This passage from Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere, captures so perfectly the feeling of wanting what I know I can’t have.
“After Pearl had begun to snore softly, Mia kept her hand in place, as if she were a sculptor shaping Pearl’s shoulder blades. She could feel Pearl’s heart, ever so faintly, beating under her palm. It has been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there were something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
—Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (p. 248)
(Learning “to live on the smell of an apple alone” seems like the work of my current stage of motherhood.)
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.”
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 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.
“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal
“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal
As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?
In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”
Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:
“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal
I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:
“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246
Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”
I’ve been invited to read from my novels and shorter work at the Antioch College Local Writer Series. The reading will be on Wednesday, November 12, at 7pm at the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College (Livermore Street, across the street from the main Antioch towers). The event is free and open to the public, and I hear there will be snacks (and maybe a little glitter!).
Here’s an interesting piece by Annie Murphy Paul about the neroscience of reading fiction. It validates things that many know intuitively: among other things, reading fiction makes more empathetic humans. (And it slashes through those conversations–conversations which, frankly, piss me off–about how nonfiction is somehow more important than fiction in helping people deal with “the real world.” I love that the study corrects for things like whether people who are more naturally empathetic read more fiction. Take that!)
Described in the piece is how we register sensations as we read descriptive language: how the evocative qualities of words like “cinnamon” work our sense of smell. This aligns with something I heard the poet Cathy Smith Bowers discuss: when we read a word aloud, its sound affects us emotionally, but even when we read a word silently on the page, our bodies experience similar sensations. As a writer of fiction, all this helps me understand why I care about what I do. Why it’s important to make stories. As a reader, it all sounds very true.
Last night, I finished reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work. Its emphasis is on the importance of fantasy play and stories in developing a young child’s ways of processing and coping with the world. All the books by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Paley that I’ve read have moved me–she is a gifted writer, and her subject is so vital. In her work, in addition to her observations as a wise teacher, she records and shares dialogue from real children in real classrooms, making sense of their real worlds and lives through fantasy and imagination. In this book, Paley rightfully despairs at the push to bring academics to children too soon, leaving less and less time for preschool children to dream and do their natural thing. Among many passages in this book that move me and are so true, Paley writes, on p. 102:
“Every day brought me new evidence of the preeminence of fantasy in children’s thinking. It has reinforced my certainty that we perform a grave error when we remove fantasy play as the foundation of early childhood education.
We are going too far in the opposite direction. Some school people feel that because young children engage in magical thinking we must pull them on to another track as early as possible; having added extra years of schooling to their lives, we are emboldened to counteract fantasy play with ‘reality-based’ activities.
Is this not the adult version of magical thinking? To imagine that the purpose of early childhood education is to reorder the stages of human development is like the story of the prince who was turned into a frog. In attempting to turn children into creatures that are unchildlike, we ignore all the messages young children give us as they play. The frog turns back into a prince when the princess recognizes his need to be treated with kindness and respect. In the case of our children, this would include the kindness of acknowledging that their perceptions and premises are not the same as older children’s or as our own.”
This idea of how we think we can reorder the natural stages of a child’s development haunts me. Paley’s work speaks to me in particular now as the mother of a young child. And pausing to read it has helped me slow down enough to more fully engage in the play my daughter is about. So many of her sentences start with “Pretend that…” and I’m paying closer attention, and doing more active pretending with her. (It’s good for adults, too!) But anyone who is interested in stories and storytelling and their central importance to our humanity ought to read Paley’s books. The Boy On The Beach is a really good one, too, and gets at why storytelling is important to building communities.
As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story. As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them. As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense. The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity. Because of her sentences. And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions. As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost. As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.
(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with. The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.” I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)
In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.
Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.
There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.