Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

Lionel Shriver’s “I was poor but I was happy” in The Guardian

What a lovely thing to wake up to on a weekday morning: an articulate little musing on happiness that never veers into sentimental or apologetic territory and makes you glad to have read it.

Shriver uses a geographical metaphor to suggest a more complex – and realistic – understanding of happiness: as a process or a journey rather than as “a static state, effectively a place toward which we are aimed but at which most of us will never feel we’ve quite arrived.” She draws a connection here to the game of tennis, which she played a lot of whilst living in Belfast as a struggling writer. The sport, she writes, “is hard. I am mediocre. Thus on court I always have a sense of purpose, and I am never confused about what I want: to get better. I will never arrive and possess a perfected game like a trophy.” And yet – or rather therefore – it makes her happy. It is the process of playing, and of desiring improvement, that matters. That’s a feeling I understand well; my own relationship with swimming (which is in many ways akin to my relationship with writing) is based on the premise that I am perpetually striving to be better without any particular expectation that this striving will ever end, and I love my empty, wonderful hours in the pool even though I’ll never be anything other than what I am on any given day.

These days Shriver is, of course, a famous writer, a critically and commercially successful one – and yet when she looks back on the early stages of her career (“12 years in the literary wilderness as a nobody, with a horribly high likelihood of getting nobodier”), she discovers that in spite of hardship and setback, she was basically happy. She was living her life. She had hunger, and work, and love.

“The inert vision of happiness,” she writes, “ – as a location, a veritably geographic end point, a private promised land that you attain, maintain, and defend – is the real enemy here.” Whereas a truer happiness comes from “having appetite, being filled with desire…caring about something.”

What can I say, really, other than that reading this made me feel thankful?

Lizzie Widdecombe’s “The Plus Side” in The New Yorker

I was blown away by both Widdecombe‘s story about the plus-sized clothing industry and the accompanying photographs of plus-sized women by Pari Dukovic. Widdecombe manages to touch on nearly every compelling part of being a “larger” woman who’s interested in fashion: the mass market stores that sell plus-sized clothing and are tasked with the difficulties of creating clothes for women who either want to be hip or disappear; the famous designers making lots of money off of their plus-sized clothing line who do not want to market it for fear of ruining their cachet; the way major department stores shove plus-sized clothing sections into basements or other no-(wo)man’s lands; the boomlet in blogs and fashion shows exclusively showing plus-sized clothes and their wearers. It’s eye-opening and maddening (after all, over half of America’s women wear a size 14 or higher!), and the voices of the women profiled who insist on looking the way they want in the face of such challenges are inspiring.

Shannon Reed

Viviana Maldonado’s “I’m not going to lie. This is my life” on The Recollectors

There is a dark, ferocious specificity to the way that the biology of untreated HIV infection maps onto the emotional experiences that the virus engenders. I have been writing about HIV for nearly 15 years and there are times that I think there are no metaphors that the virus has not replicated within the blood. Take memory, for example. HIV preferentially infects the body’s immune cells, including the memory cells that hold our ability to protect ourselves against infections–that hold the memory of health and the power of healing. Untreated, HIV drives memory cells into what inmunologists call a state of “exhaustion.” Fortunately and beautifully, there is something in humans, perhaps the soul, that transcends biology. The Recollectors Project, a recently launched website dedicated to the memories, photos, writing and oral history of children who lost parents to AIDS, is triumph of love over exhaustion. Viviana Maldonado’s oral history, “I am not going to lie. This is my life,” is a powerful, plainspoken and stereotype-busting story about how her Mexican family and wider community rallied around her father, a pastor, when he was diagnosed with HIV.

“I remember thinking Mom is too hysterical for cancer, but too calm for AIDS. If he had AIDS, she would be way more hysterical.”

There is no ostracization here. No revelation of how her father acquired the virus. The family focused on other things: love, medicine, vacations and, for Maldonado, helping her father to face the fact that the end was near.

Recollectors was created to fill the gap in memory about the children left behind by parents who died of HIV. The gay male epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s rarely features these sons and daughters, these families. Twenty years later, their experiences are not part of the tally of what HIV has done and continued to do to this country. Maldonando and her co-contributors ensure that this is otherwise. The progeny of memory cells are called daughter cells. There is truth in the blood.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *