Categories
Diagnoses

(Re)Creating the Past

by Sam Schuman | Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Stella Mulroney, Undoing

The distinction between “correct” and “true,” or what we talk about when we talk about “history.”


In elementary school, I loved few events more than the Scholastic Book Fair. The Halloween costume parade and Field Day were a treat, but they paled in comparison to giving up a whole class period to venture down to the library (or sometimes a requisitioned art classroom) where I could revel in the glossy covers advertising the latest and greatest in kids’ lit. It strikes me now that this is a relatively wholesome way to transform children into consumers, but I digress.

I was a bookworm, always finishing my classwork early so I could head over to the library nook and bury my nose in How to Eat Fried Worms, or an installment of the Boxcar Children. The Book Fair was the logical next step: a whole room lined wall-to-wall with shelves and tables advertising all manner of material for the up-and-coming reader, from the Magic Tree House to Frindle

Every year, I looked out for the 10 True Tales series, written by Alan Zullo. The conceit was self-explanatory: each book contained 10 nonfiction stories organized around a theme. Some topics were intense, but unobjectionable: Young Survivors of the Holocaust, Surviving Sharks and Other Dangerous Creatures. But zoom out a bit, and a recurring focus emerges: Teens at War, Battle Heroes: Voices from Afghanistan (and a similar book for Iraq), D-Day Heroes. Many of these books are essentially nationalist military histories, recounting deeds of heroism committed by intrepid GIs as they fought for the American way at home and abroad. Reading the series as a kid, I hung onto every word, picturing the battles that Zullo narrated at the pitch of fiction. Children don’t read books with a critical eye to ideological framing; Zullo called these men heroes, and I believed him.

Teens at War is typical of the series. The description from Zullo’s website starts out alright: “Ever since the American Revolution, teenagers have risked their lives to serve in every war this country has fought.” A paragraph later, though, some out-of-pocket framing emerges: “In warfare, most underage soldiers showed their zealous spirit and raw courage, but few were properly prepared for the horrors they would experience.” We’ve now entered what seems to be a pro/con list for letting children serve in the military, although we’re never quite told whose judgment is being applied. The next sentence describes these minors, as young as 12, as “warriors.” Scholastic’s publisher’s description labels their military service “patriotic” and their stories “inspiring.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I see 10 True Tales as pretty gross. But, ideological window-dressing aside, these books are, in an objective sense, accurate. The series boasts that it is “based on true events ripped from the headlines or taken from little-known moments in history.” And that’s the problem: these books are sold to kids as “history” because the events are “true,” which tacitly implies that their rhetorical framing as heroic, inspiring narratives is also somehow “true.” Zullo admits to dramatizing events and recreating dialogue (which sometimes includes racial slurs, “for realism”). But there is still a false consonance between factual veracity and narrative validity in how these “true” tales are presented. And while a kids’ author like Zullo might seem an unlikely point of entry for a screed on the blurry line between historical fact and truth, this is exactly where much of the trouble lies: to make the past accessible, works of popular history conceal the process by which masses of historical documents are converted into ideologically active stories. To understand this process, it’s important to ask: apart from telling a “true” story, what does history do, and what is it for?

***

The American historian Hayden White spent 10 years researching and writing in order to offer a possible answer in his 1973 book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book studies a number of influential historians and philosophers, tracing the development of the discipline and the idea of “history” across the 1800s, but its analytical framework is fundamentally atemporal. It is a study of history as a rhetorical practice of writing and storytelling, or a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse,” in White’s own heady phrasing.

White is concerned with how history, as a linguistic construction of the past, is created through a specific mode of thinking which he terms the “historical consciousness,” or how past events are strung together to create a recognizable historical narrative. Historical consciousness manifests in the formal aspects of a historian’s narrative, evident in their choice of “emplotment” (what sort of dramatic plot arc does a historical narrative take? Comedy? Tragedy?) as well as their historical “grammar” and “syntax”—in other words, the process by which historians fit the past into a coherent story. This formal question of how histories are structured is fundamental to what White calls the “problem of historical knowledge:” what does it mean to think about something “historically,” and what is the point of doing so?

It’s here that we arrive at the distinction between a “fact” and a “truth”—or, to be snarky about it, the difference between something being “wrong” and “dumb.” Metahistory argues that a historical narrative always implies an ideological perspective by virtue of the way it is told. Any history will have characters, and some of those characters tend to emerge as heroes or villains, at least relatively. Certain historical entities are identified as problems or obstacles, and consequently more or less ideal. To take Zullo as an example: American child soldiers are heroes, and anyone trying to kill them is a villain. Other countries are the problem, and the American military is the solution. A historical story is told through facts, but its “truth” occurs at what White terms the “precritical” level. The historian must decide what kind of story to tell before telling it. 

The historical discipline differentiates between “history” and “historiography.” Catch-all definitions are unwieldy, but broadly, “history” is the study of the past, and “historiography” is the study of the historical discipline and its methodology. A “history” is one story, built on specific historical evidence and most often presented as a linear narrative. It attempts to explain why a particular thing happened in the way that it did. Historiography encompasses many histories, and often explains why many things happened the way that they did. It is, as White held, a fundamentally existential pursuit: a particular historiographical viewpoint amounts to an argument about the way the world works. And it’s at this level that history might be “correct” but also “wrong.” Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

***

At my parents’ house, there is an entire shelf dedicated to housing a series of nonfiction books that my dad grew up reading in the ’50s called Landmark Books. Published between 1950 and 1970, the series employed well-known contemporary authors, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners and not one of them an academic, to cover a wide range of American historical topics, from Paul Revere and the Minute Men to The F.B.I to a Shirley Jackson-penned telling of The Witchcraft of Salem Village. They’re packaged as factual histories, and their perspectives are exemplary of post-WWII American historiography, with all of its assumptions about American exceptionalism and a triumphalist notion of historical progress. 

The 54th book in the series is Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor, written by journalist Hodding Carter. According to one biography subtitled “The Reconstruction of a Racist” (note the implied redemption plot arc), Carter had been a white supremacist until graduating college, after which he fought for an end to Jim Crow. Authorial intrigue notwithstanding, the book is essentially a hagiography of Lee, chronicling his life from birth to death as a “great American who was guided by something he believed to be the most precious quality in life… a sense of honor.” The book is researched: it quotes primary-source letters at length and offers plenty of historical tidbits about Lee’s upbringing. It gets the “facts” right. The problem is that those facts are used to turn Lee into a hero. What is emphasized is not his role as the Confederacy’s military leader, but the admirable “sense of duty and honor” to his home state of Virginia which compelled him to side with the South. “Honor”—a term never explicitly defined—is used to separate Lee’s assumed motivations from his actions, trumpeting the former and downplaying the latter. The book’s penultimate page claims that “gallantry is our common inheritance, whether our ancestors lost with Lee or won with Grant.” As with Zullo, the facts are right, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are ideologically blinkered—relative and debatable.

Hayden White offers a solution to this nebulous problem of historical objectivity (or lack thereof) in accepting that historical meaning is ultimately subjective: it is formed, rather than found. History is not and can never be value-neutral. “The historian performs an essentially poetic act,” he writes, “in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it.” Before explaining what a history means, the historian has to construct that history. The past is only—is always—a product of the present.

This idea was (and perhaps remains) controversial, and critics of White who decry the relativism inherent in his position have raised the polemical “Nazi question:” if historical meaning is constructed, imposed rather than essential, then on what historical grounds is one to challenge fascist historiography or even outright Holocaust deniers? White offers several responses, my favorite being his dry observation that “The Nazis were anything but relativists.” But a more instructive answer is that history is ultimately a moral and aesthetic pursuit rather than a scientific one, so fascist history can and should be dismissed precisely because it’s fascist. White cautions against treating historical revisionists “as if they were engaged in the same enterprise… instead of treating them with the contempt and derision they deserve.”

Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

There is no objective position within history. It’s a destabilizing idea, one that denies history as a neutral proving ground for ideas. It’s impossible to argue, for example, that the collapse of the Soviet Union is proof that socialism is an unviable economic system, or, for that matter, that the Russian Revolution is proof that monarchy is an unviable political system. Those conclusions are theorized, not merely discovered. It may be true that, as The F.B.I. recounts, J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “speed” in high school, and that he chose to put his own life at risk in New Orleans in 1936 when he was among the FBI agents who arrested prolific criminal Alvin Karpi. But those isolated facts only become meaningful or usable as historical “evidence” once assimilated into a broader narrative about the FBI that has its own subjective viewpoint. The book’s ultimate historical stance that “every American, young or old, can be proud of his F.B.I.” is a value judgment, not an objective conclusion.

***

Like 10 True Tales, the Landmark Books series is for kids, and it’s particularly easy to dunk on with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight. But contemporary histories, even didactic ones, still position themselves as purely expository, containers for information sans angle or bias. My high school history textbook, the American Pageant, certainly did. Like many a history textbook, the AP purportedly offers an accurate history that walks a neutral line through historical debates—as if it were possible to find a stance that is not itself an implicit position. Its 16th edition starts with the “Founding of the New Nation,” and asks, “How did the colonists overcome the conflicts that divided them (assumption one), unite against Britain (assumption two), and declare themselves at great cost to be an ‘American’ people (assumption three—does this even mean anything)?” The answers: “reverence for individual liberty, self-government, religious tolerance, and economic opportunity.” 

Along with this self-congratulatory telling is an acknowledgment of the dark side of the early American mentality (or at least AP’s telling of it): “a willingness to subjugate outsiders,” including Indigenous Americans and enslaved people from Africa. A putative commitment to exploring both the good and bad of history obscures that the American Pageant has already made a litany of presuppositions about what constitutes “good,” “bad,” and “history.” At no point is the reader pushed to ask if there is another way to tell this story.

My high school history teachers were progressive. We read some Howard Zinn, and we were taught from the first day of our Civil Rights Movement unit that race is a construct intended to mitigate class conflict. Liberal critiques of American history were common, even encouraged. But dark historical facts never contradicted the fundamental historiographical truth of American progress, of the strength and wisdom of our institutions. Besides, even if they had wanted to (and I suspect they might have), my teachers couldn’t have strayed too far. The textbook was the textbook, and we had an AP exam to take at the end of the year. To my knowledge, only two teachers in the school assigned the Communist Manifesto while I attended. They both taught English.

I took AP United States History over two years, with a different focus each semester: social movements, war and conflict, economics, and finally a history of Revolution-era philosophy. This last focus, known as intellectual history, was particularly interesting to me at the time, and has since become my primary research interest. How did people think in the past? I learned about the enlightenment philosophers: Locke’s and Hobbes’s theories about people in the state of nature, Rousseau’s social contract, Montesquieu’s separation of powers. We were taught that these were the seminal ideas that led to the American state, and, implicitly, that these ideas were superlatively good, if not flawless.

The buck stopped there. With few exceptions, our history of ideas began and ended in the 18th century. You’d think no one had had a worthwhile thought about government since the ink dried on the Constitution. Our philosophical history was strangely ahistorical, because it had been intensely “prefigured,” to use White’s term, intended to contextualize (and legitimize) American institutions more than to stimulate curiosity beyond the clear predetermined takeaways. Ideological questions were presented as done deals. I got As in history, and I believed that the study of history was important, but I graduated high school unable to articulate exactly why. What was the point of asking questions when the answer was the same as it ever was?

***

In my first semester at Oberlin, I started a history major, and things began to click. Professors could explain clearly why the study of history was important, why it was an urgent task. I learned that the “past” is often not really past, because historical memory is a building block of identity. I learned to look for historiographical slant: If this is the story, then what is its lesson? Hayden White is sometimes taught in Historical Methods, the major’s required methodology course. I finally figured out that the point of history isn’t to be “objective” or unbiased. Historical narratives imply a historical viewpoint, which implies a historical subject, which in turn implies subjectivity. 

Reading Metahistory for my own research this year, I learned that academic, source-based history dates back less than two centuries. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote “history” millennia ago, but their historical consciousnesses were drastically different from those of modern historians. For much of its existence, history has been a branch of politics or rhetoric. In the 19th century, the first recognizably modern historians gave the discipline its own autonomy by claiming that it could be purely rational and objective, scientific in the way that the natural sciences were. From there, history has alternately been defended as “science” insofar as historians deny any distortion of the facts, and as “art” insofar as it doesn’t have a unified formal method. Whatever it may be, our conception of “history” is itself historical. There’s no escape.

Which is all well and good. White wrote that the purpose of history is to educate people of “the fact that their own present world had once existed in the minds of men as an unknown and frightening future, but how, as a consequence of specific human decisions, this future had been transformed into a present.” In understanding how we created the present, we become better equipped to create our ideal (defined subjectively, of course) future. Such an understanding of history doesn’t foreclose upon the importance of getting the facts right. History is not fiction; its claims to reveal something about the real world only work if they attend to things that actually happened in that real world. But the facts are the beginning, not the end, of what makes history “true.” Historical narratives exist because someone wants you to see the past in a particular way, and by extension to feel a particular way about the present—and facts, at the end of it all, have very little to do with that.  

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
Summer Reading

Quarantine Companions

by Sam Schuman | Summer Reading | Web Exclusive

In isolation, pets, like books, can be a saving grace—just ask Virginia Woolf.


Coronavirus hasn’t been easy on anybody, although its effects are, of course, asymmetrically felt. But Max doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic one bit. If anything, he’s got it better now than ever: the whole family (stuck) at home, occasionally desperate for a break from one another and always willing to confide in him, the only member of the household who will never judge or give an undesirable reply. This is because Max can’t speak—he’s our nine-year-old silver tiger tabby cat. Since my brother and I left home for college, he’s also become my parents’ de facto third child. 

In addition to his obvious verbal limitation, Max, with his namesake silver fur, inquisitive seafoam eyes, and ears like triangular radar dishes, has a physical one, too: he’s only got three legs, the result of an accident when he was just months old, before we adopted him. (I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to make “we got hungry” the go-to family retort when visitors ask about him.) He’s not bothered by his missing hind leg, as far as I can tell. To the contrary, he enjoys every creature comfort of the suburban housecat life: hopping onto beds, chairs, couches, tables, and laptops to nap as desired, mewling incessantly should he find something disagreeable with his Fancy Feast dinner, stalking small game in our yard.

My relationship with Max hasn’t changed at all since the pandemic. It’s the same routine, day in and day out, of daring escapes from our front door and bait-and-switch playfulness that ends, more often than not, with claws out and skin broken. While I watch the news with my parents, Max studiously cleans himself next to us, totally unaware of rising Covid death tolls, horrifying police violence, and increasingly common climate disasters. He’s something of an anchor in the house, a living thing who demands care and attention, and provides some of his own in return, without any concern for the mounting human exigencies that 2020 seems hell-bent on delivering.

***

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific Victorian poet who rivaled Tennyson for the title of U.K. Poet Laureate after Wordsworth’s death—far from a trivial figure in English letters. But, I should admit here, I had never heard of her until last month, when, finally having some downtime, I read Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Billed by my slim, black Penguin Classics edition as a “playful, witty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel,” the 100-pages-and-change novella is a fascinating cross-genre work. Woolf constructs an imaginative piece of nominal nonfiction narrated by Barrett Browning’s eponymous dog, Flush, out of the scant documentary evidence of his life found in the 19th-century writer’s corpus. Her poems and letters serve as literary clues, points of creative departure like, “A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way / Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear / Great eyes astonished mine,—a dropping ear / Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!” Flush was Woolf’s best-selling book to date when it was published in 1933, but it’s among her most neglected today.

I was initially more interested in Woolf’s presentation of the dog than in her treatment of its owner. The back cover seemed to encourage such a focus, proclaiming that the text “asks what it is to be a dog, and a human.” My myopic entry point led me far astray of most critical interpretations of Flush, which take the work as a feminist allegory, a modernist critique of London, or an exploration of class conflict. Instead, what gripped me, reading Flush in this moment, were the descriptions of the spaniel’s life with Ms. Barrett, a sickly woman who spends her days almost entirely confined to a posh room in her family home on London’s Wimpole Street, simulating a (highly privileged) sort of quarantine. While Ms. Barrett spends her days recumbent or hunched over writing, Flush sleeps at her feet. It’s a study in forced, if not reluctant, intimacy. 

***

Flush is a priceless gift to Ms. Barrett from her poor, maternalistic friend and fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Raised in a working-class cottage since birth, young Flush is accustomed to romping Pan-like through wild English fields, not to Ms. Barrett’s dimly lit, aristocratic chamber, with its large looking glass, multiple marble busts, and elaborate furniture. His initial response to the room, Woolf postulates, is that of “a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity.” But Flush is not a scholar; he is a spaniel, and a well-bred and sensitive one at that. He quickly develops a curious relationship with Ms. Barrett. Within moments of their meeting, Woolf tells us, “There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different!”

Trapped in her room, where she compares herself to a caged bird, Ms. Barrett writes frequently. “There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why?” Flush wonders. This misunderstanding, far from creating a gulf between the two recluses, leads to “a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness.” Without words to get in the way, they form a “peculiar intimacy” immune to any sort of misinterpretation, doublespeak, or half-truth. They can do nothing except understand each other perfectly.

As 1842 slips into 1843, then 1844, then 1845, writing and Flush, Flush and writing, remain Ms. Barrett’s personal world. There’s a certain unity achieved. A pet, after all, can’t talk back any more than a piece of stationary can. Can’t edit, can’t rebut, can’t compliment, can’t question, can’t crack a joke. But pets aren’t stationary. They can console and comfort and play and offer a physical warmth that pen and paper will never match. In that quiet, cloistered room on Wimpole Street, desk and dog become two sides of the same coin, fulfilling, respectively, all the needs that words can, and all those that they cannot.

***

Ms. Barrett’s poetry eventually attracts the attention of Robert Browning, another London poet, and the two strike up a written correspondence. Browning soon begins to call on Ms. Barrett in person, and her relationship with Flush is forever changed as she slowly comes out of her shell, supplementing their bond with a new kind of thrilling affection. But her dedication to Flush, and his to her, is apparent throughout the human courtship. When local petty criminals kidnap Flush, Ms. Barrett disobeys Mr. Browning and her family and takes an unprecedented risk by traveling to the thieves’ dilapidated house in rough-and-tumble Shoreditch to personally demand the dog’s safe return. Once Flush has at last arrived back at Wimpole Street, Woolf relates, he “read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin.” 

Ms. Barrett and Mr. Browning elope and move to Italy, where “just as Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made, so Flush too was making his discoveries and exploring his freedom.” Both woman and canine find new sources of excitement and fulfillment, and their relationship becomes “far less emotional now than in the old days; she no longer needed his red fur and his bright eyes to give her what her own experience lacked.” Flush, for his part, is now his own master. He “goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Woolf quotes from Mrs. Browning’s letters. Yet, through all this, we are assured, “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding.” When it comes time for Flush to die, he is reposed in a Florentine marketplace. Seized by some unspeakable, but perhaps entirely knowable, urge, he wakes with a start, makes a beeline for Mrs. Browning’s home, and dies in her arms. Woolf’s description of the mortal moment is matter-of-fact: “He had been alive; he was now dead.” But this near-monosyllabic narration isn’t detachment; it’s earned brevity in a relationship that was never verbal in the first place.

Such getaways, where separation may make the heart grow fonder, are out of the question at present. Like Ms. Barrett, we’re pretty much stuck in our rooms, hemmed in by distractions digital and print, and, if we’re lucky, a furry companion or two. Neither books nor pets care much for our personal affairs. Their indifference lends them stability. The world turns, but text on the page doesn’t rearrange itself. Crises unfold, but Max still hops around on his three legs, never seeming any the worse for wear as he begs each morning to be let outside to sunbathe on our front porch and terrorize any birds foolish enough to venture into our front yard. Yet neither relationship is entirely one-sided. Books yield new meanings as we read and reread them, finding ourselves “seen” in entirely new ways. And pets, living things that they are, often seem to know when we need them the most. 

This is, perhaps, their primary dissimilarity: books, for all of their interactivity, are static. The best ones almost always outlive their authors. The average housecat, on the other hand, lives no more than two decades. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is still read today. Flush, Woolf reports in an endnote, has been buried in the vaults of a 15th-century patrician house in Italy for over a century. Ephemerality makes all the difference. My copy of Flush, although it is mine, is ultimately a monolith. But Max and I, we’re in this together.

Sam Schuman is a fourth-year College student and Editor-in-Chief of Wilder Voice.

Categories
Parallax

The Second Sex: A Translation of “Le Deuxième Sexe” by Simone de Beauvoir

by Simone de Beauvoir | translated by Julia Peterson | Parallax | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Translator’s Note:

Why keep reading (and translating) The Second Sex?

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a massively significant early second-wave feminist book, turned 70 years old this year. As I have worked closely with this text over the last two years, I have become very aware of all the ways that this text shows its age, from its eager explorations of ideas that feminists have largely discarded or moved beyond to language that we would no longer use today. I am also a strong believer in reexamining the literary canon—just because something was once significant does not mean that it is still important for us to study it, and remaining married to the texts that we were taught or what our teachers were taught means that other, perhaps more worthy texts are left o the syllabus. at said, I think that The Second Sex remains a text that should be read, studied, and re-translated by contemporary and future feminists, largely because of the way I have come to believe that it is structured to require reader interaction.

Five years ago, I was introduced to The Second Sex in a French class that I was taking back in my home province of Quebec – it was my first exposure to feminism in an academic context, and I was enthralled. Since then, especially as I have immersed myself in this work from a translator’s perspective, my ideas on how this book should be read have evolved. First, I have learned that The Second Sex is so much more fun than I gave it credit for, five years ago. Back then, I was trying to read it as just another dry academic text, but that does not do justice to the joyful tumult of lavish literary prose that de Beauvoir wove through her academic arguments. She was not just curating information about feminism in an ordered list; I have found that her prose revels in the moment between proven fact and extrapolated conclusion. The life cycle of an ant becomes high tragedy, the history of pervasive societal myths become poetry, and the authors of sexist arguments become the targets of her laser-guided snark.

I have also come to believe that The Second Sex is not trying to definitively answer the question of ‘What is a woman?’ – if de Beauvoir had thought she had the answer, I don’t think she would have buried it in a 700-page text. Instead, I think that this book is a debate looking for a debate partner. In two volumes, de Beauvoir presents all the information she could find relating to women and essentially invites readers to go to town, to push back on her weaker claims and cut away the dross until only the most valuable arguments remain.

For me, this is why this book remains so worthy of study and translation, and I think will remain so for a very long time; because we are invited to bring our whole selves to this debate. I read and translate The Second Sex as a Jewish woman, a queer woman, a young woman, an Oberlin student, and all of these aspects of who I am are engaged in my interactions with this text. When it comes to the marriage between this text and its readers, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that this 70-year-old text can still be a valuable tool in helping us shape the feminism of the future.


J’ai longtemps hésité à écrire un livre sur la femme. Le sujet est irritant, surtout pour les femmes ; et il n’est pas neuf. La querelle du féminisme a fait couler assez d’encre, à présent elle est à peu près close : n’en parlons plus. On en parle encore cependant. Et il ne semble pas que les volumineuses sottises débitées pendant ce dernier siècle aient beaucoup éclairé le problème. D’ailleurs y a-t-il un problème ? Et quel est-il ? Y a-t-il même des femmes ? Certes la théorie de l’éternel féminin compte encore des adeptes ; ils chuchotent : « Même en Russie, elles restent bien femmes » ; mais d’autres gens bien informés – et les mêmes aussi quelque-fois – soupirent : « La femme se perd, la femme est perdue. » On ne sait plus bien s’il existe encore des femmes, s’il en existera toujours, s’il faut ou non le souhaiter, quelle place elles occupent en ce monde, quelle place elles devraient y occuper. « Où sont les femmes ? » demandait récemment un magazine intermittent. Mais d’abord : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ? « Tota mulier in utero : c’est une matrice », dit l’un. Cependant parlant de certaines femmes, les connaisseurs décrètent : « Ce ne sont pas des femmes » bien qu’elles aient un utérus comme les autres. Tout le monde s’accorde à reconnaître qu’il y a dans l’espèce humaine des femelles ; elles constituent aujourd’hui comme autrefois à peu près la moitié de l’humanité ; et pourtant on nous dit que « la féminité est en péril » ; on nous exhorte : « Soyez femmes, restez femmes, devenez femmes. » Tout être humain femelle n’est donc pas nécessairement une femme ; il lui faut participer de cette réalité mystérieuse et menacée qu’est la féminité. Celle-ci est-elle sécrétée par les ovaires ? ou fi gée au fond d’un ciel platonicien ? Suffi t-il d’un jupon à frou-frou pour la faire descendre sur terre ? Bien que certaines femmes s’efforcent avec zèle de l’incarner, le modèle n’en a jamais été déposé. On la décrit volontiers en termes vagues et miroitants qui semblent empruntés au vocabulaire des voyantes. Au temps de saint Thomas, elle apparaissait comme une essence aussi sûrement défi nie que la vertu dormitive du pavot. Mais le conceptualisme a perdu du terrain : les sciences biologiques et sociales ne croient plus en l’existence d’entités immuablement fixées qui définiraient des caractères donnés tels que ceux de la Femme, du Juif ou du Noir ; elles considèrent le caractère comme une réaction secondaire à une situation. S’il n’y a plus aujourd’hui de féminité, c’est qu’il n’y en a jamais eu. Cela signifie-t-il que le mot « femme » n’ait aucun contenu ? C’est ce qu’affirment vigoureusement les partisans de la philosophies des lumières, du rationalisme, du nominalisme : les femmes seraient seulement parmi les êtres humains ceux qu’on désigne arbitrairement par le mot « femme » ; en particulier les Américaines pensent volontiers que la femme en tant que telle n’a plus lieu ; si une attardée se prend encore pour une femme, ses amies lui conseillent de se faire psychanalyser afin de se délivrer de cette obsession. À propos d’un ouvrage, d’ailleurs fort agaçant, intitulé Modem Woman : a lost sex, Dorothy Parker a écrit : « Je ne peux être juste pour les livres qui traitent de la femme en tant que femme…Mon idée c’est que tous, aussi bien hommes que femmes, qui nous soyons, nous devons être considérés comme des êtres humains. » Mais le nominalisme est une doctrine un peu courte ; et les antiféministes ont beau jeu de montrer que les femmes ne sont pas des hommes. Assurément la femme est comme l’homme un être humain : mais une telle affi-rmation est abstraite ; le fait est que tout être humain concret est toujours singulièrement situé. Refuser les notions d’éternel féminin, d’âme noire, de caractère juif, ce n’est pas nier qu’il y ait aujourd’hui des Juifs, des Noirs, des femmes : cette négation ne représente pas pour les intéressés une libération, mais une fuite inauthentique.Il est clair qu’aucune femme ne peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer par-delà son sexe. Une femme écrivain connue a refusé voici quelques années de laisser paraître son portrait dans une série de photographies consacrées précisément aux femmes écrivains : elle voulait être rangée parmi les hommes ; mais pour obtenir ce privilège, elle utilisa l’influence de son mari. Les femmes qui affirment qu’elles sont des hommes n’en réclament pas moins des égards et des hommages masculins. Je me rappelle aussi cette jeune trotskiste debout sur une estrade au milieu d’un meeting houleux et qui s’apprêtait à faire le coup de poing malgré son évidente fragilité ; elle niait sa faiblesse féminine ; mais c’était par amour pour un militant dont elle se voulait l’égale. L’attitude de défi dans laquelle se crispent les Améri-caines prouve qu’elles sont hantées par le sentiment de leur féminité. Et en vérité il suffit de se promener les yeux ouverts pour constater que l’humanité se partage en deux catégories d’individus dont les vêtements, le visage, le corps, les sourires, la démarche, les intérêts, les occupations sont manifestement différents : peut-être ces différences sont-elles superficielles, peut-être sont-elles destinées à disparaître. Ce qui est certain c’est que pour l’instant elles existent avec une éclatante évidence. Si sa fonction de femelle ne suffit pas à définir la femme, si nous refusons aussi de l’expliquer par « l’éternel féminin » et si cependant nous admettons que, fût-ce à titre provisoire, il y a des femmes sur terre, nous avons donc à nous poser la question : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ?

L’énoncé même du problème me suggère aussitôt une première réponse. Il est significatif que je le pose. Un homme n’aurait pas idée d’écrire un livre sur la situation singulière qu’occupent dans l’humanité les mâles. Si je veux me définir je suis obligée d’abord de déclarer : « Je suis une femme » ; cette vérité constitue le fond sur lequel s’enlèvera toute autre affirmation. Un homme ne commence jamais par se poser comme un individu d’un certain sexe : qu’il soit homme, cela va de soi. C’est d’une manière formelle, sur les registres des mairies et dans les déclarations d’identité que les rubriques : masculin, féminin, apparaissent comme symétriques. Le rapport des deux sexes n’est pas celui de deux électricités, de deux pôles : l’homme représente à la fois le positif et le neutre au point qu’on dit en français « les hommes » pour désigner les êtres humains, le sens singulier du mot « vir » s’étant assimilé au sens général du mot « homo ». La femme apparaît comme le négatif si bien que toute détermination lui est imputée comme limitation, sans réciprocité. Je me suis agacée parfois au cours de discussions abstraites d’entendre des hommes me dire : « Vous pensez telle chose parce que vous êtes une femme » ; mais je savais que ma seule défense, c’était de répondre : « Je la pense parce qu’elle est vraie » éliminant par là ma subjectivité ; il n’était pas question de répliquer : « Et vous pensez le contraire parce que vous êtes un homme » ; car il est entendu que le fait d’être un homme n’est pas une singularité ; un homme est dans son droit en étant homme, c’est la femme qui est dans son tort. Pratiquement, de même que pour les anciens il y avait une verticale absolue par rapport à laquelle se définissait l’oblique, il y a un type humain absolu qui est le type masculin.

I have long hesitated to write a book about women. The subject is irritating, especially for women, and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of feminism and the discussion is nearly exhausted: let’s stop talking about it. Yet we continue to talk. It seems that the large amount of arrant nonsense produced during the last century has not shed much light on the problem. And—is there a problem? What is it? Are there even women? Certainly, the theory of the eternal feminine still has followers; they whisper, “Even in Russia, women are still women”; but other well-informed people—sometimes the same people—sigh that: “women are losing their way, women are lost.” We don’t know if any women still exist, if women will always exist, whether we should wish for their existence or not, what place they occupy in the world, or what place they ought to occupy. A periodical recently asked “Where are the women?” But first: what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero”: she is an incubator, one might say. However, when speaking about certain females, people decree that “they are not women,” though they have a uterus like the others. Everybody can agree that there exist females of the human species; today, like in the past, they constitute approximately half the human population; and still we are told that “femininity is in peril” and we are urged to “be women, stay women, become women.” Therefore, a female human is not necessarily a woman: she must participate in this mysterious and threatened reality that is femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Does it fall out of a platonic sky? Is a frilly skirt enough to conjure it up? Although some women work zealously to embody it, the model has never been precisely defined. We willingly describe womanhood in vague and shimmery terms that seem to have been borrowed from the language of prophecy. In the time of Saint Thomas, femininity appeared to be an essence as clearly defined as the soporific effects of the poppy. But conceptualism has been losing ground: biological and social sciences no longer believe that there exist immutably fixed traits that define the essential character of people such as women, Jews and Blacks; they consider character to be a secondary reaction to a situation. If there is no femininity today, it’s that there never was. Does this mean that the word “woman” is meaningless? This belief is strongly championed by the enlightenment philosophers, the rationalists, and the nominalists: that women are simply those humans to which we have arbitrarily applied the word “woman.” American women in particular think that ‘woman’ as such does not exist; their advice is to go get psychoanalyzed to rid yourself of this obsession. Concerning a particularly irritating book titled Modern Woman; a Lost Sex, Dorothy Parker wrote: “I cannot be just to books which treat of women as women… My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.” But nominalism as a doctrine is somewhat lacking, and anti-feminists have a challenge in proving that women are not men. Certainly, women are, like men, human beings; but this is an abstract statement. The fact is, every human being is always singularly situated. Refusing notions of the ‘eternal feminine,’ the ‘Black spirit,’ or the ‘Jewish character’ is certainly not denying that, in today’s world, there exist Jews, Blacks and women. Denying this fact does not represent a liberation for the concerned parties, but an inauthentic escape. Clearly, a woman can only pretend to be above her sex in bad faith. A few years ago now, a well-known female writer refused to allow her picture to appear in a series of photographs dedicated to female writers: she wanted to be shown among the men. But she used her husband’s influence to obtain this privilege. Women who claim to be men do not receive the same respect and praise as men. I also recall a young Trotskyist—she was standing on a platform in the middle of a boisterous meeting and was preparing to punch somebody despite her evident fragility: she overcame her feminine weakness; but this was for the love of an activist that she wanted to be equal to. The tensely confrontational attitude held by American women proves that they are haunted by the feeling of their femininity. Truly, one only needs to walk around with their eyes open to understand that humanity is split into two categories of individuals whose clothing, face, body, smiles, gait, interests and professions are obviously different: maybe these differences are superficial, maybe they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that, for the moment, there is undeniable evidence for their existence.

If the designation of ‘female’ is an insufficient definition of what woman is, and if we refuse to explain it by the “eternal feminine,” but if, despite this, we provisionally admit that there are women on earth, we must then ask ourselves: what is a woman? I find that this formulation of the problem suggests an initial response. It is significant that I must ask this question. A man would not have the idea to write a book about the particular position that males occupy among humankind. If I want to define myself, I must first declare “I am a woman.” This truth is the base upon which I can construct all other affirmations. A man never begins by positioning himself as an individual of a certain sex: it goes without saying that he is a man. It is only in formal matters, on marriage registers and other official documents, that masculine and feminine appear to be symmetrical. The relationship between the two sexes is not like it is between the two electricities, the two poles: man represents both the positive and the neutral, to the point that in French we say “man” to designate humankind, and the particular meaning of the Latin vir has been conflated with the general meaning of homo. Woman appear so completely as a negative that all of her unique characteristics are defined as limitations, without reciprocity. In abstract discussions, I have sometimes been aggravated when men tell me “you only think this because you are a woman;” but I knew that my only defense was to respond that “I think it because it is true,” eliminating my subjectivity. There was no question of replying “and you think the opposite because you are a man,” because it is understood that the fact of being a man is ordinary. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. Practically, just as the ancients had an absolute vertical by which they defined the diagonal, there is an absolute human type—the masculine.

Categories
Parallax

On-Going: A Translation of “Hingegend” by Anne Duden

by Anne Duden | translated by Elizabeth Yearsley | Parallax | Spring 2019

Image by Haley Johnson

Translator’s Note:

The German title for this poem is a made-up almost-word. “Hingegend:” a combination of hingehen (to go), hingegen (however), gegen (against), and gegend (area, region). Duden plays with her words; she experiments with nearly-neologisms, puns with compound nouns, and wrangles adjectives into nominalizations. Each stanza describes movement that it is somehow static, isolated to the landscape it both clutters and animates.

In “Hingegend,” Duden articulates a journey and renders the particular places she encounters, honoring the bucolic and the urban, the idyllic and the deadly. To communicate the mass of her words, which are often as condensed and inventive as the title, I need to make space for meanings to accumulate in other ways. I’ve done so with dashes, which break words apart where Duden pushes them together, but I’ve found that my attempts to open up these words do just as much to link them together. My hope is that these dashes, like Duden’s poem, probe the bridges and breaks between solid and liquid, earth-bound and flying, gone and ongoing.


Hundsrosen ins eigene Gebein gelegt
Heckenseide gezogen über die Augen
der Gezeitenfrucht Kind.
Entlang zwangseingewiesener Luftholer
wütet das Hirn in Schüben
und blutet zur Seite
stromtote Ableger
ins süße Faulen der Nebenarme
Robinien- und Pappelgestöber.
Rauhreife Blickabsteige
schneeiger Roggen
Hoch-, Hitzegesirr.
Hopfenschnellen am Regen
lächeln sich zu Boden.

Ichausweser
gasgesamt
um die Dome getrieben
der Worte verwiesen
tropfenweise verflüssigt
Ins Rührei geschwemmt.

Auf- und Unterwühlhalde Precinct
Ab-Ahnhof Hannover.
Hier sagten Bäume
zwei Sprechboten
gegen das Licht.

Unter Autorücken aus Zu- und Abschlagstoffen
Tiefgang durchs weggetretene Meer
beim unaufhörlichen Wachsen der Stockwerke
weiter absinkend.
Im Grunde
nötigt sich eine Musikzeile auf.
Und Baumkronen
zerfleddert in anderthalb Sätzen.

Um das: gehöhter Augenblick
Sturm und Verdurstung.
Wippgang ins Nervengebüsch
Laub abgekämpfter Eschen.

Schluchzen Sie nicht.
Lassen Sie hängen
das Abgesparte vom Mund.
Ich gehe jetzt
– alles Vorgefundene
hinter öffentlich verschlossenen Lippen –
in die Wahrnehmung
Hingegend um Nienburg
auf den von oben schon überfahrenen Landstrich
schnell abgeblickte Schönseite.
Denn zeitgleich und überall
auf ihren Tod getroffen
geschleudert
gefetzt
geklatscht.
Im Strecksprung Flug Watschelgang
dabei eigens noch gegengestachelt –gebuckelt
-geballt.

Großer Eisvogel nun
geschwänt hinter Lidern
Gestalt unter Tag
der Gebeinfreien
der Gehör- und Gehäuslosen.

Einem ausgeweinten König
abends ins Nest gelegt
Eulen-Plumeaus
darunter schwerhöriges Wimmern kleiner Organansammlungen.

Stellen Sie sich baldmöglichst ruhig.
Nun entschlafen Sie endlich.

Briar roses split a splinted foot
hedgerow silk pulled over eyes
of a tide-fruit child.
Beside forced to fish-breathe breath-getters
the brain rages in waves
and bleeds to the side
electric-dead offshoots
find the sweet rotting of estuaries
locust and cottonwood flurries.
Frost hostage
snowy rye sight
high-, heat-hum.
Hops spring at rain
smirk themselves to ground.

Ex-I-led
gas-gathered
caught near domes by tides
pulled away by words
liquid now by drops
egg-scramble wash-up.

Over-churned piled-under “precinct”
de-part de-scend Hannover.
Trees spoke here
two messengers
up against the light.

Under carbacks of add- and de-ductives
keel through the stepped away sea
with neverstopping floor-growing
sinking still.
At bottom
a line of music suggests its lack.
And tree crowns
turn ragged in few and a half phrases.

For this: heard-over moment
storm and thirst-death.
Teetering to headgerows
foliage of battle-weary ashes.

No sobbing, you.
Save up to let fall
the sectioned-off part from the mouth.
I’ll go now
– everything before-found
behind openly closed up lips –
in becoming aware
on going around Nienburg
from the above already run over stretch of land
quickly unlooked at attractions.
Since just now and everywhere
run up against their death
bedraggled
beaten
begone.
In duckfooted handspring flight
once again buckled- bent-
balled-against.

Giant icebird soon
swanned behind eyelids
shape beneath day
of the bonefree
of the hear- and house-less.

For a wept away king
evenings laid into its nest
osprey duvet
thereunder hardly-hearing thrums
tiny organ murmurations.

Set yourself still as soon as you can.
You outsleep yourself already.

Categories
Parallax

A Book About Happiness

by Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov | translated by Isak Saaf | Parallax | Spring 2018

Drawings by Julia Friend

Consisting of poems and dialogues.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE 

I found Prigov accidentally. A video clip with that appealing VHS quality, in which he recited an alliterative poem at a level of Russian beyond my own. I toyed with the idea of translating him, and in the process began to appreciate his printed poetry, his art exhibitions, his enormous character. He told absurd jokes about the atrocities of Russian and American history without ever growing sentimental or ideological, a pitfall even for the best of the Russian poets. He follows in the Russian tradition of absurdism, if the absurd can be called traditional. 

Although his topics are often political, it would be a disservice to call Prigov simply a dissident—his writing is usually too arcane to be clearly read as criticism. He brings the mysticism of Soviet hero worship to the fore and makes us confront it, bends it into something closer to real forms of power. His poetry is the pure absurdist admission that life is at best a place where we dance around meaningtly encounter it. The politics of his work will never touch my pulse as closely as they might for those who knew Soviet power, but his broad sense of the absurd and of the mystical or essential nature of power is still familiar. At least I hope it is. 

Prigov was born in 1940, just before the Great Patriotic War, and died in 2007. His work was not officially printed in the Soviet Union until 1986, although it was circulated abroad and in Samizdat. This particular cycle of poems dates to 1985, one of the 36,000 that he claimed to have written before the millenium. 

The translation came easily. His language is simple and straightforward. Many of the dialogues are riffs on famous phrases by the authors with whom he speaks, and I’ve done my best to render them into simple English that would slander neither Pushkin nor Prigov. Naturally, I hope that the chaos and mystery remains.


NOTICE:
This book was born from a love for Dialogues, Poems, and—naturally, naturally—for happiness.

There is no happiness in life
But there is peace and will
There is no will in life
But there are certain inevitabilities
Nothing in life is inevitable
Save severity and humility
There is no humility in life
Save to be thankful and to rejoice
And to be thankful
And to be thankful
And to rejoice, and to rejoice, rejoice 
                 And to be thankful, to be thankful, thankful 
                                 And to rejoice.


Dialogue #1

Dostoevsky: What is happiness? 
Prigov: What is happiness? 
Dostoevsky: To take a child! 
Prigov: To take a child! 
Dostoevsky: An infant! 
Prigov: An infant! 
Dostoevsky: To take a drop of his blood! 
Prigov: A drop of blood! 
Dostoevsky: A drop of blood! 
Prigov: A droplet! 
Dostoevsky: What is a drop of blood? 
Prigov: What’s a drop of blood? 
Dostoevsky: What are you saying—blood? 
Prigov: What am I saying—blood? 
Dostoevsky: Really—blood? 
Prigov: Blood! 
Dostoevsky: What does blood mean to you? 
Prigov: What does blood mean? 
Dostoevsky: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Prigov: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Dostoevsky: That’s all, then!


There’s some flowers, and a trough 
There’s a rocking chair. There’s something buried. 
Something 
Probably a corpse— 
This is how the porch looks. 


There’s some air, and a little water 
There’s a brother. There’s a sister. 
And there the earth is folded over. 
Probably something buried 
Probably a corpse 


There’s a field, and a forest 
There’s the edge of heaven 
There’s a village, let’s just say, forgettable 
And a little closer the earth 
Is bursting out 
Where the corpse, probably, tried to climb.


There is no truth in life 
But there is understanding and reason 
There is no reason in life 
But there is logic and sobriety 
There is no sobriety in life 
But there is choice 
There is no choice in life 
Save to forgive and to rejoice 
And to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice 
And rejoice, and rejoice 
And rejoice 
And to forgive 
And to rejoice 


In life, there is no love 
But there is tenderness and friendship 
There is no friendship in life 
But there is lust and desire 
There is no desire in life 
Save to dissipate and to rejoice 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And dissipate 
And to weep! To weep, to weep! 
And weep again! And weep and weep! 
And to rejoice and rejoice and rejoice! 
And to dissipate! 


There’s the kitchen, and the bathtub 
Which kitchen? And which bathtub? 
Just a kitchen. Just a bathtub 
And what smells so strange, underneath the bathtub? 
Probably a corpse, growing stale. 


There’s a man, right fucking there, and his fucking grandmother 
There’s power, right fucking there, and fucking glory 
That’s all there fucking is 
I don’t see a fucking thing 
Except— 
A corpse, probably


Dialogue #2

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: But Dostoevsky said…. 
Stalin: What did Dostoevsky say? 
Prigov: Something about an infant’s blood. 
Stalin: And what is Dostoevsky? 


Prigov: What is Dostoevsky? 
Stalin: He is ten letters! 
Prigov: Ten letters! 
Stalin: And what happens if we take one away? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Ostoevsky! 
Prigov: Ostoevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Oevsky! 
Prigov: Oevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Sky! 
Prigov: Sky! 
Stalin: And another two? 
Prigov: Another two! 
Stalin: Then he’s Y! 
Prigov: Y! 
Stalin: And another? 
Prigov: Another? 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: And no droplets of blood. 


There is no glory in life 
But there are connections and acquaintances 
There are no connections in life 
But there is thirst and freedom 
There is no freedom in life 
Except to choose purely 
How purely! 
Lord! 
How pure! How pure! 
And pure! And pure! 
Lord! How pure! 
How pure! 
Lord! How pure how pure! 
How pure it is to choose 


There is no childhood in life 
But there is school and youth 
There is no youth in life 
But there is maturity and age 
There is no age in life 
But there is eternity and bliss 
Eternal bliss! 
And eternity, eternity and eternity 
And bliss, and eternity 
Eternity, eternity! 
And bliss! 


A town—no larger than a shed 
Dim and quiet as the dead 
Pale and wretched 
By snow—tormented 
All in chaos 
As Buddha crouches 
Snow begins to lay 
Like a cat watching its prey 
Attentively 



Here is the stage, the curtainous layers 
Here is the play, and here are the players 
Aristocrats— 
How lovely! 
Here’s Uncle Vanya, Ranevskaya and Lopakhin 
And the stink of something 
A corpse, probably 
(Boris Godunov’s) 

There is Pushkin, there’s Dostoevsky 
There’s Gorky, and there’s Mayakovsky 
There is Caesar, and there’s Chapaev 
And there’s Prigov—what’s he digging for? 
A corpse 
probably 
ours. 
Collectively.


Dialogue #3

Pushkin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Well, what is there?
Pushkin: There is peace and will!
Prigov: What about the infant?
Pushkin: What infant?
Prigov: Just an infant!
Pushkin: He has his own will!
Prigov: And what about the drop of blood?
Pushkin: Whose blood?
Prigov: His blood!
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: And what about the dagger?
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: Then what am I to do?
Pushkin: You have your own will!
Prigov: And if I don’t want it?! I don’t, I don’t!
Pushkin: Then there is peace!
Prigov: And if I have no peace?!
Pushkin: Then that is your will!



The wind a silvered sheet
That twists and hides us
That flies along the street
And lands beside us
And bumps into me
And grows embarrassed
I look at her
And at the street
And life, like a Buddha
Of extraordinary age.

Image by Hannah Sandoz

Dialogue #4

Stalin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Pushkin already said that!
Stalin: And what else did Pushkin say?
Prigov: There, there is peace and will!
Stalin: Will?
Prigov: Will!
Stalin: And just what is this Pushkin?
Prigov: What?
Stalin: He is seven letters!
Prigov: Seven letters!
Stalin: And what if we take one away?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Ushkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Ushkin!
Stalin: And what if we take another?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Shkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Shkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Hkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Hkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Kin!
Prigov: Kin!
Stalin: And another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s In!
Prigov: In!
Stalin: Another!
Prigov: Another!
Stalin: He’s N!
Prigov: N! 
Stalin: And another letter?
Prigov: Another letter?
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: And no will!


There is no life in the world 
But there is something like it 
There’s nothing like that in the world 
But there is something else 
There is nothing else in the world 
But there is something like that 
Like that! 
Like that! 
O! 
Lord! Yes! 
Like that like that like that like that! 
God! 
Like that! 



There is ownership, and economics 
There is efficiency, and Reaganomics 
There is the Dollar, and the Ruble 
And there, buried, is some sort of corpse 
Ownerless 


Three is glorious valor, and revelry 
And a garden that is shining 
There are grinding tanks, there, cloak and dagger 
But something is buried here— 
A corpse, probably 



This city is Moscow—the capital 
This is London, and this—Sevastopol 
This is the South, and the North 
And this is a corpse 
Still unburied 


In Life—There is no death 
Only rape and murder! 
There is no murder in life 
But there is parting and oblivion 
There is no oblivion in life 
But there is metapsychosis and memory 
Memory! Memory! Me-ee-mmory! 
Mee-mmm-oory! Memmmmory! 
And murder, and memory-memory 
Memory! 
Eternal Me-eeee-mmmory! 
Of HIM! 
AMEN! 


There is shit, there is phlegm 
There is crap, there is vomit 
There is a thick nest of filth 
But there is still a sliver of light!— 


A corpse, probably 
Here is a coffin, and a corpse 
Here is corpse, and a coffin 
Well, then what’s at the funeral? 
They’re burying everything else. 


Dialogue #5

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: No happiness! 
Stalin: What is there, then? 
Prigov: What is there? 
Stalin: There is Stalin! 
Prigov: There is Stalin! 
Stalin: And what is Stalin? 
Prigov: What is he? 
Stalin: Stalin is our glory in battle! 
Prigov: Glory in battle! 
Stalin: Stalin is our fleeting youth! 
Prigov: Fleeting youth! 
Stalin: Going to war with a song, he is victorious! 
Prigov: Victorious! 
Stalin: The people are for Stalin! 
Prigov: For Stalin! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Three Great Principles! 
Prigov: Three Great Principles! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Five Great Thoughts! 
Prigov: Five Great Thoughts! 
Stalin: He is Six Great Letters! 
Prigov: And what if we take one away? 
Stalin: What then? 
Prigov: Then he’s Talin! 
Talin: Talin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Talin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Alin! 
Alin: Alin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Alin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Lin! 
Lin: Lin! 
Prigov: And another? 
Lin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s In! 
In: In! 
Prigov: And another? 
In: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s N! 
N: N! 
Prigov: And another! 


There is nothing in life 
And that which there isn’t is already gone 
There’s none in the world 
And that which there is is already gone 
But there is still a little bit left 
Which means there’s something 
There is a little still in life 
Where means there’s something 
Good Lord! There’s something there 
There is, there is, there is! It’s there! 
God! It’s there! It is! It is! 
Lord, there’s something there! There is! 
It’s there, Lord! 
Lord, it’s there! 


Effeminate like Laura’s song 
Like laurel leaves, like Northern Lights 
But rushing, like the stream along 
The bank, or like Aurora’s light 
Her rays descending in a throng 
That rake up winter with their hands 
You see—around here, winter’s long 
So, so long. A winter. 
And winter, winter is so long 
A long winter 
With such frost enfrosted 
And such a winter, and such frost 
A long and frosty winter. 
A landscape. 

Image by Francesca Ott

Dialogue #6

Prigov: What is happiness?
Prigov: And what is happiness?
Prigov: And what is unhappiness?
Prigov: What is unhappiness?
Prigov: And what is the distinction?
Prigov: It is that when there is happiness, there is no unhappiness.
Prigov: And what is the similarity?
Prigov: It is that when there is unhappiness, there is still happiness.
Prigov: And what else is there?
Prigov: There is all the rest!
Prigov: And how does all that resemble all this?
Prigov: Because it is all essentially happy or unhappy!
Prigov: And how does it differ?
Prigov: In that all the rest flows out of this! Prigov: And where does it flow to?
Prigov: To ME!
Prigov: How’s that?
Prigov: Here it comes now!

Categories
Cultural Miasma

After Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

by Wenna Chen | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Images by Brad Boboc

CONTENT WARNING: This piece involves content concerning sexual assault and suicide. please read with caution and care.


In high school, there was no merry celebration for the end of last period when the 5:00 PM bell rang and the teachers dropped their chalks. Mechanically stuffing books and question sets into their backpacks, two-thirds of my schoolmates proceeded to go to cram schools, where they paid private tutors to hammer knowledge into their brains. On top of the traditional high school curriculum, students in cram schools are expected to take intense courses that coach them to become nothing but test-taking machines. Cram schools blossomed first into a building, then two, then a whole block, and eventually settled down to an entire district. After ten hours of school, thousands of Taiwanese students crowded into the cramming districts, craving more force-fed knowledge that was somehow the golden ticket to attend top-notch universities.

Yi-Han Lin was one of the students whose backpack bore nothing but a dozen question set copies. She was the brightest among us all. With a perfect score on the college entrance exam, she was admitted to the best university in Taiwan for a Bachelor’s degree in pre-med. A few years later, her life took a detour when she decided to study Chinese literature. A few years after that, she stopped her life once and for all, leaving behind only an apologetic note. 

Lin’s life was once mine. We crossed the street in the same blue skirts that covered our knees and white uniforms that gave away the colors of our bras. We squeezed into buses with our packs of friends and giggled loudly, annoying the other passengers. And every night, we studied the mountains of books piled up in our rooms. But at some point, our lives started to stray. Lin took off before me and I’m left to wonder what went wrong. 

***

I can’t pull out what has been thrusted inside me.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Lin’s death would have been swallowed by the indifference of society had her beauty and rare talent failed to garner public admiration. With big brown eyes, round pink cheeks and a dimpled smile, she was the girl that made guys twist their necks when she walked by. Her life should have left its final footprint at a small column of the local newspaper and dissipated from public memory, but the only novel she managed to publish before the end changed everything. With Lin’s name on the cover, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise leaped to the top of the best-seller list in a heartbeat. Beneath its smooth pink cover lay a heartbreaking story tagged with Lin’s note: Based on a true story, for the girl who is still waiting for her angel and B. 

***

I don’t want people to read this book with the sentiment ‘Oh, thank god it’s not real.’ I don’t want them to leave their feelings behind and just move on with their lives.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Every drop of ink in the book was arranged with meticulous discretion. Lin wrote and tweaked until the exquisite metaphors, abandoning traditional syntax and grammatical governance, became something entirely her own. The story of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise centers around a girl named Fang Si-Qi whose life unraveled once the Li family moved into a lavish building in downtown Kaohsiung, the most flourishing city in southern Taiwan. When Guo-Hua Li, a renowned cram school teacher who specialized in Chinese literature, became thirteen-year-old Si-Qi’s new neighbor, he preyed on her innocence. Li was an experienced predator who knew how to exploit teenage girls under his care in the name of love. Si-Qi was thirteen the first time Li raped her, but she was eighteen the last time she woke up beside Li in a motel bed. During their last encounter, Li snapped a shot of Si-Qi’s nude body, which was the final tipping point for Si-Qi. In the end, she was left to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

Lin’s writing is compelling in the most repulsive way. She captivates her audience in the scenes of horror. She didn’t just want her audience to watch and register what happened, she wanted us to feel every scene and the pain that came with it. Because of that, this book was the most miserable reading experience in my life.

***

I am a malicious writer. My writing was never inspired by the noble hope to redeem anyone, not even to save myself. More than anything, I want every single one of you to feel Si-Qi’s pain, the pain that could destroy everyone on earth had they tasted a mere fraction of it.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Fiction or not, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise spoke for Lin when she gave up the chance to utter another word. The news of Lin’s suicide traveled at an unprecedented speed. Within a few hours, the whole of Taiwan woke up to talk about her death over breakfast. On the same day, Lin’s parents issued a statement through her publisher that sent the public over the edge: 

Dear friends,

Thank you for grieving with our loss. There are a few things we’d like to say:

The source of our daughter’s suffering, the nightmare that had haunted her for years, and the reason that her depression was never cured started with the sexual assault that took place in her life eight to nine years ago.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was the true and painful reflection of our daughter’s psyche after she was violated by a renowned cram school teacher.

What happened to the characters in the book—Si-Qi, Xiao-Qi, and Yi-Ting—all happened to our daughter. She structured the story that way to protect us and the family.

She wrote the book in hope of stopping similar tragedies from repeating themselves. We ask all parents, boys, girls, and men that know kindness, to protect the suffering Fang Si-Qis with tenderness and warmth.

Our daughter is gone. We would never be able to hear her call for Daddy and Mommy again, but we hope people can remember her by her smile.

Lastly, if you really feel sorry, please pass this message to everyone in Taiwan. Please buy this book and pass it to the parents and children that are in dire need of help and comfort. 

Bing-Huang Lin & Jia-Fang Lai, April 28, 2017 (Guerrilla Publishing)

Stunned by the revelation and poignant emotions in this message, thousands of Taiwanese people flocked to bookstores in search of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. The book skyrocketed up the best-seller list until there weren’t any available copies left for sale. While most of us awaited our copies, those who had dedicated an all-nighter to devour it were all asking the same questions: “Who did this to Yi-Han Lin?” “Who is Guo-Hua Li in real life?” “I know a Chinese literature cram school teacher whose taste in antique collection matches Li’s.” The society would do anything to satisfy its morbid curiosity. As snowballing rumors electrified the public sphere, people were pointing fingers at every suspicious figure that allegedly fit the description of Guo-Hua Li. This unusually polished letter had earned Lin’s parents country-wide empathy and indignation on top of an exuberant sales boost. If the message was furnished with the intent to manipulate public predilection or commercialize Lin’s death, the Lins had overachieved their goals. 

Most of us are vigilantly aware that public rumors, when stirred, become imbued with destructive force. But this case was a rare exception. Infected with profuse indignation, the online community shouldered the burden to answer justice’s calling; people began to tear Lin’s story apart, searching for traces of evidence that would point them to the perpetrator. In the frenzy, Kaohsiung city councilmen Yong-Da Xiao made a blatant statement that rocked the boat. 

In graduate school, Xiao had been an enthusiastic activist who pledged for political democracy in Taiwan along with the 6,000 students marching in the Wild Lily student movement. He then worked as a faculty member in multiple schools around the Kaohsiung area before founding the Kaohsiung Teachers Association and successfully running for three consecutive terms of councilmenship. Seated in the center of a conference room, Xiao combed through his manuscripts as the press settled down. The only poster on the wall behind him plainly read: “Expose faculty predators—there shall not be another Fang Si-Qi.” Swiftly extending his arm to test the microphone, Xiao began the announcement in unwavering composure and confidence: “According to my investigation, the offender is a Chinese literature teacher currently employed by Tong Xin cram school. His name is Kuo-Xing Chen.” In a split second, the room droning with frizzy movements withered into a graveyard of dead silence. Xiao refused to reveal the source of his investigation due to protective confidentiality, but he did not shy from further revealing himself. “I swear on my political career to expose this corrupted teacher. And I will not back off until he admits to what he has done.” 

Immediately, cram schools associated with the accused severed ties with Chen, cancelling all his classes and expelling him from employment. Kuo-Xing Chen’s daughter, an amateur model, was the next to pay the price while her father remained unresponsive to the accusation. Swarming to Tiffany Chen’s modeling fan page, people rained a gruesome attack on her and her family. Tiffany was forced to shut down the page full of hateful comments and lost her career to the gravity of collective speculation. 

At the heat of this rippling havoc, Readmoo, a virtual ebookstore, released a series of videos that documented their interview with Lin prior to her death. In a thin pink blouse that draped loosely over her chest, Lin rested her hands on her criss-crossed knees. She was alive. Light shimmered in her eyes as she unscrolled a note on her lap—this was the closest I could ever get to her. 

Chewing on every word carefully before spitting them out, Lin pieced her first sentence with meticulous precision: “After reading my book, many would conclude that this is a story about how a girl was exploited and raped. But that’s not entirely accurate. This story is about how a girl fell in love with her abuser.”

However, Lin had no intention to delve into sexual exploitation or rape. Instead, she gave the audience a literature review of her book. While the majority of her peers wandered into literature studies with anything but heartfelt passion, she enrolled because she was obsessed with it. “In high school, I was crazy about Eileen Chang’s work,” she said. “I could recite the whole set, from the very first word to the last, exactly as they are. My fixation scared me so much that I put Chang’s books away and started reading a bunch of translated literature to dilute her voice in my head.” 

After Lin was diagnosed with depression, she spent most of her time at home. During this time, she read hundreds of books that ranged from Tender Is The Night to A Personal Matter. At one point, her obsession for literature inadvertently blossomed into an admiration for writers. Enticed by their pen and talent, Lin trusted the masters behind those exquisite literary miracles to be equally astonishing in character. As a romantic, Lin fell the hardest when reality betrayed the trust she endowed in literary aesthetic and humanity. “For me, the most painful thing to watch in Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise is how easily Li, as a person who knew literature, exploited its aesthetic power and defied its legacy. He spoke love in so many ways, each of which mesmerizing, but he never meant any of them,” said Lin during the interview.

***

After his two-week silence in this scorching controversy, Chen finally launched a statement. In the belated letter, he painted a picture of himself that the public did not recognize. 

Dear friends, 

My name is Kuo-Xing Chen, not Kuo-Hua Li. I want to apologize to my family and everyone who has been following this incident. … With regard to Mr. and Mrs. Lin’s loss and grievance, I declined to come forward in the first place. However, as the situation grew out of control, I had to make my statement:

First of all, I did not go off the grid or attempt escape. I did not, as rumored, spend the time of my silence destroying evidence. I have been in Taipei the whole time, trying to cope with the gravity of public rumors. …

Second, I first met Ms. Lin when she became my student in February 2009. Our interaction was limited to class time. It wasn’t until August 2009—when she became a rising college freshman—that we engaged in a two-month relationship. During the affair, we were no longer faculty-student bound. Mr. and Mrs. Lin broke up the relationship upon notice. And my wife’s forgiveness marked the end of this affair. 

Third, as indicated in her interview, Ms. Lin had suffered from severe depression since the age of sixteen, the time in which we didn’t even know each other. …

Fourth, during her book primier conference, Ms. Lin clearly stated that she was not the main character in the book, disappointing everyone. […]

Chen expressed overt willingness to cooperate with the prosecution as this incident evolved from gossip to a criminal investigation. After pulling out communication records between involved parties and deciphering Lin’s encrypted online journal, the prosecution studied Lin’s past work while interrogating associated witnesses. Based off the evidence they managed to collect, the prosecution drew a conclusion that threw Taiwan into the height of inflammatory hysteria: Kuo-Xing Chen was acquitted from every charge. 

He walked free because the cram school record and witnesses indicated that Lin was over sixteen—the age to give legitimate consent—the first time they met. He walked free because two of Lin’s best friends testified that Lin had happily introduced Chen as her boyfriend on three separate occasions and had never mentioned being raped. He walked free because Lin had withdrawn from cram school in June and they had started texting the moment she ceased to be his student. He walked free because Lin was eighteen the first time they had sex on August 11, 2009. He walked free because hospital records showed that Lin had attempted her first suicide after her parents broke up. And even though Lin brought up “rape” and “being coerced” in her therapy session, he walked free because Lin also called this episode “a love affair.” The official verdict was a document that disassociated this case into a bundle of facts devoid of any emotion. At the end, it plainly recited, “Apart from the informer’s subjective speculation, there is a lack of conclusive evidence to establish that the accused was guilty of charge.” 

Chen did not walk away because the evidence wasn’t enough to prove him guilty in the realm of law: He walked free because he knew that modern justice left a grey area for those it failed to prove innocent. Rape is too narrowly defined by Taiwanese law; a man is labeled a rapist only if he violates a woman’s body against her will, but the authority couldn’t lay a finger on the man who played on a girl’s feelings just to get into her pants. Instead of leaving the case in an innocent man’s suit or a criminal’s jumper, Chen walked away as one who failed to qualify as either.

***

This case had haunted me for months since I shut Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise in a cold sweat. Twenty pages into the story and the pain within was already tearing me apart. Lin’s words, infiltrating the defensive rationale and suspicion I had as a reader, destroyed the barrier of mental energy I was willing to invest in reading someone else’s story. Her pen peeled off my skin and shoved me into the sea of intimate horror. I do not doubt that this story originated, at least in part, from her personal experience. 

The interviews with Lin’s best friend and publisher confirmed my dreadful intuition. On February 26th, 2016, Lin’s best friend, May, received the first draft of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. May recounted, “It was a 10,000-word manuscript. Yi-Han said she found her voice in writing and decided to start working on the piece she had been constructing for the past seven years.” Every week, Lin would send May another 10,000 words. May was Lin’s first audience and editor. “My reaction to the story was probably similar to the majority of others. It was an extremely uncomfortable reading experience and I was beyond disturbed by the pain packed within Yi-Han’s words. But at the same time, I felt strangely satisfied,” May continued. “As her friend, I was most worried about her mental state. She must have been suffering in conscious pain when she poured herself out on the paper. The way she wrote, she was self-inflicting at the same time.”

***

You couldn’t pull yourself to watch the nauseating details of rape in real life, but you are able to keep reading it in my book. Why? Because the pain satisfies the worst of your curiosity. It hurts, but at the same time, it brings you contentment. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you did it anyway.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Guerrilla Publishing was the least attractive among all the publishing companies that contacted Lin. They had a specific taste for topics excluded from the mainstream and were chronically understaffed. Even though many of their past publications received awards, Guerrilla Publishing remained a meaningless name to the majority of Taiwanese people. After the initial introduction to the manuscript, the head of Guerrilla Publishing, Pei-Yu Guo, declined to publish Lin’s book. “As a reader, I was impressed by her script. But as an editor and a publisher, I was afraid that I would cause Lin more harm when giving her feedback. My life experience was limited; I did not find it in myself the confidence to navigate what the characters in the book were experiencing.” 

An unofficial, part-time member of Guerrilla Publishing at that time, Nini Chang, was the only one who thought that it was a mistake to turn Lin down. Chang had never worked as an editor, but she had a strong feeling about Lin’s story. “I cried for two days when I looked up Yi-Han’s blog and read what’s on it. I was shocked to find out that her perspective on this world matched mine almost perfectly. It was as if she spoke for me. Our experience doesn’t necessarily overlap—I had never been that severely traumatized, nor had I actually been hospitalized—but I could take in the emotions in her story. And if I can, I want to protect her, or be her company in sailing through all this.”

At first, Lin was reluctant to review Chang’s offer from Guerrilla Publishing due to its trivial size and peculiar interest. But after several meetings, they agreed on a preliminary contract. Before entrusting her work to Guerrilla Publishing, Lin approached Chang with one lingering question. “If the press makes a fuss out of my work, would you, on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing, side with me?” The team promised to do so. A few months later, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was printed and finely wrapped for sale. 

Prior to launching the first edition of their hard work, Lin and her publishing team sat down to map out a story for any press complications, such as: what if the media draws a parallel between the story and Lin’s private life? In the interview with Lin’s editors, Guo recounted that Lin did not mind people knowing that the book derived from her personal experience. In fact, saying this out loud would be relieving for her. Lin’s only concern lay with her family. After a futile attempt to deter Lin from publishing Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise, Lin’s parents insisted against any confession to the press. Lin compromised. Guo said, “[Lin] was afraid that, once we went public about what happened to her, the consequent societal perception would cause her family more harm, so we had a consensus to tell everyone that the book was based on a friend’s experience.” People had their suspicions, but the story managed to contain public speculation until Lin’s suicide ignited the chaotic outbreak. 

Chang’s phone rang nonstop the morning Lin died. On the phone, Mr. Lin asked Chang to publish a statement on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing. “After an emergency meeting in the morning, we decided to issue an official statement through the company site. When Lin’s family, the people that she cared about the most, had asked for a voice, we wanted to help deliver a clear message and consolidate its credibility among rumors and aimless speculation,” Guo explained. But the weight of Lin’s life unsettled the team. In the days that followed, members of Guerrilla Publishing struggled in doubt as they interrogated themselves repeatedly: Have we kept our promise to side with her or did we do something wrong? 

They never knew the answers to those questions the same way I never found the answer to mine: How did things go so wrong so fast? 

***

Kuo-Xing Chen might not be made guilty by law, but public moral trial hung him relentlessly. He was reckless at best, cunningly corrupted at worst. And many, like me, found our moral compasses bent toward the abominable end of that spectrum. From the cell phone record, the prosecution uncovered that Chen had started texting Lin four days before she withdrew from cram school, four days before the legal boundary of faculty and student expired. Lin replied to his text two weeks later and they communicated extensively in the following months until the relationship halted. This suspicious timeline, coupled with other narratives entangled in the case, was more than enough to dismiss the convenient claim of coincidence. Instead of clumsy recklessness, Chen’s demeanor warranted questionable intention. 

***

The Kuo-Hua Li in my life is still alive and he won’t die anytime soon. I still walk on the street and see his name up on the billboards. There would always be another victim and the same thing keeps happening to those girls.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Chen might be the most conspicuous figure that drove Lin to take her own life, but he was not alone. When Lin’s parents talked about their daughter, the one thing they neglected to mention was how they may have contributed to this tragedy. Lin’s family had long indulged in the glorious privilege of being part of the high-class elite society: Mr. Lin was a doctor famous for his extraordinary accomplishments in medicine, and Lin was the beautiful daughter whose precocious talent made the front page before she graduated from high school. They were “the perfect family” in Taiwanese society, but wearing their pride came with great cost. According to Lin’s editors and close friend, Lin’s parents did not report the case when they discovered that an authoritative male was taking advantage of their daughter in a romantic relationship. Upon discovery, the Lins confronted the accused and his wife at a deluxe booth in Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel. After Lin’s parents went into a lopsided verbal rampage for an hour, Chen’s wife threatened to sue Lin for adultery and exclaimed, “If I go to court and make the whole thing public, Lin is the one who would to pay the ultimate price.” 

In the days that followed, Lin’s parents kept their silence. They did not report the case after Lin calmed down from the rush of love and realized that she had been exploited. They did not report the case when Lin wanted to seek justice for the assault. And they held Lin back when she demanded to tell her story. 

I think that the pressure to maintain the glowing façade of perfect family denied Lin’s need for a voice and forced her to bury her feelings internally. I think that Lin’s parents rejected any means to publicize the incident at the expense of their daughter’s well-being because they were petrified of marring the family name. I think that Lin’s parents attributed the encounter to Chen’s corrupted character as much as to Lin’s senselessness. I think that, while Lin’s parents knew that their daughter was the victim, they still couldn’t help but render what happened as a disgrace. I think that Lin knew how the value of honor, face and feminine chastity fostered the culture of victim-blaming. And I think that she knew exactly where she stood: a victim who needed to convince everyone that she was a victim.

***

While she was packing for college, Si-Qi opened her mouth and let her words flow out with artificial innocence, “I heard that a student in my school got together with one of the teachers.

Who is it?” Her mom asked. 

I don’t know.’

‘Never too young to be a slut.’

Si-Qi sank into silence. At that moment, she decided that she was going to stay silent for the rest of her life.”

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

A society that follows the conservative norm of gender roles and power dynamics inevitably buries victims of sexual assault. And the education that repels sex creates more victims. In elementary school, Taiwanese children began to realize that boys and girls have different reproductive organs. We were curious about the differences in our anatomy, but teachers at school were only willing to talk about numbers, Chinese characters, and English alphabets. In junior high school, we were introduced to the biological mechanism of reproduction through science courses, but that was far from enough to satisfy our blooming curiosity. We started to sneak readings and materials that would appall our parents and consulted them for sexual knowledge covertly. In high school, sex education could be summarized in one sentence: Do not have sex. The teacher would stand on the podium for the entire afternoon showing us cases of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and a million reasons not to trust any means of protection, but never once did they talk about sexual assault or the meaning of consent. Never once did anyone teach us how to protect ourselves. Taiwanese education is essentially sexphobic. It taught us reproduction, but we had to self-teach ourselves everything about sex. It painted sex with the color of embarrassment and hurdled many into the unbroken silence that emanated not subtlety, but negligence. This broken system produced 30,000 teenagers the year Lin graduated from high school, all of whom grew up to become potential victims or perpetrators. 

***

At the table, Si-Qi spoke in a way like she was putting butter on bread. “We seem to have everything in our family except sex education.

Her mom stared at her in dismay, “What sex education? Sex education is for people who need sex. Isn’t that how education works?

Si-Qi understood then, that her parents were forever absent in this story. They skipped class, yet they thought school hadn’t even started yet.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

Lin spent the last chapter of her life putting her story into Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. She hoped that her audience could read with her—which many of us did—but we didn’t necessarily take away the message intended for us. “I have no intention or hope for this book to change the world in any way. In fact, I don’t even want to connect with the big words or societal structures,” said Lin. Instead of tracing the broader stroke of a long-term system, Lin wanted us to remember every girl that shared Si-Qi’s story. “It scares me when the ‘smart, progressive, and politically correct’ people talk about structures. They are ambitious, but they are also conveniently oblivious. The structure is determined by thousands of cases, each one with a victim just like Si-Qi. Those are humans, not numbers.” 

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.