Photo: Mahmood Salam

Women We Read This Week

Jill Talbot’s “A Brief History” on The Nervous Breakdown

I first became aware of Jill Talbot through her fascinating essay in DIAGRAM called “The Professor of Longing.” I sometimes begin my creative nonfiction classes with a reading of this essay, rather than my own boring class syllabus, just to show students the different forms a nonfiction essay can take. Talbot is good at unconventional forms. In “A Brief History,” she uses a collage or segmented form, a series of fragments that have their own integrity but add up to something larger, in this case an exploration of histories: the history of Las Vegas, New Mexico, the social history of the neighborhood where she and her daughter live for a brief time, and her personal history.

One of the virtues of this essay is the way Talbot transitions in and out of her fragments. To get from a scene about her and her daughter on the front porch to the history of the town, she writes, “There is history here. Indie and I sense it in the creak of the pine floors, the groan of the heavy branches hovering over our roof, the way sifted dirt settles on the kitchen counter, fallen from hidden gaps in the vigas.” As a writer trying to blend history and memoir, I can testify to how difficult it is to get that layering right. When transitioning from personal writing to historical context, it’s easy to get lost in details that don’t serve the story. But Talbot never gets lost. She makes historical details count. This is the town, she tells us, where Doc Holliday practiced dentistry and a sheriff named Pat Garrett who tracked Billy the Kid lived. Garrett’s house is directly across from the house where Talbot and her daughter sit up worrying and thinking about ghosts.

Talbot’s brief history isn’t so much brief as compressed, and in the compression the reader feels expanded.

D.J.

Katie Coyle’s “Dispatches from Trauma Island” on Be Cool, Soda Pop

“Dispatches from Trauma Island” is a little piece of Katie Coyle trying to make sense of the grief surrounding the birth of her stillborn daughter. As you might have guessed, it’s heart-rending. When I say that it made me cry, I don’t mean appropriate-for-sensitive-&-bookish-coffee-shop-dweller single tear stuff; I mean that the kind of grief Coyle evokes is messy and ugly and has you wiping the snot from your face while trying to make out the words through your watery eyes.

Early on, she worries about the people whom she’ll have to tell about the loss, which becomes, itself, an attempt towards sense-making:

“At some point, to someone, I’m going to have to explain. ‘We lost the baby’ is the accepted euphemism but such an inadequate descriptor of what we went through. It sounds vague and a little careless, like we stopped paying attention, like we briefly lost sight of her and then she was gone.”

And though the raw, encompassing sadness is indisputable, there’s still a sort of ragged black comedy that bubbles through, though she admits that “what seems tragicomic to me is probably to most tragitragic.” Above all, it’s a beautiful tribute to her daughter, and how Coyle’s life has been forever changed by her love for her. If you read this—and you should—be prepared to find yourself in the midst of a grief so huge that it contains even hope.

Katie

Erika Nicole Kendall’s “In Defense of Serena Williams” on A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss

This week the New York Times published an article by Ben Rothenberg which used quotes from white female tennis players to suggest that Serena Williams has an unnatural and unwomanly body. The women quoted in the article said something along the lines of “Muscles…..ewwww…..so not feminine,” as if they were five-year-old Disney princesses rather than adult tennis players. The article and the quotes from the other women filled me with despair. Have we advanced so little in the arena of women’s sports that we bully the greatest athlete of our time (we should feel damn lucky to witness her prowess over so many years) for being too muscular? Kendall, in her response to Rothenberg, points out that,

If Serena says she is comfortable with her muscular physique as a woman, and a journalist juxtaposes her comfort against another competitor’s and her male trainer saying that said competitor’s slim physique is what makes her a woman, what exactly is the takeaway? It’s almost as if “womanliness” is something bestowed upon you by others, instead of something you identify as your own on your own and in your own way.

And that is the point – womanliness continues to be something bestowed upon us by others. I am thankful that Serena, in spite of years of racist and sexist comments, has continued to dominate the world athletic stage and show us that strong is beautiful.

Alice

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