Pandering? Yes, I’m Aware. No, I do not give a Damn What the Old White Men Think, and I Never Have. Welcome to the Outpost. 

Claire’s Essay

What am I talking about? This essay, above, by Claire Vay Watkins, in Tin House, which is the topic du jour in literature. And good for her. In it, she admits that she has spent her writing life trying to get the attention of the Old White Men who generally run the journals, MFA programs, and critical outlets that determine who receives attention as a writer. Who, for that matter, is even considered a writer, as opposed to A Girl. (Or, I would add, An Old Feminist.) We should always be thinking about it. Because it’s not just the white men in the literary community. It’s also the white women. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent worrying and wondering how I can open The Rumpus up further to diverse voices. (If you have thoughts, please share them with me.) She has been writing to OWM, she discovers, and not to women, or the rural poor, of people of colors, or other constituencies.

The scales having fallen from her eyes after years of being dismissed by the aforementioned OWM, we should burn the system down, she suggests. And about time. Perhaps now there are enough famous women writers to scorch it good.

It is interesting to me that in this apocalyptic vision, she does not acknowledge the feminist presses or editors who have for years been building an alternate system of presses, journals, and anthologies.

When I began writing, there were only the handful of women writers deemed good enough to be in anthologies edited by men–women such as Katherine Anne Porter, Emily Dickinson, and a very few others–most of whom were given a mere mention in lit classes, and a very few brave women who wrote for women and were taught then mostly in women’s studies classes–Marge Piercy, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, for example.

I started first Wild Dove Studio & Press in 1990, and then Jane’s Stories Press Foundation in 2000, with a few feminist friends, in order to bring more attention to women writers. A few of the women we published early have gone on to receive some attention from the larger lit world that includes Claire’s Old White Men: Gayle Brandeis, Yolanda Nieves, among others. And some, whom I greatly admire, are women like the poet Alice Friman, who lives comfortably in that territory policed by OWM, but still responds to and writes work that speaks especially to women as well. And then there are women like my mentor, Christine Swanberg, who writes and speaks to people who interest her wherever and whomever they may be: aging hippies, people of faith, fellow and sister travellers, some eight books of well-received poetry published through what Christine calls a “dance with the [male] editors,” a dance she has tried to teach me, but which I have failed to learn.

At both Wild Dove and Jane’s Stories, we deliberately set out to publish women of color, and we have done so consistently. It has not been hard. In my box today, is also a letter from Marisa Siegel, the somewhat new editor of The Daily Rumpus, a journal begun by Stephen Elliott, a man whose sexist assumptions are called out with bravado by Watkins in the essay that prompted this posting. Siegel notes of the subject of Watkins’ essay, “We should always be thinking about it. Because it’s not just the white men in the literary community. It’s also the white women. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent worrying and wondering how I can open The Rumpus up further to diverse voices. (If you have thoughts, please share them with me.)”

I have thoughts, Marisa, and I offer them here:

Include people of color, members of the physically-challenged community, people of various sexual orientations and identifications, and any other diverse voices on your board. Keep a list of those whose work catches your eye in other publications, and ask them personally to submit work to you. Most of all, listen. Listen. Read publications from, to those communities. Send them your calls for submissions.

Recently, I had the experience of being asked personally to submit work to Drunken Boat, an online publication I’ve long admired, by the special edition editor, Tiffany De Vos. I was most impressed that she had done her research and found the handful of Romani-American writers working today, and asked each personally to submit. The result was the first-ever literary collection of Romani voices in the U.S. That, Marisa, is how you do it.

Affirmative action in any field is not hard. However, having been an academic administrator serving on search committees and an editor on both women-only and wide open publications, I can tell you that it is a process that is easily subverted by those who resent giving up their privileges. It is a process that must be guarded fiercely and defended loudly. It must become the mission of all.

Watkins urges us to tell the truth. So here goes, Claire. For all the years I have been trying to promote women’s voices in literature, I have been dismissed repeatedly by OWM (Rick Campbell, are you listening?) but I have also been dismissed, overlooked, snubbed, turned down with disdain, and otherwise dissed repeatedly by female lit professors and MFA students. One professor whom I published and promoted in a reading did not even bother to come over to the Other Words conference table where I was promoting my recently published novel to say hello. Nor did she come to the session where I spoke. I certainly doubt that she bought or read my novel. Instead, she stuck with her academic crowd and read to applause by the OWM. Two others whom I also published did not bother to write blurbs for my book, one excusing herself by saying it must be “somewhere” in the stack of books on her table. (Many others did, and I am most grateful to them.)

So, this warning, Claire: You’re asking for women to stick together and promote each other. You’re asking for women to call out violations of the affirmative action process. You’re asking women to call out men who may determine their tenure, their acceptance, the review of their own next book. You’re asking for the feminist presses and journals to become obsolete in order to help create One Fair System for all.

My novel was published by a quietly fierce feminist at Twisted Road Publications, Joan Leggitt, who is interested in voices that have been marginalized, male or female. I can’t foresee a time when there will be no need for editors with vision who seek out those on the fringe who have plenty to say and can say it well. No matter how fair the system, there will be voices from the outskirts calling for the boundaries to be extended.

You are asking for folks in academia to stop patrolling the boundaries and to start listening all the way to the edge of the Known Universe. Wow, what a world that would be. Count me in. I have spent years listening for you from the outpost.

Sports, Metaphors, and the Dixie Chicks

My husband and I have a private joke that he can move any conversation to the topic of sports with one sentence. He probably thinks I can do the same with politics, but is much too nice to say it.  

 However, what my dearheart excels at is understanding metaphor, whether it’s the visual references in painting or the much bigger picture of how this civilization of ours functions. Going to an art museum with him is heaven; so is sitting around with a couple of glasses of wine and chewing the fat. The fact that I refuse to watch sports with him probably makes me less than his dream date, but, then, I’m good at producing game day food. 

One of his insights lately was finding this marvelous writer who is a former sports journalists, and, boy, does she have some thing to say, and she does it with clarity and gusto. Here’s a quote from one of her essays about why we need more women who speak up and out in popular music:

“We can’t force bravery and truth, but we need to try to get more of it out there. When we do great things, we want people to know about it to inspire others – even if it is just one other person. Shouldn’t we feel the same about the shitty stuff? Shouldn’t we want people to know about it to save someone else – even if it is just one person? Come back, Dixie Chicks.”

So now that I have managed that trifecta of sports, writing, and the Dixie Chicks and you’ve read the quote, you want to read it, don’t you? Here’s the link:

https://mollyyanity.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/more-womens-voices-a-plea-for-a-dixie-chicks-comeback/

A Reader’s Survey, Courtesy of Emma, in Glasgow (otherwise known as Blue Chicken Ninja)

I’m doing this survey because a blogger I admire asked all of her readers to do so. Find her site at /. I would love to see everyone’s answers to this, too!

1. What is your favourite book?

This is always difficult to answer, because my thoughts on it change from day to day. One book that consistently stays on my top ten list is Sugar Cage, by Connie May Fowler. Her characters break my heart over and over, even as I revel in her lush descriptions of Florida. And, like the author, I believe there’s magic in life, especially when we forgive those who cause us pain.

2. What are your goals? For the year? For your life?

My goals right now are to continue to promote my novel and to keep my family close. Last year was one of many changes, and we are all adjusting and looking forward, as well. Marketing myself is a challenge. I’d rather eat beets ground in glass. But connecting with readers, booksellers who really love books, and, especially, old friends who come out to readings in support are all pure joy. I’ll get better at managing the details and the on-the-fly communications, I promise. My publisher and publicist will be glad to hear that last part.

3. Are you a writer? If so, tell me about your work.

I am a writer. You can find some of my short stories and poems by googling me on line. I also wrote a nonfiction title and edited four anthologies by women writers with Jane’s Stories Press Foundation. This past year, my first novel, Eve’s Garden, was published by Twisted Road Publications. It’s a story about a girl who struggles with her identity, especially after the losses of her best friend and her role model at the same time. She finds herself through coming to terms with her secretive mother and discovering the legacy of her Romani grandmother. I wrote a lot of romance into it, because I’m a sucker for good guys who give women the space they need.

4. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

India. I want to see the land of my ancestors, visit elephants, the Ganges, and the Hindu Kush. Those are the mountains through which my ancestors traveled when they were brought as prisoners of war out of their homeland. I want to pay respects to their spirits there.

And Scotland, again. On my first trip there, I couldn’t make it to the far west Inner Hebrides, to the Isle of Canna, for which my much-loved grandmother was named. So, next time, we fly into Glasgow. Maybe I’ll get to meet Emma!

Also, reading Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters made me want to visit Brazil.

5. What was the last movie you saw in the theatre and was it worthwhile?

Selma. Oh, my goodness, yes! I hope everyone will see it. It made me cry but also reminded me of the incredible dignity shown by the civil rights demonstrators. I saw it in real life with my own eyes, and it has always fed my soul, but the movie is like a concentrated dose of hope for human enlightenment.

6. I’m curious, are there any books that you’ve tried to read and simply couldn’t finish? This is a no judgement zone.

I really don’t like The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. It’s so claustrophobic I had to put it down. But I love her other novel, The Little Friend. And I have never finished reading any Proust work, though I like much of what he had to say. Never finished any Joyce, either. I am interested in distilled thought, rather than the experience of thinking. My own head is enough of a laboratory for me.

7. Are you currently working on a new book/project right now? If it’s secret, you don’t have to tell me about it. If so, however, I hope it’s going well.

I’m working on two novels at once. The first is called The Man Who Loved Chocolate, and it’s an offbeat love story set on Chicago’s Near West Side. It’s about the disconnects from reality that affect our understandings of each other. It takes patience for a bumbling bookseller to reach a florist who is oddly attractive yet terrified to fail, even as together they embark on trying to help a homeless woman whose stroke led to amnesia. Sometimes it takes patience to connect with people who exhibit odd behavior, but there are often rewards in befriending them.

The second novel is called Provenance. It’s set in my native Upstate South Carolina, it includes some interesting sidelights on the history of that area, and it’s about greed and what it does to us as individuals and as a species. Make no small themes, I say!

8. If you could live in any of your favourite books, which one would you choose?

Oh, Hogwarts, from the Harry Potter series, for sure. Who wouldn’t want to learn magic and have loyal friends and such strong mentors? And the animals alone are worth the trip.

But I would also love to travel back to Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley to contemplate the miniature worlds available to women of that time, and also to Edith Wharton’s turn of the century New York City.

And if I could spend just one day in Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh, I would be a very happy woman.

9. Are there any book-to-movie adaptations that you think are just incredible? That you absolutely hated?

I did not enjoy the Keira Knightley-Benedict Cumberbatch version of Pride and Prejudice. If that is the only version of Elizabeth Bennett you know, please see the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth version. It took me several tries before it clicked for me. Once I got Elizabeth’s determination to choose her own path, as well as the humor of the foolish minister and her mother, as well as the way they play foils to Elizabeth’s sincerity and self-assurance, it became one of my favorite books. But I know some people can’t stand it. So be it. Jane keeps marching on, and there are many books in the sea, so to speak.

10. What do you look for in a book that you want to read? What’s the first thing to capture your attention?

I read the first page. If the prose grabs me, pulls me into the author’s world, I’m done for. Then I usually look at the description on the back cover to get a better idea of what I’m in for, and sometimes I peruse the blurbs to see if any of my favorite authors liked the book. And I often will read the Acknowledgments page to get a sense of who the author really is.

11. If you’re an author, what do you do when you first get an idea for a book?

Take notes! Usually on my iPhone, then I transfer them to Word. This is often followed by many long walks in the woods, where I meditate on why this particular story might be worth exploring and how to approach it.

12. How do you feel about different genres? Romance? YA? Sci-Fi? Poetry? Do you have any favorites? Any least-favourites?

I love sci-fi and fantasy, but I’m very picky about what I read. I’m not interested in dystopias or entering a video game. I’m looking for a deeper understanding of human nature and the Universe. Give me something to chew on, and I’m in. I do often read YA, because some authors like Anne Heltzel in Circle Nine and Sherman Alexie in The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are doing a better job of tackling subjects like domestic abuse and discrimination against mixed-blood people than we are as a society. I read them to get perspective on what we’re doing right and wrong as an older generation, and also because there’s some great writing in that genre.

13. If you could meet any writer in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?

Oh, wow. Well, I have gotten to know some role models, like Connie May Fowler and Dorothy Allison and Diana Abu Jaber, and that’s been a great privilege. I try to find workshops that will put me in touch with writers I admire, so I can learn directly from them. I am Facebook friends with the poet Camille Dungy, but I would love to sit down and talk to her at length about poetry, about California, where she lives and which she loves so exquisitely in her poems, and also about the state of the world, because she takes a really long view with a calm that I don’t feel and would love to explore.

And who wouldn’t want talk to J.K. Rowlings? What a human being!

14. Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

I much prefer fiction, but I read a lot of nonfiction, especially history, as background for my work. I adore atlases!

15. Are there any characters that everyone loves that you can’t stand? Or vice versa?

I didn’t like anyone in Gone Girl. We’re not necessarily supposed to like them, since the book is about pretense and deception, but the book tired me out.

16. What do you like to do besides reading/writing?

Traveling. Just about anywhere. It’s the feeling of not knowing what’s around the corner that I crave. And I garden and watch the skies.

17. If you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?

I’ve wanted to be of practical use in changing the world. I’ve accomplished a bit of that, but no one tells you that you have to push on and on, that the world keeps throwing up problems to solve. When one campaign ends, another begins. The world–really, I mean humans, let’s face it–needs a lot of changing. Pushing the evolutionary envelop is a lifetime job. Through writing about behaviors that I feel hold us down as a species, like racism and greed, I try to put a positive but grounded-in-reality message out into the world. I really want us to deserve the whole Universe.

18. What is your favourite guilty pleasure book?

Anything by Alexander McCall Smith. I’m hooked on Scotland, ancestral home of my mother’s family, and will read or view almost anything set there. Except Trainspotting. I kept closing my eyes.

19. Do you have a reading goal set for this year?

Nope. I have given up setting goals. I am always hanging on by my fingernails.

20. Ask yourself anything that I haven’t asked. Random fact. Weird human trick. Whatever.

I’m allergic to so many foods that feeding me is pure frustration. I take food wherever I go. It can be embarrassing trying to respond to gracious hosts.

I tag everyone to do this next. Why not? Like most self-surveys, it clarifies a lot.

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Balancing Male and Female Traits, or Merely Being Human?

That still seems to be the question.

I was intrigued by the article below, particularly its definitions of how a woman would know if a man were “really” a feminist. (Do some men truly pretend? Yes, I suppose that has been the case for some years now. I remember a man who felt the need to lecture me in the 90s that we women “shouldn’t blow” the legality of abortion–as if he and perhaps other men had somehow gifted it to us!)

But I am a bit thunderstruck at the suggestion toward the end of the article that some women are reluctant to talk about their feelings. It makes me want to exclaim, “Oh, dear, that isn’t what we meant at all!”

What do you think? Has the pendulum swung toward female “cold fishes?” Is it swinging still? And, if so, where would you like it to be?

Here’s the article. See what you think.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-to-find-a-feminist-boyfriend/2015/01/02/ebd9ed10-8f7b-11e4-a900-9960214d4cd7_story.html?hpid=z2

The Women’s Web

Electronics notwithstanding, I’ve been meditating today––via my word processor, of course––the web of support that women the world over depend on, a web comprised largely of women sharing resources. This has been part of my “marketing hat” work for promoting Eve’s Garden, explaining what the novel is really about. The three women whose interwoven stories comprise the novel rely on the other women in their lives for resources as varied as makeup, childcare, midwifery, and abortifacients. In our modern healthcare system, many consider a midwife a relic of the past, but it’s important to consider, I think, that a midwife in much of the world is a very respected figure, often the only aid many women can find during a perilous delivery.

And then there are what I call the “girlfriend’s bag of tricks:” help choosing a dress for an important occasion, teaching the latest dance steps, listening to our endless litanies about the men in our lives or that spat with another girlfriend that you can’t quite get over.

All these tricks and trades show up in Eve’s Garden. In some ways, I guess it’s a love song to the women in my life who are my heart sisters, as well as all my girl cousins, my aunts, my mama and grandmothers, and my one very singular sister by birth.

I’ve called on every one of them for all these kinds of help, and more, for this daunting task of launching a book.

I have ordered tons of wine and chocolate to get us all through it.

 

Mortality’s Pink Slip

Today I spoke with a young romni (Romani woman) about finding my gr-gr-gr-grgrandmother’s name on a list of slaves on a Barbados plantation, and also about our attempts every year to persuade the UN’s office of Holocaust Outreach to include us in their annual remembrance ceremony. We both cried a bit. 

 

Tonight I read the poem by Rachel Hadas, “Pomegranate Variations,” with these lines:

 

The fruit we pass around is recollection

. . . .

Mortality’s pink slip,

ticket to a certain season . . .

 

In my novel, Eve’s Garden, Eve’s grandmother, Evangeline, explains to her children how her Romani ancestors came through such oppression as being driven out of their homes by arson, were denied housing and safe passage, and were ultimately sold into slavery. She plants for the children cuttings from the pomegranate trees grown by her own grandmother, trees from which she harvested the fruits, processing the seeds and pulp into extracts to help her neighbors, in that time before pharmaceuticals, to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Those same neighbors turned against her, the same lack of charity experienced again and again, experienced even today, by Romani families in France, in Italy, in Hungary, and more places, but especially in parts of Eastern Europe. 

Today, as we observe the anniversary of the night when the remaining Romani women, men, and children were murdered in Auschwitz, I think of my ancestors, what they have endured and overcome to bring us here. And what yours must have done to bring us alive, together, to this moment.

Mortality comes for us all. Compassion takes but a moment, but may be remembered for a lifetime, and celebrated for many lifetimes. May we live so that they survive forever. 

 

Mourning and Dissent Are Two Different Things

I hated the Viet Nam War. I feel very angry even today toward Robert MacNamara and the other minions who lied to us all about how the war was going and how it was being fought. Especially MacNamara, because in his memoir, before his death, he admitted that he lied, that he was wrong to keep pushing for more weapons and more soldiers, that the analysis and policy directives he offered to President Johnson was based on lies, that he was blinded by his hatred of communism and his pride, that he vilified war protestors, like me and many others, calling us traitors rather than seeing us as patriots trying to save our country from falseness and treachery such as his.

I did not hate and do not hate the soldiers who fought in Viet Nam, anymore than I hate today the service members who push the buttons that send the drones to bomb people in Afghanistan today. Or those who carry out hundreds of operations in an effort to prop up yet another corrupt regime.

Back then, I knew that some of the people fighting in Viet Nam were my age, some of them young men with whom I’d gone to school. One of them, I knew was Phillip Page. Phillip was a kind, gentle soul who always had a smile and quiet greeting for me. Sometimes I helped him with homework. I’m fairly sure that when some of the meaner boys taunted me as “Four Eyes” and “Professor,” it was Phillip who made them stop, responsible for the sudden silence behind me. Later on, in high school, when I was cuter but still smart, some of those boys wanted to date me. I wouldn’t give them the time of day, but Phillip and I always had a word or two for each other, though we never went out or even had class together. He was headed for trade school, I, for college.

So it was with shock and anger and sudden, piercing sorrow that I traced his name with my fingers on the Viet Nam memorial. I knew immediately why that long wall with his cool black surface was such a blessing. I still visit Phillip there every chance I get. Every time, I whisper that I am sorry I couldn’t save him. Every time, he reminds me that we can’t always save others, and it’s okay. He couldn’t save the people he tried to defend, either. But it’s right to try, in whatever way you can. Always,

Phillip died on June 16, 1969. I knew that date, but until today, I did not know the circumstances. A college friend sent me a link to the Virtual Wall, with it’s page and history for each soldier. It’s a blessing. On this July 4th, I pray my country will learn a better way than to send men and women off to die and be maimed in wars that almost never achieve their aims. And I remember that we must always try to save each other, because sometimes, we can. Thank you, Phillip.
shttp://www.VirtualWall.org/dp/PagePA01a.htm

Letting Go

Two facts I learned today filled me with wonder.

One is that we have just celebrated our first Veterans Day without the living presence of a World War I veteran. There is no longer anyone alive who can tell us how it was. From here on out, we must rely on historians to teach us the lessons of that momentous conflict and to keep alive the memories of humanity’s first experience with such a large conflagration, an experience which should always humble us.

The second fact is that the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan will not be “cleaned up”– that is, all debris removed, all nuclear fuel “disposed of”. Sealed inside thick concrete walls–until circa 2041. And, of course, the contamination of the soil in the area will last far beyond that. Neither I nor several more generations of my family will live to see that contamination expelled, and likely I will not live to see even the cleanup completed.

Will I live to see our political economy workin with, rather than against the Earth and human vulnerabilities, to provide renewable, sustainably derived energy? That is a much more important question.

But what I think about is how one instance of lack of foresight, as in the failure to see that a powerful earthquake could cause a tsunami strong enough to overwhelm our technology, can wreak such destruction that the cleanup should take decades. What other experience of my lifetime has had such longterm consequences? Perhaps our country’s response to 9/11, the wars and geopolitical realignments? This question will be rattling my brain for a long time.

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