Helen More’s Suicide in Feminist Studies

44-1_cover_homepageMy story “Helen More’s Suicide” has been published in the current issue of Feminist Studies and is available on JSTOR. The piece was originally inspired by the biography of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a scholar and a feminist who wrote mystery novels under pseudonym Amanda Cross, though in drafts the association became very loose.

Here’s the beginning of the story:

My retired colleague Marguerite called to tell me of Helen More’s suicide. “Of all the sad, ludicrous things people do to themselves!”

She invited me over. “Thursday night, as usual. I could use the company of younger people.”

It had been about a year since I’d first been invited to these Thursdays—monthly literary and musical soirees Marguerite hosted in her living room. Helen had been a regular at Marguerite’s for several decades; the two women were close contemporaries and each a celebrity in her own field. Helen was scholar of the English Romantics at the same university where Marguerite had taught Flaubert, Zola, and Balzac, and where I was now a junior faculty member in the English department. I’d heard of Professor More long before I met her: she lectured at the university from the 1960s until being forced into retirement in 2006 ostensibly
due to age. She had a reputation as a militant feminist who eagerly engaged in battles about appointments and promotions, and her politics could have had something to do with it.

To read the rest, log in via your library (through JSTOR) or buy a copy here.

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.

Essay on Electric Literature

My essay about a trip to Spain, motherhood, Seville sculptor Anna Jonsson and Spanish suffragist Clara Campoamor is up on Electric Literature. Here’s the opening:

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My husband, baby, and I were on vacation in Andalusia. The thirteen month-old napped in the car while we drove to the next destination, the historical city center of Seville, then put him into a pack and tried to take in a site or two. We needed food. A recent rain had emptied most outdoor tables. We dove inside a restaurant on the Plaza de la Pescadería. The baby refused to stay put. He couldn’t yet walk, and his attempts at crawling his way across dirty floors to cobblestone squares made me nervous. I gulped down my meal, and, while my husband ate, carried the baby to a window. A few neighborhood kids were chasing a ball through the puddles. Baby was mesmerized — for five whole minutes.

Soccer. My eyes rested on the ball, tracing its movements. The kids pushed it between the empty café tables, using two of them as goalposts. One team took charge and ran the ball toward the pedestal of a small statue….

Read the rest of the piece here.

Annie Ernaux’s Shame

A powerful little book that begins with an analysis of a single episode from the writer’s past, an incident that happened when she was twelve. This book breaks so many writerly rules — in such a satisfying, rewarding way. The translation is by Tanya Leslie.

The quote is from the end of the first section.

Naturally I shall not opt for narrative, which would mean inventing reality instead of searching for it. Neither shall I content myself with merely picking out and transcribing the images I remember; I shall process them  like documents, examining them from different angles to give them meaning. In other words, I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself.

(It may not be necessary to commit such observations to paper, but I won’t be able to start writing properly until I have some idea of the shape this writing will take.)

I may have chosen to be impartial because I thought the indescribable events I witness in my twelfth year would fate away, lost in the universal context of laws and language. Or maybe I succumbed  to a mad and deadly impulse suggested by the words of a missal which I now find impossible to read, a ritual which my mind associates with some Voodoo ceremony–take this, all of you, and read it, this is my body, this is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you and for all men.

Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City

I heard this author read during Litquake and bought the book. Part heist novel, part a novel about becoming a mother, it blends the genres so effortlessly that, having finished the book, I’m convinced that motherhood is a kind of a heist. Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. A beautiful edition by the Black Cat imprint of Grove Atlantic.

The baby’s named Dream. (What a cool name!)

 She put one arm over the baby, who had gone back to nursing, and rested her head on the other, trying to unwind and sink into the sofa. She focused on her body, one part at a time; she noticed her teeth clenching and opened her mouth all the way. Opening and shutting it and working her jaw from side to side to relieve the tension.  …

Dream downed the milk, swallowing while nuzzled into her white breast. Round as the baby’s cheeks and head, round as the areola that peeked out because Dream hadn’t gotten a proper grip on her nipple again. Round and round, rounds and rounds. The milk dribbled out of the baby’s mouth and ran down her breast, leaving a sticky trail on her skin and a wet stain on her robe.

Does the body keep producing breast milk after death? If something were to happen to her, if she choked or a blood vessel burst in her brain or if someone were to break in and take her out for good, it would probably be a while before anyone would miss her. But if she had enough milk in her breasts, then Dream might have a chance of surviving until someone showed up.

She tried to concentrate on the softness.

 

Love and Hair

I’m delighted to report that my story “Love and Hair” won Willesden Herald’s International short story competition. The award ceremony took place in London this week, and I took home the coveted prize: a large mug and a bottle of campaign. The story appears in an anthology, New Short Stories 9, together with nine other short-listed stories. I’ve been reading the anthology, and I’m so impressed with the competition.

Here’s the snippet from my story. The print anthology is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

The stage crew had been drinking since The Wizard of Oz Singalong the night before and now the director, suffering from a sinus infection, was losing her voice, pleading over the phone with actors calling in sick. This was a radical departure from the spirit of fun and camaraderie I’d expected when I volunteered to perform in an amateur production of The Vagina Monologues. During our final run-through just hours before opening night curtain, we were three actors short and had to find substitutes. I’d recruited half a dozen of my friends to buy tickets—and what if any of them actually showed up? The lack of professionalism embarrassed me.

As the rehearsal finally got underway, my phone buzzed. The house manager turned to me and hissed, animal-like, “What’s that?” She’d been getting on my nerves all afternoon, having berated me for bringing a burrito into the theatre and for daring to eat it while she talked to us about emergency exits. I ignored her and looked at my phone.

A text message: “I’m in San Francisco.” My new phone failed to decode the number, but I had a good feeling the text came from this girl Hana, an Israeli who lived in Portland.

“Great,” I texted back, “I’ll see you after the show.”

On the first night I’d met her, Hana put her hand on my shoulder, gripping firmly, and said, “You look so Russian, Yelena. I’d love to seduce you.” Then she toasted me with whiskey and walked away.

A Particular form of Orientalism

In the most recent issue of Boulevard, poet and fiction writer Anis Shivani published an ideological critique of Dave Eggers’s 2012 novel A Hologram for the King. I haven’t read the novel, and so was going to skip the essay, but the author made a few bold statements about the novel right at the top, and I was intrigued. The essay, it turns out, is a smart and accessible critique of the book from a postcolonial perspective. Shivani points out that “In the last few years in America we’ve had white novelists representing Muslims and Arabs more prominently that Muslims or Arabs have in their own writing.”

What we’re seeing is perhaps a particular form of Orientalism, only pitched at a higher, more refined, more politically correct level. The other can’t be demonized, of course–that’s the business of bureaucrats propagating the endless campaign against terror, or unreconstructed neoconservative types–but whereas Eggers may be offering something of a critique of neoliberlism in economic terms, his overall venture in Hologram accords quite well with neoliberlism’s position with respect to countries on the periphery.

For neoliberalism, countries like Saudi Arabia are the subject of particular discourse formations, and I don’t think Eggers deviates too far from this discourse because he too, after all, breathes the same intellectual air.

…I don’t want to suggest that Eggers doesn’t depict Saudis sympathetically–he does–but the kind of sympathy he represents is precisely the problem.

The essay goes on to argue this point, effectively illuminating the ideology behind the novel. “Eggers is to be given credit for taking on big subjects, when the predominant bulk of American literary fiction insists on living in a world of nostalgia and psychosis,” Shivani notes toward the end. But Shivani’s not about to give Eggers a pass on the way he approaches his big subject. Fun, fun, fun.

In the same issue, the essay that did attract my attention from the top, but that I actually couldn’t finish, was Robert Zaller’s Toward the Post-Modern Novel: The Polyphonic Consciousness of György Sebestyén.

The piece’s aim is to re-introduce this Hungarian author to the English-language audience. Sebestyén died in 1990, and though some of his work was translated to English before his death in the few years that followed, it seems he’s largely been forgotten by the English-language public. Zaller contextualizes his novel as post-modern in relationship to modernists Proust, Joyce, and Musil. Other names that appear in the first two pages of the piece are Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet, Le Clezio, Gaddis, Pynchon, Wallace, Beckett, Roth, Kundera, Kadare, Nabokov, W.G. Sebald, Celan. That’s a lot of name-dropping. Courtesy of NYRB Press, I’ve actually been very interested in mid-century Hungarian authors. By far, the most interesting of the novelists I’ve read lately was Magda Szabo. Not that I was really expecting to find her name in Zaller’s essay, but her name was fresh enough in my mind to make me aware that Zaller’s list didn’t include a single female author, modern, post-modern, or what. Not even Virginia Woolf. I got so distracted by my own track of thought, I never got to part two of his long-ish essay.