Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

Cults, existentialists, and Sci-fi… oh my!

A brief introduction to what we’ve been reading this summer:

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To be honest, this summer most of what I’ve been reading is fanfiction. I wasn’t super into fanfiction as a teen, but I’m so glad it exists because where else can I find an epic fantasy series about good versus evil and love and redemption, that also has queer characters? Or just a short romantic comedy book where the characters are casually queer? Or one where there is a whole friend group of queer people, as actually happens all the time IRL, and there aren’t any homophobic characters at all? Do you know where I can find these books? Are you writing one of these books? I will read it!! Tell me where it is!!! I’d love some books that reflect my reality, but possibly featuring dragons.

Books Marnie read:

The Girls by Emma Cline

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You’ve probably seen this book around your local bookstores recently. The Girls has gotten a lot of hype since it came out, and I’m always spotting it in New Releases and Bestsellers, but hey you guys! That does not mean this is a vapid fluff book. It is part thriller about a young girl, Evie, spending time with a local cult in the months leading up to a grisly murder, but it is also a story about a teen girl trying to explore her identity and sexuality, and find her own power. It feels out the insecurity of being a young woman in a way that feels very honest and not gimmicky. It explores an intense friendship between Evie and cult member Suzanne, and the line teen girl friendships can straddle between platonic love and romantic and sexual attraction. The Girls takes place in 1969 but still feels relevant.

The book is also interwoven with scenes of adult Evie meeting another teen girl and witnessing the same insecurity and need for approval that she experienced. These sections are much quieter, but I liked how they seem to subtly suggest that very little has changed for teen girls. You all should read this book so I have someone else to talk about it with!

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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This was my first book by Allende and I could not put it down. Island Beneath the Sea is a historical epic that spans the French and Haitian revolutions and the purchase of Louisiana by the United States through the eyes of a plantation owner, Toulouse Valmorain, Zarite, a woman who was born into slavery, and the cast of characters that come in and out of their lives. It is packed with magical realism and is alternately beautiful and brutal, joyful and tragic. It is a book about humanity; the limits of human resilience, and the cruelties that people are capable of.

As an American I feel like most of the stories about the history of slavery are very U.S. centric, so it was a very different perspective to read about how French citizens living in Haiti dealt with changing legislation regarding abolition and citizenship for black and mixed race individuals. I think Western Europe’s history with slavery and racism is often erased, and this book really laid bare some of the attitudes and cruelties inflicted by the French, as well as the culture divide between France and it’s colonies.

Xenogenesis Series by Octavia Butler

 

These books were weird, but as a scifi nerd I loved it. The series takes place after a nuclear war that has made Earth inhospitable for humans. However, humanity has been saved by the alien species, the Ooankali, who will save humanity — but for a price! The first book follows Lilith, a woman who has been chosen by the Ooankali to awaken other humans who have been saved, and help them adapt to coexisting with the alien species on and Earth that will no longer sustain machinery. The following two books follow the pursuits of her children, as they create a new species- part alien, part human. There is a lot of commentary about gender in these books, which is different in the Ooankali than it is in humans. However, most of the plots revolve around breeding and there is some homophobic text that dates these books. I was also a bit uncomfortable with some of the ableism that came across in the alien’s attempt to “improve humanity.” Despite all of that, I did enjoy the series, and especially how it made visceral the grotesqueness that the humans in the book feel in reaction to the utterly alien Ooankali. It felt like a good commentary on how people respond to difference.

Funny note: I got these from the library and the weird 80s covers were SO FUNNY and so infuriating.

Lilith is explicitly a woman of color, and yet the cover looks like some weird lead in to a pulp novel about white lesbians. Also there is just a vagina with a woman’s face coming out of a hill. What is the deal with this???

In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

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I had to take a break from Orange is the New Black back in June, but luckily I was able to fill that space with this lovely memoir by cast member Diane Guerrero!

In the Country We Love has the easy to read tone that you’ve come to expect from celebrity memoirs but DAMN is it honest. Guerrero is upfront and personal about the struggle she faced as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who were deported when she was just 14, leaving her to figure how to live without them in the United States. She discusses her struggles with depression and self harm, as well as the estrangement she felt living 4,000 miles away from her parents. She also talks about her relationships, as well as her love of performing. The book is targeted at a young adult audience, so the writing is not always the most complex, but it is compelling throughout, both a tell-all and a call to action. She describes meeting President Obama, and what compelled her to be honest about her parents immigration status, after hiding her situation all her life.

Diane grew up in Boston, so I enjoyed a few twinges of joy when she mentioned being in places that I am so familiar with, while also gaining a new perspective on the heartbrekaing realities that families face so close to my home.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

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My sweetie bought be the new Illustrated version of HPSS and we’ve been reading it aloud this summer. Somehow I didn’t notice how incredibly melancholy this book is throughout when I was a child?? And it’s even sadder with some of the beautiful illustrations drawn by Jim Kay (although of course Tumblr has converted me to black Hermione and mixed race Harry, so it’s not quite the dream).

What is sadder than child Harry Potter who has been neglected all his life being surprised when people actually like him? Or Harry seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised and not recognizing him because his abusive guardians never even showed him a picture of his parents. 

Come on JK. That’s just rude.

Hannah

If you’ve ever talked to me about my reading habits you probably know that I like to choose a “theme” each summer around which to plan my book list, or to choose an author and read his/her entire oeuvre. The summer after third grade I decided to read every piece of Holocaust-related historical fiction that I could get my hands on. The summer after eighth grade I decided to read up on the genocide in Sudan. The summer before I started college I discovered Virginia Woolf. The next summer was In Search of Lost Time… you get the point. My idea of a good summer is to basically find the most depressing and/or most long-winded novels possible, and to read them in my backyard with a cup of hot tea in the hot sun. Is there such a thing as literary masochism? I think I have that.

Books Hannah read (anyone who can guess the theme gets a prize):

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell

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What better way to celebrate a cheery summer day than to ponder being, nothingness, and the utter meaninglessness of human life? Answer: well, lots of ways. But this is the way I chose. For a subject that may seem frightening and inaccessible to many, Sarah Bakewell offers her readers effortless prose that are not only clear, concise, and down-to-earth, but also just plain thrilling! Alright, I know that most of you probably wouldn’t use the word “thrilling” to describe a twentieth-century philosophical movement that basically asks the question: what is the point of life? and answers: there is no point!, but let me tell you, it’s this leftist atheist lesbian’s idea of a good time. What happened in Paris in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, in the aftermath of one of humanity’s darkest moments, was an energetic intellectual exchange between public intellectuals that helped define modern notions of humanity, ethics, and civic responsibility. In a world where God with a capital G no longer seemed to promise peace, understanding, or a way out, the philosophers of the “existential café” sought to create a roadmap for living an ethical life. If this isn’t a good enough reason to read Bakewell’s book, then let me also just remind you that one of the leading figures in the existentialist movement was none other than SIMONE DE FREAKING BEAUVOIR, one of my personal heroes and the author of one of the most important feminist treatises ever written:

The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe) by Simone de Beauvoir

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Originally published in 1949, and translated into English in 1953, The Second Sex became a foundational text of the French second-wave. When Simone’s book hit the shelves, French women like herself were still getting used to the fact that they could finally vote. That’s right, France didn’t give women the right to vote until 1944 ! Considering the fact that first-wave feminism had focused much of its intellectual and activist energy on the fight for suffrage, the question now became: what next? Using the philosophical foundations of existentialist theory to build her argument, Simone de Beauvoir not only explored instances of gender inequality in contemporary French society, but conceived of a daring theory of human development: one in which humankind’s most shameful acts could be traced back to the oppression and exploitation of women. Using biology, psychology, human history, anthropology, and even autobiography as her tools of analysis, Simone made it clear that women were considered “the second sex” not because of biological destiny or God-ordained inferiority, but because of the intentional and systematic oppression of women carried out by men over the course of centuries (THE PATRIARCHY).

I’m still working my way through this mammoth text (in the original French), but I promise that this won’t be my last word on the subject.

P.S. If you’re planning on picking up a copy in English, make sure to get the most recent edition, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The original edition was translated, of course, by a man. And of course, he fucked it up. So just get the newest version, okay?

Mémoire de Fille by Annie Ernaux

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I feel like a little bit of an asshole adding this one to the list, because it has yet to be published in English translation. But rest assured, Annie Ernaux’s works have been translated in the past, and I have no doubt that her most recent novel will soon join the list. Mémoire de fille, like all of Ernaux’s novels, is a work of memoir. In order to express the subjective distance that Ernaux feels with her past, she writes about her younger self in the third person. In this case, she is describing her first sexual experience at the age of 18, during her first summer away from home (1958). What I love about Ernaux’s writing is that she chooses a life event, something that made an impact on her psyche, and instead of telling a chronological version of said event, she circles around it, until finally landing in a place that feels unresolved, but yet somehow complete. While admitting to the pitfalls of subjectivity and the fickleness of her own memory, Ernaux also does what few women authors of her time (and ours) were allowed to do: to see her life as valid subject matter for serious literary exploration. In the process, Ernaux reveals shocking truths about being a woman in her time – and ours. For a little teaser, here’s my own translation of the first paragraph:

“There are some people who are submerged in the reality of others, their manner of speaking, crossing their legs, lighting a cigarette. Enmeshed in the presence of others. One day, or maybe one night, they are swept away by the desire and the willpower of one particular Other. The person they thought they were vanishes. They dissolve, watching their reflection act, obey, carried away by the unknown current of things. They are always one step behind the will of the Other. He always has a head start. They will never catch up.”

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

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I’ve spent the last year of my life steeped in stories of the second-wave, and I’ll probably spend the next five years becoming even more steeped, which is exactly why the title of this book caught my attention. Isn’t there something so seductively radical about the bra-burning energy of the 1970s? Do you ever ask yourself: what happened to all of that energy? Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media, takes readers through the aftermath of the second-wave, revealing the ways that the children of our bra-burning foremothers carried the torch, let it burn out, and at times, doused it in the cool waters of capitalism. Though the first part of the book, dedicated mostly to media representations of feminism, has plenty to offer to pop-culture savvy readers, I found that Zeisler’s writing really took off about halfway through the book, when she starts exploring the complicated intersections of popular feminism and capitalism. The book is thought-provoking and entertaining, and particularly relevant as #feminism surges into the mainstream.

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brian

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So yeah, I pretty much decided to reread this book for two reasons: the badass cover, and the fact that it was August. I had found this novel on one of those lists of books to read before you die, purchased a tattered used copy (apparently it’s out of print), and read it at the age of fifteen or sixteen, much too young to have any idea what was going on. I’m glad I gave it a second chance, because O’Brian’s writing is stunning, and the portrait she paints of being an Irish woman in the 1960s is, well, devastating. I can best describe it like this: take The Great Gatsby, change the author to an Irish novelist writing in the 1960s, and change the main character to a young divorcé and mother named Ellen, and that is August is a Wicked Month. After her ex-husband takes their son to the countryside for a week of camping, Ellen decides to catch a plane to the South of France, where her only plans are to sleep with as many men as possible, and buy a nice white dress. I wish I could say that things turn out as planned, but then, it wouldn’t be the novel that it is. Just read it, okay?

And finally, because every good themed list needs a book that makes you ask the question: which one is not like the other?…

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

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I was back in Colorado for the week, and my parents and I were going camping. Somehow, Simone de Beauvoir and friends just didn’t seem quite right for the woods, so I decided to bring Ol’ Jack along. Jack and I go way back. I saw the original scroll of On the Road at the Denver Public Library back in 2007, ended up reading it during my sophomore year of high school, and continued picking away at his collected works throughout my teenage years. Fast forward to senior year of college, when my feminist conscience is really starting to rev up. I make a pact with myself that I will no longer purchase any book written by a straight white male author, and that I will try my best not to read any books by SWM, purchased or borrowed, if I can help it. I also decide that Jack Kerouac is on my long list of misogynistic assholes whose work does not deserve the attention it has received. Eventually I realized that this was a difficult way to approach life (and literature). I still stand by my book-buying pact, because I can easily borrow those books from the library and spend my money on authors whose voices I feel more urgently deserve to be supported by my dollars. But I recently had a change of heart where Kerouac is concerned.

This summer, the Centre Pompidou in Paris put on an absolutely stunning exhibit called “The Beat Generation.” Almost a decade after I originally saw it, I was faced once again with Kerouac’s famous scroll. There were video screens hanging above it, playing footage of Western landscapes seen from the windows of passing cars. Woodie Guthrie songs were playing on the speakers. I wept and wept and wept for the landscapes of my home. As I walked through the exhibit, I remembered how utterly entranced I had been when I first encountered the works of the Beat Generation. Their womanizing and appropriating of other cultural traditions was flagrant and is still completely upsetting. But/and they also created work that had a serious impact on American culture. Long story short, if you’ve never read Kerouac, and especially if you have any sentimental ties to the American West, you should give Dharma Bums a try. Kerouac is (mostly) celibate throughout the novel, so it’s a little easier to swallow than some of his other, less restrained literary escapades.

 

Reading is Sexy #3: Women

I read Women in one sitting.

I had been waiting months to read it.  My aunt passed the title my way sometime in October.  I had just moved to the city, and books were already piling up next to my bed, forming a kind of barrier against the window. I started therapy, and developed a new ritual: I would walk out of my therapist’s office (in tears, of course) and make my way to The Strand. I’d pick a book, smell it, read the first few sentences, caress its cover, decide it had to be mine.  I’d buy it, walk across the street to the coffee shop, sit with a cup of coffee, and begin reading.

I kept looking at Women, every time I went into the store.  It was so small, so bare.  I liked the way it didn’t try too hard to be anything, to grab my attention.  Beige cover, brown title, one word.  It reminded me of French bookstores, those lovely, perfect stacks filled with white and beige spines, consistent to the point of madness, differing only in name.

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When I saw it again, walking through the stacks last Saturday, I knew it was time.  I remembered reading the review, something about a woman falling in love with a woman for the first time, a lesbian coming-of-age story, or something like that.  Oh yes I better read that, I thought.

It’s Saturday night.  My parents have just left after their first time visiting me in the city.  Off they go with their suitcases and bags and photographs of the city.  Once they leave, the illusion of living in a family again (coffee handed to me when I wake up in the morning, how was your day? when I return from school, what should we watch? cramped in the queen bed at night falling asleep together like we always used to do) has left with them.  I am alone in my apartment and we have been walking all day and my feet hurt and it is so quiet here, how is it so quiet here? How could my apartment feel so different, and yet so familiar, as if the months I’ve lived here were my whole life and none of it.

I get annoyed at the sunlight, stubbornly sticking around longer than it has in months.  I make tea, because I’m trying this new thing where I give my body what it needs to teach it what it wants and then I learn that it can want what it needs and right now I really really want a cup of very hot jasmine tea.

I sit on my bed, propped up against the headboard, and I’m holding my tea, and it’s so quiet I wish I could scream just to test it, but that only makes me want to cry, so I grab the book and start reading.

“Girls are cruelest to themselves. — Anne Carson, The Glass Essay”

I am not sure whether to be annoyed or curious by this epigraph.  Any book that begins with “girls are” or “women are” is immediately dubious, in my opinion.

I choose to be curious.

The first few pages sweep me away.  They are beautifully written, tangling past present and future around a central figure, the narrator’s lover, a “her” that goes, at first, unnamed.  It is immediately clear that the narrator will speak of love, try to untangle the meaning of the words tattooed on her lover’s back: “Love, the poet said, is a woman’s whole existence.”

A Virginia Woolf quotation on the first page: this looks promising.

“I am trying to decide what you need to know about Finn before we start,” the narrator explains.  “I don’t know if I will be able to get you to see her the way I saw her.  I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing the book in the way I hope you will.”

I should have known, after reading this passage, that I wouldn’t be able to put the book down.  I had to know how the narrator “saw” Finn, what made them fall in love, why she’s talking about their love in the past tense, what went wrong.

“Isn’t it sad to talk about ex-lovers in the past tense,” she says on the next page, “as though they are dead?”

It doesn’t take long before I’m crying.  Page 15, to be exact.  I suppose every person who’s been in love has that list of things that set them off, make them ache.

On page 15, the narrator sleeps over at Finn’s apartment for the first time.  Finn offers her pants to sleep in, they get into bed together, Finn holds her, they can’t fall asleep, they tell each other stories.

I’m aching.

(Dyke Aching was the original title of the book.  Seems fitting.)

It goes on like this, and they fall in love. Or at least, that’s what the narrator calls it.  Love as in: a woman’s whole existence.

The narrator becomes obsessed, unable to hold back even though she knows that Finn is in a relationship with a long-time girlfriend. After sleeping with Finn for several weeks, the narrator begins to wonder if she herself is queer, though she never thought she was.  

I wanted so badly for this book to be revelatory, for the feeling of those first few pages to last. I was so hungry for an honest, tender portrayal of a woman’s first queer relationship, and the heartbreak that follows.

But by the end, I was disappointed.  I got the feeling that the narrator wanted me to be on her side, hating Finn for for breaking her heart.  But I wasn’t on her side. In fact, if anything, I was on Finn’s.

Here’s why:

Reading this book was kind of like falling for a straight girl: she is beautiful and charming at first, but in the end you have to accept that she just isn’t playing for your team.

As I got further and further into the meat of the novel, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the narrator’s depiction of queer women.  Finn is your stereotypical butch character: always wearing men’s clothes, always the one doing the fucking, emotionally unavailable, attracted to “girly” women.  The narrator constantly makes comments about how much more “dramatic” her life has become since dating a woman, an observation that Finn affirms, saying that’s just how women are.

And then there’s the endless pathologizing of the narrator’s own sexuality.  She’s a substance abuser, and Finn is like a drug to her.  She misses her mother, and being with a woman fills that roll… On and on and on.

And then there’s the passage where the narrator, fed up with Finn, decides to brave a dating website.  Her description of the women she goes on dates with would be funny if it weren’t so offensive: the first is a “bike dyke,” the second a U-Hauler, another a vegan.  This was supposed to be funny.  It wasn’t.

And then there’s the fact that being in a relationship with Finn makes the narrator literally lose her mind (episodes of mania, drug abuse, depression).

Finn is left heartbroken and depressed, ruined by her relationship with the narrator.  “I can’t be in a relationship with anyone,” she says, if you have to grieve something, grieve that.”  

It goes on like this, depressing trope after depressing trope, until it finally comes to an end.  

I close the book.  

I’m full of disappointment, and frustration, and judgement.  I wanted you to be everything!  I feel like screaming at the book.  I wanted you to be something else!

The next morning, I sit down to write this post.  I think to myself: yes, here it is, my chance to have revenge.

I start writing.  I pick up the book from time to time, flipping through to remind myself what it was that made me so angry.  I find myself rereading the first few pages.  I find myself unable to stop.  What a beautiful sentence, I think to myself, what a great moment.

And then I realize: this is exactly what it feels like.  To fall in love with someone like Finn.  Looking for a certain reflection of yourself in the other person.  Looking to be affirmed, understood.  Seeing only the beautiful things at first, ignoring the flaws, until they grow in size and soon they are everything, and you are left wondering what exactly it was that you saw in that person in the first place, what it exactly it was that made you think you loved her.

So I guess, in some ways, this book accomplished exactly what it set out to do.

I fell for Women inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, and it broke my heart.

Reading is Sexy #2: Eileen Myles

I walk into the room, and it feels like home.  Almost all the seats are filled by women, and the majority of those women are queer.  At last, I think.  My people.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  So many beautiful ladies, so many sexy undercuts, so many sassy tank tops and mysterious tattoos.  I have never felt so… single, or should I so, so ready to become un-singled by any one of these gorgeous people.

It’s funny that this event just so happens to be taking place in the Law School, in a sterile auditorium with imposing golden armchairs placed expectantly on the stage, next to a tall podium proudly bearing the insignia of the institution.  The last time I was here, the space seemed to fit the occasion: an event dedicated to Christiane Taubira, an important French politician (and might I add, a total BAMF).  But it seems odd that the person of the honor on this particular occasion, the person we were so anxiously awaiting, was none other than Eileen Myles, poet, novelist and #1 goddess of the lesbian literary scene.  Not somebody I would expect to see in the auditorium of a law school.

“It’s a big room,” says Eileen, after messing with the microphone forLivingTwice hc c.JPG a few minutes, arranging her papers and books next to a can of Diet Coke, placed awkwardly on the podium.  “It’s a big room, but it could be a little fuller.”

We all laugh.  Almost immediately, she makes us feel like we’re part of her club.

She’s softer than I expected, wearing a yellow sweater and cuffed jeans, with her salt and pepper hair falling gently in an arc around her face.  It’s a stark contrast to the cover of her latest book: cropped hair, plaid shirt, legs defiantly open, face serious and uncompromising.

“Diet coke sounds the same as beer,” she says, cracking open the can.  We laugh again, as if to say “Oh, Eileen.”

She fiddles with her papers, opens her book, and begins.

Everything’s equal now. Blue leash blue bike

blue socks covering my ankles today

what about my friend: “I never wear socks”

for a week or two she lived in the streets &

it was such an illumination…

She makes fun of us for not clapping after the first poem, then makes fun of us when we do.  She stops herself in the middle of poems, offers anecdotes, picks up where she left off. She shakes her left hand with the rhythm as she reads, as though she’s directing a choir.  Her Boston accent gets thicker as she reads, contorting her vowels, manifesting in the thrust of her shoulders. You never know when the end of a poem will come.  When it does come, you wait for a few seconds, unsure if she’s just pausing.  She’s not pausing.  It’s over.  But there’s no pomp and circumstance, no cadence.  Just her, taking a sip of her Diet Coke, and pressing on.

I first heard about Eileen Myles back in September.  I had just arrived in New York, and Chelsea Girls had just come out in a new edition.  The book is almost as old as I am – the writer, much older.  Somehow, the review ended up in my inbox.  “The discovery of drugs, girls, poetry, poverty and George Plimpton’s book parties in Manhattan”— seemed like something I might be interested in.

Life happened, and I soon forgot about the book.  But the book didn’t want to be forgotten.  Every time I walked into The Strand (i.e., far too often), I saw it stacked neatly on the display table, Eileen’s unforgettable eyes staring me down from across the room.  Alright, I get it, I conceded, and by Du34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az1jyGM+mB65M9iSYJGxO3RSWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczu.pngecember, I finally had a copy of my own.

I really had no damn business there, the book begins. And it’s true, she didn’t.  Raised in a working class family to an alcoholic father and less-than-ideal mother, Eileen Myles’ rise to literary fame was no walk in the park.

Her sentences seemed to me, at first, almost accidental—the punctuation and grammar slippery at best, reminiscent of Kerouac, but less pretentious.  The words just… happen, or so it seems.  

It wasn’t until the fourth chapter, “Light Warrior,” that I realized the narrator wasn’t so hapless as she seemed:

I see my existence as similar to that of a sundial’s when I simply stand, and slowly the notion of movement is suggesting itself to my consciousness and action is also appropriate in the realm of the saint, the character who begins her life in the window of a church, in the religious air of her own imagination until history lines up with her nature, and the path becomes clear…. I have waited all my life for permission.  I feel it growing in my breast.  A war is storming and it is behind me and I am moving my forces into light.

Eileen is not your typical writer… not your typical anything really.  Or, at least, that’s how she likes to position herself.  The consummate outsider, who spends her whole life trying to get in.  “If there is something I will always carry in my heart it is this earnest unwillingness to be part of the bunch, the whole horrible let’s do it generation to which I belonged,” she opines in the penultimate chapter of Chelsea Girls.  

But this is not the whole truth.  

Chelsea Girls is the portrait of a woman, yes. A woman who is at once reckless and ambitious, poetic and sordid, endearing and insufferable.  But it is also the portrait of a generation, a generation that Eileen Myles is—however unwittingly—a part of.  Over the course of the book, she gets strung out at Woodstock, high in the East Village, and drunk in the presence of the era’s most iconic artists, poets, writers and celebrities.  In the years that follow, she becomes, in spite of herself, the symbol of a generation.  

It is this tension, this ambivalence that gives Eileen’s writing a sense of purpose.

Oh yeah, and did I mention she’s a lesbian?

That’s part of her charm.  Not so much the fact that she’s a lesbian as the “Oh yeah” mentality she attaches to it.

Eileen Myle’s approach to her sexuality is a bit like her approach to prose: it happens as if by accident.

I’ve learned so much.  Women per se.  Men per se.  Everything feels equal.  Trust per se.  You walk away thinking what a great man what a great woman.  How really nice they are.  In or by itself; intrinsically.  No such thing.  You make a hole in the weave if you expect anything to be something through and through.  There.  I’ve gotten to explain it.  You look at people.  They look at you.  Sure.  It’s like have you been a catholic.  Someone wants you to be a machine or else they think its just a passing phase.  Lesbian per se.  For their benefit I should be a mannequin—no, I never think of fucking men—they’re never cute I think they smell, etc.  Then you don’t talk to them and it gets worse like nobody’s real.  I mean I am a dyke per se but unless I squelch all my ambiguities—be like a guy who won’t admit another guy is cute or he’d be a faggot—Oh, no.  Well I don’t care.  I just intend to carry on.  I’m not going to worry about my persuasions or everyone’s intentions—I know just how real I am.  Honestly.  Money in the bank.

It wasn’t until I saw Eileen Myles speak in person that I realized why her seemingly hapless prose packs such a wallop.  She looks at people.  They look at her.  And you realize that none of us are anything through and through, that all we can do is carry on.

In my last Reading is Sexy post, I talked about my lifelong struggle to trust my own voice: the feeling, in sum, that I have “waited all my life for permission.”

I wish I had made my way to the microphone at the end of the night.  I wish I had stood up, in that sea of beautiful queer faces, and trusted my voice.  Because what I wanted to ask Eileen Myles, from the minute she walked on the stage, was: when did you stop waiting?   When did you give yourself permission, and how?

But the thing is, I think I already knew the answer.

What I’ve learned from Eileen Myles, more than anything, is that the most important thing of all is to know just how real you are. And that, as Eileen so aptly concludes, is money in the bank.

 

Road Warrior

What happens when you 

contain the flame?

I stuck my head out

the window & waved 

at the stars.

Wait for me, I’m coming

I’m coming home. 

 

20 Books for Your Twenties (and onward!)

After royally screwing up with their list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” and getting called out on it by the lovely Rebecca Solnit, Esquire magazine swallowed their man pride and admitted: “We Messed Up.”  To expiate their sins, Esquire chose ten lady literati to craft a new list.  In honor of this exciting new development, we decided to chime in with our own top picks for the most awesome books we’ve ever read.  We would never be so presumptuous as to say you should read them, but suffice it to say that they come highly recommended.

Hannah’s List:

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    • I would probably categorize this book as “the most well-written novel in the English language,” because Virginia’s sentences are devastatingly beautiful.  This is the first novel I ever read by her, and it is still my favorite.  “It was very, very dangerous,” Clarissa Dalloway tells us, “to live for even one day.”  I couldn’t agree more, and this novel will teach you why.  Also, shout out to Mrs. D for containing my favorite first and last lines of any novel, ever.  (Hint: the last lines of Mrs. D and The Prices of Salt are suspiciously similar… something to look into if you’re a nerd like me).  Also here’s a fun fact for today: Virginia was born Adeline Virginia Woolf, and I personally think Adeline would make a badass baby name.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
    • So most people would say that this novel contains the best first line of any novel, ever.  It’s pretty good, but still not my favorite.  Sorry Tolstoy.  Anyways, if you’re going to read one book by a DWEM (look it up) in 2016, you should make it this one.  I know it’s long, but that’s part of the reason why I love it so much.  The world that Tolstoy creates gets under your skin and becomes a part of your everyday life in a way that few novels do, or can.  His character development is exemplary, his plot juicy, and his depiction of human love… breathtaking.  I recommend the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  And believe me, reading a good translation makes a big difference!
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
    • I almost put Swann’s Way, the first of Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece of autofiction, because I figure most people won’t commit to the whole 3000+ pages of a dead French man’s existential rants.  Swann’s Way is beautiful, and contains my favorite passage in all of literature (the madeleine), but the true beauty of Proust’s masterpiece is its length.  Reading it feels like living a long, complicated life.  Oftentimes, this means extreme boredom, frustration, and buckets of ennui.  But let me tell you, it is more than worth it by the time you reach the end.  I hear that Lydia Davis’s translation of the first volume is stellar, but C.K. Montcrieff’s 1920s translation is a classic, and has its own kind of flawed charm.  My recommendation?  Read 10 pages (or even 5) pages a day, every day, for as long as it takes you to finish.  The big secret nobody is telling you?  Proust was queer A.F., and the novel is littered with queer characters.  You’ll even get some steamy BDSM passages about halfway through.  Dead French man not seeming quite so boring to you anymore?  
  • The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
    • Suffice it to say that this book has saved my life on more than one occasion.  Adrienne’s words are as necessary to me as water, as ubiquitous as air.  Drink it in, breathe deeply… and read.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    • Childhood is a notoriously difficult life stage to capture in fiction.  There’s the obvious limitations of a child’s awareness, her lack of vocabulary for what she is feeling, the smallness of her world.  Somehow, Harper Lee manages to weave these challenges into her novel, crafting a narrative that is at once limited and universal.  I luxuriate in the slowness of the first half of the novel, its willingness to face the banalities of Scout’s everyday life in a small town.  And then there’s the rest of the novel, the richness and complexity of Scout’s prise de conscience amid the race tensions and violence of her time.  A powerful novel, with lasting impacts.
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
    • A few months ago, I walked into Fiction Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado.  Their mission is to brew tasty beers with literary themes.  Sounds like my kind of place, right?  So I start chatting up the brewery-man-beer-maker-guy (his official title) and I say that I have a good idea for a beer.  A summer shandy called “Queer, Sultry Summer.”  A good idea, right?  I think so.  So he turns to me and he says “what book is that from?”  It comes from the first line of The Bell Jar, which I’ve memorized, and which I promptly recite to him.  “Never heard of it,” he responds.  DON’T BE LIKE THIS MAN.  READ THE BELL JAR.  KNOW YOUR SHIT.
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
    • First piece of advice: buy a lot of tissues.  Second piece of advice: wear waterproof mascara, or no mascara.  Third piece of advice: read this in a quiet place where you will be left to weep in peace.  
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
    • I have an existential crisis every time I reorganize/realphebatize my bookshelves at home because of Beloved.  I could just as easily place it in the poetry section as the literature section.  Every word is a revelation. I could read and reread this book for years, and I still don’t think I would be done reading it.
  • The Collected Works of William Shakespeare
    • I was talking to my friend Dawnielle on the phone the other day, and she said “as Shakespeare teaches us, human life is infinitely complex, whether you’re a madman or a king.”  Truer words were never spoken.
  • Selected Stories by Alice Munro
    • So I’m trying to hit most of the genres here: novels, poetry, drama.  And who better to round off that list than one of the best living short story writers, Alice Munro?  Pick a story, any story, and prepare to be gently blown away.  It will feel something akin to standing on a moving walkway, and not realizing you’re at the end until bam! she hits you with a profound truth about the human heart.

 

Marnie’s List:

 

  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
    • Junot Diaz is a nerd. He is funny and nerdy and snarky and tragic, sometimes all on one page. He knows about love and being young. He doesn’t take your shit.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    • A coming-of-age story for women! There are so very few, and this one is a classic for a reason. It deals with loss and love and ambition and family. Also originally Jo was not supposed to get married, so can you say queer?
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    • This two-part autobiographical graphic novel is another coming-of-age story, taking place against that backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In direct, clean prose, it tells the story of a political awakening as well as a personal one.
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    • A stunning memoir about growing up in an abusive, evangelical home in an industrial town in England as a young woman discovering her lesbian identity. This book traces the story of Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and goes beyond it. Jeanette Winterson’s writing is brutally honest poetry.
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
    • A retelling of Goethe’s Faust and also a retelling of the bible and also a commentary on Soviet Russia. Master and Margarita is comic and unwittingly feminist and taught me so much about grace and forgiveness.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
    • The book that inspired Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to write! Things Fall Apart tells a story of English Colonialism from the perspective of Okonkwo, a leader in the fictional Nigerian village, Umuofia. This book has received international acclaim for its critique of colonialism and inspired a generation of African writers. It’s stuck with me since I read it in high school, and everyone should read it probably.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
    • Excerpts from Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar. The advice is honest and empathetic and a call to action. Cheryl Strayed’s personal approach to giving advice is what makes it so relatable. She makes room for grief and pain and heartbreak and love and fear, and treats each one as valuable and important messages that need to be heard and responded to.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
    • James Baldwin writes sentences that could make you cry. Giovanni’s room is a tragic love story, as well as a rumination on homosexuality and masculinity. James Baldwin’s use of language is an artform, and even if you don’t read this book, you should read at least one of his novels.
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
    • OSC is a pretty terrible person which is ironic because this book is about empathy and humanity, and how our preconceptions of “alien” can keep us from truly understanding each other. It’s beautiful and also great scifi. Maybe get it from the library though and don’t support assholes.
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
    • I’m a sucker for books by women that explore the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters and this is one of the best. But it’s not just about mothers and daughters. It’s also about marriage and divorce and friendship and success and the cultural divide between immigrant parents and their first generation children.

*

We hope you like our list! It was hard to choose just 10 books! Marnie recommends you also check out the brilliant work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Sandra Cisneros, bell hooks, and Ursula K Le Guin!  Hannah recommends Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson and Elena Ferrante.

Also check out this list of free pdfs on texts that are more academic than what we listed above that discuss gender, race, sexuality, and class. And this list of free pdfs of the works of bell hooks.

Love,

Your favorite BFFemmes

Reading is Sexy #1: My Brilliant Friend

The first installment of my “Reading is Sexy” series, in which I review my favorite (and not so favorite) books.  The somewhat fragmentary style of this first post is inspired by Katherine Bernard’s response to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.

*

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend begins with a disappearance.  The narrator, a sixty-something Italian woman, learns that her childhood friend Lila has gone missing without a trace.  This seems to come as no surprise to Elena – and even, perhaps, as a relief.

When she goes through her things, Elena realizes she has nothing left to remind her of Lila.  Not a letter, not a photograph, not a postcard.  Nothing.  “Is it possible,” she wonders “that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her?  It is.”  

Lila’s disappearance, it seems, is not just physical.  It is also symbolic.  All of her possessions are gone.  She has cut her face from every family photograph.  

Not only does she wish to be forgotten, she wishes to be un-remembered.  Erased.  As though she was never there in the first place.

*

I filled my first memory box (I hate that phrase, but I can’t seem to come up with a better one) at at the age of eleven.  Since then, I’ve filled seven more.  

It wasn’t until recently that I realized what I had been doing all those years.  That I had been creating an archive of my own life – meticulously labelled, eccentrically collected.  

When you get into this kind of thing at such a young age, you soon realize there’s a limit to how much you can keep.  Your average birthday card just isn’t going to cut it.  

Soon, I started branching out from paper goods.  I filled plastic sandwich bags with blades of summer grass.  I saved the flower crown from my first Pangy Day. I even included the bandana that my middle school friend Molly gave me before she ditched me for the popular kids… could I have been any gayer?

IMG_4344
Couldn’t pass up this gem from my sixth grade journal

The point is, I don’t think this obsessive preservation operated on nostalgia alone.  Behind it all, I can see a lurking fear… a fear of forgetting.

Or was it the fear of being forgotten?

*

Elena Ferrante’s prose is simple.  Or at least, that’s what I can glean from the translation.  Where the words themselves are unassuming, the images and metaphors can hit you over the head at times.  Elena’s childhood doll is one such image, described in the first few chapters of the novel in a way that screams: this is about more than just the doll!  

At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ferrante’s style.  Sentence structure aside, the narrative seemed to lack layers; its complications seemed too obvious, its contradictions trite.  It felt to me like she couldn’t quite decide how novelistic she wanted to be.  Somewhere between the free-for-all ease of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and the richly metaphorical perfection of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Ferrante’s own version of the autobiographical novel felt, at first, like a disappointment.  Neither pedestrian nor pretentious, neither transparent nor opaque, I felt that Ferrante’s writing left something to be desired.

Except here’s the thing: Elena Ferrante isn’t Marcel Proust, and she isn’t Karl Ove Knausgaard.  In fact, Elena Ferrante is not even Elena Ferrante.  Elena Ferrante is the pen name of an author whose true identity remains unknown.

*

“The story of our lives becomes our lives.” – Adrienne Rich

*

My Brilliant Friend is the story of Elena, yes.  The story of her life, from early childhood to old age.  But it is also, and essentially, the story of her best friend Lila, a character without whom Elena’s narrative would not exist.

From the beginning, the story itself is an act of revenge.  A way of actively defying Lila’s disappearance.  If Lila refuses to remain physically present, than Elena will make her present with words.  She will re-member her -place her in a narrative she can’t escape, in a past she can’t undo.

This is more than just fear of forgetting.  This is remembering as an act of revenge.

*

You told me once:

“If you write about me, I will never forgive you.”

But what if my words are a way of forgiving?

What if my words are an act of revenge?

*

Autobiographical fiction is a slippery genre.  It’s one I’ve thought a lot about.  It’s one thing to write about your own experiences, to speak about your emotional, physical and intellectual experience of everyday life.  It’s another thing to talk about the people you love, or don’t love, or kind of love, and they way they have affected you.  Another thing entirely to publish these thoughts, and to publish them with you name attached to the cover.

The second-wave feminist movement taught us that the “personal is political.”  That by making the personal public, we revindicate the feminine.

But what happens when you make someone else’s “personal” public?  What happens when the story of your life becomes the story of someone else’s?

*

[insert personal anecdote here]

[but what if?]

[what if what?]

[what if she reads it?]

[…]

*

When asked whether the character of Lila was inspired by an actual friendship, Elena Ferrante admitted: “Let’s say that it comes from what I know of a long, complicated, difficult friendship that began at the end of my infancy.”

The friendship between Elena and Lila is at times competitive, at other times revelatory, always complicated.  Elena cannot help but measure herself in relation to Lila. Left at that, this portrait of female friendship may seem far from revolutionary, weighed down with the trope of female competitiveness that feminists have fought so long to undo.

But Ferrante seems to plant this trope only to disfigure it.  Elena and Lila are like a knife to its sharpener – metal meeting metal in a battle of words, each sharpening the other’s intellect, challenging the other’s strength.  They make each other better, even when that means tearing each other apart.

*

“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.” – Judith Butler

*

Elena’s friendship with Lila is like no friendship I have ever known, and like every friendship I have ever known.  I don’t think I’m making any revolutionary claims when I say that female friendship is rarely depicted in a way that is quite so central, and quite so rich as it is in My Brilliant Friend.

What is truly revolutionary about Ferrante’s work, as she explains in her recent interview the Vanity Fair, is that while male writers (like Proust and Knausgaard) are often seen as representing the human experience, women writers – especially of autobiographical fiction – are seen as speaking only to “women’s experience.”

For Ferrante, however, this is as much a blessing as it is a curse.

“I hold that male colonization of our imaginations—a calamity while ever we were unable to give shape to our difference—is, today, a strength. We know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us. What’s more, they are not even curious, indeed they recognize us only from within their system.”

*

Writing this blog post has been a struggle in more ways than one.  There were so many themes I could have talked about in My Brilliant Friend, so many passages I could have quoted, so many Adrienne Rich poems I could have referenced (so much self-restraint I did use).  But hardest of all was realizing that I didn’t trust myself enough to write a review of this book.  That I didn’t trust myself enough to write anything at all.

*

“Afraid of assertion.  Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia… My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty.  I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out.  In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” – Maggie Nelson

*

This blog, which started as a personal pet project, has become more “public” than I ever expected.  It may be nothing compared to Ferrante’s audience, but it helps me to empathize, even in some small way, with her decision to keep her identity anonymous.

Because when we speak about the personal, we are rarely – if ever – speaking only about ourselves.

I have grown up reading a literary canon in which the masculine is universal, the feminine particular.  In which male rationality is pitted against female sentimentality, male strength against female weakness, male sanity against female hysteria.

In this world, it’s no wonder I have trouble trusting my own voice.  Because nothing that is mine – as a woman, and especially as a woman who loves women – is the whole truth.  It is only marginally true. Only marginal. I am, in fact, that margin. Only words in the margin of other people’s truth.

*

And yet, I continue to write.  I continue to put words on the page.  I make a practice of cringing.  I make a practice of blushing.  I make a practice of closing my notebook, leaving the room, and then coming back.  I make a practice of beginning, and stopping, and beginning again.

I make a practice of opening all the boxes I have filled with my life, and taking out their contents one by one.  Of laying each letter, each photograph, each blade of grass onto the floor, and stitching them together in some kind of a ragged truth.

*

“We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.  I turned on the computer and began to write…” – Elena Ferrante