Photo: Michael

Women We Read This Week

“In Full Flight:” Aditi Sriram interviews Helen Macdonald on Guernica

H is for Hawk is a memoir that clings like low-hanging fog. Long after I finished it, Macdonald’s luscious descriptions of the English countryside stuck–the endless fields of shadow and light, the bend of the grass as a storm drifts in. Her attention to landscape and to her bird is almost hyper-sensitive; I was there with her, day in, day out, as she slowly grew accustomed to her goshawk, Mabel, whom she bought to train for falconry. She leads us from the dark room where she slowly allows the bird to know her, to the daily walks “manning” Mabel, helping her grow accustomed to people, to dogs, to bicycles, to the human landscape, so that eventually they can hunt together. As a reader, I get hung up on the moment to moment–Will the bird be calm? Will it ever trust Macdonald? Will it catch the prey? And yet, I’m also keenly aware that humming below this blow-by-blow of human vs animal, woman and bird, there’s a deeper conflict: How will Macdonald ever get through the grief that is consuming her since her father died? Will Mabel distract Macdonald from this darkness that threatens to swallow her completely?

In this interview with Sriram, I feel I’m given a saner Macdonald, a wiser one who’s finally on the other end of her trauma. She can look back on her experiences recounted in the memoir–training Mabel, grieving for her father–with clear-sighted analysis:

Deep down, [H is for Hawk] is a book about a miserable woman, a bird, and a dead author. But I was taught by the hawk. When I first got Mabel, she would often do things that I found interesting: she’d stare at the reflection the light cast from the sun falling on water, on a cup, or the sink, that flashing, quivering bit of light on the wall. She’d watch that, absolutely fascinated for minutes on end, and because I was putting myself in her mind—that fixed attention on small things, on tiny phenomena in the world—the world became bigger for me. Being inside the hawk’s mind, my imagination made the world a different place. There are the million different sorts of smallnesses in the book that I learned to notice in a different way through the hawk.

This interview gives wonderful insight into the process of writing about grief, of writing a “misery memoir,” as it’s called in England. And here, Macdonald also gives voice to the sport of falconry, at one point referring to the process of training a hawk as “radical empathy.” “Language gives out in the face of something like a goshawk,” she says in the interview. “That relationship between a human and a bird of prey is wordless. It’s a very strangely enlightened relationship in which the bird could just fly off whenever it wanted. It’s flown free. It doesn’t come back from coercion; it comes back because it wants to come back to you, because you have food, because it likes you.” It almost seems like Macdonald is talking about herself. You can feel she might float away, forever in her grief, but eventually she comes back.

Amanda

Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme’s “‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen”
in New York Magazine

Malone and Demme’s piece is a feat of modern multimedia reporting and also a testament to how apt we are to discredit victims of sexual violence. Over decades, dozens of women told stories of being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby, but they were continually discredited and accused of being fame-hungry liars. The cover photo of the article and the accompanying multimedia stories, which bring 35 of 40+ victims together, are too powerful to ignore, and the concept of #TheEmptyChair makes room for all the victims who were afraid to come forward. In a culture that continually shames women who are sexually assaulted and tears apart their personal lives, it is no surprise that victims are terrified to share their stories. In the future, let’s hope we won’t need to see 35 victims sitting side by side in a photo to believe that what they are saying is true.

Alice

Sarah Stillman’s “Death of a Young Black Journalist” in The New Yorker

In the past year, national news outlets have covered a horrifying pattern of mass shootings and violent deaths across the country. We’ve read about Sandra Bland, Charleston, Lafayette, Samuel Dubose, and Eric Garner, but there are many victims that go unnoticed and crimes that remain unresolved. Sarah Stillman tells the story of twenty-seven-year-old Charnice Milton, a black journalist whose death in May when returning home from a reporting assignment in Washington, D.C. was what the police considered a case of “wrong place, wrong time.” As a reporter focused on the community she grew up in, Milton cared deeply about grass roots news and writing about issues that mattered in Anacostia. Stillman’s piece discusses why community reporting came to matter in Milton’s life, and how she placed an emphasis on local stories in a world where journalists so often seek out national outlets as their medium of choice:

“The most basic instinct of a local reporter is to take the importance of her neighbors as a given. In a community like Anacostia – where more than ninety percent of residents are African-American, one in two kids lives below the poverty line, and incarceration and unemployment rates are among the nation’s highest – this is another way of saying that black lives matter. Sometimes, for Milton, that meant writing up community meetings, where neighbors protested shoddy development projects or called out the predations of banks. Often times, it meant documenting the impact of mass incarceration block by block… She laid out local battles over funding for city fire and emergency medical services and plans to build the city’s first Wal-Mart, on the block where she was later shot.”

Milton’s death is a chilling reminder of the gun violence we’re continuing to see, but Stillman writes on the significance of her work and reporting to take on “topics that other people didn’t think were important. And they just became important because she wrote about them.” Her piece is a testament to the value of community reporting, of storytelling and educating on a smaller scale; and perhaps that’s how we should be telling more of our stories.

Julia

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