March 2008 Archives
Meeting Dorothy Allison and serving on a panel with her was a personal highlight for me, as a long-time admirer, but I have to say that hanging out with the lovely Karen McElmurray, the inimitably hilarious Heather Sellers (who has a great blog, by the way), and our fabulous host Lorraine López for the rest of the week turned out to be great fun. We ate at great restaurants, drank lots of wine, and got to know each other better over stories of surprising things we have in common. I learned so much from them all and really had a blast.
Getting to hear Dorothy, Heather, and Karen read was wonderful. Dorothy read my favorite section from Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, the painful part about beauty (32-38) that always tears me up, and a section from her forthcoming novel. Heather and Karen gave beautiful readings, too, and I had fun reading sections from The Truth Book, the short story "A Notion I Took," and an excerpt from my new essay "Refusing to Pass," which I'm revising for the University of Michigan collection that Lorraine is editing on the symposium's topic. (A shout-out to Tayari Jones, who helped me revise it in its original incarnation as a conference paper for the 2007 AWP.)
Serendipitously, my old roommate from Bread Loaf, Bryn Chancellor (whom I thanked in the back of The Truth Book for being such a pal during those grueling days in the Green Mountains), is now in the MFA program at Vanderbilt, so we also got to catch up. She has a new story in Yalobusha Review, "Wrestling Night," that's so solid. It has all these lovely, dazzling little moments. Congratulations, Bryn!
The knockout highlight of the symposium, for me, was the performance on the last night by spoken-word poet Minton Sparks. Funny, touching, and savage by turns, she was a terrific performer. (Her accompanist was pretty awesome, too--she said he played w/Dylan for seven years.) It was a knockout performance, and Minton blew the room away. You can check out her stuff at her website, and if you have five minutes, you can even watch a little video sampler of some of the numbers we got to see. They're just snatches, though; you won't get the full effect, b/c the big power often comes in the turn in her last line.
I was so excited to learn about Minton's work--she's "about brilliant," as we used to say. I want to go back to Nashville soon to see her perform again.
Many thanks to Lorraine López for the months of planning that went into designing the symposium and her writing course on working-class women writers, and many thanks to her graduate assistants Bryn Chancellor, Meredith Gray, and Wade Ostrowski, for all the behind-the-scenes labor that made the symposium run so smoothly. I've put conferences together before, and it is a lot of work. These folks did a gorgeous job.
In honor of panelist Dorothy Allison, here's a passage from her book of essays Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature:
That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. I have learned with great difficulty that the vast majority of people believe that poverty is a voluntary condition. (15)And here's another little somethin'-somethin' from the same book:
. . . I have come to make distinctions between what I call the academy and literature, the moral equivalents of the church and God. The academy may lie, but literature tries to tell the truth. The academy is the market--university courses in contemporary literature that never get past Faulkner, reviewers who pepper their opinions with the ideas of the great men, and editors who think something is good because it says the same thing everyone has always said. Literature is the lie that tells the truth, that shows us human beings in pain and makes us love them, and does so in a spirit of honest revelation. (175)And here's a little shout-out to Firebrand Books, the folks who published Skin and a whole bunch of other great books. Firebrand's an independent lesbian and feminist press committed to racial and ethnic diversity, and they publish some great writers.
1) I am proud to be a woman and a mother and the first serious female contender for the presidency, but my gender is only a part of who I am, and it doesn't define or constrain me.
2) I am part of a generation that faced and still faces all sorts of gender slights and slurs, and I honor the women who came before me for their commitment to achieving equal rights for women in the face of that.
3) But I would ask the women of this country to stop engaging in petty warfare over who has suffered more—women or blacks, women or men—as it is corrosive and fruitless. This country was founded on the promise that you can become the best thing you can dream for yourself; you are not trapped by the worst thing that's ever happened to you.
4) Things have improved for women in America in the last decades. They are not perfect; there is still much to be done. But women have made enormous strides in a few short decades, and to suggest otherwise is to devalue the life's work of too many heroes of the women's movement.
5) It is possible, indeed it is probable, that just as women have faced barriers and obstacles and derision, so have Hispanics, so have blacks, and so have men. No one in America can corner the market on suffering. Who the hell wants to spend their life in a corner, anyhow?
6) Men. What are they thinking? (Pause for applause.)
7) But seriously, if we in this country are ever going to move beyond Hooters, beyond date rape, beyond the wage gap and the glass ceiling, beyond Girls Gone Wild, and bulimic 12-year-olds, we need to start working together. We need to work with men on the gender signals called out by the media and with business about the value of women workers. We need to talk to one another respectfully and listen to one another's complaints.
8) Men, we understand and honor that many of you are taking paternity leave and folding the laundry and eating takeout because we forgot to turn on the crockpot. We get that everything has changed very, very quickly, and it's hard to come home to a wife who's coming home at the same time. You are doing more than your dads ever did around the house, and we still get mad when you forget to clean out the lint filter. It's nuts. But it's getting better. Stay with us.
9) Married guys, don't fool around with hookers. Don't fool around with staffers. Don't fool around with interns or Supreme Court justices. It's insulting to us and to you and to them. Marriage has to mean something. Gov. Spitzer. Bill, darling. I can respect the heck out of your political achievements even as I berate you for demeaning marriage. Life is complicated that way. Deal, buddies.
10) People of America, I understand why some of you are anxious at the prospect of a woman president. Sometimes I am nervous, too. But it's time. Also, I am sorry about that whole cookie comment.
Honestly, some of this is just a tad cutesy for my taste, but I like #2, #4, and #7, and I'd love to hear those points get amplified in a smart, gorgeously crafted talk. A serious speech about gender could also address the root causes of and the best ways to end male-on-female violence in the U.S. and around the world. It could bring national, mainstream attention to efforts like the UN's Campaign to End Violence Against Women, Eve Ensler's V-Day's 10th anniversary celebration in New Orleans (wish I were going to be there!), and the myriad of regional and local grassroots programs that help women of all backgrounds lead better, safer, healthier, more autonomous lives.
Eve Ensler interviews Salma Hayek on V-Day, art, activism, and raising her baby daughter Valentina in this month's Glamour, btw. I like what Hayek says about the natural link between art and activism:Take issue w/Hayek's conflation of artist and entertainer if you want to, but her general point holds. Artists or not, we can all use our voices on behalf of each other, peace, and the world, no matter how tiny our platform.
Art and activism seem to go together naturally, the idea being that if you’re an entertainer, you can have a voice, and if you have a voice, you can make a difference. But if I were not an actress, I would still try to extend myself beyond my little micro-universe of my job, family and personal joy. I think that it’s important for every single person, no matter what they do in life, to participate in the well-being of humanity and the planet. Don’t let a year go by knowing you didn’t make an effort to do something—no matter how small—outside your own problems and drama.
If you've raised your voice this year, write in and tell us how you did it. Seriously! Don't be shy. You might inspire somebody else.
Dorothy Allison's work has been so important to me over the years--so deeply and profoundly encouraging--that I thought I'd dedicate a few blog posts to some of her unforgettable passages, like this one from her book of essays Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature:
I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer's courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough. And I know you can fake that courage when you don't think of yourself as courageous--because I have done it. And that is not a bad thing, to fake it until you can make it. I know that until I started pushing on my own fears, telling the stories that were hardest for me, writing about exactly the things I was most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn't writing worth a damn. (217)I'm so excited about meeting her. Lorraine López, who has organized the whole thing, is editing a book titled Beyond Our Beginnings, a collection of essays by "women writers who have grown up or lived in lower or working class homes before being vaulted by their literary gifts into the professional strata where they invariably confront feelings of guilt and unworthiness, familial betrayal and abandonment, imposture and fear of detection. The alienation they experience often provides a unique opportunity both for identity formation and for evaluation." I'm looking forward to reading the essays.
This morning, I watched the whole thing online. It was honest and smart, and it didn't pull punches in the interests of political expediency:
. . . [W]e do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.To watch the whole thing, you need 38 minutes; if you're a fast reader, the manuscript is available. Go here for either version.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.
Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
My favorite book about race relations in the U.S., which I've been teaching with for several years, is Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race. It's a great primer on white privilege, racial identity, the complexity of social identity, and the necessity of being actively, rather than passively, anti-racist. It's only about ten bucks, and it can affect your whole way of seeing the world. Tatum, a psychologist who studies the development of racial identity, is the president of Spelman College--and one of my personal heroes.
The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this: "What scent drives men wild?" After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon.And while dabbing crisped hog-flesh on your pulse points, contemplate Tina Fey's response in the latest issue of Vanity Fair to the persistent stereotype that women simply aren't funny.
"You still hear" it, she says. "It's just a lot easier to ignore."
*ad copy from Clinique
For more on exactly how big one's yacht should be, see the source article in today's New York Times.
And for more on how laughably easy it would have been to bust class-passing, race-passing, trauma-passing Margaret Seltzer on her fictions, see "Fooled Again," by Clark Hoyt, who writes that if Jack Begg, research supervisor at the Times,
had . . . been asked to do five minutes of checking in readily available public records, or had reporters and editors done it themselves before the newspaper bit, The Times could have been spared the embarrassment of falling for yet another too-good-to-be-true memoir from a publishing industry unwilling to accept responsibility for separating fact from fiction.What do you think? Is the publishing industry the culpable party here?
Kelly, the former managing editor of Prairie Schooner, served as the grad rep on the committee that interviewed me when I first visited UNL, and she's been lovely to know ever since.
After my own recent tome on the Seltzer topic, I enjoyed Kelly's brevity and clarity. I'll quote her short letter in full:
To the Editor:
Re “Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction” (front page, March 4):
I was disappointed to read of Margaret Seltzer’s attempt to pass off gang members’ stories as her own in her memoir, “Love and Consequences.”
Her deception is not only a betrayal of her editor and publisher, it is also a betrayal of the community of readers and writers — a community that relies on trust to share truth and meaning.
By pretending to have led a life she has not, and by passing off that lie as memoir, Ms. Seltzer has betrayed those of us who do have stories to tell and who attempt to write them honestly and faithfully.
Finally, she has betrayed what every nonfiction writer should hold sacred — the stories of other people.
As a person of privilege, Ms. Seltzer has appropriated the experiences of those who live in violence and poverty. People who live in extreme uncertainty often have only one thing they can, with certainty, call their own: their stories.
Kelly Grey Carlisle
Lincoln, Neb., March 4, 2008
Beautiful. I read Kelly's essay "Flotsam, Jetsam" in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Subtropics, and it was terrific. She's working on a memoir now.
The school's innovative founder, Zeke Vanderhoek, is basing his charter school's revolutionary salary system on research that shows that excellent teachers, more than any other factor, make the difference in the quality of education a school provides. The Equity Project Charter School will test his hypothesis that they should be compensated accordingly.
It's about time.
My favorite remark comes from 29-year-old teacher and TEP applicant Claudia Taylor:
“I’m tired of making decisions about whether or not I can afford to go to a movie on a Friday night when I work literally 55 hours a week. . . . It’s very frustrating. I’m feeling like I either have to leave New York City or leave teaching, because I don’t want to have a roommate at 30 years old.”Read the whole story in the New York Times here, and apply here.
Check out Rodriguez's lovely book Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times, which Rodriguez wrote "to convey the complexity of working with youths . . . most people would rather write off, but who are intelligent, creative, and quite decent. . . . Given other circumstances, these young people might have been college graduates, officeholders, or social activists."
I love it that the Community Engagement Advisory Committee included the arts in their model. "Art is the heart's explosion on the world," writes Rodriguez. "There is probably no more powerful force for change in this uncertain and crisis-ridden world than young people and their art."
When she was two, her father's adherence to the Jehovah's Witnesses' policy of refusing blood transfusions led to his death. Her subsequent childhood as a Witness, she says, was "cold," "heavy, dogmatic," and "fearful." At sixteen, she ran away from home and left the religion. Later, during a bout with cancer, she herself relied on blood transfusions to survive.
Now, through an ex-JW group in the U.K., she offers an online counseling service to people leaving the Witnesses. For someone exiting the religion, it can take a long time to explain to a therapist the Witnesses' many unique beliefs and practices--and their long-lasting ramifications. "Because I will already understand much of the background to their stories," she explains, "I'll be able to meet people right where they are."
Many thanks to Danny Haszard for the link. And here's my own interview about the recent Canadian sextuplet blood transfusion case.
And because of all that I'm reading on the topic, I need to disagree with one point in Mark Doty's "Bride in Beige: A Poet's Approach to Memoir" in the latest issue of Poets & Writers. A long-time admirer of Doty’s poetry and prose, I agree with and relish several of the points he makes, but I found myself drawn up short by this assertion regarding his book Firebird, a memoir I have happily taught:
. . . [S]ome memoirs are much more interested in the process and character of remembering than others; in these, it sometimes feels that memory itself is a form: associative, elusive, metaphoric, metonymic. Memory arranges sequences, heightens moments, makes the duration of some events vast or twinklingly brief, changes the colors or soundtrack or lighting of a scene in order to heighten emotion.In other words, memory is an artist. It fabricates. It exaggerates. Memory imagines—sometimes gorgeously—and memory lies. I agree. But "some memoirs," Doty claims nonjudgmentally, are simply "more interested" in those airy mental moves than in the facts that ground them. He sees his own book as "allegiant to memory, not to history." The key, for Doty, is capturing "the texture of subjectivity."
But that's a slippery slope, isn't it? What about a memoirist, like Seltzer, whose subjectivity apparently includes a very high comfort level with deception and appropriation? Or what about a memoirist whose subjectivity includes fantasies of having been a Jewish Holocaust survivor raised by wolves, as was the case with Misha Defonseca, who recently said,
The book is a story, it's my story. . . . It's not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.Or what about even a well-meaning (I believe) memoirist like Ishmael Beah, whose subjective, traumatized, uncorroborated memory apparently took the liberty of expanding his time as a child soldier from months (at the age of fifteen) into years (beginning at age thirteen)?
Doty gives his own minor example of an overly creative memory:
In Firebird, I claim, for instance, that we lived . . . on Ramses Street. It wasn't until I went back to Memphis after the book was published that I learned there was no such place. But the town was named for an Egyptian city, and I'd been fascinated by mummies in a museum, and our front porch had fat, tapered columns just like the ones in the pictures of Luxor in my book of archaeology—so you can see how I got there. Had I known that I was inventing this, I would have made that invention a part of my text, since the process of misremembering is itself revealing. But I never looked at a map to try to confirm my memory, though I know there are memoirists who would.Myself, I'm one of those pesky, pedestrian "memoirists who would." I'm not sure what drove Doty to write Firebird, but in writing my own memoir, I had a lot at stake. As a child, I had been accused of lying when I reported molestation, so I was already hesitant to speak out. Moreover, my book reveals the inner workings of a little-understood religious sect and the private pathologies of an abusive home; I knew that some readers could be skeptical of and perhaps even hostile to those revelations.
So it was important to me, as my book went to press, that everything be strictly verifiable. Though my book claims to be my story and my story alone, I understood that it might also be read as a social document, the way Ishmael Beah's story has been read as one way of gaining insight into the terrible, traumatized world of child soldiers.
Because I knew it would be read that way--and for the sake of other children suffering from abuse or religious manipulation--I wanted my book to stand not only as art but also as a reliable social document, which meant it had to be factual, corroborated, at every possible point. To accomplish this—to include not only my own personal, subjective memories of events but also every feasible good-faith effort to verify them—I relied on maps, photo albums, a baby book in my mother’s hand, religious literature, files of legal documents, newspaper accounts, and, finally, my adult brother's corroboration and approval of what I'd written. (So there was no sibling to come forward and reveal deception, as was the case with Seltzer.)
When an adapted excerpt from The Truth Book was to run as the "Lives" column in the New York Times Magazine, the Times, burned by its own scandals, required me to FedEx a huge file of photocopied documents (including my parents' divorce decree from the 1970s) to verify every claim or allusion in the piece. Their fact-checkers also called the relatives mentioned in the piece, in order to confirm the story. They vetted everything. Why can't publishing houses make a similar good-faith effort?
Doty’s essay continues:
My interest was in how it felt to be that boy, in the world as he understood it, and that world is a construction, a set of associations tinged by obsessions and fascinations, a landscape as interior as it is external. It is, in other words, a poem.Ah, a poem. Sorry to be pedestrian and literal in my capitulation to generic categories imposed by publishers, but the back cover of my copy of Firebird says "BIOGRAPHY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY," not "POETRY." Maybe that's the space Doty's carving out for his practice of memoir here, and we can agree to disagree. But I have to wonder, too, about the bottom line.
Because we can all write dreamy, unverified reminiscences, and we can publish them, too. There's a whole category for them; it's called autobiographical fiction, and its practitioners are legion and canonically esteemed. But the bottom line is that, today, if your book is pitched as fiction or poetry, it won't sell as well in our current reality-TV publishing market. And money seems to have an awful lot to do with the most egregious scandals. A whole lot of dollars have been changing hands for these non-memoirs and inaccurate memoirs. Over a million for James Frey's Oprah-endorsed book, if I’m remembering correctly; about a million for Ishmael Beah's; something close to but "less than $100,000" for Seltzer's. Misha Defonseca stood to gain an additional $22.5 million, had her fraud not been exposed.
So enough with the rationalizations, already.
"I just felt that there was good that I could do," said Margaret Seltzer in an interview after the story broke. Oh, really?
"Someone will have to make an outline, draw a map and pass it around, with a pencil and an eraser and no thought of ownership. The voices of individual authorship and the duly elected will need to give way to the repositories of community wisdom. For the first time in centuries, wisdom will need to be seated beside intelligence, a second light to cut the deep and unknowable dark."