Recently in gender Category
"I tend to like people who don't go on and on and on."
This special issue responds to the revelatory results of the 2010 VIDA count, which looked at gender in literary publishing.
With this issue of Brevity, we're offering you (if you're a woman) a chance to write back to the current situation. Here's the call for submissions on Submishmash, and we're reading pieces now.
If you send something, shoot me an email and let me know. I'll keep an eye out.
[It's my pleasure to present guest blogger Emily Levine, scholar and friend. --JC]
One of the problems of The Help—and there are many—is that, contrary to the reality of black women’s lives in the south in the 1960s, the only physical violence against them that we see is perpetrated by one of the women’s husbands—a black man.
From the time of slavery, through reconstruction and Jim Crow, into the
civil rights movement, black women were subjected to violence, often sexual, at
the hands of white men. And if they weren’t directly assaulted themselves, they
lived under the constant threat of that violence. Anytime, anywhere. Sexual
humiliation, beatings, rapes, abductions were all part of the daily terror that
black women lived with. We do not see any of this in The Help, a book/film that purports to be about the lives of black
women during the civil rights movement, a movement that Danielle McGuire makes
clear in her recent book, At the Dark End
of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil
Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, was in large part
a product of and response to that very violence against women. (And just as the
wives of plantations owners were perfectly aware of what their husbands were
doing down in the quarters at night, the wives of men during the civil rights
movement knew what their husbands
were up to. Their silence was complicity.)
During the 1980s, I embarked on a concerted self-education about black women’s lives in America. My readings filled the silences left not only by mainstream American history, but the history of blacks and the civil rights movement in particular. They included Gerda Lerner’s Black Women in White America (1972, Lerner had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in Austria), books about Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Black Women's Studies (ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 1982). (I look forward to the publication this month of Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.)
At the Dark End of the Street is a welcome addition to that list. I saw McGuire give a lengthy presentation on Book TV (that’s CSPAN on the weekends when Congress isn’t in session) and am currently reading the book. As a historian, I’m impressed by McGuire’s research—her work in countless archives, newspapers of the era, and interviews with women who lived through that violence has unearthed stories, history, which had been lost.
McGuire opens the book with the story of Recy Taylor, who as a young married mother walking home from church in 1944 Alabama, was abducted at gunpoint and brutally raped by six white men. The investigator sent by the NAACP to document the case was a young activist named Rosa Parks, who McGuire makes clear—in case people still don’t get it—was not, ten years later, a tired woman on her way home from work wanting to rest her feet, but a seasoned civil rights worker acting as part of a planned resistance. A resistance not just against having to sit at the back of the bus, but against the daily humiliations and assaults black women were subjected to riding the Montgomery buses.
The Help gives the impression the
most black women had to put up with—bad as they were—were indignities like
having to use separate toilets. While no trifling matters, these sorts of
things just don’t reflect terror that these women lived with. The Help also gives the impression that
these women were just too afraid to speak out about the humiliations they faced
working as domestics and that they needed Skeeter to prod them. On the
contrary, in the face of beatings, attacks on their homes, the inability to
protect their daughters, and the knowledge that justice might never come to
their attackers, black women did
speak out. Publicly. Individually and as part of actions by organizations like
the NAACP and women’s clubs. Their bravery was stunning.
We owe it to these women to acknowledge their stories, their lives. The Help doesn’t help. While it is good at portraying heartbreaking daily moments of life as a domestic in white homes during the 1960s, it doesn’t begin to show black women as the strong, active, political fighters and organizers that they were. As an antidote, I encourage you to read At the Dark End of the Street. I have always felt that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, to know the history. The history that McGuire gives us is chilling. It is not the feel-good self-righteous story of The Help. It is much more powerful.
Just read the preface; it’s more of a page turner than Skeeter, and Minnie, and Abilene. McGuire writes:
. . .yet analysis of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, which present it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like ‘Bull’ Connor. The real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African American women’s long struggle against sexual violence—has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African American’s daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement.
Emily Levine is the editor of With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History (U of Nebraska).
Got theories? VIDA offers a forum where you can send in your own thoughts about the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing.
Of course, the editors of these featured journals haven't accepted this critique of their gender politics lying down. Carolyn Zaikowski deftly takes on the rebuttals.
In local news, the big immigration symposium, Diverse Faces, Shared Histories, is all set for this Friday at the Great Plains Art Museum. Major folks like Nicole Guidotti-Hernández and Mary Pipher will be speaking. The evening reading at the Sheldon will feature readings by yours truly, together with Amelia Montes, Ricardo García, and Fran Kaye. Fun to read with a group! More like a party.
Another cool campus event will be on Wednesday, March 16, when my friend Jeannette Jones will be reading and signing her terrific scholarly book In Search of Brightest Africa. The reading's at 7:00 p.m. at the UNL Bookstore in the student union. Jeannette's great, and so is the book.
In other very local news, I'm super-happy to have won this year's UNL Sorensen Award for outstanding teaching in the humanities. They only give out one a year (and it's kinda ka-ching, when most teaching awards are little more than a handshake and a certificate), so I'm popping the champagne. Many, many, many thanks to Gerry Shapiro, who nominated me, and all the faculty and students who wrote letters on my behalf.
If you're interested in poetry and latinidad--or just questions of ethnicity, identity, and writing--then check out this amazing new project by Francisco Aragón, the Latino/a Poets Roundtable, featuring Maria Melendez, Blas Falconer, and nine other great poets. I'm looking forward to reading it slowly. There's a lot to take in.
Lastly, faithful readers, my contract for THE DESIRE PROJECTS is being negotiated as I type. (Love you, Mitchell the miraculous agent!)
Does this excitement make me nervous, scatterbrained, unable to focus, unable to eat? It does.
Am I dying to tell you? I am.
Am I prudent enough to wait until the ink is dry?
Just barely, lovely people. Just barely.
Then I got wind that the new issue of the journal of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Scholar & Feminist Online, had just pubbed, and it's gorgeous!
Called Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert, the issue is about all different kinds of feminisms and how they're working now. It's a beautiful, eclectic issue that includes scholarly pieces, personal pieces, pieces on drumming, singing, dancing, parenting. There are videos and artwork next to Sara Ahmed's piece "Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects)" next to Duchess Harris's "The State of Black Women in Politics Under the First Black President." There's a piece on fat, pleasure, and heterofemininity, a piece on women and tattoos--and, as if it weren't cool enough already, the whole journal has a soundtrack. (My contribution to the playlist is Irma Thomas & Galactic's awesome "Heart of Steel," which is great belted out when you're home alone.)
My own piece that's included, "On Becoming Educated," is a personal essay I read part of here at UNL this fall. It's about graduate school and the unsettling cognitive frictions around class, gender, and ethnicity that can occur there. On the whole, I loved my grad school experience, but this piece opens up a few particular moments of weirdness and thinks about what we can do as teachers to make school a welcoming place for everyone.
Since childhood, I've had the socially undesirable habit of remaining stupidly oblivious to gossipy or scandalous things. (You know that expression, "If you can't say something nice, come sit next to me"? Well, I usually have only the most tediously nice things to say. It's a weakness. Cocktail party suicide.) So anyway, I'd let the whole thing glide past my consciousness--until today, when it came up as a curveball question from another faculty member in a mock interview. (Our graduate student, I'm proud to say, handled it beautifully.)
After the mock interview, I checked out the story, and I was interested to read this commentary about it by one of the graduate students involved. I liked the way she talked about the fear and vulnerability of students from the working poor who try to acclimate to the strange norms of graduate school:
I connected with that; I could identify. She then suggests, however, that this vulnerability made her subject to Chávez's manipulation, since she saw Chávez as a role model, as someone whose own class markers suggested that she'd succeeded in academia despite not being originally from a financially comfortable background. Ergo, if she's doing sex work, then I should do sex work.I was afraid every day that I was in grad school, not because I was incapable of the intellectual work or lacked ambition, but because I kept making small social gaffes.
I'm sympathetic to a great deal of what she writes, yet I'm also a little tired. Thank goodness, for example, that no one in my graduate department ever pushed students--to my knowledge--into sex work, for heaven's sake, or organ harvesting or intellectual property theft. Moreover, one likes to think one would have made one's own choices based on one's own ethics, whatever the pressures may have been. And that if one made errors in judgment--decisions one later regretted--one would, as an adult, take responsibility for those. (In fact, it seems to me like that's what half of adulthood consists of. Sigh.)
Which (turning now and arguing with myself) I suppose the graduate student has done, and I wish her well. She has taken responsibility, she has thought about it, and she has learned something. And though it was hard to be certain from the pieces I read, maybe she functioned as a kind of whistle-blower, too, which is always a hard and brave thing to do. In which case, I wish her doubly well.
I felt so uncomfortable when I read about some of the choices Chávez made (at least as they were being reported; you know how sometimes media reduce or distort things). It's great to be a pro-sex feminist, and it's great to have fun parties. And of course, her own free time is her own business. But if she indeed suggested that students try sex work, especially to spice up their creative writing, that's troubling.
I really feel like students--of any level and age--are an almost sacred trust, that they are vulnerable, even if they're in their seventies, and that we as teaching professionals need to err on the side of professionalism, carefulness, and boundaries. Our job is to provide a crucible or petri dish or pick-your-metaphor where their creativity can grow, where they can explore their choice of material, where their work can be heard and helped and honored. I have had students who wrote the wildest, raciest, boundary-pushingest stuff, and I've had students write gorgeously about very "safe"-seeming material. But it comes from them, from their impulses and creative ambitions, not from mine. I'm there to listen, to support, to help with craft. To hear it into speech.
My classroom may be unspeakably tame, but I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say I prefer it that way.
I would like to add, just to defend the field, that this issue--the issue of confusion around boundaries, professionalism, and sexuality--is not at all specific to creative writing. Almost all women of a certain age can report the blurring of sexual boundaries in the academy in a variety of disciplines, and the white male tenured profs who practiced it were generally not subjected to major investigations. In some situations, it was even kind of a norm, something to negotiate, navigate, roll one's eyes about, and little more. (I remember leaving a reception at a distinguished scholar's home when I was an undergraduate and having him try to put his tongue in my mouth as part of his cordial good-bye. Ugh. Some of you probably have more troubling, serious stories.)
So I wouldn't say, Oh, those creative writers. They're wild. They don't have boundaries. While artists are known for pushing boundaries and experimenting in all kinds of ways, the sexualization of students by professors definitely happens across the disciplines, and unscrupulous people in all kinds of academic departments exploit those power relationships to their own ends.
Finally, "Ms. Chávez has accused her accusers, in complaints to the university and the state, of discriminating against her because she is bisexual and Hispanic" (this, from the Chronicle piece). When I first read this, I was initially like, Oh, no. Really? Is this really the time to play those cards?
But then I thought about the generations of sexual exploitation in the academy by white male heterosexual professors. Would such a national fuss have been made if she'd been white and male and had simply restricted herself to unphotographed, uncommercial activities with students?
And finally-finally, phone-sex work pays $40 an hour? When TAs are lucky to make $15K a year, that's pretty alluring. (Come to think of it, it's a damn sight more than lots of tenured professors make.) Ultimately, that discrepancy is far more troubling, in terms of what it says about what we value as a culture, than the actions of the particular individuals caught up in this situation.
But that's an old story.
A complicated case, this raises issues that aren't easy to untangle.
Here's wishing peace, justice, clarity, and rapprochement to everyone in the English department at the University of New Mexico, who could probably all use a nice long vacation at this point. And if you're on the job market this fall, you might want to think through some of these issues yourself--because if our mock interview today here at UNL was any indication, you just might get asked about them.
I'm a little nervous. Among the pieces Grey's going to do is one about what it was like for him to read my memoir The Truth Book, something he put off for four years after its publication, aware that it probably wouldn't be pretty. Wise child. But he took the plunge, and responded with words. I've read a paper copy of the piece, and that alone was intense enough to leave me torn up for a while. It won Grey a slam in Ohio, so, though I'm obviously saturated with bias, I'm not the only one who thinks it's strong work. So this evening should be interesting. It's kind of a rare and special privilege to now be in a two-generation cycle of making art from hard things.
On the topic of making art from hard things at a broader sociopolitical level, i.e., surviving U.S. history, the inimitable Honorée Fanonne Jeffers posted a bracing piece on why Women's Equality Day still doesn't feel so equal:
So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.
As far as how this woman's work is faring in the world of publishing, I received my contract for ISLAND OF BONES in the mail yesterday--hurray! But gentle readers, it looks like there's an error in it. A minor, dinky little error that, sigh, nonetheless means I can't just sign and be done, which I have so been looking forward to, because I don't like to celebrate until the ink is on the dotted line, and I do love to celebrate. Now: more waiting. C'est la vie.
Moving into a semester of teaching memoir-writing to graduate students, I was particularly grateful for what Lincoln said about art and claiming the right to one's own voice:
Amen. Writers, artists, everyone: go for it, and be glad.. . . "Oh, why don't you--why don't you shut up?" I think I've had that said to me more than anything else over the years when I was younger. "You talk too much." You know? "Don't rock the boat." Even though they're miserable--people are miserable--they'll tell you this. But you're not supposed to say anything about it.
So when I discovered that there was the world of the artist, it saved my life, because I could strive to be individual and as best as I could be. I didn't have to have money. I didn't have to have anything except my life.
And I went for that. And I'm glad I did.
I recently reread the three memoirs that my graduate workshop will be analyzing for craft strategies--Alice Sebold's Lucky, Rigoberto González's Butterfly Boy, and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss--and was knocked out all over again by their power. I picked books that deal well with really hard, hard material--intimate, tricky stuff like trauma, family, loss, shame, sex--because that's so much harder to handle, for us as writers, than, oh, I don't know, cooking or traveling or learning to tango, all of which are fun and interesting and can take you to deep and difficult places but don't necessarily do so. I learn best from urgent, crucial, driven writing that sticks close to the bone, "words that," to quote Kay Boyle, "must somehow be said."
And it's the how in somehow that we'll be analyzing in the workshop this fall. How does Sebold handle moments she can't fully remember, signaling to readers her lack of specific recall without breaking the flow of the scene? How does González use a real, literal journey to its fullest, richest advantage as an organizing structure? How does he handle shifts in time smoothly and clearly? How does he use descriptive language to suggest resonances between different characters, and how does he work on the page to be fair to the other people in his life? How does Harrison select details that function as object correlatives for the emotional story that's taking place?
Can you tell I love these brave and brilliant books? Getting to talk about this stuff with smart, talented, eager people for three hours every week--and then talk about the students' own work!--is a gift. For a dayjob, it's definitely pretty great.
In that regard, ladies and gents, I'm happy to say that THE DESIRE PROJECTS is finally off my desk. 408 pages of obsessively polished prose that publishing houses may or may not find desirable went into the mail to my agent on Friday--which is a great relief, since classes start on Monday. (When I have to say what I did last summer--and last summer, and the one before that--I'm just going to point mutely to that fat stack of paper.)
The draft came super-fast: on April 1, 2008, I had 22 pages of notes that I'd been dinking around on for about a year, just this and that, sketches toward an outline. By June 10, I had 364 pages. Since then, it's been revision, revision, revision. Expand, cut, edit, polish. Repeat.
And now it's that beautiful feeling, when the manuscript is out of my hands and out in the world. My agent and I haven't decided yet which publishers it will go to, but I'll be posting full reports here as the process unfolds this fall. (I'll try to keep my woes in check when those rejection letters arrive, but consider yourselves forewarned.)
Adding to the cheerful chaos of back-to-school preparations, Greyby arrives tonight (from California--by Greyhound) and will be here with us until early September (when he leaves for Massachusetts--by Greyhound; don't ask, it's a carbon-emissions thing), so the rest of my Saturday will be devoted to cleaning, laundering linens, and hanging shiny gold papel picado all around the room where he'll sleep. The Handsome Husband is out stocking up on vegan cookies and other sundries Grey likes. Hurray!
Ahhh. Family. The good kind. My two very favorite people in the world, right here with me, together for ten days. Forgive me if I look a little dreamy.
Meier fillets the reviews of her own book, The Season of Second Chances, which assessed it in terms of how well it conformed to or diverged from the conventions of chick-lit, as though chick-lit were itself the new neutral, the norm to which every book authored by a woman must be compared.Still, if Tom Wolfe had written "The Recessionistas," he would have noted the brands of shoes, the Birkin bags and the personal trainers. And he would have been praised for his attention to detail. . . .
But my concern is larger, for the issue is insidious: the way Chick Lit has been used to denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.
If you think it's not affecting our work, not affecting what the publishers are handed, not affecting the legacy we leave for future generations, you're wrong.
It's enough to make one wistful for the days when a pseudonym--Acton Bell, George Eliot, Anonymous--could cocoon a book in a sheltering layer of seriousness.
And what does that say about the state of things in 2010?
Congratulations to poet Carrie Shipers, whose collection Ordinary Mourning is just out (as in yesterday) from ABZ Press. To read three of her striking poems, go here.
Also right now, in the USA, an estimated two and a half million women--most of whom are women of color from the global South--labor as domestic workers, making possible the labor and leisure of all those who choose to leave the care of "the most precious elements of [their] lives: their families and homes," to others. Ai-jen Poo's essay looks at our interconnections, sketches out a feminist bill of rights for domestic workers, and calls for change:
The upside-down concentration of the world's resources and wealth in the hands of a small minority at the expense of the vast majority is in fact unsustainable for everyone. Domestic worker policy demands that we recognize and value the basic care that we all require to live and provides a model for reshaping our economy to serve our collective human needs.