Photo by Andy Roberts

Women We Read This Week

Karen Palmer’s “The Reader is the Protagonist: Exiting a Horror Story” in Virginia Quarterly Review

Palmer’s piece begins with a family on the run. It’s her family, but they have new names and are not sure where they’re headed. They’re fleeing–her, her second husband, her two daughters buckled in the back of their used car, which they bought for cash. They have but a few possessions. It’s not until nearly half way through the piece when we discover Palmer’s reasons for starting this new life, the violent ex-husband she left behind, the threat of violence that had permeated her life. And in her new life, the threat of violence seems to haunt her, but this time echoed in books, from the monster storybook she reads to her daughters to the odd how-to manuals she finds on the shelves of a publishing company where she applies for a proofreading job: 21 Techniques of Silent Killing, How to Kill Someone with Your Bare Hands, and Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors–a book that, four years later, was actually used by a man who hired another man to kill his estranged wife.

Dark, bizarre, and lyrical, Palmer’s story is refracted, Palmer herself admitting confusion with some of the minor details, the order of events. But those details are inconsequential, she seems to say. What’s important is the sense of looming horror, how, in a story, you wonder if the protagonist will make it, or if she’ll fall victim to the threat that chases her. It’s as though she sees her own story mirrored back in every tale she reads. Reading the monster book to her children time and time again, she relishes in the predictability yet marvels at her daughters’ ability to remain captivated, despite knowing the story’s outcome:

There is such pleasure in fear, the thrill of being alive. In Jon Stone’s story, the reader becomes the means by which poor Grover moves ever nearer his fate as well as the actual protagonist, the monster at the end of the book. Repeating the journey makes for another kind of pleasure, the ending always the same and therefore utterly, harmlessly known.

Amanda G.

Chantal Braganza’s “A Grief Like This” in Hazlitt

In this essay, Chantal Braganza describes eloquently the paradoxical loneliness of early pregnancy (“to be newly pregnant,” she writes, “is also to feel uniquely unsafe”)–and, too, of enduring an experience that, as Braganza points out, is far from uncommon: “imagine 37,000 windows lit for having lost a pregnancy,” she writes. “That’s how many parents in my province alone experience this type of loss each year.”

There are stories of pregnancy loss everywhere, if you look for them, and as Braganza writes, “fiction and pop culture is rife with it as an occurrence.” But it is somehow still an isolating and bewildering experience, as any form of loss is: every present moment uniquely fraught, every imagined future seemingly uncharted. Perhaps the greatest strength of this piece, then, as a narrative about miscarriage, is that it ends in uncertainty: no “neatly wrapped ending-of-a-baby announcement or a newfound resolve to live a life without parenthood.” Just the ongoingness of not knowing, not having control. “There is a very convincing feeling of control that the secrecy of early-pregnancy affords you,” Braganza writes: in a sense, the only thing you can choose about what happens next, in those first heady moments of a new, wanted pregnancy, is who to tell, how to tell. And then it’s all uncertainty, whatever the outcome.

Braganza writes of being “undone,” even before her own miscarriage, by stories of pregnancy loss. “Such first-person accounts are comforting and crushing in their breadth and variety, but they are hardly as commonly shown as they should be,” she writes, and so–to add to the chorus of comforting, crushing voices–I hope for this piece to be read and shared.

Miranda

Leigh Stein’s “Millennial Days” in The New York Times

At AWP 2016, the annual conference of writers and writing programs held in early April, Leigh Stein participated in a panel discussion and told her audience that it was important for millennials to write about their experience growing up on the Internet. I heard this and looked her up immediately.

In a recent column in The New York Times, Stein compares and contrasts the experiences of memoirists writing with the perspective of age and time–like Mary Karr, Lidia Yuknavitch and Kathryn Harrison–to someone like Dani Shapiro, who wrote her memoir in the present tense of a 23-year-old. Stein writes that when she tells people she’s a 31-year-old memoirist, they laugh and say she’s too young. She knows that young female writers are at risk of backlash from what Slate calls “first person industrial complex.” But isn’t there inherent worth in the story of the vulnerable youth?

Young writers are not only primed to evoke emotions with vivid immediacy, they are also experts on the digital interfaces where so many rites of passage (first love, first heartbreak, first grief) now occur. I am writing for other millennials, who have grown up flirting through texts and breaking up over email. The seed of my memoir was an essay I wrote about mourning on Facebook, where memorial rituals are quickly evolving but without an etiquette rule book. After my ex died, I watched as everyone who’d ever loved him changed their profile pictures to one of them with him, and I realized that I had no pictures of the two of us together. Unable to participate, I felt invisible.

As an aspiring memoirist the same age as Stein, I agree that the uniquely Internet-centric perspective of my generation is fascinating and important. Her memoir Land of Enchantment, depicting what she calls the “distinct digital society in which so many [young writers] are now coming of age,” will be out August 2016.

Amanda P.

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