In one of those little intellectual synchronicities that occasionally pop into the life of a graduate student of literature, this week I’ve been reading and reading about feminist autobiography. That’s not really the synchronous part, b/c what week these days doesn’t pass without a little bit of feminist autobiography in it? No, what surprised me with its recurrence was the question of how much self-revelation is desirable in writings by feminists.

It started on Monday when my creative nonfiction workshop discussed the first half of Alix Kates Schulman’s Drinking the Rain, a memoir of her life after 50, which includes long periods of living alone on an island off the coast of Maine, an extended outhouse scene, and a curiously disengaged attitude toward her husband. What I found surprising about this discussion was how many of the women in the class either 1) flat out didn’t like the book b/c they didn’t like the Schulman they met on its pages or 2) liked the book but didn’t like her as a person, and that was okay with us. I was part of group 2. I wasn’t sure the author/speaker of the memoir was someone I’d hit it off with, but that didn’t keep me from admiring both her undertakings and her writing, and feeling that there was a lot I could learn from reading it. And I’ll say that by and large it was the self-consciously feminist or at least slightly radicalized members of the class who fell in category 2 along with me… and we felt no apparent contradiction between saying we didn’t like Schulman/the speaker and saying that we admired her. When I noticed that, I did ask myself whether I had committed a crime against solidarity, though.

I needn’t have worried. The real women on women lit violence came Tuesday, this time over Katha Pollitt’s new book, Learning to Drive. I haven’t read it yet, but its review by Toni Bentley in the NYT and Rebecca Traister’s meta-review in Salon caught my eye, in part b/c they echoed the very same convo we had on Monday. Bentley says Pollitt’s being flaky by publishing such an unrigorously argued and predictably personal book, and Traister’s questioning her own cringe factor at what Pollitt shares. When does personal information become TMI when it’s coming from someone you already respect in other spheres? And if you’re a feminist, does telling people that you have occasionally done things that feminism would not recommend hurt the movement/set us back/give the enemy too much fodder?

The tizzy seems a little misguided to me–none of these are really books that promote themselves as feminist. It’s a strong undercurrent in all, but it’s not the driving force behind their creation and publication. In the case of Pollitt and Schulman, the distinction is even more emphatic–they have other tomes devoted to more intellectual considerations of feminism and American society. These books were explicitly something else, something much more personal. So the question becomes, do these books documenting that the authors have often lived in ways that seem contradictory to the ideas and arguments they have in other venues espoused and made parts of their living doing so weaken those other ideas and arguments?
My gut reaction is, no, of course not, but I can see how it’s a question that hasn’t exactly come up much before. Writers whose reputations are made in one way or another seem to have relative freedom to write all different kinds of books, and this includes memoir which is inherently prone to the unveiling of details that would be irrelevant in less self-oriented forms. I can think of plenty of good reasons for writers to do both though, and not just to make extra money, the chief of which being, it could be really entertaining.

But then came Wednesday, where in my southern lit class we finished discussion Selu: Seeking the corn mother’s wisdom by Marilou Awiakta. Last week we were all in love with this book, and this week we were all in hate. What happened? TMI. To radically simplify Awiakta’s text, the multi-generic form of the book was “double-woven,” meaning, it had a first half and a second half. The first half presents the main ideas about a Cherokee perspective on what’s missing in our culture and how to put it back, and the second half revisits these ideas and goes deeper into them. The first half I could pretty much get behind (she has a great scene where she explains why biology might be destiny, but for her it’s not the destiny that you think), but the second half just got a little too… exhortatory and biased… and coincidentally, it was more personal. I pretty much tuned out when she get to the part about how her mother told her abstinence was the only sound policy (okay, well, I guess, but not for the same reasons) and how women are naturally good cooks. Ugh! Keep it to yourself! I’d believe you more if I didn’t know you thought those things!

So, maybe calling a respected writer out for TMI, like most things in life, really is more about us–specifically, what we’d prefer to know or not know to keep that person in the box we can use her in. If memoir, feminist or any other variety, is clearly useful for anything, it’s definitely for being forced to confront the reality that human beings are much more complicated and self-contradictory than any theory they help create.


Donc je suis un malheureux

September 27, 2007

Yesterday was a strange mood day. It should have been my all out favorite kind of day: dark and rainy, a nice mix of library work, writing center work, school work, and actual class which I was actually prepared for, the prospect of an easy run on a fancy treadmill, dinner w/ D and Gossip Girl. Nothing too demanding, yet enough schedule activity to keep me from feeling lazy and unproductive either (a pathology in itself, I know, but I’m kind of at the why fight it phase on my need for full schedules). Instead, I kept feeling overwhelmed by sadness, as if there was a sinkhole inside of my chest that was constantly threatening to open up–like there was some feeling, some clarity, some sense of purpose that I just couldn’t reach, and I didn’t know what it was, and it was worse not to be able to identify it because, by all of my measures, I should have been fulfilling it exactly. Is this what they call ennui or something else? Everything’s better than fine and I’m still… inwardly mopish. This leads to frustration, and beneath that frustration, fear. Frustration b/c I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to combat the things that were bugging me in the short term, and it seemed to be working. Fear b/c, well, if even fixing all my problems doesn’t make me feel buoyant and adequate and purposeful, maybe those things are just not in the cards for me (or anyone, and thus Buddhism becomes an appealing option). I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because I don’t want overanalysis to cause this odd blend of feelings to carry over longer than it needs to, but of late I haven’t been particularly emotionally engaged w/ this blog, so this seemed like a chance to get back on the soul-baring track a bit. Maybe I’m just having writing hangover after churning out my first essay for creative nonfiction over the weekend.

After a coffee break, I am, however, feeling much better, because I picked up Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives from the stacks, and on the very first page is just the epigraph I need:

Thus I am unhappy and this is neither my fault nor that of life.

–Jules Laforgue

On September 13, 2007 the UN adopted its first Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to their press release, 143 member countries voted for it, 11 abstained, and 4 (that’s right, less than a whole hand worth of fingers) voted against it. Of course, the US was one of them, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

I’m not sure this story would have caught my eye unless I’d spent my spring semester of this year immersed in postcolonial theory, because these particular countries are, not coincidentally, all part of a special brand of colonizing force: the settler state. These are states built on gradual settlement rather than outright occupation and colonization, but with most of the same long term effects, including disenfranchisement and economic & social marginalization. To be clear, a lot of other settler nations with equally large indigenous populations signed, such as Brazil. I can’t say I’m surprised that my country of citizenship has felt the need to be so blatantly skeezy, but at least for once we are joined in our bastardom by our usually more virtuous neighbor to the north.

Even though the declaration, like the earlier declaration of human rights, is non-binding and spends a lot of time stating obvious things such as “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples,” it does have provisions which would basically establish indigenous populations as permanent sovereign segments of the settler state– thereby preventing assimilation, or just encroachment? More to unpack there than I have the brainpower for right now. It also says that there can be no more forced removals without prior informed consent and just compensation. And I’m guessing that’s the reason why all of us first world exploiter… I mean, settler states decided we’d best not sign our names. Being non-bound to basic human dignity and morality is just a little too much for us still.

I think Canadian blogger Soup is Good Food (brought to my attention via my Global Voices Online feed) pretty much hits the nail on the head with this analysis:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is/was non-binding. Now many parts of it are customary international law. It’s not perfect and violations still occur, but it’s there. It’s a global rallying point for change and justice. And that’s something.

Politicians have learned from this “mistake” of allowing non-binding seemingly harmless feel-good declarations in. It eventually causes problems. Which is why we now have four powerful countries with ongoing histories of disgusting abuses against indigenous populations having temper tantrums over the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Because heaven forbid we should sign onto something that would oblige us to do the right thing.

I guess the good news is that by refusing to sign on, these settler states are also tacitly acknowledging its disruptive power. If it was utterly toothless, why not just sign it and look like hypocrites?


September 21, 2007

My BoingBoing feed delivered a link to this Guardian showcase of writers’ writing rooms–a photo and brief statement each. Fun times. Some (Geoff Dyer’s) are drop-dead fabulous and others (Mark Haddon’s) are utterly charming, but the one that most resembles mine (well, I don’t have a room, I have a corner of a room) is definitely Sarah Waters’s, and I like her minimalist approach to space needs: “the truth is, I think all I need in a study is a flat surface, a computer, and a closable door.” True that–and I’ve been known to go without the closable door part. I also love the poster she has taped up over her desk, with a symbol of British life, the crown, and the words “Keep Calm and Carry On.” So I am reassured to find that looking at all these pimped-out writing rooms doesn’t make me want to rush out and re-decorate, but I have realized that the thing I want most from these rooms–the view outside the window— can’t be bought at Ikea or anywhere else. You have to move to England to get that. Sigh.

We had to read this “essay” (some kind of collection of her writings, perhaps not in any order she would have intended, I’m not sure) by Sei Shonagon for creative nonfiction this week. The title of the essay is “Hateful Things,” and I loved it so much that I risked motion sickness to read it to Daniel in the car while we drove down to Miami this past weekend. See, we have a lot of hateful things in common, for instance: “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.” Most hateful! The essay is just priceless, and timeless, and inspiring–I started my very own list of hateful things that same day. Ms. Shonagon, whose real name was probably Kiyohara Nagiko, was a 10th century lady of the court in Japan, and would that she had lived to blog. The girl had a seriously sharp tongue and highly refined aestethics. She’s perfect for that part of you that just can’t not get annoyed when people are stupid… or something is just plain annoying. So, I find that I have adopted her term for all things detestable. Henceforth, when something is truly offensive to my sensibilities, I shall simply refer to it as “hateful” or “most hateful” or perhaps “hateful indeed” if I am in need of some variety.

Here are a few of the first things on the list:

  • One’s husband turns the car radio to AM sports radio without warning or, preferably, permission. 
  • One’s least favorite hour-long NPR program comes on at the same time as one begins an hour-long drive.
  • There is a crosswalk ten feet away, and the young woman insists on leading her aged companion across the middle of the street, thereby causing confusion and delay in traffic as well as prolonging the danger to herself and the old woman. Worse, there is a crosswalk ten feet in either direction, and still the young woman persists in jaywalking.
  • The car dealership, in addition to applying its own name in metal lettering to the back of every new car it sells, also affixes a license plate frame and a decal, as if there could still be any confusion about where the person bought the car.
  • Hummers, especially pastel-colored Hummers.
  • When, instead of queuing up like everyone else who wants to get into the left turn lane, certain cars, especially luxury SUV’s, wait until the last possible moment to get into the correct lane to turn and expect to be let in at the last minute, holding up traffic both in the turn lane and in the through-traffic lane.

Indeed, most hateful!

It looks like the city of my birth might become a viable, non-visa requiring option for making sure one has access to healthcare no matter what the job situation turns out to be. Yay San Fran! Down with the haters and doubters and free market cult-heads, up with the people who would love to have regular, basic medical care even if they have no insurance.

And the number one thing of top ten things you could have realized, dear Legislators, if you’d thought about it for two minutes or cared at all. Combatting the rising cost of private sector insurance by draining public coffers never pays in the long run, or even the short run. How much is the average homeowner saving? Wasn’t that like $146? How exactly does $146 dollars replace a library, a job, a fire department?