• What are you reading?
Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, by Erin Wunker. It's a bits-and-pieces book, but all the bits are in conversation with other writers, and with reality; even its bittyness recalls how Tillie Olsen would carry a sentence in her mind, polishing it in scraps of time between interruptions, through a day of women's work, a day of no peace, no privacy, no silence, no solitude.
When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable. Something so clear and objective, it could be a little dictionary or translation phrase book for how to speak a feminist language and live a feminist life. I wanted what many other writers -- the many-gendered mothers of my heart -- had already written. I wanted A Room of One's Own, Sister Outsider, Willful Subjects, Islands of Decolonial Love. I wanted Feminism is for Everybody and The Dream of a Common Language. I wanted No Language is Neutral.
I wanted books that had already been written by people whose experiences of moving through the world are different -- often radically so -- from mine.
I got stuck.
I read some more.
I remembered that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and, sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.
I sat down at my typewriter again.
• What did you recently finish reading?
George & Lizzie, by Nancy Pearl.
Lizzie agreed. "I remember reading a novel in which one of the characters, a college professor, was writing a book on the influence of Emily Dickinson on Shakespeare and how his colleagues always misheard it and thought it was the other way around. I wish I could remember the title, because talking about it now makes me want to read it again. It's so interesting to think about. Do you think we read Shakespeare differently because of Dickinson's poems?"
I remember reading that too! It was by David Lodge, I think Changing Places? I read it about the same age Lizzie did. Not at the same time: I'm maybe ten years older than Lizzie. But, like Lizzie, I grew up in Michigan and went to UM and struggled with depression most of my life and, as a young woman, tried to claim my sexuality in ways that were bad for me and for the people I interacted with. Lizzie feels real to me, is what I'm saying, and I'm okay with the fact that the people around her are kind of one-note because the problem this book is about is: if you can't stop being sad about your shitty childhood even though your life is no longer shitty, if you can't stop punishing yourself for bad choices that you made long ago, if you can't stop trying to change something that happened long ago and wasn't in your control even then. . . then how do you stop?
[Lizzie says] "They're your thoughts, right? How can you not think them?"
Marla struggled to answer. "I don't know, but people do it. I think I let go of things, or at least try to. You have to, really, otherwise you're weighted down with all those cumulative bad memories. James and I used to talk about that baby missing from our lives, whether it was a boy or a girl, whether we could find out who adopted it, whether we'd ever forgive our parents, why we didn't just say 'Screw you' to them back then and get married after I got pregnant. I mean, you know, it was so present. It was always there in our lives. But if we kept that up there'd be no place for anything else. And now we just acknowledge all that awful stuff happened, that maybe we made the wrong decision, that we were just kids. We were just kids. You have to forgive yourself eventually, right?"
Lizzie's husband George got famous by explaining that, while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional, but his explanation doesn't work for Lizzie. George doesn't seem to understand that, for some people, that's liberating, but for others, it says that your suffering was your choice and therefore your fault. I'd offer Lizzie Season of Mists, because "you don't have to stay anywhere forever" worked for me, but how a story works depends as much on the reader as on the story.
Which is not to say that we shouldn't do our best to write good stories. This one has a stupid editing oversight that dumped me right out:
[Marla:]"I love you Lizzie, and always will. And I will always, always, keep your secrets. But this, what this means to you and George, is an important secret. It's not the equivalent of a little white lie. It'd be like me not telling James about the abortion."
[Lizzie:]"But James knew about the abortion, he was with you when you had it."
"Don't be deliberately naive, it doesn't become you. You know what I mean: some other James I was involved with."
What abortion, I wondered? Was there an abortion as well as a baby given up for adoption? When?
No, it must have been changed from an abortion to an adoption at some point. Which was a good change: it's believable that Marla would find it harder to move on with her life after carrying the baby for nine months, while knowing that there was a person out there that she felt responsible for but had no ability to protect. But leaving evidence of the change in the story made me notice how flat all the other characters are, how they are the way they are in order to serve Lizzie's story.
• What do you think you’ll read next?
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft.