Feminist reading list

During my interview with Seville artist Anna Jonsson, I asked her about her sources of inspiration. I ended up having to cut this thread in our conversation from the essay that recently went up on Electric Literature–it was a tangent in the scope of that essay–but it’s a fascinating list of artists and writers, and I want to leave it here.

Anna Jonsson wrote,

“Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren—of course. All of her books and her illustrators. Tove Jansson and her Moomin stories and her drawings. Gitta Sereny, Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie, Bodil Malmsten, Claire Bretecher and her drawings, Linda Nochlin and her photograph ‘Buy My Bananas’ made an impact on me. Lately, I’ve been reading and crying and reading and crying over Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘War’s Unwomanly Face.’”

Jonsson’s list struck me as specific to her background and training. It was also a useful guide to an aspiring feminist art and literary critic. Some authors had achieved international fame; others had been less well translated. Astrid Lingren and Tove Jansson were two names I’d been familiar with since childhood. Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie; Svetlana Alexievich had recently won the Nobel prize for literature, and I’d been reading extended excerpts from her books, though still working on my stamina to hold as much pain as is necessary to read them cover to cover.

I looked up Linda Nochlin’s 1972 photograph “Buy My Bananas.” It turned out to be a take on a late 19th Century photograph in which a female nude is depicted with a tray of fruit, in a pose that suggests that both she and the fruit are for sale. Nochlin’s model is a male nude, photographed in the same pose. The effect of this gender reversal is both ridiculous and outrageous.

I was able to track down one other lead from Jonsson’s list. Bodil Malmsten’s memoir about moving from Sweden to France, was published in 2005 by Harvill, in Frank Perry’s translation, as “The Price of Water in Finistère.” A Swedish poet and a novelist with more than dozen books to her name, Malmsten wrote with wisdom and humor about starting life anew, at fifty-five, in an unfamiliar place, with only a cursory knowledge of French. Malmsten plants an elaborate garden that she describes in detail, drawing from these descriptions elegant metaphors about writing. “Like the first fifteen days for a plant, the first fifteen words of a story have to contain everything the story needs to survive.” Finding my way back to creative writing after having a baby, I found in this book just the right kind of inspiration.

Mike Smith’s And There Was Evening, and There Was Morning

Last year, when I participated, in a small way, with the launch of WTAW Press, I got a chance to read the manuscripts in draft form. This month, holding the two published books in my hand was a strange experience: an excitement coupled with worry, How will they hold up? Will the binding solidify the beauty I had glimpsed in the original writing? Will it bring forward the flaws?

Mike Smith’s book, And There Was Evening, and There Was Morning is a memoir of originalterrible loss: the author’s first wife dies of cancer shortly after the birth of their second child. The book is a collection of essays, structured in such a way that in each piece, in each chapter, we return to this tragedy, over and over again. Fifteen times over we are with Mike and the kids, Virgina and Langston, losing Emily. Other sad, scary, happy, and funny things happen in the book. Mike meets his second wife, they marry and move together to a new town in a new state. His stepdaughter, coincidentally also named Emily, goes through a bout with cancer. But oh boy oh boy. Turn the page, and there’s his beloved Emily, dying again.

Difficult reading? No, not at all. It’s a love story. The book reads like a love poem, on a single gulp of breath. Mike’s tendency to introspection, his openness to Emily and her world and the desire to continue his engagement with her interests and concerns, his ability to converse with her work after her death, is so endearing that from the very first sentences I want to know Mike, I want to spend time with him, I find in myself the resources to stay with him through his grief and to go there, into the hospital room, to be with Emily, in her final months, weeks, and days, over and over again. Emily Arndt was a scholar and I find it a solace that a book that she wrote, a revised version of her dissertation, has been published and can be found out there.

I’ll quote the first sentences from Mike Smith’s memoir, to give a sense of its rhythm and what I mean about it being a love story:

My first wife Emily and I were married for ten years. We met when she walked into the small bookstore where I worked and applied for a job. The manager must have hired her that very afternoon because we shared the following Saturday evening and Sunday morning turnaround shifts. It was fitting that we grew to know one another surrounded by books.

Thank you Peg Alford Pursell and WTAW Press for publishing this. Thank you, Mike, for sharing this story. Thank you also for all of your wonderful insight into story and character and the willingness to push and push on a thread of thought.

World Literature Today, Sept-Oct 2016

sept16_220pxThe current issue of World Literature Today features an essay by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, about misogyny and identity that I found meaningful as a reflection on my own writing and identity as a writer. She says,

For years I have been trying to dodge the label “Croatian writer” or “Croatian writer who lives in Amsterdam,” though my life experience has confirmed that this sort of tattoo is almost impossible to remove. Why? Because most people use ethnic coordinates when remembering, classifying, defining, and judging others.

… in Croatia (like, indeed, so many other places), male writers represent their homeland, state, nation, and national literature; their works harmoniously build the national literary canon. Female writers may either profit by or be victimized by such constellations. Mostly they are victimized.

Other highlights from this issue include a feature on Gulf Literature, here represented by several authors from Mexico, the US South, and Cuba. A powerful excerpt from LeAnne Howe’s “Savage Conversations” tells the story of Mary Todd Lincoln being judged insane because she was haunted by an Indian. “And I believe her,” Howe begins. A powerful way to contextualize her work as feminist and post-colonial. The rest of the piece is crazy and brilliant.

The interview with Alain Mabanckou does a great job of introducing this writer by his reading list. I love his project of actively trying to read–and to be influenced by–lit from around the world. He wants to cover all continents, it seems. This is worth skimming for his reading list alone. Some of the African writers he names are Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, René Maran, Mongo Beti, Camara Laye.

In the marvelous World Literature in Review section, a brief mention of a recently translated Natalia Gromova’s Moscow in the 1930 (Trans. Christopher Culver). Go ahead and buy this book. For all interested in twentieth century Russian lit, this is required reading.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s essay in the New York Times

Kirstin Valdez Quade has had a very unique childhood, and it’s a credit to her art that when she writes about it, I’m instantly there with her, uncomfortable as hell, and reaching, reaching.

When I was 11 and my sister 6, my parents pulled us out of our new Australian school for a six-week-long research trip across the belly of the continent. A year earlier, we had moved from the United States to Canberra, where my dad was doing post-doctorate work in geochemistry at the Australian National University, and now we were setting out to explore this vast new country.

Our four-wheel drive — on loan from the university — was a troop carrier that could, in a pinch, be used to transport prisoners.

Read The Season of the Skulls in the New York Times.