A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.
Helena Fitzgerald’s “Albums of Our Lives: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde” on The Rumpus
I love reading about the personal geographies of music, the memories and meanings that we place in particular songs (or that particular songs place in us; music is not just a way of reliving experience but is also constitutive of it). “This album is the attempt to make someone part of a past experience by telling them about it, the attempt to enter someone’s past by listening closely enough to the stories about it,” Helena Fitzgerald writes of Blonde on Blonde, first heard at her father’s urging on a train from Boston to New Haven, and this piece hits elegantly on the complex way that we form relationships with music, around music, because of or in spite of music. — Miranda
Pam Houston’s A Little More About Me
I can’t really read book-length narratives at night, before bed – if I’m at all into them, I keep reading for hours and am destroyed for the following work day. So lately I’ve been working my way through Pam Houston‘s collection of essays, A Little More About Me, about the rivers she’s rafted and mountains she’s skied or hiked, the men and horses and dogs she’s shared her adventures with. So far I’ve especially enjoyed “On (Not) Climbing the Grand Teton,” about failure and the times when it’s okay to back away from a challenge, and “In the Company of Fishermen.” Here’s Houston, in a quick excerpt from the latter:
If Jack bothers to ask me if I want to go fishing, I will say yes. I have always said yes, and as a result the shape of my life has been a long series of man-inspired adventures, and I have gone tripping along behind those men, full of strength and will and only a half-baked kind of competence, my goal being not to excel, but to simply keep up with them, to not become a problem, to be a good sport…Mostly I have outgrown the need to impress men in this fashion; in the adventures I take these days, I make the rules. But, as my trip to Michigan draws nearer, I feel a familiar and demented excitement to be back at the mercy of a bunch of lunatic outdoorsmen, a stubborn novice with something older than time to prove.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” in the Boston Review
Bastard, Fraction, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Stina–in this story, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing, the names alone are spectacular inventions. The author, whose real name is Elizabeth Tshele, writes under the pen name NoViolet Bulawayo. I read this story several months ago, and was recently reminded of it when a friend from Zimbabwe, Rumbi, visited me in Mexico. Rumbi dumped out her purse, searching for something, and out fell We Need New Names, the first novel of Bulawayo’s, which wasn’t yet available in Mexico. The title made me think of “Hitting Budapest,” and of the quest of a ragged bunch of kids to eat guavas: a quest that also told a story about women, about incest, about death.
We are running when we hit the bush; Bastard at the front because he won country-game today and he thinks he rules, and then me and Godknows, Stina, and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in Paradise but not anymore because her grandfather made her pregnant.
All the kids inform Chipo that the firstborn child should always be a boy.
“Do you want a boy?”
“No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Chipo doesn’t know about the child. But she does know about guavas, about hunger and wanting and what it means to find a moment of happiness in the taste of sweetness. After the guava expedition, the kids find a woman hanging from a tree. One of them throws a rock at the woman. Another says that God will punish him.
“God does not live here, idiot,” Bastard says.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Separating Sickness” in Harper’s
In this essay, Rebecca Solnit explores leprosy, and how it “is really two diseases: the physical effects and the social response to them.” She unravels the fascinating history of the disease (whose official name is Hansen’s disease) and its quarantining institutions, and she reveals its widespread misunderstanding (limb amputations in leprosy occur because victims can’t feel pain and tend to injure themselves, not because “bad flesh” becomes self destructive, as many have believed). She looks at how the disease has caused social blacklisting throughout history and thus examines the relationship between empathy and imagination:
We think of kindness as an emotional quality, but it’s also an act of imagination, of extending yourself beyond yourself, of feeling what you do not feel innately by invoking it. This is pretty instinctive when we watch a child skin her knee, perhaps less instinctive when we read statistics on Haiti or Syria and have to translate them into feeling. You could call this feeling love, for we suffer with and for those we love and we seek to protect them from suffering.
Imagination enlarges us–as though our nervous systems could be made vast and at home in the world, if not at ease with its cruelties and losses. Comfort is dangerous. You can be overwhelmed by suffering, as relief workers sometimes are, and your ability to imagine and engage is finite–as anyone who deletes all those emails urging us to act for prisoners or polar bears or disaster victims knows.
Becky Tuch’s “The Choice and Challenge of Being a Writer Parent” on the VQR Blog
For Mother’s Day I wrote a post on this blog called A Pro/Creative Life, about my own choice and subsequent experiences to be both a writer and a mother. The impetus for writing this, originally, was the article “Books and Babies” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I objected to, or if I even objected, but somehow the article didn’t speak to my situation, to the desperation I’d felt in all areas of my life–time, money, priorities–in transitioning from writer (and wife and grad student and teacher) to mother-and-writer (and all of that other stuff). Writing about it, I gave up trying to say what hadn’t felt urgent or desperate or anxious about the P&W piece, and I just told my own story, for whatever it was worth. But today on the VQR Blog, Becky Tuch takes on the feel-good of the P&W article, and others like it, with an unadorned, almost stark accounting of the pragmatics and limitations of having children and being a writer. She writes:
This emphasis on luck, or atypical circumstance, seems to imply that for the average writer hoping to balance income-earning work with writing and parenting, only one solution is available: be lucky.
Tuch’s critique is valid and necessary where P&W has most certainly soft-pedaled the issue. And had I read Tuch’s piece before I had children, instead of the feelings-infused articles my baby longing led me to, the reality she describes might have put me off a little longer, made me think a little harder, or made me move to a country that is more supportive of childrearing than the U.S. is, that doesn’t consider a baby as a commodity, like a luxury car, but as the our collective future. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that babies cost money and took up time, it was that I craved family, as many people do all over world, whether or not they can technically afford them. Parenting isn’t about planning so much as it is about improvising, most often in triage-mode. Children require sacrifice and make us vulnerable–financially and emotionally. But no amount of pragmatism will make any person “ready” for children. No one is ever ready. —Molly