Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Women We Read This Week


Rivka Galchen’s “Do Money Woes Spur Creativity or Stifle It?” in The New York Times

I’m always curious about how writers survive financially. I think most of us, at one point or another, think that THE ANSWER TO WRITING can be found in the lives of other writers. In this essay, Rivka Galchen tackles the timeless question of to what extent money woes make us creative. She finds no one story. Proust never had a job. Flaubert lived with his mother. Faulkner was a mailman.

Are the variables Time, Literary Hunger, Biological Hunger and Dollars? One might argue for others. Yet the part of the equation that seems to me the most mysterious, the most important and the most beautiful, is the invisible Constant.

The invisible Constant led Alice Munro to publish her first book at 37. There is no one way to do this, thank God.



Jo Chandler’s “Manus in the Balance: Life outside the detention centres on Manus Island” in The Monthly

I was drawn to Jo Chandler’s essay because of its ambitious dive into the complexity of the social, political, and economic situation of Manus Island. The island once put on the map by Margaret Mead’s field research is once again a site for anthropological research—this time concerning climate change, international relations, and refugees. Around 1,000 asylum seekers are detained in the centers which are part of Australia’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement “which pays Papua New Guinea to host the detention and processing of asylum seekers turned back from Australian shores, and thereafter to provide a homeland for refugees.”

As a writer and a reader interested in postcolonialism, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the task of reducing the interconnectedness of global issues to a single storyline. I was impressed by Chandler’s ability to draw together the themes of incarceration, climate change, policing, economic decline and growth, and personal stories to paint a vivid picture of life on Manus. The essay skillfully narrates the multifaceted impacts of the politics of international relations on communities denied the power of determining their own path—both the refugees and the people of Manus.

Chandler reminds us that the questions of development are most importantly answered by attention to the people whose lives hang in the balance of the pros and cons. In refusing to simplify the answers of what stands to be gained or lost, Chandler presents Manus as “gracious, good-humoured, proud, industrious. It is also bewildered, anxious, shifting, unfathomable” and an island whose people may yet have lessons to offer the world.

The people of Manus had no say in the deal that locked up asylum seekers on their island. They have no say now as it frees refugees into their community. But they will be judged by the world on their reception of these so-reluctant, so-foreign new neighbours.



Carmen Maria Machado’s “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!” in The New Yorker

It’s estimated that 40 percent of teaching jobs at colleges and universities are held by adjuncts, who often make about as much as fast food workers, and have no benefits or job security. As Machado says, there is a culture of silence around this fact. But recently, that culture of silence is losing its strength: The first National Adjunct Walkout Day was held late last month, and here and there, op-eds, essays, and reported pieces about the reality of adjuncting are appearing.

Machado’s piece is the most powerful and humanizing I’ve read on the subject, though. She is an adjunct, but she doesn’t get to that until the end of her the piece. Instead, she spends most of her time talking about Harvey, the adjunct who changed her life during and after undergrad. Her portrait of Harvey is a moving homage: reading it, I can’t help but think of the hard-working teachers who changed my own life, often receiving little in return. Towards the end of the piece, she writes: “I don’t only want to teach; I want teaching to be a career, something that I can afford to keep doing.” This simple declaration made me realize that for many of these adjuncts, this work is a calling, as meaningful, impractical and impossible to ignore as the calling to write. Machado, it seems, is another Harvey-in-training, and the higher education system should do everything in its power not to lose her and others like her.



Rachel Cusk’s “Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems” in The New York Times Magazine

If you’re ever teaching a class on how to write about the most sentimental of topics without a drop of sentiment, I suggest you turn to Rachel Cusk. Her writing on parenting is unparalleled in its frankness, and by frankness I don’t mean she writes about baby poo and exhaustion, but rather that she stares the psychological, existential uncertainty and difficulty of parenting in the face until you, the reader, begin to both whimper and to feel a strange relief. She did it in her pioneering 2001 book A Life’s Work, the first and by far the best in a series of “bad mother” memoirs, and she does it again here, this time on the subject of teenagers.

Cusk brings her sharp, critical intelligence and her novelist’s sensibility (her daughter “has countless friends, most of them white-skinned and fair, with declarative middle-class voices and abundant shining waterfalls of hair”) to bear on the angst of this period, which she ultimately frames as one of the teenager attempting to wrest control of the family story from the parents. The harder the parents have clung to this story over the years, the more painful this transition will be, and here Cusk lets just a touch of smugness creep into her work: she’s been shredding this story for years, starting in A Life’s Work. Now, she’s finally being validated: “When my two daughters became teenagers, something began to happen that was unique in my experience of parenting so far: Other people began to warn me how awful it would be.” They were confirming what Cusk has known all along. But this is not entirely fair; there is love, parental worry, respect in Cusk’s writing, but it is hard to see through the shock of her clinical, critical analysis of the complexities of parent-child relationship, which we’d rather have buffeted by scenes of overt tenderness. Her philosophy, in her writing and – I would extrapolate – in her parenting, is: look hard at that discomfort, at that flame, lest it burn you. Accept the awful before it devours you, which is not as grim a philosophy as it seems, and inarguably a more holistic one than the oblivious cheer of so much of the literature of motherhood. — Sarah

This week on Vela:

Sarah Menkedick recommends her favorite books on early motherhood, and Sarah Manguso talks to Eryn Loeb about keeping a diary, motherhood, and her latest book, Ongoingness.


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