Photo: Walt Stoneburner

Women We Read This Week

Dawn Lundy Martin’s “Weary Oracle” in Harper’s

Days after I read Dawn Lundy Martin’s “Weary Oracle,” I still found its terse images prying into my days. It begins with a sketch of Martin’s mother, a woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and her relationship with blackness—she says she has “never experienced a single moment of racism,” doesn’t use the descriptor of “white” as an insult, nor the word “black” to evoke community.

When she calls people “black,” she does not do so affectionately, to suggest kinship, community, or belonging. And she gets visibly annoyed when black people organize around blackness, as though claiming the category that is also used to disparage them were a criminal act. Why excite the ghost? Why call its hideous name? Yet when I ask her whether she remembers black people getting lynched, she says, “Yeah, they did sometimes.”

Martin quickly pivots from her mother to the situation on college campuses today, where students of color are calling out the institutional and personal racism they’re subject to. This slender, but powerful, piece of cultural criticism resonates with the deep power of two images juxtaposed: one of a stoic woman in her eighties, one of a student today: “She weeps; her whole body vibrates.” And as Martin places those images there, side by side, she works toward a reconciliation of sorts, a way of seeing them not as opposite, but on a single, long, painful trajectory.

Something is pressing on these students, making them burst at the seams, and it’s not imaginary. They are like oracles whose bodies bear the collective weight of what others do not — or will not — see: the lynchings my mother cannot incorporate into her worldview, the black boy the police shot down in the street just yesterday.

Katie

Nora Caplan-Bricker’s “Should dictionaries do more to confront sexism?” in The New Yorker

Arthur Miller wrote in The Shadow of the Gods that “Society is inside of man and man is inside society. The fish is in the water and the water is in the fish.” The same can be said of language. As Nora Caplan-Bricker writes in this piece for The New Yorker, language is shaped by the world, but it can also shape how we see it. Miller’s quote itself is an example of the favoring of ‘man’ as opposed to ‘woman’ in supposedly neutral statements.

Caplan-Bricker’s article is born out of the recent controversy about the Oxford English Dictionary’s illustration of ‘rabid’ as ‘rabid feminist.’ Inflammatory, to say the least. The conversation that emerged around the world about the use was a reminder that language is often sexist, racist, or steeped in prejudices. Those in the dictionary camp argued that their job was simply to reflect the world ‘as is.’

However, as Caplan-Bricker writes, “To address these larger patterns, dictionary editors—and readers—must decide whether it’s possible to hold up a mirror to language without sanctioning its ugly side.”

But of course her article is about more than dictionaries: It’s about the possibilities inherent in language, about the way words can define us, as well as let us define them. Language is rarely neutral. It comes to us bearing a weight that we may or may not be aware of, but operate under nonetheless.

These decisions must be made not only by those select few who work for companies creating dictionaries. They are made every day, in the words we choose to use, or not use. Caplan-Bricker ends her piece with this quote from historian Anne Curzan: “We tend to defer to the dictionary as authoritative. But when it’s about ourselves, or people we know and love, we feel more ownership. We feel more authorized to say, ‘Wait a minute. That doesn’t seem right to me.’” That responsibility, that ownership to pause, to question, remains ours. The fish may be in the water, but the woman or man can change their society, can disrupt the water around them.

Naomi

Alison Stine’s “On Poverty” in Kenyon Review

In this response to Claire Vaye Watkins’s recent widely discussed essay “On Pandering” about the publishing patriarchy and who women write for, author Alison Stine wonders why it is still OK to make fun at the expense of the poor. It’s not just white privilege that Stine says is missing from Watkins’s essay; it’s class privilege and the entanglement of literary writing with academia.

Indeed, if you look at the contributors’ notes of many leading journals or the finalist bios of prizes, you might believe that professors are the only ones who write anymore. … I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

Many great writers had fascinating things to write about because they had held jobs entirely unrelated to writing. It’s not that academics can’t have interesting experiences and relationships that inspire great writing; it’s that their connections and position are more likely to get them published—potentially drowning out other voices of similar or perhaps even greater caliber. Not every great writer can afford to take an unpaid internship, take time off work for expensive workshops and residencies, or pay multiple magazine submission fees to get their foot in the door and their name on people’s radar. Not every great writer can afford to get an MFA.

Stine identifies herself as a single mother struggling to make ends meet in the area of the country that Watkins openly mocks. She worked as an adjunct professor for a while, but found the meager pay and long hours left her little energy for her own writing. Stine offers herself, a talented writer who won’t ignore the art inside her, as living proof that being poor is not synonymous with being stupid, lazy, undeserving, or in any way lesser-than.

We are poor because we were born that way. We are poor because our husbands or girlfriends left us, or our families disowned us, or our partners abused us. We are poor because we are raising children and children need things, like food. We are poor because of illness or disability. We are poor because the city where we live is expensive, but we don’t have the savings to leave. We are poor because we spent those savings on rent. We are poor because our rent was raised. We are poor because our fifteen-year-old car broke down again. We are poor because of student loans. We are poor because there are no jobs, or there are not enough jobs, or we’re working three jobs, but none pay a living wage.

Olivia

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