Women We Read This Week

A gathering of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week

Azita Ranjbar’s “Returning to the Land” on The Rumpus

A beautifully simple essay of Ranjbar’s visit to her family’s land in Iran on the Caspian Sea where, in her family “of khans and wealthy land owners,” her uncle has started farming. Through examining her own family’s legal disputes over land she illuminates aspects of Iran’s past land reforms and the country’s current economic downturn, turning a critical eye on the “the oppressive sanctions driven by the U.S. government.”

Towards the end of the piece she writes: “After only a week, this Orwellian state is already driving me mad. I feel ashamed that it has already impacted me so strongly. Everyone I know here must cope with this reality daily. I pretend not to notice the looks of resentment in some of the eyes around our dinner table. That is how they control us – we turn against each other and then ourselves.”

Sonya Huber’s “Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook” on Terrain.org

Huber’s lyric essay is a dirge-like series of directions for how to love what’s broken. In snapshots of urban decay across the Midwest, the piece reads as guidelines for surviving (or not surviving) economic devastation with lines like: “Remember that if you are thrown out of the last rented room, the muddy and beaten arms of the river will catch you.” When everything has burned to the ground, Huber seems to say, you have to bend down and love what’s left. “Look for industry in its purest form, pushing its tender shoots after a forest fire.”

This essay was the first place winner for Terrain.org’s Ruin and Renewal themed contest, and her portrait of the post-industrial Midwest seems to capture places hovering on the threshold between the two. I’ve become a little weary of “ruin porn” photography of places like Detroit and the growing obsession with depictions of urban decay, but Huber’s essay works against others I’ve seen/read by accepting rather than romanticizing. The narrator strives, or rather directs the reader, to learn to love things in all their defunct-ness, for what they are.

“The danger is similar to loving the punk-rock boys,” she writes at the end; “the weathered ones cradling their aching heads … singing songs that burn brighter when backlit with the supernova trail of impending collapse. What else is there to love?” –Amanda

Jennifer Vanderbes’ “A Brief History of Fire” in Granta

George Saunders’ recently gave a fantastic little metaphorical overview of the short story on Colbert. A short story, he said, is like a joke: at the beginning it establishes a setup, and you the reader know that in three minutes–or twenty, or thirty–there will be a punchline. It will either hit you, whazam, or it’ll be lackluster and leave you cold, the equivalent of a mild chuckle, an eye roll. I have to admit that for me the majority of contemporary American short stories–with the notable exceptions of those by Saunders, Karen Russell, ZZ Packer and a few others–have the latter effect. They feel too constructed, too self-aware, too precise, too pedantic.

“A Brief History of Fire” is the exact opposite. It feels raw, deeply affecting, and alive. It has the necessary tightness of a short story, each layer a snug concentric ring around the others, but the prose, the protagonist’s complicated and compelling voice, and the vividness of the setting prevent it from feeling overly clinical. It cast a spell that lasted long after I’d finished it. All that night and the next day I found myself remembering lines, remembering moments, feeling haunted.

Perhaps structurally it felt more like an essay than a story, with brief interludes examining object permanence and the history of fire, and I related to it more easily for this–I also love Granta’s strategy of not identifying particular pieces as fiction or nonfiction. Regardless, it combines everything I love most in writing: it teaches me something, immerses me in a place, makes me recognize experience in vivid prose (the smell of a baby’s breath, the feeling of meeting a former lover after a long separation) and tells a story that rocks me emotionally and intellectually.

Jennifer Egan’s “A Thin Line Between Mother and Daughter” on Slate

This essay of Jennifer Egan’s on her anorexia is more than 10 years old and, sadly, does not feel dated at all. Our cultural fetishization of adolescent models persists largely unchecked, and it seems that most young women still pass through a phase of mild to moderate disordered eating as a rite of passage.

Egan, a novelist, brings larger and more complicated themes to what could have been a fairly predictable horror story of life dominated by calorie counts. She examines the massive cultural shift that occurred between her and her mother’s generation, and how in that shift a pre-adolescent thinness came to be ironically equated with defiant independent womanhood, with a rejection of maternal beauty and domesticity and a woman’s traditional role.

Egan’s mother had grown up unconcerned with thinness, assuming she would wind up married with children: then the 60s and 70s came along and exploded the standard narrative and expectations at the heart of women’s lives, and suddenly Twiggy was the emblem of sexual revolution. By the time Egan was growing up her mother was dieting and tacitly supporting Egan’s drastic weight loss, and staying thin–so thin as to be almost physically powerless–had become de facto for the independent woman.

What I loved about this piece was the complex evocation of the relationship between mother and daughter, and the nuanced analysis of all of the ironies and horrors of anorexia: “Our route
to worldly power involved shrinking the world to match the dimensions of our own small (but never small enough) bodies, and then dominating those. A conspirator against us could not have planned it better.” –Sarah

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