Women We Read This Week

Casey N. Cep’s “The Allure of the Map” in The New Yorker

Literary cartography fascinates and guides the way that actual cartography does; that’s why we keep and carry stories in the same places we carry and keep maps: on our walls, in our pockets, and on our phones.

Beginning with a map that moves from pockets, to dorm rooms, to Maryland and the U.K., Cep uses the catalyst of a personal and sentimentally valuable map to guide her essay into an exploration of literary cartography. The point of the essay, while meandering, is that the charm of maps—what makes them valuable, interesting, and always appealing to literary types—is also the mystery, the simulacrum maps propose and the version of reality they present. As Cep states, “No map can be a perfect representation of reality; every map is an interpretation” and it is in that space of interpretation that adventures begin. Maps and books are, therefore, complimentarily read texts—“the writer, like the cartographer, must make careful decisions about every aspect of the map” and, after these choices are made, what is left is the magic. —Andrea

Jennifer Percy’s “We Kill Ourselves Because We Are Haunted” on Guernica

I’ve been seeing teaser pieces from Jennifer Percy’s upcoming book Demon Camp popping up, and this latest has solidified its status as the book I’m stokedest to read in 2014. This is not just because of Percy’s precision and voice, for the skillful way she weaves herself into the story without making it a story about herself, instead using herself as an element that drives the piece forward. What I’m most excited about is how Percy traces the outlines of a mystery, of the dark beast of PTSD, and the respect she shows both her subjects and PTSD itself. This piece reminded me of something Bolaño said about how the best writers “skirt alongside the edge of the precipice.” Well, this does that, and then some.

Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” on Jacobin

Oh, thank God for this piece. Really. I think of it as the poor man’s version of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in that it’s bound to make a certain group of people think, “Well, holy shit, what I thought was a personal failing is really part of a broader societal problem rooted in class and privilege.” At least that’s what I thought.

In exploring the roots and reasons behind the now-popular career advice “Do What You Love,” Miya Tokumitsu nails it on so many levels that I really just wanted to tweet the whole article line by line. But here’s the thought that stood out to me the most: “‘DWYL’… is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”

God, can we paste that all over the streets of San Francisco right now?

Soraya Chemaly’s “How Not to Report on Sex Trafficking” on RH Reality Check

I’ve been following Soraya Chemaly for awhile, so when I saw she’d written a response to what was probably the most offensive piece of “journalism” I’ve seen on sex trafficking in Cambodia (and oh God, that’s saying something), I was eager to read. Chemaly did not disappoint. She breaks down the fallacies and biases in CNN’s dramatic casting of mothers who sell their daughters into the sex trade, chief among those the failure to cast the situation within the larger context of economics and gender rights. Basically, CNN gets served, as they well deserve. I just hope they’re listening.


Toni Nealie’s“On the Rights and Privileges of Being an Alien” in Guernica

Nealie’s beautiful opening sentences describe a sickening encounter:

He leans in against me. Stale neck, faintly damp chest, coffee breath. There’s no getting away from his musty warmth. I focus on the yellow and black diamond pattern of my thin cotton dress, my coppery skin denting beneath the fabric as he presses cool metal to my flank. I sink into myself, away from the burn in my cheeks, away from this man skirting the border between outside and in. Don’t look as he glides his arm down my back. Don’t flinch as he presses my armpit, the back of my knee. Does he feel my swampish fever, fear percolating to my surface?

At first, the writer offers no context for this physical violation; no doubt she wants readers to enter the experience viscerally. (And I did.) By the end of the first paragraph, though, Nealie reveals what the title and lead photograph have already prepared us for: she is getting searched by a TSA officer in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Nealie was born in New Zealand and moved to the U.S. with her husband and two children not long after 9/11. In this far-ranging piece, she explores what it means to be made to feel personally insecure for the greater good of national security.

I used to love travel, the sense of being a global citizen…Now that I live and work in the United States, I find myself questioning the ease of crossing borders, the legitimacy of the traveler and the relevance of boundaries, the power of bureaucracies, the dangers of borderland scrutiny, and the insecurities bred by security and surveillance.

As a woman (albeit a white, American woman) who travels far and often (and was once inexplicably denied entry into bloody England of all places), her words resonated deeply with me.


Jennifer Percy’s “‘Life Keeps Changing’: Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World” On The Atlantic

Sometimes, when books aren’t holding my attention, and writing feels more like drudgery than an act of inspiration, I need something to remind me why I fell in love with literature in the first place. This monologue-interview with Jennifer Percy did just that for me. It’s hard to believe she spoke this piece over the phone, because it reads like an eloquent essay, a beautifully complete thought. Excerpts of her new book, Demon Camp, have been all over the Internet this week, but this short piece is something a little different. In it, she explains how discovering literature during college—in particular, Lawrence Sargent’s short story “The Ledge”—led her to change her major from Physics to English, a terrifying decision for her at the time.

“I started reading Joyce and Woolf and Forester, and I felt like a perfectly normal human being when I was inside those books,” she says, describing, with beautiful simplicity, why most readers come to literature and never leave. But I was particularly taken with her explanation of why she became a writer, of why discovering literature leads some of us to become writers. “Talking to people wasn’t enough,” she says, “but if I could visit a world, and be held there in its arms, then I could invite others inside and maybe they could be held there too.”

In the essay, she mentions that falling in love first brought her to writing; it was an outlet, something that helped her to understand the madness she felt: “It was really love that made me write,” she says. That line struck me, because this act of inviting others to be held that she describes seems like a kind of love in itself. I’ve always felt that writing is an exchange, a coming together, but I’ve never before seen it as an act of love. And seeing it that way for the first time, that’s what really reminded me of the reasons I read and write, and why, when I talk about discovering writing, as I do above, I describe that discovery as “falling in love.” — Simone

Jill Neimark’s “The Camping Cure” in Aeon Magazine

When Jill Neimark is forced out of her New York home, laid low with environmental ills, she and her partner look high and low for healthier accommodation. They find it not on the coast, not in the suburbs, but in camping grounds on tops of hills. Jill discovers not just better health, but freedom from social ills that she hadn’t realized were ailing her. She finds an imaginative freedom that she’d assumed was lost to her. A breath of fresh air, in every sense.–Helen

Sylvia Ashby’s “What I Did Last Summer: Black Mountain College, 1948” on anderbo.com

I was immediately drawn to Sylvia Ashby’s essay when I saw the phrase “Black Mountain College” in her title. Black Mountain, an experimental educational institution in North Carolina that closed in 1956, is one of those mythical names for me, like Camelot or Shangri-La, a place of longing, a place I can never go but always feels just within reach. Ashby became a student at Black Mountain College in 1948, but the place first came into my consciousness in the 1990s through the poet Charles Olson, whose famous essay on “projective verse,” about the transfer of energy from the raw material of poetry to the reader, has to be one of the most compelling descriptions of the poetic process I’ve ever read. Olson arrived at Black Mountain College just a few years after Ashby, and he influenced a generation of Black Mountain writers like John Cage, Robert Creely, Ed Dorn, William Carlos Williams, and Denise Levertov. But the school is known for more than poetry. In fact, I find myself becoming overly excited when I mentally tally the artists, performers, and geniuses (Albert Einstein was a visiting lecturer) who crossed the college’s threshold in the 40s and 50s.

This swooning over the mythical lost place is what makes Ashby’s piece so relevant. With humor and loveable insouciance, she explodes the myths that people like me have built up around Black Mountain College for decades. On the campus’s Edenic grounds, Ashby watched Buckminster Fuller set up his very first geodesic dome and then saw it come crashing down days later (not surprising, since it was “fashioned from rolls of aluminum venetian blind strips”). And she danced with William de Kooning, whom art patrons loved. Ashby was less impressed. She thought he “should get a job.”

Ashby has the right amount of verve, as well as the real life experience, to give the reader insight into Black Mountain College in his heyday. And, at eighty-four, she has enough sass to lift the veil.



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