Women We Read This Week

Erica Wagner’s “Life and death at his fingertips: watching a brain surgeon at work” in The New Statesman

This was published last month, but it popped up on my radar this week, and I’m very glad it did. On one level, it’s a riveting portrait of a neurosurgeon. Wagner writes fluently about a world that’s fascinating but entirely alien to me; at one point, observing a surgery, she’s invited to peer down into a microscope and sees “a glittering, undulating landscape of shining whites and greys and reds”, into which Henry Marsh, the surgeon in question, points an instrument and says, “Artery. Mustn’t touch that. Touch that, the whole thing’s over.” Marsh makes a good subject – self-aware, honest, while also full of a self-confessed “sense of glory and self-importance”. As with most contemporary writing about medicine in the UK, there are important political undertones here, and Marsh, approaching retirement, is refreshingly assertive – “now that the NHS is being privatised by the dumb fucks who run the government,” he says at one point, “people think: ‘Why should I give money to the NHS?'” (though, he goes on: “I don’t know what the answer is. I’m glad I don’t run the NHS. But you have to trust people”). The piece is much bigger than Marsh, in the end. It’s an exploration of the relationship between arrogance and fear, a study of the brain, and a musing on the delicacy of human life. Looking through that microscope, Wagner writes:

I find myself thinking how impossible it is, finally, to comprehend that what I am observing – the matter of the brain – is everything we are. Here is the soul, here is the mind, here is every thought we might have or ever have had about the world around us. Nothing more than shining, pulsing matter. It seems far more difficult to consider than the idea that the pinpricks of light we see as stars in the sky are enormous burning balls of gas thousands of light years away. Our understanding of the universe, our understanding of those stars – it’s right here, under this microscope. From my earlier conversations with Henry, I know that despite his years as a surgeon (indeed, perhaps because of his years of work as a surgeon), he finds this notion as remarkable, and as puzzling, as I do.

Manjula Martin’s interview with Cheryl Strayed in Scratch

Another great interview with Cheryl Strayed. This one strays into familiar territory – there are wise words on writing, success, gratitude and humility – but it’s mainly focused on money, or, more specifically, on honesty about money. “I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money”, Strayed says, and proceeds to outline her financial situation in some detail. She tells us about her advances; she also tells us how much of that money went on paying off credit card debt, or how, when a rent check bounced during a book tour in 2012; she and her husband “laughed until we cried. Because we couldn’t complain to anyone, and no one would believe us, but it was like, my book is on the New York Times bestseller list right now and we do not have any money in our checking account.” This is a heartening interview to read precisely because it supplies no answers, makes no false promises – and, as with much of Strayed’s writing, it’s intensely empathetic. I don’t know why I feel better about myself, and the world in general, after reading it, but I do.

For so many years, it was most of our conversations. We would go on a walk, and most of our conversations were like, What the hell are we gonna do? And I mean what the hell are we gonna do so we can go grocery shopping this afternoon, so we can keep the electricity on, and rent is due, and.… It was like constantly living in an emergency state.


Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You: The BeyHive” on NPR’s The Record

“Beyoncé,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes, “either out of naïveté or innocence, is the last to accept what most people think — that she is not like us.”

In this case, the “us” is referring to the predominantly black women that make up the “BeyHive” of Beyoncé fans. Tentatively, with a mixture of awe and fear, Ghansah wanders into the hive, which has a reputation for venomous attacks. She is the victim of one herself, and yet she retains her empathy – she uses the incident as an occasion to ask “why [the hive members] took their love affair with Beyoncé so seriously and exerted so much effort and so much venom in its defense.” Her conclusion is that Beyoncé is a cyborg – she has, in wording Ghansah borrows from Donna Haraway, seized the tools the world used to mark her as “other” and marked the world with them.

She is, Ghansah observes, “a black woman who is able to express her sexuality without being called a ho, a video girl, a freak, a gold-digger or words worse. She can do what most of us cannot.” And therein lies the devotion of her fans, their furor and their rapture.

Ghansah’s piece lies in that in-between territory that seems so rare in much literary journalism but is slowly being reclaimed – between the personal, the analytical, the reported, and the sociological. Ghansah is transparent about her reporting – “I gave up and decided to try the only people who couldn’t walk away from me: the security guards” – and also about her own thoughts on the Hive (she calls its treatment of Rihanna “gross” but frames it within the larger discussion of black women’s marginalization and abuse) and she weaves theory elegantly into observation. Her story inspires not only because of its depth and sophistication but also because it is a model for a literary journalism that allows the writer her subjectivity and also her journalistic and analytical chops. — Sarah

Svati Kirsten Narulas “What’s Wrong with Sentimentality: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams” in The Atlantic

In this interview, Svati Kirsten Narulas and Leslie Jamison tackle what it means to feel empathy and to be sentimental. They have the following exchange, which is powerful because it recognizes how we as a society punish individuals who want attention, and we often do it in a gendered way by using the term “attention whore.”

There’s a section in which you talk about cutting, and how we usually see cries for attention as such selfish, sinful things. And we tend to be dismissive of the people behind them, because “Oh, it’s just a cry for attention” or, “She’s an attention-whore” or whatever. And then you say, “Isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human?… And isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”

That phrase, “attention whore,” is so interesting! And I hadn’t even thought about it in relation to that moment where I’m talking about attention, because it actually does bring in gender in this really interesting way. Somehow wanting attention is being linked into getting attention sexually, or just wanting to spread yourself around in this really shameful way.

Reading this interview made me think of the radical empathy of author Cheryl Strayed, who in both Wild and Dear Sugar holds us close and shows us that no matter how messed up life is, no matter how messed up we are, we are still worth loving.



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