Categories
Literary Fare

The World From Below

by Lilyanna D’Amato | Literary Fare | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

The best children’s literature sees the world from below; revisiting it as an adult is an act of returning to oneself.


The night after my 21st birthday, deep in the throes of a mid-quarantine identity crisis, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by my favorite childhood books. Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, This Land is Your Land. I had stumbled upon them late at night while digging through the linen closet for a particularly elusive fitted sheet: 15 books crammed into the bottom right-hand corner, wedged between an old school project and a long-unused hamper. I pulled the stack out, carried it down the narrow hallway to my room, and began sifting through the pile. One by one, I read them aloud, embarrassingly pretending to show off the illustrations to some imaginary kindergarten class, relishing the visceral nostalgia and momentary distraction they brought me. 

Halfway through, somewhere around A Story for Bear, I started to think about the person I had become since setting those books down for the last time. Did I like her? Was she all that different from this former me? What, really, had changed? 

When I called my Mom a few days ago, I asked her what she thought. “Well, I think you let other people get in the way now.”

***

During my sophomore year of college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In my favorite passage, the beloved, ever-perceptive Mrs. Ramsay describes solemnly shrinking into her interior self, finding solace in her own wedge-shaped core of darkness invisible to others. As a child, I often felt this way: deeply familiar with my inner self, as if we were two separate people in conversation. I’ve always thought we were sort of like friends, this inner me and I. When I was younger, this deep-seated introspection about the life I saw around me allowed me to be curious and imaginative, independent and compassionate. Because of it, I was, for the most part, unafraid to belong to my own life.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to feel increasingly removed from myself, as though I had lost a little bit of that inner dialogue which had, for the majority of my early life, defined my sense of self. It always told me how I felt and who I wanted to be. Growing up meant starting to feel adrift, disconnected and completely out of touch with who I really was.

I had spent the summer before sophomore year and the majority of the fall living with my boyfriend’s family in a small town right on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. By mid-June, the two of us had fallen into a pattern of waking up around 9:00 or 10:00 in morning, drinking our coffee and reading for a few hours below the pear trees in his front yard, silently working on opposite ends of the long, oak dining-room table until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, and then driving through town around 4:30 to take a swim in the Connecticut River before dinner. I was giddily happy, content to exist in a faraway place for a little while. 

But, sometime around the beginning of August, I began to feel as though I was looking out at the world from someone else’s eyes. Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his. I wouldn’t have the words to express it until several months later, but that summer I came to devote every part of myself to a life that didn’t really belong to me, rarely engaging with my inner self so as to fully ingratiate myself in someone else’s thoughts and opinions and routines. My self-image had become untenable because I was constantly living out another person’s fictionalized version of me. By the end of September, it became clear that I had become so concerned with belonging to someone else’s life that I had seemingly forgotten to belong to my own. When the relationship ended in November, I was left without any understanding of who I was without it.

A few weeks after, on that night when I sat enveloped by all those artifacts of my childhood, I recognized that my conception of my most authentic self and my innermost truisms were all wrapped up in those books. As I ran my fingers across the front covers of Lili at Ballet and The Adventures of Frog and Toad and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I imagined myself at four or five years old, my auburn hair poking out from behind my ears as I sat tucked under my father’s arm in the cushy brown leather chair that used to sit in the corner of my brother’s bedroom. I can almost hear the soft rasp of his voice as he reads me Sleepy Bears before bed. Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn. As he reads, I can hear my mother brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall, our cats Wonder and Punk mewing below her feet. My brother rustles in bed. The old oak tree that used to loom outside my bedroom window still stands tall. It fell down suddenly in 2007 after being struck by lightning, but for most of my childhood it was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Now, all these years later, once again hearing the rhymes and cadences of my childhood, I felt closer to myself than I had in a very long time. I realized that the books I read as a child have come to represent a time when I was just beginning to understand who I wanted to be and yet, paradoxically, knew exactly who I was. 

I don’t think mine is an isolated experience. Children’s literature is often one of a child’s first introductions to empathy, imagination, and self-awareness. These books influence the way we navigate the lives around us; the way we come to understand the world is entirely shaped by the sites and experiences we explore as children. They offer a vocabulary for children to construct their identities, yet are never deemed especially consequential because of their seemingly elementary lessons. Unlike complex opuses like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or James Baldwin’s Another Country, children’s literature is rarely seen as self-defining. What if we considered Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are to be as powerful as any other piece of literature? Could it be that those books were some of the most formative, provocative, and honest ones of our lives?

Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his.

In Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, he argues that “the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in its execution, as the best adult literature” because it introduces ideas and stories which often go unexplored by adults. These books deal with deeply personal issues—loneliness, death, and the loss of innocence, to mention a few—in imaginative and honest ways, helping children to broaden and stretch their minds, flesh out the complex bonds they have with those around them, cope with conflicting emotions, understand their role in families and neighborhoods, and define the journey from childhood to adulthood. Even more important, Handy contends, is the act of revisiting these works as an adult. In one early chapter he quotes speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who says that while “revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia”—she had known a woman who reread The Wizard of Oz every few years because it helped her to remember being a child—“[in] returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.”

***

A few summers back, I wandered into my favorite bookstore in New York City: the wooden cathedral that is the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street. I’ve always said that buying a new book is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have. Curiosity swells and a desire for a new reality percolates just below as you find another world to imagine yourself in. On this particular day, I climbed the winding staircase above the mystery section to stand before the one-dollar bookshelf. There, hidden beside a monstrous poetry anthology, I rediscovered The Little Prince. I had read it once or twice as a child, enjoying its sweet illustrations and to-the-point dialogue, but only as a freshly coronated 20-something did I really discover its remarkable power.

The book begins with the narrator drawing a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole—only to adults, the drawing looks like a hat. When the narrator shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups, he asks them whether he has frightened them. “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” When the narrator tries to further explain that the drawing depicts a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the adults advise him to lay aside his drawings of boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole and instead focus on geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Frustrated, he declares that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

American novelist and academic Alison Laurie is fascinated by this moment in The Little Prince. She calls it subversive, because it mocks unsympathetic adult life by looking at the world from below. In her book Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Laurie explains that the most discerning children’s authors “have the ability to look at the world from below and note its less respectable aspects, just as little children playing on the floor can see the chewing gum stuck to the underside of polished mahogany tables and the hems of silk dresses held up with safety pins.” These books appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within all of us. Sitting on my bed that night, encompassed by my childhood memories and associations, I came face to face with the reality that I had lost my inner self to the confining realities of adulthood, narrowed my conception of myself and the world around me. Those books were a glimpse into a bygone sanctuary.

But not all children’s literature is as illuminating. The New England Primer, largely thought to be the first piece of American children’s literature, was published in Boston around 1690. It’s prescriptive and condescending, very obviously written by an adult to serve adult  expectations. In one of its numerous editions, the lesson reads:

Love God.
Use no ill words.
Fear God.
Tell no lies.
Serve God.
Hate Lies.

I don’t know any child who would enjoy that. Often, as is apparent here, unsuccessful children’s literature is filled with pragmatism, offering a “realistic” portrait of what adult life is actually like. Unimaginatively and pedantically, these books attempt to prepare children for the rigid, commercial ways of the world. But, according to Laurie, this adult society doesn’t exist: “the world [is] full of hostile, stupid giants.”

***

The most perceptive children’s book authors somehow manage to stay children all their lives, never losing the ability to see the world from below. In an interview with the New York Times, Maurice Sendak criticized contemporary children’s literature for catering too much to parents, going by the “rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.”

Sendak’s entire children’s book philosophy is dependent upon the idea that children shouldn’t be kept from the world, locked within a safe haven where nothing bad happens. Instead, he argues, children’s authors should simultaneously reckon with childhood innocence and the harsh realities of life. His books deal with the darker sides of growing up, creatively and authentically helping children to process the hardships they face. In Where the Wild Things Are, a disgruntled little boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper. As he stews in bed, a jungle grows around him and he sails off to the land of the wild things, populated by huge monsters with claws. Fearlessly, Max tames the wild things, who roar that he is the wildest of them all and make him their king. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start,” and he and the wild things dance in the moonlight and hang from the trees, until Max realizes he misses his mother’s love. Although the wild things beg their king to stay, young Max returns to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him. 

Met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1963, the book has since been heralded as a classic, celebrated for its depiction and acceptance of children’s emotions, particularly anger. What I love most about this book, though, is that Sendak doesn’t hide anything. He’s not trying to coerce anyone to be anything other than who they are, or teach someone a valuable lesson. He has no motives other than to tell a story about the way he sees the world. It’s not a very pretty world—it’s full of seemingly cruel people who do seemingly cruel things—but it is real. And not real in the way that The New England Primer is real. Where the Wild Things Are is not prescriptive; it’s not trying to get you to be a better part of society or get you to buy into some larger conventional narrative, it just introduces you to the way you work. To the thoughts you may or may not have when faced with frustration or disappointment. It looks at the world from below, warts and all.

Although Sendak’s work will forever be near the top of my list, E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and—one of my favorite books of all time—Charlotte’s Web, will always remain my favorite children’s book author. In preparation for this piece, I spent the better part of one Thursday evening rereading White’s transcendent monument to children’s literature. I had coincidentally stumbled upon the book while perusing a public bookcase in Oberlin and realized I hadn’t reread it since the end of first grade. So here I was, a 21-year-old, mixed-up, hungover college student, sobbing her eyes out to Charlotte’s Web at   in the afternoon. I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without tearing up: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Forget it. I called one of my friends from elementary school and we both started reminiscing about the first time we heard that sentence.

In our class, we would pick a new chapter book every month to read aloud. That April, the majority ruled that after lunch everyday, Mrs. Downs would sit back in the plush armchair in the corner of the classroom, 20 seven-year-olds nestled on the floor at her feet, and read Charlotte’s Web. I think it was the first book that made me cry. Like Sendak, White’s prose is spare, but burgeoning with fearless and beautiful honesty. The book is about death, plain and true and harsh, but it is also full of life and all of the things that make it worth living. In one of the most compelling scenes, Fern, a young girl who saves a newborn piglet from being murdered, confronts her father as she explains the horror of killing the pig:

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another”

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.

As a child, Fern sees the world from below, unclouded by convention and cynicism. White’s language is subversive, pointing out the flaws in grown-up understandings of life. Arguably, this moment is more illuminating for adults, juxtaposing the world as it is, as a child sees it, with the warped world we have all come to accept. Charlotte’s Web is about serious, traumatic experiences, and yet, it isn’t hard to comprehend. White’s portrayal of death reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book The Dead Bird, which reads, “Every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” That’s how you write about death. White and Brown alike get straight to the heart of things, unfettered by wordy ruminations and tangents.

In one of my favorite essays of White’s, his introduction in the third edition of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, he praises his former college professor William Strunk for instilling in him the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The book, a collection of writing dos and don’ts, hasn’t left my side in the last couple years because I’m so enamored with its vigor and pith. Just like Sendak (and Didion and Vonnegut and Bukowski), Strunk and White don’t want to trick you. They want your writing to be beautiful and thought-provoking and electrifying, but never complicated. Never so difficult that you have to put a book down to understand what it’s trying to say. This, to me, is what makes Charlotte’s Web so important. There’s nothing superfluous; it gives the reader room to come up with how they feel on their own. 

I think this is what makes children’s books, and the act of revisiting them as an adult, so invaluable. In a way, you are returning to a thing and a time that is decidedly simple—and I don’t mean in a stupid or banal way. On the contrary, I think good children’s literature gets to the root of what it means to understand the world and people around you, to embrace selfhood, and, really, to understand the essence of what it means to be human without writing a sentence that is three pages long. It delivers information in no uncertain terms. There is no overwriting or overstating or big, scary, fancy words; there is just the world as a child sees it. There is just the world as it is. To revisit these books as an adult, Laurie says, offers “a way into a lost world, not only of childhood, but of universal power and meaning.”

She encourages readers to return to their children’s books as a way to reconnect with their childhood selves. There, she argues, lies the foundation of our most genuine, fulfilled, and actualized selves. Too often, Laurie writes, “as we leave the tribal culture of childhood—and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes—behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children’s literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.”

It is through this act of rediscovery that we begin to sew ourselves up again. Throughout our lives, having endured suffering and embarrassment and rejection, we become fragmented by judgement and cruelty, both readily given and received. As a result, we lose touch with who we actually are, with our cores of darkness. We feel the way that I felt in Vermont: like a stranger, alienated from my interior self. Children’s books help you to relearn and embrace the world as a child does, with levity and resolute selfhood, offering us a vital opportunity to return to the world as it is, without all that complicated, unreadable, pedantic junk flying around. I think we spend the majority of our lives chasing the high of childhood, chasing a time before we let our perception of the world become muddled by the hurt of adulthood. 

Now, as I sit at the desk in my dorm room, again surrounded by piles of my childhood books, I realize I don’t have any new answers. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel as though I had them right in front of me all along. In these past months, having read Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, and This Land is Your Land over and over and over again, I feel as though I’ve returned to myself. I’ve found solace and comfort in this world from below, in this world as it is.  

Categories
Literary Fare

Chloe Liked Olivia

by Leah Cohen | Literary Fare | Fall 2017

Photographs by Annie Fidoten

Literary muses in female friendship.


Act I: In which I sit in various places and write about Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood and think about my friend Thea. Mostly in my carrel in the library, on the second floor.

In A Room of One’s Own, during Virginia Woolf’s fictional speech on the subject of “women and literature” for the graduation ceremony of a women’s college in 1929, her narrator tells her audience about her surprise at reading the debut novel of a woman named Mary Carmichael. It read to her as a fairly standard novel until she encountered the sentence: “Chloe liked Olivia.” The sentence stopped her in her tracks, because “it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.”

When women are depicted in novels, Woolf ’s narrator reasons, it’s in their relation to men. For an author to so boldly and plainly admit that one woman likes another is to shatter the structure of the marriage-plotted novel, which insists that male-female interdependence is everything. “If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it,” she urges, “she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody yet has been”—the territory of female friendships.

In the last seven years or so, there has been a flood of novels about dyadic female friendship. Most fabulously, there is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume epic about two women, Elena and Lila, who grow up together in a ghetto in Naples, competing and collaborating in their efforts to escape the limitations of their circumstances and make their lives meaningful. Ferrante’s books are the most ambitious, soaring, and internationally acclaimed of these literary female friendship novels, but beyond them there’s a long list of books published just since 2010. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti is an experimental “novel from life” that interjects letters and play-scripts to tell the story of Sheila and Margaux, two middle-class artists living in Toronto, embedded in friendship and struggling with the meaning of art and life. Then there’s Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, in which the unnamed narrator tracks several of her relationships, including the one with her childhood best friend, Tracey, whose seemingly inborn ability to dance inflames the narrator in envy. And just this summer, two books came out about teenage-girl friends, Marlena by Julie Buntin and The Burning Girl by Claire Messud. There are also novels by Sally Rooney, Dana Spionotta, Emily Gould, and others, but you can’t read everything, and I haven’t.

This isn’t the first time that female friendship has been in literary vogue. In 1986, Margaret Atwood declared that, “Despite their late blooming, women’s friendships are now firmly on the literary map as valid and multidimensional novelistic material.” But this recent flare-up of the subject in the literary zeitgeist has its unique qualities, most obviously that many of the books feel umbilically linked to Ferrante. Or at least, critics see the link—every review of a female-friendship novel seems anxious to pull it into conversation with Ferrante’s monolith. It makes sense to make these connections, and I think that if, like good critics, we look at what these books have in common with each other, we might learn a few things.

***

Act II: In which I don’t know how to write the essay. Takes place a little bit in the library, while walking between classes, but mostly in a single night in my bedroom.

Take the sentence: If we look at what these books have in common with each other, we might learn a few things. It’s deceivingly straightforward, and yet I don’t know what kind of sentence should follow it. If we line these books up next to each other and point out their similarities and differences, we might learn a few things. But what kind of things? We might learn something about the structure and properties of female friendship. But the friendships represented in these novels can’t be typical of the kind of friendships most women experience; they must have to be extraordinarily dramatic or interesting, in order to make it into fiction. These have nothing to do with the day-to-day banality of actual friendship between real women, or between anyone (including between myself and Thea: Remember that, Leah).

We might learn a few things about why female friendship lends itself to drama, or the conveying of a certain kind of emotion—love, investment, anger. Or maybe, we might learn about what element, when alchemically combined with female friendship, produces a good story, a story worth reading, and writing about. Now we’re getting somewhere.

So what are the elements? Art is one; a lot of these friendships are mediated by it—writing, animation, dancing, painting. Elena’s a writer, Sheila’s a playwright, Tracey dances. The centrality of art in these narratives is important, because it signals the ascendency of the character of the ‘female artist,’ and adds layers of psychic complexity to these stories.

Another consistent element in these novels is their reliance on the frame of the narrator-as-writer. In Ferrante’s first book, My Brilliant Friend, Elena sits down to write the story of her friendship with Lila after her friend disappears without a trace in her ’60s. Opening her computer, Elena tells us: “We’ll see who wins this time… I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”

The story the fictional Elena (who shares a name with the author) “writes” will go on to span four volumes, over 1,200 pages, and 60-some years, and will include a narration of Elena writing another novel (much slimmer than these, only 80 pages) about the friendship in question.

And How Should a Person Be? plays a similar trick—near the end of the book, Sheila reports that after she went into her studio to throw around all the “trash and shit” inside of her, “slowly the castle began to emerge;” the castle being the book we’re reading. It isn’t the first time the book turns in on itself—throughout the novel, Sheila’s been recording her conversations with Margaux and transcribing some of them for the reader. Sheila has a huge, climactic fight with her friend after she writes their conversations into a short story—an aestheticization of Margaux’s private life that drives her friend into a self-conscious rage. And there’s the fact that the novel itself blurs the line between fact and fiction—the main character, Sheila, shares the first name of the author, who really does have a friend named Margaux, and many of the conversations in the novel are transcriptions from real conversations. (Heti’s calling it “a novel from life” prompts the genuine question, what other place do novels come from?)

In Swing Time, too, the unnamed narrator consistently refers to the fact that she’s writing—the second chapter begins with the resolute, “I want to describe the church now, and Miss Isabel,” which she does. Similarly to Elena’s admission that the story isn’t “true” as such, but just made of “everything that still remained in my memory,” Smith’s narrator motions to her own unreliability. In one snowy scene, she meets her half-siblings, and ends the chapter by recounting her telling of the story to her mother, years later: “Maybe I never got out of this habit of elaboration. Twenty years later over a difficult lunch I revisited the story of my ghostly siblings with my mother, who sighed, lit a cigarette and said: ‘Trust you to add snow.’”

Trust you to add snow, along with a Chekhovian gun—as his narrative logic goes, if a gun appears in the first act, by the third it will go off. The first time Cat meets Marlena, her own version of Lila/Tracey in Marlena, her friend’s drug addiction appears in the form of a pillbox around her neck. By the end of the novel, because of the pills, she’s dead. But the story isn’t about her death, it’s about Cat telling the story of it: When Cat goes to college after the fact, she learns about principles of storytelling, and grafts them onto her mission to make sense of her past. “In a college English course, I learned Aristotle’s rule for story endings… How had I tricked myself into thinking that the murderer chasing us from the opening paragraph wouldn’t wind up killing someone at the end?” she wonders, referring to Marlena’s drug addiction. This is the intelligence of Marlena: Cat knows how to tell a good story, and she could have told it straight, without flashing forward to her present and without weighing in from the sidelines, but she doesn’t, because the story is about Cat’s processing of her own trauma, which she’s doing the way she’s been taught—by examining her life as a story, searching for the promised catharsis. She’s interested in how storytelling is supposed to work because she thinks it will help her heal, and live her life more wisely (a doomed mission, ultimately; Elena Ferrante’s character tells us wisely that, “unlike stories, real life, when passed, tends towards obscurity, not clarity.”)

This fascination with dramatic principles is also present in The Burning Girl, which is a slog to read—it’s written mostly in summary and the voice is gratingly self-serious, immaturely epiphanic—but thematically kind of interesting. The simple story is that Julia and Cassie are friends, and in high school Cassie’s home life becomes increasingly hostile, to the point where she runs away and spends a night sleeping in an abandoned asylum outside of town. It’s an asylum the girls found as children and used to play in, and it’s Julia who eventually finds Cassie there, so sensitive is she to the foreshadowing in their intertwined life story. Julia is mystified by her almost psychic connection to Cassie and her ability to sense where she’s hiding, and near the end of the book she protests that she’s not just some teacher whose friend got really depressed, but a girl with an ability to “know stories, how they unfold, and people, how they are.”

There’s a lot of attention paid in the end of the novel to how and why stories are told, and Julia has what’s essentially a 20-page revelation about how bad storytelling simplifies reality and keeps us stupid. She’s interested in how other people tell the story of Cassie, and everything they miss. She’s interested in how she and her boyfriend begin to speak and behave like TV characters, saying and doing the things they think people are supposed to in relationships. And while all of this teenage-voiced scrutiny gets exhausting, there is something really interesting about what Claire Messud’s doing with Julia’s sense of how stories are supposed to unfold, especially in the context of other contemporary novels about female friendship. Unlike Marlena’s narrator, who’s caught unprepared because she fails to understand how stories work and gets run over by the juggernaut of narrative motion, Julia in The Burning Girl escapes this fate by naming her world for what it is: A story. She’s not writing it, as are Ferrante and Heti and Smith’s narrators, but in a Stranger-Than-Fiction way she knows it’s being written, and in a sprint to beat the house (the house in this case being Messud, her author-creator), she outpaces the narrative momentum of the story, where her friend is supposed to die in the very asylum where they secured their friendship, and at the last minute, saves her.

Novels that turn in on themselves, novels that turn themselves inside out… what does all of this have to do with the organizing principle, which is friendship between women? These novels do channel each other in an endless chain of repetitions, so there’s a hall-of mirrors effect when you read them in quick succession, as I did. In Swing Time, Smith’s narrator even has a Burning-Girl moment, lamenting the dramatic principle-infused way that people around her talk about her friend: “The way they began to speak of Tracey took on a tragic dimension, or isn’t it only tragic heroes who have no choices before them, no alternative routes, only unavoidable fates?” I don’t think these similarities are a coincidence. I think it has something to do with postmodernism, sure, and the self-conscious way that we’re conditioned to tell stories, but I think it also has something to do with what it means to write about women right now—the considerations that have to be made when you want to turn a woman you’re intimately connected to, existentially entangled with, into art; especially when she’s no longer around to ask for permission.

***

Act III: In which I argue with my roommate about how to write this essay. Takes place in Wilder Bowl, but also in some small part of my mind reserved for intense, dramatic, and self-pitying memories of my friendship with Thea.

Me [noticing Claire is in shorts]: Claire! Aren’t you cold?

Claire: Hey! Not really, not if I keep moving. [Moves to keep moving.]

Me: Claire, wait. Can I get your advice? I’m having some problems with this essay.

Claire: What essay?

Me: This essay about female friendship in literature.

Claire: Oh right. The one you mentioned last week and then got really quiet about when I asked you more questions about it and then told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to you about it ever again.

Me: Exactly. I’ve been interested in it for two years, since I first read Elena Ferrante. I’m obsessed with it. But now that I try to write about it, I’m having all these methodological problems. I don’t know what to say about these books. How do I know they could be important to other people? They’re important to me. That’s all I know.

Claire: So say that, maybe?

Me: No, no. That’s boring. What would I say, when I was in high school I met this girl Thea and I was obsessed with her and the obsession ruined my life until I read Elena Ferrante’s books and finally could see my own experience reflected and was comforted by the recognition and also eased by reading them, because I was able to watch Elena’s reverence of Lila gradually diminish to the point where the premise of her total sublimity is abandoned by the end of the last book and I could recognize that Elena was an unreliable narrator and that helped me feel much better in the end about everything because it showed me that I wouldn’t gain access to some sort of transcendence by holding onto my idealization of my old friend?

Claire: I don’t think that’s boring at all. That’s auto-theory. I love reading that.

Me: I’m sick of auto-theory! Everyone wants to write it. I just want this piece to be about ideas, not my life. Auto-theory can be so narcissistic!

Claire: But look, now you’re really animated. What if you made this, like, part of it? Like, figuring out how to write the essay, what you did and didn’t want it to be?

Me: But the problem with this is that it’s so about my feelings. And are my feelings really interesting to anyone besides me? Would anyone care if I just said, look, Elena Ferrante is my favorite author because she made me feel better. Because everyone always asks me if I was in love with Thea, romantic love, and I used to just say no, it wasn’t like that, but then the Ferrante books came out and I could point them and say, in fact, it was like this. You follow me?

***

Act IV: In which the castle emerges.

How about this for a conclusion: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of these explicitly self-reflexive novels take female friendship as their terrain. In this way, the books play with the autobiographical imperative for women artists—the expectation that they will make art about their own lives, and the conflating of their characters with their actual persons. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante’s books were often discussed alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiography, based on the assumption that Ferrante’s series was autobiographical. (Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and at the time that she was writing the series, nobody knew who she was; her identity has since been rudely revealed, and her life has little to do with the novels. She’s not even from Naples.) But in some cases, the expectation is fulfilled: Sheila Heti’s book takes much of its content from her personal life, and Julie Buntin really did have a friend who died from an overdose as a teenager.

Not all of the books are inspired by true events, but to the extent that they mimic autobiography, they comment on a prejudice that women write out of emotional need, to soothe their own feelings, that their writing is somehow vindictively subjective. Is this, then, a way of getting ahead of the perception of women by creating a Russian nesting doll of narrative—which layer am I hidden in? Or is it an obsession with the act of narrative construction, an obsession so deep that the story wouldn’t feel complete without its inclusion—maybe these books are just typically postmodern. After all, there’s a Woolfian element in them. In A Room Of One’s Own, Chloe and Olivia are fictionalized twice over—they’re characters who live inside a story that Woolf’s narrator read in Woolf’s story. And there’s a distance that this layering creates, almost a privacy; I come away knowing very little about Chloe and Olivia, and having no access to the story, because Woolf’s narrator has only excerpted it for me (really, excerpted it for her audience—here I am almost a century later, overhearing).

This distance, this shielding, is also present in these contemporary novels. We never see what Sheila makes of her conversations with Margaux in How Should a Person Be?—the text that makes Margaux so angry and confused that she paints a self-immolating picture of herself and hangs it in a gallery for Sheila to see. We never see the slim novel that Elena writes about Lila against Lila’s wishes in The Neapolitan Novels. She outlines it, but we never find out how she condenses the 1200-page story of their friendship into 80 pages: what she leaves out; what details and characterizations she finds most important; how she bends the obscurity of real life back towards clarity. We don’t get to see the actual fruits of these women’s aestheticization of their friends, and so we’re shut out of a vital part of the relationship. Why is that?

Maybe it’s as simple as when Julia says in The Burning Girl that she’s going to grant Cassie some privacy by not sharing the story with anyone in their town: “I thought it was the one gift of friendship I could give Cassie… to keep to myself the story I knew, or thought I knew.” It’s paradoxical that within the layers of soul-searching and confession that some secrets might remain hidden, some boxes unopened, but there it is: In all of these stories, the intimacy of a friendship between women is represented by the self-conscious crafting of a story, and then the deliberate frittering away of information.

It must be tempting for these narrators to show everything, especially when they see themselves in a saviour position to their friend, a dynamic especially present in Ferrante and Smith. After 50 years of anticipating a final, conclusive competition with her best friend in The Neapolitan Novels, Elena says, “I took it for granted that there was not and never would be a manuscript of Lila’s… something that reassured me and yet truly upset me. I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last. I thought it was my task. I was convinced that she herself, as a girl, had assigned it to me.” Smith’s narrator in Swing Time has a similar reflection when she visits Tracey in her apartment, after her old friend has given up dancing: “There is no case I can make to change the fact that I was her only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.” In both of these situations, the narrator feels a duty, perhaps irrationally, to amplify her friend, even after she’s spent the length of the novel competing with her. And in both of these cases, there’s a sense of ownership that emerges: This wonderful woman should be known to the world, but I’m the one who should announce her.

In these novels about female friendship, the drama is as much in the contemporary telling as it was in the past-experiencing, and maybe this tension is implicitly involved in writing about friendship between creative women. An ethical narrator doesn’t want to exoticize or fetishize their friend, expose them to the light in a way that will burn them, and yet they want to tell a good story. Women know what it feels like to have their images exploited, and yet exploiting the images of their friends to make good art is tempting, especially when within the art world, it’s permitted.

So in the context of a long tradition of male artists exploiting women in order to make art, a tradition of a scale that we’re really just beginning to get a handle on, I can’t help but think about these books as representations of women looking at women, in mostly platonic, though sometimes sexually tinged situations, and taking into account ethical as well as aesthetic concerns involved in using their images for artistic production. So while all of these narrators are telling their stories ultimately for themselves, for their own ability to understand the past and heal from it, they have some sense that you have to get there without over-simplifying your friend, or demonizing her, or idealizing her—that has to be part of the conversation. But that’s not to say these models demonstrate ethical behavior in the end—all of these books (with the exception of The Burning Girl) are stories of the narrator somehow betraying her friend. In a review of Marlena for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert calls many of these female friendship novels “Bildungsromans where one young woman comes of age, but at a profound cost to another.”

In a dazzling paragraph in Marlena about how incredible it is to go on a friend-date with a woman (the only paragraph, honestly, that you need to read from the book), Cat explains that “I begin to see the outline of the best friend, the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.” But what if that becoming is parasitic? In her 1986 essay, Atwood noticed a similar theme of competitive flare-ups between women friends, pointing out that “the treatment runs the gamut, from selfless idealism to pointy-toothed ego-devouring.” The literary moment she drew attention to in the ’80s helped establish the problematics of female friendship—the selfless as well as selfish behavior that takes place within its parameters. And while the ends may remain the same—coming of age at profound cost to another, that is, or in some cases being selfless—the means seem to have changed. Now that these novels are narrated by women artists, who are devoted to aesthetic questions, the process of tearing down or building up their friend is accomplished through storytelling. These existential entanglements are ultimately facilitated by a mutual love of storytelling and language, elements which, when mixed with female friendship, produce a story aimed towards transcendence. In one elegantly simple passage in the Neapolitan Novels, Elena remembers, “Those moments lighted my heart and my head: she and I and all those well-crafted words.”

At what cost to Thea have I come of age through her image? She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I was platonically infatuated, addicted to her way of being, her way of speaking. I was devoted to her mind, convinced that if I hitched mine to hers that we could fly together, that it was the only way I could hope to touch off the earth. I thought it could be just me and her. She and I and all those well-crafted words, I must have been thinking. All of this allowed me to ignore or glamorize the fact that she was and is very sick, and in need of help and healing. All of this meant that I encouraged her incoherence, aestheticized it, worshipped it. “My thoughts are like rocks and I want them to be water!” She once exclaimed to me. This is poetry, I thought, without stopping to think about, to hold, the pain that she was in.

What I wanted to say to Thea the first time she left me to go back to her country was, “You saved me.” I’m not sure what exactly I thought was the problem before I met her—most likely, boredom. But when our friendship started going badly, when big silence moved in and I thought she no longer loved me, it was Elena Ferrante’s books that saved me, or at least stabilized me. But now it’s been too long and I miss her. Now it’s time to go looking for her again, my brilliant friend Thea.

Categories
Literary Fare

La Vida, La Fuerza, La Mujer

by Adriana Teitelbaum | Literary Fare | Fall 2017

Images by Anya Katz

The first book I remember my mother giving me was The Secret Footprints by Julia Alvarez. It was about Dominican folkloric creatures called ciguapas, mythical women who lived in underwater caves. They were said to look like ordinary women, except for their feet, which were turned backwards so that if humans found their footprints in the sand, they would not be able to follow their tracks. This simple triumph of evolution protected the ciguapas from what they feared most: people. The story follows a young ciguapa girl who becomes curious about these strangers, and eventually travels ashore to observe them up close. She is discovered by a boy and his family, who in turn surprise her with their kindness. However, when she parts from these people, she vows to never again come that close to their kind. In the end, she returns to the safety of living with her fellow ciguapas and to the serenity of her ocean home. As a child, I took this book everywhere with me, and every trip to the beach I would make sure to walk facing away from the water, in order to leave behind a trail of backwards footprints.

***

Julia Alvarez and her work followed me into my adolescence with her novel In the Name of Salomé, a biography about Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila. Ureña was a Dominican poet who began publishing her work at seventeen in the late 1860s under the pseudonym Herminia. She was a bold activist who used her words and her voice as means of revolution. I first read this book, given to me by my mother, at seventeen years old during the week I was hospitalized for depression. I spent my time in Newark Beth Israel Hospital pouring over the pages, trying to remind myself of better women who had gotten through harder situations. Though Ureña had lived in a different place at a much different time, I still found I could understand her pain and her sadness. I found comfort not only in her accomplishments, but also in the way the world had shaped her ideals, her personality, and her overall identity. Her poetry fueled a fire of revolution against Spanish imperialism in the 1860s by preaching for social and political change. But beyond her historical significance, the legacy of her words continues to thrive with generations of Latinas who hold onto them.

Throughout history, women have repeatedly turned to writing as an act for social change. Fighting against patriarchal power structures, countless women have produced essays, poems, novels, and other forms of written revolution to make their voices and opinions heard. Specifically in Latin America, under a particular brand of sexist social codes commonly referred to as machismo, women have marked their place within the ever-present legacy of revolution. Not only have their words helped inspire meaningful progress, but they have also left a foundation from which future generations of women can grow, both personally and politically. Julia de Burgos, a twentieth-century Puerto Rican poet, was one of these trailblazers. Like Ureña, de Burgos’ life in the Caribbean was marred by U.S. imperialism. They both witnessed the pain and injustice that spread rampantly across their homelands, fueled by economic and racial conflict, much of which was a direct result of norteamericano political intervention. Because of this, de Burgos was a fierce advocate for Puerto Rican independence. She was also a feminist, speaking out not only for women’s rights, but also against rigid social expectations that women were told to follow to be considered mujeres buenas, and fit for marriage.

Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer…
I am life, strength, woman…

In her poem, “A Julia de Burgos,” de Burgos writes about a personal dichotomy—being torn between the person she is and the woman she is expected to be. De Burgos confronts the two Julias that exist, and makes the brave claim that she is life, she is strength, and she can be these things because she is a woman, rather than in spite of it. With this statement, she makes it clear that it is not her womanhood that is a setback, but rather the way the world treats women. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. I first read these words in passing at the age of fifteen, sitting in the back of an almost exclusively gringo classroom, eyes glued to the clock. In the moment, I thought of nothing more than waiting for the bell to ring. But later on, I found myself constantly returning to her words. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. And it wasn’t just the words themselves I thought of. I found myself obsessing over the moment she wrote them—what time of day it was, where she was, what she was thinking. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. Was it in the dry heat of early summer or the wet humidity of a fall hurricane season? Could she hear the sound of coquis chirping in the trees, could she see the mountains of San Lorenzo where my mom had grown up? Trying to get myself through the cold New Jersey winter, I couldn’t help but repeat the words la vida, la fuerza, la mujer, finding comfort in the mere fact that they existed, and that they came from a place I felt so connected to.

In the late forties, Julia de Burgos moved to New York. Historically, the city has served as a hub for Puerto Rican migrants searching for economic opportunity. In 1917—nineteen years after the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico—its people were granted U.S. citizenship, which allowed them to move to the continental U.S. without the legal obstacles that had previously existed. This began a wave of migration that has resulted in a population of Puerto Ricans in the States that is larger than the one on the island. In the eighties, at the age of eighteen, my mother was one of these migrants, leaving San Lorenzo and coming to New York to get her degree. Working as a secretary in order to pay for school, she fought against racism, sexism, and classism on a day-to- day basis. Nonetheless, by the mid-nineties, she had earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree on the same streets where Julia de Burgos had died alone in 1953. My mother, in turn, had two daughters, and raised us on the stories and legacies of great Latinas who came before us.

Yo mis cantares lancé a los vientos,
yo di a las brisas mi inspiración;
tu amor grandeza dio a mis acentos:
fine fueron tuyos mis pensamientos
en esos himnos del corazón.

I sang my songs to the winds,
I gave the breeze my inspiration;
your great love gave to my accents:
fine were my thoughts
in those hymns of the heart.

In this poem, Salomé Ureña professes her unconditional love and gratitude for her mother. Among her poems of freedom and revolution, she writes of this crucial relationship not as an outlier, but rather as an important part of her literary and political career. All of the lessons, experiences, and wisdom she learned and inherited from her mother became the foundation of who she was. And although the impact of maternal relationships is something that transcends cultural boundaries, the legacy of oppression that Latinas have historically faced creates a unique kinship among Latina women, which is first experienced for many in their relationships with their mothers.

This phenomenon also transcends familial ties. I have found these relationships in academia, in professional settings, and among strangers and familiar faces alike. I found it with the nurse who would sneak tostones into my hospital room, and with the kind old woman in Port Authority asking me,“¿Sí pasa el camión 66 por aquí?” These types of relationships are precisely where political and personal revolution meet. The passing of information, inspiration, or a simple gesture on a real, observable level is the intersection between social progress and individual growth. Growing up in the U.S., reconciling one’s own latinidad against the reality of estadounidense surroundings is a lifelong battle. But being able to turn to other women who have come from similar backgrounds, who have experienced similar paths and understand where you’re coming from is more than helpful: It is crucial as a means for survival.

Nonetheless, these connections are not always so easy to find. In certain circumstances, they may seem almost impossible to come across. It is in these situations where I have turned to the written word to try to overcome that seemingly insurmountable loneliness, and it is in these poems and narratives that I have found a feeling of home. This is what makes latinidad so inherently transnational––the act of looking for connections to your identity that come from miles away. I understood the term transnational before I had ever heard of it. Growing up as a Latinx person in white America is a manifestation of the concept. By this I mean that if you identify as Latinx, one of the first things you will remember is feeling different. You’ll come to realize that there are things in your life that, despite seeming so normal, don’t match up with the world around you.

***

The concept of transnationalism goes hand in hand with Latinx identity. Since the beginning of European colonization, what is now known as Latin America has been abused by foreign powers. Ingrained in its past is the slaughter of natives and the enslavement of African people. Through the rest of Latin America’s existence and to this day, Europe and the United States have economically and politically oppressed Latin American land. Its transnational history begins with the genocide and forced migration of people of color, and continues with the interference of Western powers. This complex history has connected a wide variety of people and cultures, resulting in an ethno-racial identity that spans across nations. And this identity, which is interwoven with a plethora of different languages and histories, is impossible to pinpoint to a singular place or time. While there are overlapping themes and trends that follow latinidad, age, gender identity, race, and place of residence also impact the way it has manifested in different people’s lives.

This is why music, literature, and other cultural phenomena are so important in the exploration of identity for Latinx people and communities––especially for women. Literature has long been an essential tool in the spreading of revolutionary ideas; it is only natural that Latina women have found their voices through their writing. While part of this is in service of larger political movements, there is also a deeper level to their words. Their literature serves as a basis for different generations of Latinas, a structure from which we can continue to build and grow––whether they help inspire political figures like Sonia Sotomayor or allow teenage girls growing up in white America to find a place for themselves.

Even now, I find that I am constantly searching for myself in the words of others. In the middle of writing this piece while back home for fall break, I trudged through the mess of my attic and stumbled upon a book of poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes titled Emplumada. Cervantes is a Chicana feminist and poet who writes about her childhood and femininity growing up as a Latina in the United States. Sitting in the Newark airport, I read her poem “Freeway 280,” where she writes,

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

While going through Cervantes’ work and reading her words about feeling out of place, misunderstanding her own identity, and searching for a part of herself that had been “mown under like a corpse,” I was reminded that I have not reached some grand conclusion about myself and my identity. That despite all of my searching, I would never shake off the feeling “that this is not my land and this is my land,” and that I would be constantly reading, listening, and watching for things that represent who I am and where I come from. Like the young ciguapa girl I read about as a child, I would always find comfort in people and spaces I understood, and that understood me in return.

Print by Julia Deen

***

Today, I am sitting in the back of the library, finding myself caught in a moment of deja vu, as I am in another academic setting surrounded by (mostly) white peers. Only instead of reading Julia de Burgos, I am armed with my copy of Emplumada. I am stuck on a line of a piece titled, “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well- Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races.” It’s on the second page of the poem, highlighted by a previous owner, perhaps my mother, or whoever had it before her.

Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
“excuse me” tongue, and this
nagging preoccupation
with the feeling of not being good enough.

It’s the “excuse me” tongue and that feeling of not being good enough that I can’t seem to move past, the always apologizing for one’s own inability to live up to perceived expectations. That feeling of being too Latina, and yet not Latina enough. The feeling of growing up in a place that does not feel like home. It’s not just the relatability of this line that draws me in, but the fact that sometime in the mid-seventies, in San Jose, California, a place I’ve never been, Lorna Dee Cervantes expressed emotion so akin to my own experience 40 years later. And there is something about that fact that feels revolutionary. It’s the type of revolution that manifests not in strikes or protests, but in connections between people of a similar background. The type that, to me, is a fundamental characteristic of latinidad:

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior. …
Myself: I could never decide.
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe…

As a child I loved to read. When my family and I visited my grandparents in Puerto Rico, my sister and I would spend hours outside, our noses buried in books. My abuela would step out of the house in a long linen dress and her chanclas and watch as we sat beneath the trees and on the patio, absorbed in our reading. She’d smile and feed us pastelillos and piraguas, and say something about the orgullo she felt for her nietas inteligentes. My memories of this are dreamlike: the symphony of smell in the air and the sounds of the wind and my abuela’s voice in harmony among them.