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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

New Candor

April 10, 2014 | by

Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.

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A portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton, 1864.

Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”

It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.

Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say? Read More »

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Nothing Is Alien: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

April 7, 2014 | by

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When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”

Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.

“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.

Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.

The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.

I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?

There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »

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Grrrl, Collected

July 30, 2013 | by

Riot Grrrl Collection by Lisa Darms

A few years ago, I started a collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections to document the feminist Riot Grrrl movement in its formative and most active years, from 1989 to 1997. Originally a reaction against the failures of punk to extend its DIY model of empowerment to women, Riot Grrrl encouraged young women to form their own bands, self-publish personal stories and revolutionary agendas in zines, and carve out safe spaces in a violent, misogynist culture. Riot Grrrl was not a centralized movement, and many of the donors to the collection never called themselves “riot grrrls.” I never did, even though I went to the shows, read the zines, and identified as a punk and a feminist. Looking back, I see Riot Grrrl as descriptive of a moment as much as a movement: one that many young people now seem to want to study, learn from, and revivify. This summer, the Feminist Press published The Riot Grrrl Collection, my book of almost 350 pages of selections from the collection. Below are a few of my favorites.

Kathleen Hanna flyer

This flyer, a pre–Riot Grrrl “manifesto” that was later repurposed for the minizine Riot Grrrl, is the first image in the book. Kathleen told me she made it in 1989, when she was volunteering at Safeplace, Olympia’s long-lived domestic-violence shelter and advocacy organization. Designed so that it could be folded up into a small rectangle with the word trust on top, this flyer was both a secret invitation and a public announcement, much like Riot Grrrl itself. Read More »

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Filling the Silence: An Interview with Marie Chaix

February 25, 2013 | by

xChaixTo call Marie Chaix’s work autobiographical would be incomplete, though most of her books tell and retell the stories of her life. Her writing is porous and breathes memory, attesting to memory’s transience and the impressions it leaves on the body.

At the age of twenty-six, Chaix read the notebooks her father had kept during his ten years in prison following World War II. Unbeknownst to her family, he’d been the right-hand man of pro-German Fascist collaborator Jacques Doriot and had fought in the Wehrmacht beside him. This was a shock and became the topic of Chaix’s first book, The Laurels of Lake Constance. Like many of Chaix’s works, it hovers somewhere between memoir and fiction. In June, Dalkey Archive Press will publish The Summer of the Elder Tree, translated by Chaix’s husband, Harry Mathews. It concerns her ten-year hiatus from writing following the death of her editor and reincorporates many of the places she visited in The Laurels of Lake Constance and in her second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life, which Dalkey published late last year.

Chaix spoke to me on the phone from her home in Key West.
 
As someone who writes a lot of autobiography, do you believe that a story is preexisting—that a writer’s job is to find it, retrieve it, and record it—or is there some invention in autobiography?

Well, I didn’t realize it before writing, but in general I discovered that, even if you have characters that you know very well—even if you write about yourself, about your “life,” your memories—the result is exactly the same as if it was fiction. I think that readers know that it’s autobiographical because writers care when it’s autobiographical, but they read it and think about themselves, which is what happened to me.

But I think writing doesn’t work like that, you know? Of course, you have a motive, you have yourself, you have your family. But they become completely—and even yourself—you become completely part of a larger world, a larger story. Read More »

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The Road to Harburg

May 12, 2011 | by

Mom Smoking, C- Print, 30’ x 40’, 1969. Courtesy of Marilyn Minter.

The passenger looked down at the map in his hands, printed on the back of an exhibition invitation. “I haven’t seen her in more than ten years,” he said, referring to the artist Marilyn Minter.

“That’s really nice of her to invite you,” I replied while downshifting and turning off the autobahn.

“She didn’t.”

We’re thirty minutes late, driving to Minter’s first exhibition in Germany, an ambitious survey of her work over the past two decades, as well as early photographs she took—while still an undergraduate art student—of her mother, a drug addict. (These photographs caught the eye of Diane Arbus when she visited the class.) Their portrayal of Minter’s mother, surrounded by instruments of vanity, would set the precedent for the artist’s critique of glamour, artifice, and the cult of beauty.

I first saw Minter’s work on billboards around Manhattan in 2006, when Creative Time commissioned the campaign. The painting Stepping Up (2005), a close-up of a woman’s dirty ankle and blackened sole, balancing on a bejeweled Dior heel, was among the most memorable for me: it was a feminist hijacking of high-fashion marketing and lifestyle propaganda. That same year, a work by Minter was selected as the coveted cover image for the Whitney Biennial catalogue. Minter’s art, both glamorous and gruesome, portrays the trappings of a particular elite milieu. It’s both seductive and self-destructive, decadent and voracious—a mix of high society, profane beauty, and eroticism in today’s culture of consumption.

Spiked, 8’ x 5’, enamel on metal, 2008. Courtesy of Marilyn Minter.

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Dorrie Glenn Woodson

December 22, 2010 | by

Dorrie Glenn Woodson, 1956. Photograph by Harold Feinstein.

I was encouraged to reach out to pianist Dorrie Glenn Woodson by her first husband, the photographer Harold Feinstein, and she and I met in person in New York before last Thanksgiving. Dorrie, seventy-six years old, had naturally gray hair that was long and free flowing, parted down the middle, and it framed her glasses in the style of Gloria Steinem. Among jazz musicians, no appearance is unconventional (except a rigid one), so I didn’t think about hers until we talked on the phone a few weeks later: When she described her parents, I couldn’t visualize them in her. She was born Dorothy Meese in 1934 on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line; her father farmed fruits and vegetables and peddled them in nearby towns, and her deeply religious mother practiced the dawn-to-dusk farm traditions with dedication and care. The Dorrie I met was a long way from the farm.

Young Dorothy displayed a touch and dexterity on piano beyond her years; she won talent shows and admiration. The radio brought Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, and other African American musicians into her home, in a nearly all-white region. She was transfixed. Her dreams of being a professional jazz pianist distilled and grew more potent. In 1952, after a talent show in Salisbury, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Dorothy met an African American bassist and singer in the Herb Jeffries vein. He was from Frostburg, Maryland, and twenty years her senior. They began a long-term relationship, in secret due to the scandal of interracial romances at the time. She gained confidence in her ability to make impressions musically and generate opportunities for herself. Things seemed hopeful. But she’d grown up with no sex education—nobody uttered a word about it—and birth control was still illegal and often unreliable. It was double jeopardy.

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