Women We Read This Week

“I remember growing up and hearing how an abortion was carried out. It seemed like everybody was talking about it. I think you hear your older sisters and women talking, and you hear snippets of what goes on,” said NoViolet Bulawayo, author of the novel We Need New Names when I interviewed her in New York recently. The thing is, these conversations are always held in whispers, in fear of being shamed. That is why I was so moved by the New York Magazine article this week in which 26 women share their abortion stories. Abortion is not a woman’s issue or a shame issue – it is a human issue, one that intrinsically involves men and children and the well-being of society. It is about economics and abuse and power, about the way women’s bodies are appropriated. Kassi, 25, talked about her experience:

Walking around pregnant when you don’t want to be is a nightmare. I wanted to tell everyone, but I was scared that they’d think I was stupid. I borrowed a car from my friend’s roommate. I wore a black turtleneck and very nice jeans—I wanted to impress the nurses. I think I even mentioned that I was in the honor society! Now I think, Who did I think I was? I had no idea that the average abortion patient is all of us.

And that is the point; it is all of us. In a perfect world, women would have control over their bodies and the economies of power that dictate our lives. Rape is just one of many forms of violence, but equally damaging is the economic violence that the majority of the world’s women face on a daily basis, a violence that leaves them with little control over their bodies or lives.


Stacey May Fowles’ “Boy Next Door” in The Walrus

Paul Bernardo is one of Canada’s most notorious criminals, a serial rapist and murderer. In a grim, fascinating essay, Stacey May Fowles writes about what it was like to grow up and go to school in the neighbourhood where Bernardo, then known only as the Scarborough Rapist, committed many of his crimes. Here’s Fowles:

News of the Scarborough Rapist was ever present, and the spectre of violence consumed our daily lives. Our parents warned us not to go into the woods, but my friends and I did anyway. We jumped out from behind trees to scare each other, the sound of our screams and laughter echoing through the woods like a wolf call tempting the very devil we had been taught to avoid. We were like children in wartime; danger lurked everywhere, but we had no choice but to play. We had no choice but to learn how our bodies worked at the same moment as we were told to hide them away. We had no choice but to grow up.

In the summers of our early adolescence, we rode our bikes through the endless cul-de-sacs, filling the day to get to night. When it finally came, we would collect bottles of cider and cans of Molson Canadian; we would roll joints on coming-of-age novels and slot them carefully into packs of du Maurier cigarettes. We would make out with boys in the wet summer grass, always aware that the monster waited somewhere in the distance.

The story mixes reporting and personal memoir. Fowles also wrote a background piece on the making of the essay late last year.


Erika Hayasaki’s “How Many of Your Memories Are Fake?” in The Atlantic

One of the first pieces of nonfiction I wrote was what I called an anti-memoir. Still coming out of my subversive punk phase, I centered the piece around something I did not remember–namely the big empty hole of my uncle, who my mind has entirely blotted out, as though he’d been snipped from a photograph. The piece didn’t end up working out that well, but I think even then I was coming up against that thing that all nonfiction writers must at some point, the thing that Erika Hayasaki’s piece centers around: the fallibility and malleability of our own memories.

Rather than memory loss, Hayasaki’s piece focuses on memory invention, the creation of false memories we believe to be true. She asks, “As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives?” Well? There’s not really a good answer to this question, and Hayasaki explains a bit of the scientific research beyond why. The best we can hope to do is to skirt the edge of the mystery and hope that our words can create a kind of negative space around that mystery. At least that is my take-away. Which, you know, if I’m getting all existential and deep can only mean this was a pretty good piece.


Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” in The New Yorker

I had no idea what I was getting into when I read this piece. I should’ve known: The New Yorker‘s personal histories tend to be devastating. I’ve been laid bare by Aleksander Hemon’s “The Aquarium” and Francisco Goldman’s “The Wave.” But for some reason I wasn’t psychologically ready. The piece builds slowly, and the tone – as generally seems to be the case in these pieces where such heaviness looms behind the scenes, and the stakes are so high – is understated, even wry in the beginning. It’s clear that the story is pointing towards some sort of incident, and not one that ends well, but when it hit I was completely unprepared for its magnitude. After this turning point in the piece, my heart clenched up, I held my breath, and I began sobbing and didn’t stop.

It’s the evenness, the reserve of the tone that makes these pieces so brutal – “I asked if he was South African. He was surprised that I could tell, and I explained that I had spent time reporting in his country, and then we talked a bit about the future of the A.N.C. and about how beautiful it is in Cape Town. I realized that I was covered in blood, sobbing, and flirting.” Behind it is so much choked emotion it is physically painful to read. When I finished I made my husband read it, too, and I lay beside him in bed, holding him, listening to silence, silence, silence, and then the harsh intake of breath when he reached the turning point. And then, his sobs. The story’s penultimate paragraph is its most quoted and most powerful, a twist of the knife into the sorest spot but also the story’s moment of bittersweet redemption, of absurd human grace amidst tragedy. Sarah


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