Women We Read This Week

Julia Baird’s “The Writing is on the Wall” in The New York Times

In this article, Baird explores issues of graffiti, gender, and public space. Female graffiti artists, who in the past represented .01% of the graffiti community, have now climbed to .1%, a figure that still strikes me as impossibly low and speaks to how safe women feel in public space.

When I was conducting research for my book on photography and violence against women in Juárez, Mexico, I became obsessed with graffiti. A black-and-white image of a grief-stricken mother taken by Juárez photographer Julián Cardona burned itself into my mind. I wanted to take that image and make it part of worldwide graffiti culture, to scour cities for empty lots to convert such images into cultural currency. But thoughts about my own safety gave me pause.

What I find beautiful is that the women Baird interviews are fearless, that they reclaim space precisely because they have been intimidated. She writes:

What’s fascinating, though, is that some of these women have been inspired to claim space on the streets precisely because it is a place of intimidation or threat, not in spite of that. In Afghanistan, Malina Suliman paints on her own at night, equipped with a flashlight. When she first began to draw graffiti, crowds would gather and throw rocks at her. After she painted walls in her home city of Kandahar with images of a skeleton wearing a burqa, the Taliban issued threats; her father’s leg was broken in an attack. Ms. Suliman had wanted, she said, only “to send a message to the girls in my situation to have no fear and to express themselves in public.”

Part of making the streets our home, my home, is taking over the space visually to tell our stories, to add our artistic vision to the other 99%.


Judy Rowley’s “Light” in AGNI

You have scroll through a lot of nonfiction online to find a piece as delicate as this. Judy Rowley’s “Light” is a braid of images, emotions, and histories that pull apart and come together, giving just enough evocative imagery and detail to keep the reader riveted. Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Water Jug is Rowley’s anchor. The painting opens the essay, where Rowley compares Vermeer’s light with the light coming in her bedroom window. A few paragraphs later, the painting reemerges as Rowley wonders why she is attracted to it—she immediately understands that it’s the sounds the painting evokes, and then she slips in the fact, ever so subtly, that she is deaf. Vermeer’s girl then becomes her great-grandmother, who—like the painting—appears and transforms before our reading eyes. There’s an additive quality here: After we learn of Rowley’s deafness, and her family history, Vermeer’s painting is a vehicle to dip into and out of anecdotes, memories, quirky observations, nuances, and the facts of Rowley’s life, from the ever-shifting light she uses to read lips, to the ballad sung in tribute to her Irish forbear who drowned in Australia’s Lachlan River. The essay’s final scene is brief and powerful. A curator explains Vermeer as Rowley listens through an audio headphone with her latest hearing aids: “All his works are admired for the sensitivity with which he rendered effects of light and color and for the poetic quality of his images.” The statement sums up the quality of Rowley’s beautiful essay.

D.J. Lee

Erika Dreifus’s “Sheryl Sandberg, the VIDA Count, and Lessons on Leaning In” on Virginia Quarterly Review

I’m typically skeptical of listed posts that concisely sum up the steps to publishing success, but Dreifus’s is a smart and spot-on distillation of the many issues that come together to produce the conditions behind the VIDA Count. Using the central points from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a rubric, Dreifus categorizes the ways in which women writers both hold themselves back and are held back by pervasive gender norms, and offers succinct, pragmatic solutions without being overly peppy or simplistic. Each one of her points resonated with me as a baseline and lived truth, which I’ve witnessed played out in one way or another in the lives of nearly all the women writers I know.

Especially relevant here is her explanation of the jungle gym versus the ladder as a metaphor for achieving success: founding and working all this time on Vela has taught me that – particularly at this point in time – literary success is not so much about a checklist of necessary accolades as it is a question of having the tenacity and creativity to figure out how to write, and keep writing, what you believe in, adapting to and scenting out new opportunities along the way. –Sarah Menkedick


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