Women We Read This Week

Camille T. Dungy’s “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses” in Virginia Quarterly Review

At the Cape Coast Castle on the Ghanaian coast, visitors can tour the dungeons of a 350-year-old castle where, during the Atlantic slave trade, 1500 men, women, and children at a time were shackled and packed into dank rooms on the eve of their journeys out of Africa. In 2013 Dungy visited the site even though she’d been there once before, ten years earlier. This time she travels with her husband and her daughter, who is a few weeks shy of her third birthday.

Even though Dungy refers to the castle dungeons as a “sacred place,” she has trouble focusing on the tour because her daughter, uncharacteristically, will not sit still–she won’t be held, and she runs circles around the other visitors. The experience visiting the site is as dramatic and confusing as it was the first time for Dungy, but this time it is complicated by the presence of her daughter expressing her independence: “I am trying to make sure she behaves like a civilized girl, and I am also trying to push back waves of terror that overcome me when I think about what it would have been like to be a mother here, terrified not only for my own life, but also, I understand palpably now, for my child’s.” Dungy’s essay is powerful and understated, the reader left to feel the juxtaposition between the overwhelming strength of parental love and what it means at the site, which once held some of the world’s worst abominations.


Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Cheetah Run” on Terrain.org

I’ve locked eyes with a mink for five minutes without blinking. I’ve jumped in a swimming hole right after a black bear ran off so I could bathe in his scent. I’ve floated naked down a creek right over dozens of migrating salmon. But I’ve never been able to adequately describe the power of these animal encounters to others. Alison Hawthorne Deming’s essay demonstrates one way.

Deming is fascinated by cheetahs. The heart of her story is her visit to San Diego’s Safari Park to watch the animals, learn their habits, and experience them close up. She even has her photo taken with Majani, the park’s popular cheetah. But the story of this visit alone does not make an essay. Deming’s cheetah encounter matters to readers because she weaves in other contexts. First and foremost is the story of cheetah extinction. In the last 100 years, Deming tells us, the world cheetah population has dwindled from 100,000 to 10,000. “Cheetahs are leaving the world,” she writes.

Another context is the history of humans and cheetahs. In some periods and cultures, cheetahs were worshipped. King Tut’s funeral bed is shaped like a cheetah. Another is the cheetah’s character: it’s the fastest sprinter on earth. Yet another is science. Deming links cheetah extinction to the Anthropocene, the epoch we created by interfering with every aspect of nonhuman nature.

But even these contexts would fall flat without something to bind them together–to deepen the meaning. And so, Deming ends her essay with the sport of hunting cheetahs. In Namibia people pay $10,000 to hunt the animals and then get their photos taken. She calls these trophy photos of the hunters with their dead animals “the emptiest human portraits I have ever seen, emptier than all the victims of trauma and collective suffering documented in the news.”

And yet, Deming pulls back on her indictment. She says, “Each culture has its forms and patterns for interacting with animals.” In our culture, one of those forms is writing about animal cruelty. Another is visiting them in the wild or in captivity with a sense of humility. When Deming visits the cheetahs and poses with Majani for her photo, she instinctively looks away. Why? “It seems brash to look a cheetah in the eye,” she says.


Jina Moore’s “Ebola Is Killing Women In Far Greater Numbers Than Men” on Buzzfeed

I have long admired Jina Moore’s writing. In this article, she captures so clearly what the rest of the media has missed, the humanity of the Ebola virus, the way it preys on those who care more, those who care the most. As Moore reports:

Ebola is killing Kona Kupee, who loved her husband too much. Kupee is 36. Her husband, Alosho Mumbah, died of Ebola on Aug. 15. He’d known he was sick for a week — he’d been calling a national hotline, trying to get someone to take him out of his house and into a treatment center — but Kupee didn’t know he had Ebola. He had a fever and vomited and shook violently, but he didn’t bleed. She worried it might be Ebola, especially with all the phone calls, but she told herself it was something else. Had to be. Where would he have gotten Ebola, anyway?

Women are bearing the brunt of the deaths, an estimated 75% according to statistics. As the main caregivers, culturally, they are not allowed to say no, to turn and walk away from grandparents, spouses, and children. I ask myself what I would do, and I don’t know.


Dani Shapiro’s “A Memoir Is Not A Status Update” in The New Yorker

The world is abuzz with tiny fragments of memoir: Facebook statuses, tweets, and blog posts on illnesses, marriages, graduations, and new jobs, recounting daily moments large and small. As a late ’90s baby, I have grown up understanding social platforms as a regular part of life. For better or worse (probably worse, I’ve come to think after reading Shapiro’s piece), these tiny fragments are a significant part of my daily routine and beginning as a writer.

Shapiro’s essay eloquently digs into the conflict between the fast-paced, public world of social media and the necessity of silence when it comes to writing memoir.

I wonder what would have become of me if I had come of age as a writer during these years of living out loud. My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? … And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?

In a time when seemingly little is kept private, Shapiro writes, there is no longer quiet space where a story can morph, grow, and work itself into understanding. Shapiro does admit to the occasional Facebook break during her writing, but uses it to speak about her own experience with memoir – and the fact that time, and lots of it, is what makes memoir different than status updates on the details of every day life.

Rather than give in to the instant gratification of social media, maybe we should wait for “the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself.” — Julia


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *