Women We Read This Week

A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.

Marisa Silver’s While I Was at Home on Business: When Writing Life Meets Family Life” in The Millions

This wise essay by Marisa Silver (author of the just-out novel Mary Coin) on the symmetry and necessary separation of the creative with the procreative  life hit a particular chord in me. So much of what one reads about parenting-by-artist focuses on the transitional period from independent woman or man with two free hands and an adequate night’s sleep to, well, a frenzied creature clutching at an hour or two from what little sleep or sanity is left to continue to be, in addition to parent, an artist, or even just something that vaguely resembles an artist, the shell of an artist, the husk (see the latest issue of Poets & Writers‘ “Books and Babies” for an example of this). But the transitional period is just that, a period. I have nearly survived the tumultuous transitional period with my own two boys (whom I bounced to sleep as babies with a foot pumping their Baby Björn chair like a maniacal seamstress at a treadle sewing machine), and now that they can walk on their own two feet and even, miraculously, sleep through a normal night, I am eyeing what’s to come. My firstborn turns five in a few weeks: he is rising into his own personhood; I am fully transformed by motherhood, but I am a mother who is also a writer, who, as Silver puts it, has a secret. Now we go forward, and I am grateful to Marisa Silver for some sense of what that might look like. –Molly

Emily Witt’s “What Do You Desire?” in n+1‘s Double Bind

Emily Witt‘s alternately disconcerting, hilarious, and repulsive essay is part postmodern travelogue, part voyeuristic sexcapade and part quiet consideration of the limits of new paradigms. It begins when Witt arrives in San Francisco, setting up the tension that will drive the piece on both a personal and a deeper, analytical level: “I was single, and now in my thirties, but I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future. In San Francisco, people thought differently.”

The latter turns out to be something of an understatement. Witt attends the filming of an episode of Public Disgrace, in which a teensy blonde porn star is shocked, bound, gagged and “punished in public.” (I’ll let that stand as euphemism for all sorts of activity that I could never lead a class discussion about. “So, everyone, what do you think Witt is doing here with this fisting section?”) The long narrative core of the piece is the filming of this episode, and it is mesmerizing, surreal, shocking, and slightly horrific in a can’t-stop-watching you’re-challenging-my-deeply-held-assumptions-but-not-quite kind of way. That’s what this whole piece is doing: pushing and pushing on that idea of love as the final stop at Epcot, exploring the notion that if we want the whole grossly unequal and exploitative structure of society to change we have to question the largely unchallenged sexual/romantic ideal of monogamous couplehood at its center.

I love writing that makes me uncomfortable, and this piece made me very uncomfortable. Sometimes in an exciting way, sometimes in a slightly sickening way, which I think was the intention. What makes it successful is Witt’s own discomfort with what she comes to see as a misguided utopia: the utopia of Google, of liquid-nitrogen ice cream and botanical salves and yogic coregasms and lactation consultants, and the parallel utopia of sexual liberation, ironically manifested as the violent domination of porn stars. The minor chord the piece keeps striking is that of gentrification, of San Francisco’s usurpation by a class of very wealthy highly educated counter-culture yuppies who, in their worship of ancient grains and pursuit of new sexual frontiers, ignore the economic violence of their presence and the very real violence of their sexual utopias. Witt observes,

These changes [healthy workplace environments in which progressive Bay Area companies value individual expression and families of all forms] made for a better working experience, but they also made it easier to complacently watch the flourishing of unfamiliar digital monopolies, to partake in the consumer delights produced by unprecedented inequality with a mistaken sense of political agency, and to pay to watch a woman get gangbanged on the internet with a clean conscience, because the producers used the rhetoric of the fair and just.

In the end, Witt doesn’t buy it: her nihilism doesn’t align with the San Franciscans utopianism. But we’re left not with a circling round to the notion of couplehood as the redeemed ideal but with an in-between sense that neither the conservative status quo nor the avant-garde alternatives, celebrated with a misguided rhetoric of liberation, are all that they promise to be. Oh, and quite possibly the most disturbing sex scene I’ve ever read, with pandas. But I won’t spoil it here. — Sarah

Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The VICE Guide to the World” in The New Yorker

If you exist within a certain subculture of a certain generation, you can’t not have an interaction with VICE. Your friends write for it; bands, tattooers and chefs you know are featured in it; copies of its free print issues are all around the stores and cafes you frequent, and links to its videos pop up in your Twitter and FB feeds. The multimedia monolith that has come to define global alternative youth culture is inescapable and just when you want to write it off for being completely offensive, asinine and hyper-young-male-ego, they do something, well, really good. (This week’s “Gorging on Wild Animals with the Sultans of Sausage” by Thomas Page McBee would be a good example.)

Widdicombe manages to capture these complexities with balance, grace and humor in her profile of the company, which is subject to industry fascination due to the fact that it’s actually making money. She portrays VICE’s executives without condemning or fawning, and in this way we get a very accurate picture of exactly what VICE is: the sometimes-infuriating, sometimes-brilliant but always-impossible-to-dismiss and fascinating-to-watch cool kid at school. It may be in the back of the class, smoking cigarettes and making wise-cracks, but there’s more going on that a carefully honed persona. Widdicombe reveals and digs into this, which is no small feat.

Ali Liebegott’s Interview with Dorianne Laux, “Road Trip,” in The Believer

Okay, so they pretty much had me at “US road trip to Emily Dickinson’s house, stopping to interview female poets along the way.” What I loved about this interview was how unpretentious it was. Instead of name-dropping fellowships and MFA programs, or waxing philosophical about process, Laux cuts to the heart of what artistic creation is all about:

“We’re all writing out of a wound, and that’s where our song comes from. The wound is singing. We’re singing back to those who’ve been wounded. And that’s all of us. We’re not special. Everyone’s been wounded. That’s why they respond.”

Thank you, Laux. And thank you, Liebegott.

Ashley C Ford’s “A Tragedy of Choice” on her blog

I’m not sure how I missed this March 18th response by Ashley C Ford to the Steubenville case, but I’m sure glad I found it now. While a lot of the reactions I encountered appropriately focused on the larger cultural climate, Ford’s is purely personal. With startling depth and compassion, she relates her experience as both a survivor of sexual assault and the daughter of a perpetrator of sexual assault. In this piece Ford is able to touch on one of the most difficult tragedies of these situations: that the people who commit these crimes are often not monsters, but deeply damaged and struggling individuals. As someone who has known men who’ve committed atrocious acts of violence, this is one of the hardest contradictions to hold. I don’t hate the man who killed my best friend’s mom, though it would be easier to. Instead I see him as someone whose own trauma couldn’t be contained. This doesn’t excuse or justify what he did, just as Ford doesn’t seek to be, as she calls it, a rape apologist. Instead she looks at the thing at the center of the tragedy: the gem of hurt we carry, that we pass on or have passed on to us. And I think until we can start having more conversations like this on, the gem will keep being passed. — Lauren

Emily Rapp’s “How I Became the Woman I Am Today: A Story of Friendship” in Role/Reboot

This is a beautiful little essay about a life-changing mentor-student relationship Emily Rapp had with a professor in college that has, over the years, evolved into a close friendship. Her mentor, Barbara, became a mother while Rapp was her student, and everything changed in their relationship, many years later, when Rapp had a child of her own: “Our love had bloomed and deepened; from a guarded mutual respect to a richer, deeper friendship.” Their friendship became even closer and more complex when Rapp’s son was diagnosed with Tay Sachs, a harrowing disease that is always terminal. It often feels impossible to ease the isolation of another’s grief because, it is, in fact, not easy — it takes love and time and courage, and Barbara has given Rapp the gift of all of these, over the years, in insightful letters that verge on poetry:

She went on to say that she believed my experience of parenting a terminally ill child had made me a better person, not in a superficial, moralistic sense but “I think he’s made you better by opening up the great fire of your love” with his “small but magnificent existence.” I have never in my life read a more deeply comforting sentence, one that spoke to my grandest hopes, my deepest fears, and the only faith that remains to me, which is a belief in chaos.

In the lonely landscape of grief, Barbara’s willingness to see Rapp, to come to know her in new ways as their lives change, has grounded Rapp, given her the knowledge that there are openings in even the most solitary of worlds, where the light of lifelong love and understanding can always come in:

I felt connected to another person by a long line of knowing, and understood that this watchful observation, this witness, is the only way to mitigate the vast loneliness of grief. I realized with relief and gratitude that on those cool autumn nights 20 years ago as I marched across campus after class, my head down, stomach grinding, heart pounding, feeling so singular, so lonely, so silent and terrified and contained and yet also, brimming, I was not—and never have been—alone.

Simone

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