Because,by Joshua Mensch, is a devastating and beautiful lyric memoir. I can’t recall why I picked it up to read, but I’m so glad I did. It was rough going because of the subject matter (childhood sexual abuse) but the language, its incantation and repetition and just plain brilliance is so well suited to how memory and trauma work that the writer’s work (processing the devastation, and crafting language to approximate it) pulled me through.
If you have a history of sexual abuse, you might only want to read this book if you feel sturdy in your recovery. I’m sure it could be very triggering. But I also found it very healing to read.
I’m woefully behind on posting about books. There are piles of gorgeous books waiting for me to have time to tell you about them. (I hope the books forgive me!) Catching up a little, at least today.
I don’t even recall how long ago I read Jessica Valenti’s book SEX OBJECT—it’s been months and months, maybe a year. My friend Ashley loaned it to me a long time ago. (Thanks, Ashley! I can return it to you now.)
So much within these pages resonated. Here’s one passage from p. 64 that articulates how it can feel to walk down the street—not just in NYC but also in my small, friendly home town—while female.
“There is a look that comes over men’s faces right before they are about to say something horrible to you.
Or make a noise at you, or whistle in your general direction.
By the time I was fourteen years old I could spot this look a half a block away. In the same way I can tell if someone is a tourist by their shoes or if a person has recently done heroin, I can predict that a man is going to be an asshole on the street—sort of like a depressing New York City sixth sense.
And the moment when you take those few steps before crossing paths with the man who you know is about to say or do something is the moment when you look down, or turn your head to face across the street, or put your earphones in—as if to signal that you won’t see them no matter what they do. That they are invisible to you.
Of course, they do it anyway. And you see it, or hear it.
Sometimes it’s not as bad as you thought, it’s a Hey, beautiful or a simple hello. But more often than not it’s a lascivious intake of breath or a clicking noise, or sometimes just a smirk while they stare at your breasts as you walk by. Once it was a man who came close to my ear and said, I want to eat you. No matter the content, the message is clear: we are here for their enjoyment and little else. We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on.
We are trapped in between huge bodies unable to move, too afraid to yell or bring attention to ourselves. We are trapped on the train, in the crowd, in the street, in the classroom. If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where is it that we’re not forced? The idea that these crimes are inescapable is the blind optimism of men who don’t understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force. What it feels like to see a stranger smiling while rubbing himself or know that this is the price of doing business while female. That public spaces are not really public for you, but a series of surprise private moments that you can’t prevent or erase.
And so you put your headphones on and look straight ahead and don’t smile even when they tell you to and just keep walking.”
Happy New Year! And may 2019 be a weird one (good weird, I mean).
Maybe you haven’t heard that you can buy the entire series—all five volumes of Year’s Best Weird Fiction from Undertow—together in a tidy bundle, thereby securing hours of weird reading pleasure. Go here for more about this fabulous deal!
(I’m honored to have my stories “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” and “Curb Day” included in volumes 3 and 5, respectively.)
This book. So beautiful. A delectable collision of intelligent prose with the viscera. So visceral, and so smart—the sentences hold an intelligence beyond any I can think of, even, in a way, beyond Didion’s. But the sentences aren’t overly smart in a told-you-so kinda way. They’re smart in a way that has faith, more faith than most sentences have, in the reader. The book, the story, is so dark and so light. It’s a gift, really.
Black Wave was my first encounter with the work of Michelle Tea, and I can’t wait to read more of her work. For now, all I can do is urge you to read Black Wave—knowing that it’s written for adults, and has a lot of very specific, intense detail about sex and drugs—and today I offer this passage.
Michelle Tea, Black Wave, p. 151:
“Where did your own story end and other people’s begin? Michelle wrestled with this question. After her first book came out she’d been invited to give some lectures and teach some workshops, and always the people who came were females, females who wanted to tell their stories. Their stories being female stories, there was a lot of hurt inside them—abuse, betrayals, injustices, feelings. They were all worries about getting in trouble for writing the truth. They didn’t want people to be mad at them. It’s Your Story, Michelle would insist.
She wanted to free them all, all the girl writers. Girls needed to tell the truth about what the fuck was going on in this world. It was bad. It was brave of the girls to let themselves stay so raw, though Michelle worried that some of them had had to conjure personality disorders in order to cope. Sometimes the girls were too much even for her, Michelle wondered if she could handle another piece of writing about sexual abuse or sex work. But it seemed that this was to be her job upon the earth. If you don’t tell your story, who will? It was important. Our stories are important.”
Read the whole book and you’ll understand its uplift.
A thousand thanks to my friend Dr. Kelli Zaytoun for recommending this distilled and beautiful memoir. From the publisher’s description:
“Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.”
This book is among a few gems I’ve read lately, written by women, that grant permission. Permission to reveal the self, in all its tatters and glow. Permission to speak the truth even when it isn’t convenient or dainty. I can’t recall where I heard this, but somewhere, a wise human referred to writing memoir as a kind of alchemy: how a writer metabolizes her experience into a distilled piece of art. Mailhot does so here, with grace and wisdom.
A couple shimmery passages from Mailhot’s memoir:
Page 72: “[My mother] taught me that I didn’t own things. I really liked the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land—maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it. Our grandmothers have been uprooted and shelved in boxes, placed on slabs of plastic, or packed neatly in rooms, or turned into artifact—all after proper burials. Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that.”
Page 97: “I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river.”
In the back of the petite volume, Mailhot is interviewed by Joan Naviyuk Kane. In the conversation, Mailhot says things about writing that I know will stick with me (and will help, in working on memoir):
About women writing our stories:
Page 131: “I know the book isn’t simply an abuse narrative, but then it is. I was abused, and brilliant women are abused, often, and we write about it. People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. It’s almost funny, because, yeah—there is nothing new about what they do to us. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people—they keep hurting us in the same ways. It’s putting the onus on us to tell it differently, spare people melodrama, explicative language, image, and make it new. I think, well, fuck that. I’ll say how it happened to me, and by doing that maybe it became new. I took the voice out of my heat that said writing about abuse it too much, that people will think it’s sentimental, or pulling at someone’s pathos, unwilling to be art. By resisting the pushback, I was able to write more fully and, at times, less artfully about what happened.
I remember my first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car wrecks. I thought, You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day). I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring familiar themes in the human experience. When the individual gets up and tells her story, there’s going to be a detail so real and vivid it places you there, and you identify. I believe in the author’s right to tell any story, and the closer it comes to a singular truth, the more art they render in the telling.”
And about work that is never really finished:
Page 132: “Cathartic or therapeutic—those words are sometimes used to relate a feeling, like a sigh of relief, or release, but therapy is fucking hard. My therapists didn’t pity me, not the good ones; they made me strip myself of pandering, manipulation, presentation—they wanted the truth more desperately than I did, and they wanted me to speak it—live it every moment. I feel like writing is that way. Writing can be hard therapy. You write, and then read it, revise your work to be cleaner, sharper, better, and then, when you have the best version of yourself (not rhetorically, but you’ve come close to playing the music you hear in your head)—you give it time and re-read it—you go back to the work—it seems endless. Nothing is ever communicated fully. The way being healed is never real unless every moment of every day you remind yourself of your progress and remind yourself not to go back, or hurt someone, or do the wrong thing—it’s not healing unless you keep moving—you’re never done. The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”
Rod was my first grad school mentor at the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program. At the first residency, his seminar had us reading Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and taking a field trip to the Museum Jurassic Technology. Immediately, I knew that Rod’s aesthetic was complicated and hypnotic, not unlike the MJT’s cabinet of curiosities. A History of Hands has a similar kind of curiosity about it…it’s a fully realized world, familiar, but also skewed enough to accumulate into a question rather than an answer.
Here’s the novel’s description from the University of Massachusetts Press website:
“This powerful novel begins with the ambiguities of illness and moves on to explore both the reasonable and the absurd actions of those who suffer and those who exploit suffering. The setting is a failed farm on the Central California coast during a time of rural isolation and decline. Virge, the protagonist, is an awkwardly introspective young man living with his parents, suffering from lingering effects of an accidental childhood poisoning, including a lack of coordination and the possibility of mental weakness. Within the first few pages, Virge trips, falls, and finds that his hands have become paralyzed—a potential disaster for someone unable to afford a doctor’s visit.
Soon, however, an elderly and possibly criminal doctor, offering free therapy, moves in, much to the dismay of bedridden Virge. While the physician endeavors to restore the patient’s hands with a series of highly suspect injections, Virge recovers his sense of autonomy and an urge to escape the suffocating domestic circumstances that have perhaps caused his illnesses in the first place.
A History of Hands is a novel that invites the reader into a richly and eccentrically detailed world where fevered imaginations and dark comedy prevail, but where the determination to escape the ambiguities of illness leads to the equal ambiguities of health and freedom.”
Lately when I read, I just want to be steeped in the book, in the life of the words (story and sentences/lines). While here on the blog I always feel some self-imposed responsibility to write a mini-review, that impulse (“I must say something all-encompassing and salient!”) often stops me from writing anything. And I just want to crow about this book. So I’ve been collecting passages that fill me with wonder. Here’s one from A History of Hands.
I think you don’t really need context (though you should read the whole book!), so for now, just sit back and enjoy.
From p. 154, A History of Hands, by Rod Val Moore:
“And then, because nobody makes a move, Almy visibly relaxes, and, after taking a tiny sip from Stuart’s flask, opens up, and talks and talks, and tells a story of her own, one Virge has never heard before. It’s all about how she used to come to the farm as a child when her grandparents owned it, and how she was their guest, not to mention their darling, and their pearl of great price. How every day she was allowed to go out riding, because of course they had horses then, everyone in the world had dozens of horses then, and the one Grandma and Grandpa kept there for her was a gelding named Dime, and she could ride old Dime, best horse in the world, along the beach, clapping up the water into froth, his hooves nearly silent in the damp spongy sand. But then comes the sad part of the story, about how the farm failed one year in a drought, and the crops died and the horses, even Dime, had to be sold to the glue factory, and how then there wasn’t much to do at the place for years except mope around, though Almy kept coming, summer after summer, trying to recapture the good times of the past, splashing in the waves as if she were a horse, but it was never the same.
And then there’s the much sadder part about how her grandparents got to be old aged, and infirm, and finally it turned out that both them passed away on the same day, which happened to be Almy’s sixteenth birthday, dying from the same run-in with the flu, a day when it wouldn’t stop raining and they had to take both coffins to the cemetery in the downpour in the back of an open wagon, and how the two graves were so full of water by the time they got there that the coffins, when they went in, just bobbed there like wood canoes, until somebody drilled some holes in them, and they sank. And it’s interesting, she explains, how a year later, after getting married in San Grande, and moving permanently into the old house with Virge’s father, she found a box all wrapped up in gift paper in the back of a closet, a birthday present they’d hidden there just before they died, and when she opened it what did she find but an old German chocolate cake, now turned to nothing but a collapse of dust and hard candy, her name still spelled out in icing on the top, along with the vague and broken image of what might have been a horse. And she still had to wonder, was the cake supposed to mean that they were going to get her a new horse, or was it just the memory of the days when she did have a horse? Or was it a horse on the cake at all, or maybe a dog or nothing at all?”
A couple years ago, when my daughter chose an advance reading copy of Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood at the library (a prize for the reading program), I had no idea we were in for such a treat. The cover looked a bit scary, so I decided to read it to her. (You can read the Kirkus review here.) It is a little scary. It’s also a lot beautiful and interestingly complicated: a tribute to Ms. Unsworth’s belief in the capacity and imagination of the child.
My daughter and I both fell in love with the book. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Unsworth, and she replied, which began an imaginative and generous correspondence with me as writer-mother, and my daughter as reader.
As the paperback release was approaching, I asked Ms. Unsworth if she would mind my daughter asking some interview questions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.
Merida and I hope you enjoy the interview. And of course we recommend you buy the book!
Describe Frank’s background.
Frank is not the main character in BRIGHTWOOD, although she probably thinks she is. She arrives at Brightwood Hall when Daisy (who is the main character), is in desperate need of help. Frank isn’t a ghost, although she does appear in black and white. She’s more like an imaginary friend – a very bossy and delusional one. She’s an explorer from a different time and place, and for the whole of the book (set in an English stately home) she believes she’s actually in the Amazonian jungle, pitting her wits against a rival explorer. But she has an odd way of getting to the truth, and her advice is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. She was my favorite character to write, and even though I finished the book some time ago, I’m not certain she got the memo. It’s possible she’s still out there, having all kinds of adventures without me.
What was your inspiration for writing Brightwood?
I loved the idea of writing about someone who has never once been outside their home. Daisy doesn’t know what lies beyond the gates of Brightwood Hall, and so she’s made the beautiful old house into a whole world. A kind of magical kingdom. When Daisy’s world – and her life – is threatened, she’s forced to confront reality. I felt that situation had the potential for a powerful story.
How did you get the idea for the non-human characters?
My best ideas come out of problems. The biggest problem I had when I sat down to write the book, was how to tell the story with only two characters. There was Daisy, all alone in the house, and there was James Gritting, the mysterious relative who turns up a little way into the story. Daisy’s mother is mostly not in the action at all. It is very hard to make things happen in a story without interaction between characters, dialogue, the exchange of information, and all that good stuff. Simply describing the thoughts in one person’s head makes for very dull reading! So I knew that Daisy had to have people (or a rat!) to talk to, even if they weren’t – strictly speaking – real. She would need to have an extraordinary imagination to do that. By creating non-human characters, I solved my problem of how to move the action along, and I also gained an insight into the character of Daisy herself. Two birds with one stone!
How long have you been a writer?
I’ve always been writing, even when I was quite a little child. I got my first book published when I was about 35.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My dad was a novelist, and my mum wrote poetry, and I grew up thinking that writing was the best way to spend your life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, although for a long time I told myself the opposite. I was frightened of failing at it. I thought because I found it hard, that meant I was no good at it. It took me a while to realize that writing is hard whether you’re good at it or not. And being frightened of failure doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It just means you’re frightened. And you can write while frightened. You can write while frightened, and while finding it hard. So that’s what I do!
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
I liked fairy stories, and Greek and Norse mythology, and historical novels about Vikings, and the Narnia books, and stories about animals like The Call of the Wild, and anything to do with adventure. Or ponies. Also, school stories, and comics, and poetry…I guess the answer is I liked everything!
To read more about Tania Unsworth, please visit her website.