 'Get thee to a nunnery' speech.

So why, I want to know, is Clarissa Dalloway's happy memory of love also Othello's feeling? Why, when she remembers feeling in love, does she remember the feeling of a lover who will become a murderer, a man who will go mad from suspicion of his wife's infidelity?

Looked at from this angle, the violence and the threat of rape seems to be in too many places with no one untainted.

I don't know how she does it

I thought, "Well, since I don't have to teach tomorrow, maybe I'll read a little Proust." (I really do need to read Proust.) Now, two hours later, I am still trying to fill out those beginning of the year forms. "Which package for school pictures? And if I get package B with the $5 sibling discount, how much is the check for?"

I am reading I Don't Know How She Does It on my Kindle. it's very very funny and so close to home that it's almost unbearable. 

I hope that my madeleine for these years is a madeleine and not the sight of a reminder stapled to the front of the homework folder: "Pumpkin patch form and $ DUE MONDAY! : )"

Lady Henry Somerset & the Chinese Shoe

My grandmother grew up in China, where she lived until she went to college. She once described witnessing little girls with newly bound feet being chased about the courtyard with switches, the older women forcing them to become accustomed to walking so bound. My grandmother loved China, spoke Chinese, believed—in spite of some of her strict Lutheran teaching—that God must surely admit some of the kind, non-Lutheran Chinese to heaven, too. She did not at all love her girlhood on the mission, but she loved Chinese culture. She was a brilliant, kind, strong woman, and, for all that, she abhorred footbinding.

All that is a long preface to explain why I was so forcibly struck by this quotation from Woolf on footbinding, from a short review called, to emphasize her metaphor, “The Chinese Shoe.” Woolf reviewed a biography of Lady Henry Somerset in the fall of 1923. She emphasizes the immense social pressures that conspired to quash Lady Somerset’s joie de vivre:

“The Victorian age was to blame; her mother was to blame; Lord Henry was to blame; even the saintly Mr. Watts was forced by fate to take part in the general conspiracy against her. Between them each natural desire of a lively and courageous nature was stunted, until we feel that the old Chinese custom of fitting the foot to the shoe was charitable compared with the mid-Victorian practice of fitting the woman to the system.”

Two of my pieces elsewhere

In case you missed it, my letter to the NYTBR in response to a review of Harold Bloom's new book was published in this Sunday's edition.

And I have a longish blog post on rape, Clarissa, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn over at Guernica.

Please do read them, and if you're moved to comment on the Guernica piece, please do so. I'd love the editors to see that you'd been by, read, and responded...

The wig

I love this idea of la perruque, from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life:
La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker’s ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room. (25)
The book is wonderful, too, and I’m glad to have read it. I learned a lot. But I copied this passage out over a week ago to share with you and something's been making this post really hard to write. At first, I thought it was so exciting an idea: the notion of this kind of mild pilfering we all do at work. Then, too, since the advent of the internet, how much more must go on. Everyone I know pops onto a blog or facebook for fun at work. And I thought, too, of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, whose entire conceit is une perruque: the speaker, Pompey, is writing a novel on yellow paper so as not to confuse it with the white and blue paper she uses, in the same typewriter, for her secretarial work.

But, I must say, that quotation is bugging me. Something as small as a love letter or as big as a manly piece of furniture. Really? De Certeau is actually better on gender issues than most of these high flown theorists, but I get bored of pointing out all the unconscious hierarchies being perpetuated all the time everywhere.

Being a feminist is a full-time contact sport, people.

The need to call out all these theorists, all the time, saying “good idea, but you really haven’t thought through the implications for women…” makes me long to write a book that is, from its conception through its execution, feminist to the core.

Pearls & Power, 2

My post from last week on the signification of pearls in literature and a dustup on the Woolf listserv has been nominated for a prize for arts & lit blogging over at 3 Quarks Daily.

Voting ends tomorrow. Vote for me!!!

Edited to add that I made the seminfinalist round! Hooray! Thanks so much for voting. Now, 3 Quarks Daily will send the top 8 or so on for judging.

Pearls and Power

There was a dust-up on the Woolf listserv over the weekend.

Someone posted, innocently enough, “Did Virginia Woolf own pearls?” To be honest, when I first read the post, I thought that we had reached a new level of triviality in Woolf studies, wondering about every last little detail of her life. What, I thought, can come of this?

The answer is: a lot.

The first few answers came in as references—Vita Sackville-West had pearls, Orlando wears pearls, have you read the articles by Reginald Abbott and Kathryn Simpson?—and, once again, a tiny detail revealed itself as utterly interesting. Immediately, a strong theme of female sexuality emerged, linking pearls to the clitoris. I had forgotten that. The conversation ranged around, with eight or nine people chiming in with thoughts, suggestions and references. That’s high volume for the Woolf listserv. Even with nearly 500 subscribers, it can go days with only a message or two. The original questioner mentioned that her interest arose from Leonard Woolf’s involvement with the Sri Lankan pearl industry.

Then, someone wrote in to assert the link between pearls and power, linking Vita’s pearls with those of Queen Elizabeth I. For neither woman, this poster suggested, did pearls signify anything as tedious as the clitoris.

That got us off to the races.

A passionate advocate for lesbian and queer studies posted simply “Ah, the tedious clitoris.” That made me laugh. Then, a man posted, with equal brevity, his surprise that anyone would ever find that part of the anatomy remotely tedious. That made me laugh even harder.

But suddenly, it seemed, lines were drawn, and those who took an interest in power and trade stood on one side while those who wanted to see the pearl as sexual on the other: I began thinking of them as the “No sex, please, we’re British” camp versus the acolytes of the clitoris. I checked my email from time to time as temperatures rose, and when the attacks got personal, I intervened as “owner” of the listserv (the so-called “mistress” of the list—that would be me--had already been “tsk’ed” by one irritated member).

But why did temperatures rise so heatedly on the signification of pearls on the listserv? I’m not sure. Listservs are funny things. I think of them as strange eddies in the currents of new media. Among the first ways we made community in the digital age, they persist but are strangely private compared to blogs, facebook, twitter, and tumblr. Because a post to a listserv only goes to subscribers, one can feel perhaps a little too comfortable that everyone in the conversation is like-minded. This particular manifestation still strikes me as a little quaint, a battle of first wave feminism with the Vassar alums tossing their pearls in the faces of the dungareed co-eds from the public university down the interstate.

Still, resistance and offense-taking are interesting. One posts that she never confuses her pearls with any part of her anatomy and that the metaphor strikes her as specious. (For the record, I have never thought cigars or carrots were perfect representations either.) But that's beside the point. Such refusal seems to fly in the face of aphrodisiacs 101: Oysters anyone? More to the point, the refusal struck me--and others--as an attempt to deny that the metaphor could work sexually when it plainly does, often, in Woolf and elsewhere. I kept my counsel, but I could feel my own irritation growing and I expected some other poster would turn that grain of insult into a pearl of a post. Soon enough, another poster struck back, accusing the first of denying the work of great lesbian and queer scholars.

Once attacks become personal—and only then—do I step in to moderate. And I did. The personal attacks have subsided for the moment, but the discussion has broadened out to jokes about Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe and reference to Ariel’s song in The Tempest. Fascinating to remember how much literature still matters, how it can move us to passion, to rage, to work, to insult, to rethink what we thought we knew.

(Want in on the listserv conversation? Email me--fernham AT gmail DOT com & I can sign you up or subscribe directly by sending the message SUBSCRIBE VWOOLF [email] [name] to listproc AT

Anne is as good as any man

The semester started just after Martin Luther King Day. Right around then, I got an email from a colleague whom I really like. Her son is in 6th grade. The 6th graders in his class were doing reports and, as part of their assignment, had to interview someone. Would it be o.k. for a 6th grade girl to interview me about women’s suffrage.

Sure. After all, I had just been reviewing the suffrage movement in preparation for my beginning of semester lecture (something I ended up not giving, as it happened).

But then I got her email. She was researching Seneca Falls. 1848. America.

That’s not my specialty.

I panicked, then calmed down. After all, this was for a 6th grader. Her very smart, focused email was as much about women’s lives before and after the vote as anything. I could do this.

Oh, and when would I be available to come to her school to be videotaped.

Oh, no! Part of me did not want this at all. Part of me wanted it a little too much. On the first day of teaching, I took a taxi across town to meet this young student. Was I really so narcissistic that I would travel across town to be videotaped by a middle schooler? Was I such a procrastinator that I would take time out of my day for this rather than create that calendar for program administration that I always mean to create? Half mad at myself for wasting my own time and hers, half excited, I signed in at the school.

As soon as I met her, I knew I had been right to come. We went to the library where I met the AV teacher. We talked about how she got interested in the topic (through a longstanding interest in equal rights for women). She set her flip camera up on a tripod and set the tripod on top of a stack of thin books, a series about marine invertebrates. She asked me to kind of repeat the question in my answer as she planned to edit her own voice out. She had a couple other coaching questions for me. And when I answered one question honestly, she laughed nervously and, departing from script, said, “Oh, that turns out to be a stupid question, doesn’t it? Let me ask a different one.” Once or twice, my answer pleased her and she squeezed her arms in tight to her sides, lifting up her shoulders and scrunching her eyes in delight.

I don’t know why it took me until then to see that this was the very best thing about teaching, this was really one of the coolest, most exciting things I had done in a long time. I am so glad that I let that young student interview me!

After all, when I was in 6th grade, I ran for president (and lost) on a platform of unilateral disarmament and the Equal Rights Amendment. My slogan? "Anne is as good as any man." One of my favorite talking points was why I chose "as good as" in lieu of "better than." (I felt that my superiority was for me to prove.) My campaign poster—with a picture of me in my favorite batik unicorn t-shirt--is in my office to this day. 

Oh, Charles

The errands continue to proliferate. Between the move and an unusually busy semester, I find myself swimming upstream in turbid waters at all times.

My husband and I have been working as hard as we can to make our new house into a home. Still, each box unpacked is mitigated by a new surprise. A bit of water damage at my little one’s new daycare led a mommy to call the city with a worry about mold. Suddenly, the daycare was shut down for a week and, desperate, we had to ship the little one off to my in-law’s. Then, the former owners left us with a filthy oven and, in cleaning it, I put the racks into the sink to soak. Alas, the weight of the racks and the water caused the under-mounted sink to break free of the counter, so now it sits, ¾ of an inch below the marble, on its plywood frame. You can imagine three or four more of these and you’ll have a sense of the domestic side of our lives lately. Add to that a similar set of comic mishaps, all leading to more work for each of us, at our respective jobs, never forgetting, of course, that there are two young children to feed and bathe on occasion, and you’ll have a snapshot of our life in November.

At the moment, my stamina is on low, and, though my mouth runs on as ever, I find myself wanting to channel Ma on “Little House on the Prairie.” As my beloved continues to find the energy to unpack, as I just really want to curl up in a corner and read, I need to talk less and express more. What I remember most of Karen Grassle’s Ma was the many, many inflections of “Oh, Charles.”

“Oh, Charles” could mean “thank you so much for replacing the waxed paper in the windows with real glass.” It could mean “I’m both pleased and embarrassed that you’re flirting with me in front of the children.” It could mean “I’m so grateful that you brought home four new chickens, but where are we going to put them?” Or it could mean “I’m so proud and happy that you’re willing to make this run into town in the blizzard, as we have neither food nor fuel, and yet, it’s terrifying to me that you propose to leave me alone here in the prairie with three young children and no food or fuel.”

Oh, Charles.

A Room of Her Own Foundation: Kenny Fries Scholarship

If you would like to support a woman writer with disabilities or if you ARE (or know) such a woman whose writing would benefit from a retreat, here is a great opportunity:

In honor of my friend, the writer and disabilities advocate Kenny Fries' 50th birthday, A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) is sponsoring a scholarship for a disabled writer who without financial support could not attend the AROHO 2011 Retreat for Women Writers. Kenny will choose the recipient in an open application process.

AROHO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that champions women writers. The suggested donation is $45. But any amount, even $5 or $10, will help us come closer to a fully funded scholarship. Donations to AROHO are tax-deductible. You can give online by choosing "Kenny Fries Scholarship" from the drop-down menu here, which will take you to PayPal. If you prefer you can mail a check to AROHO, PO Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043, mentioning that the check is for the Kenny Fries Scholarship for a Writer with a Disability.

Barbara Holland, RIP

Why do I not know her work? She is my new hero. From the Times obit, via the Woolf listserv:
Her fight for ground to stand on as a young woman remained central to her reading of the world. A steady paycheck and self-respect were the keys to her brand of feminism, not the allowance and room of one’s own proposed by Virginia Woolf. “No, Mrs. Woolf,” she wrote in her memoir. “A job, Mrs. Woolf.”
Holland was the author of the essay collection “Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences” (1995) which has risen to the top of my TBR pile. 

Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales

The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

Lizzie Skurnick for Girls Write Now

I’ve encouraged you all to go to the Chapters Readings before, and Friday brings another chance. The wonderfully smart and funny Lizzie Skurnick will be reading from her new book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading (2009). Lizzie’s book is a love letter to some of the great young adult fiction of the seventies, much of it by women and about real girls facing real and interesting problems: the very books that I hope the girls of Girls Write Now discover and find refuge in. My mother-in-law and I devoured the book together last summer, reminiscing about all the books we had loved and the ones that had meant so much to her 9th graders back when she was teaching. Reading with Lizzie will be some of the teen girls and their mentors who are participating in Girls Write Now this year. Here is the roster:
  • Emily Alvarez, "I Write for a Reason"

  • Michaela Burns, "Red Apple Pie"

  • Tianna Coleman, "Who am I: An Ode to Precious"

  • Clio Contogenis, "Mary Ellen, Nana Mary"

  • L’Eunice Faust & Tasha Gordon-Solmon, "If God Had Made Eve First"

  • Rachel Garcia, "The Yellow Dress"

  • Dalina Jimenez & Corey Binns, "Welcome Home"

  • Ceasia King & Ariana Proehl, "Ego Trips (We Know Exactly Why)"

  • Syeda Showkat & Kirthana Ramisetti, "Nora and Carol at the Discount Plus Christmas Party"

  • Shannon Talley & Jen McFann
Pamela Vasquez, "Bark Bark Roof Bark"

  • Quanasia Wheeler & Cynara Charles-Pierre, "The Yum that Keeps Giving" & "Thanksgiving No More"
I’ll confess that the first time I went to a paired reading, my heart sank a little at the length of the program. But, trust me, the women of Girls Write Now are fierce and organized: the readings are snappy, and the girls will have you laughing and crying. It’s the kind of event to make you remember why all the work we do, all the love we have, for literature really counts.

The event happens at the wonderful Center for Fiction (17 E 47th), this Friday from 6:00-8:00. I will be there & I hope to see you, too.

P.S. It’s not too late to apply to be a mentor for 2010-2011.

P.P.S. Finally, whether you’re in New York or not, you can pretty up your home and help the cause by buying one of (Seattle’s own) glassybaby votives/vases. Stop by their beautiful New York shop (in Jane Jacobs’s old house!) at 55 Hudson Street or just enter the code GWN on their website. (You can also just donate to Girls Write Now through the Network for Good here.)

These are the prettiest candleholders ever. Our apartment is FULL of them and I cannot get enough.

A happily married woman

For me, one of the chief differences between what I call middlebrow fiction and literary fiction has to do with the degree to which the writing announces itself as writing. It’s impossible to fly through a Woolf novel for the plot: not only are her plots thin, almost event-less in the ordinary, outward sense, but her writing demands your attention. That’s fact—the poetry of Woolf’s prose—has sustained my interest in reading, studying, and writing about Woolf for two decades.

But I also like to read another kind of book, a book like Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where the writing is clear and strong and full of careful and apt description but all of that is in the service of telling a story, of exploring how these fictional characters will react to the situations she has imagined for them.

As I said yesterday, most of Someone at a Distance is written with an Orwellian clarity: prose like a windowpane. There are no missteps, no groaners. And there are a few moments of really beautiful prose. For me, these two paragraphs on how a wife comes to rely on a happy marriage were among the most poignant in the book: beautiful, funny, and smart. They come half way through, just before that happy marriage must endure a brutal test, and, knowing what is coming (the hints are strong), the description has all the more power:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening: ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal. 
            A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is. (210-11)
I love the mid-century, English specificity of bad coal. I don’t know what “sheer slate” means exactly—though we can easily guess the discomfort of a fire that’s not warming us as it should—but it’s funny how right it sounds, even 60 years later: that’s just what one is supposed to say. And Whipple is right to notice how a shared complaint, a regular one against some domestic inconvenience, can reconfirm domesticity in a lovely way. Also wonderful—and characteristic—is the gentle feminist turn in the second paragraph. I feel my own trivialities to be understood and forgiven in that description of how such details are really a “sampling and enjoying” of intimacy. And yet, as Whipple warns, there is a danger—a very specific one—to too much of this. Spending too much time luxuriating in the “us” of a marriage, one risks losing oneself.

Yet, moments later, when Ellen must make a decision without consulting her husband, she “felt she was breaking one of the countless Lillputian bonds that bound her up with Avery.”

One of the challenges of marriage is finding the right balance between coupledom and independence. Clarissa Dalloway manages it by marrying a man who leaves her to be independent; Ellen North chooses to lose herself in a man and, when he shows himself less worthy, she must begin to forge a new life by untangling herself from the webs of the old. What’s lovely in Whipple’s writing here is that she takes the time to describe what it is that Ellen, who seems so plump, ordinary, and sweet, has at stake—to lose and to gain.