Women We Read This Week

Roxane Gay’s “The Price of Black Ambition” in VQR

Roxane Gay is having a moment. Her moment, to be exact. With two books—the novel Untamed State and the essay collection Bad Feminist–out in the last year, she’s packing standing room-only crowds, inspiring celebrity-sighting tweets on airplanes, and garnering the kind of gratitude and adoration that is, if not unique to, then at least particularly fierce for writers who don’t match the demographics of Mount Rushmore. Gay is a woman, a bisexual (my word choice/shorthand, not hers), a person of color, someone who struggles with her weight. She is, also, capable of a tremendous, generous intimacy, both in person and on her blog, Roxane Gay is Spelled with One N, which is regularly updated with such personal and probing essays—there is a love affair unfolding in heart-pounding detail at once explicit and perfectly private—that they read like emails or, really, hand-written letters on curling pages from a best friend.

And if your best friend was having her moment as a writer, what would you most want to know, or be there to listen to her talk about? Surely, what this business of having a moment feels like, from the inside out. How it changes everything, and how it doesn’t. Gay has been pulling back the curtain on this experience in her blog for some time. In this essay, she delves deeper, looking particularly at what it means to be a black, Haitian woman achieving success after a lifetime of having to work “twice as hard for half as much.”

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of the “talented tenth” proposed that one out of every 10 black men was destined, and should be nurtured for, greatness. But, Gay reminds us, the notion of the talented tenth originated with wealthy white 19th century liberals like Henry Lyman Morehouse, whose framing of the concept was heavy on condescension. The idea being, Gay writes, that, “if the strongest efforts were focused on the best of black folk, a few might be saved from themselves. Here we are today, still believing this could be true.”

Having a moment means standing ovations, promptly returned emails, rapt fans and hotel rooms with working fireplaces. It means meeting readers who tell you that you’ve changed their lives. And she is clearly having a rare, wonderful time. But this doesn’t make up for the fact that Gay’s life has been punctuated by murmurs—actual, overheard remarks—that her achievements are the result of “affirmative action.” In her characteristic forthright, muscular prose, she spells out the destructive consequences of trying to disprove the doubters and allay her own doubt. She sounds, as usual, like your best, smartest and most honest friend. The essay is a powerful contribution to the written conversation about how racism impacts even the exceptional, the wildly successful people of color in the United States today. It’s also yet another one of Gay’s acts of great generosity to writers whose haven’t reached, or are in between, moments. It reminds us why keep working, and, also, why we should adjust our expectations of what will happen when, if, when (we all know it changes daily) our moment comes.

Emily

Katy Waldman’s “Patterns and Panels” in Slate

I wasn’t a big comic book kid growing up. Other than a love for Calvin and Hobbes and a few Gary Larson books, my comic-strip viewing was mainly on Sundays when I pilfered the funnies from my parents’ newspaper. So I was surprised to develop an affinity for graphic narrative in my mid-twenties, first when I became a fan of Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half (now a book). Her cartoons lent humor and honesty to everything, but were especially effective for her pieces about depression. This week at Slate, Katy Waldman explores exactly that in “Patterns and Panels,” asking how and why cartoons like Brosh’s can depict mental illness so successfully.

She queries scholars, artists and fans as to why comics and mental illness might go hand-in-hand. Is it the theme of metamorphosis rooted in comics superhero origins? Is it the link between creative personalities—like cartoonists—and mental illness? Maybe. Or, maybe not.

Though fascinating, these explanations didn’t entirely satisfy me—they seemed to be looking in on comics from the outside, instead of starting from the page. Even before I knew anything about cartoons’ subversive history, I still fell under the spell of dark, dreamlike worlds that swam around in my head; spiky portrayals of seizures; lonely rooms that embodied the depressive mindspace. (See, especially, Aidan Koch’s wanly lovely sequences in Blue Period.) The formal qualities of comics felt as crucial as anything to understanding the genre’s psychic eloquence.

Touching on history and literature, freedom and structure, Waldman introduces us to a variety of cartoonists who illustrate such psychological interiority, including some of the women who have played important roles in elevating a genre critics and readers often dismiss. (Fun fact: Alison Bechdel, author of 2006’s graphic memoir Fun Home, is a 2014 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.)

Ultimately, Waldman’s admiration for these works shines throughout the piece. She reminds readers that such texts can challenge us to look at the medium—and, perhaps more importantly, its content—in a new way.

Sara

Christine Gilbert’s “I disappear when I write, but for my kids I can’t” in Almost Fearless

Like many writers, I have been obsessive about researching the routines of other writers. I thought that MAYBE THERE WAS A SECRET RECIPE. Maybe if I mixed Susan Sontag’s habits with a pinch of bell hooks and a handful of Ursula Le Guin, I would end up with a bestseller on my hands? Or maybe if I had a secluded cabin, no job, and tons of money, I could really, truly devote myself to writing.

Christine Gilbert, whom I have followed for years on her blog Almost Fearless (and through the birth of her two beautiful children and traveling across more countries than I can count), tackles the issue of writers being obsessed with perfect writing conditions and routines. Gilbert is currently working on a book, and at first she thought she needed time away from her children to really write. But what she discovered was that she could write any time, anywhere.

The incredible thing I’ve learned over the last month is that I can do this. I don’t require perfect quiet to write, or even both of my hands free. I can fill my kids up, enjoy them, then return to where I left off. I have gotten better at being a writer, my time is my major limitation, but that has forced me to be more efficient. I don’t need to be inspired to write, I just write. If I have a moment. If there’s nothing else. If I am alone. I don’t have to ramp up to it, prepping myself like some kind of elite athlete, massaging myself into it. It just happens now. Fast. I’ve got this.

Routines do produce writers, but as long as you write, it really doesn’t matter what the routine is. My new mantra is: I’m fast. I’ve got this. Thank you, Christine.

Alice

Roxanne Krystalli’s “Migratory silences” on Stories of Conflict and Love

Immigration is a fraught topic, one that’s difficult to write about from any perspective, let alone when you’re in the process of migrating yourself. Krystalli’s piece, about her wait for a work permit in the US, identifies the haunting sense of voicelessness that comes when you’re suspended, as she puts it, “in mid-air.” “In the beginning,” she writes, “when your whole life is under scrutiny, the very consciousness of that process propels you into silence. You do not want to look like you are complaining or criticizing, like you are ungrateful or blind to privilege.”

She deals well with this idea of privilege – the awareness of “the other migrants in line – – some of whom are migrants without my privilege, facing different challenges and prospects,” quoting Roxane Gay in Bad Feminist: “We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.” This is important to remember because, as Krystalli points out, “Once immigration uncertainty and worry fills all compartments, it becomes a single, dominant narrative that squashes all others,” and this is exactly the opposite of what it should be. Everyone’s story is different, and what we fight against when we try to tell these stories is a muteness that does no credit to the highly individualized, human-scale experience. First the silence is motivated by fear, uncertainty; later, as the process becomes more complicated, more drawn out, the individual story is hard to tell because it’s full of banal, bureaucratic details that we want to bury, until, “by the time your work authorization document arrives, you are so sick of living in this story that you cannot tell it again. You thought you’d want to shout this moment from the rooftops. In reality, you are simply ready to live in a different narrative.”

So although this is a personal narrative about immigration, the questions it raises transcend differences of background, privilege, motivation. And while it’s ostensibly a piece of writing about waiting, about being suspended, it’s really essentially about action, about what’s next:

“How do we make immigration a kinder process? How do we design a policy and process that takes people’s lives and livelihoods into account and treats them with dignity? How do we make the story more tellable…?”

Miranda

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