As for so many others, Kate Zambreno‘s Heroines stirred me profoundly. Her equally excellent blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister is where the book began: following a move to the middle-class suburbs of the Midwest with her partner, Zambreno launched a search into the relationships of famous male Modernist writers and their less-famous writer wives, in turn interrogating her own position as a wife, woman, and writer.
Heroines is a book of skillful referentiality, not only in revealing the lives of Modern women many of us know so little about, but also in looking at the implications of literary theory and psychology, the history of the way women have been “used” as yet another object of language in these discourses. By placing herself as the subject, the woman, the author, Zambreno further complicates the narratives of the literary female figures she self-consciously imposes on her own life, while also resurrecting women and writing that history has threatened to lose.
RADAR: Hi Kate! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me and to RADAR.
Kate: Hi Rebekkah! It is a pleasure.
RADAR: So, as it has been for so many people, your book was incredibly evocative and important for me. Thank you for writing it.
Kate: Thank you for reading it. That sounds trite, but I mean it.
RADAR: No, I think that’s the second part of writing–there’s the doing the writing, and then the hoping and desiring that others will read it.
Kate: Yes–the communion with others. It’s an interesting thing, to realize your book is out there in the world, to let it be out there, to let the readers then do the work. This text especially came out of so much silence, and was about silence, so it’s really beautiful to have engaged readers.
RADAR: Yes, and Heroines seemed to come out of a sense of loneliness and need you had to connect, which is one of the things I wanted to ask you more about: one aspect of the book I really connected with was your writing about going to a lot of very “female” spaces, yoga studios, salons/waxing parlors, high-end clothing stores, watching YouTube videos of women making raw foods. You were going to these places, watching these videos, partly to connect with other women, but simultaneously felt so “Other” to them. It made me think a lot about Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a book you reference much in yours, writing about how bourgeois life prohibits women from forming friendships in these social situations. I’ve felt that–hair salons and women’s spaces are often filled with this kind of competitive violence.
Kate: Oh, I love that– “competitive violence.”
RADAR: But, you ultimately found connection, via your blog, through the “silent” connection of the internet, as you put it. How do you feel about female friendships, or connections? Do you feel like it’s still a struggle for you? Has writing the book changed/or brought deeper connections, less loneliness? Or will this always be a challenge?
Kate: Beautiful question. I’m not sure I have the answer. But, I am really glad you bring up those sections of the book– I had to really argue my way to keep them inside the book. I was told that I seemed so consumerist, or too privileged, and hence very unlikable and unsympathetic. I argued for the raw food section–where I discuss watching YouTube videos of these privileged women with their glossy manicured nails massaging kale, the oil glistening–and I say in the book, “I worry I’ve become one of those women that I pity.” I wanted to communicate how when I was in some ways marked as a wife on the outside, the way in which I sought connection to other women were through these entirely privileged consumerist activities. And plus I was having health problems, and the raw food, the acupuncture, was a way of trying to seek health or healing in these female spaces.
RADAR: That’s so surprising to me people wanted you to take those sections out. I disagree they made you seem unlikeable–I felt they made you seem tremendously human, and that you were bringing up a tension so many women struggle with. I think many of us (myself definitely) are constantly concerned with becoming “one of those women I pity” because it can be so easy when you’re living in a place that values it. There is such social praise for becoming that kind of woman.
Kate: Yes. But, I wish I had kept in parts of those sections where I meditated more on race and class–the strangeness of only talking to the Japanese woman who administered my acupuncture, or the Korean woman in a nail salon in a strip mall who painted my nails once a month. I wrote meditating on this–on the hierarchy of this–Audre Lorde writing about white feminists at a conference while women of color cleaned their houses–and I was urged by several readers to take it out. But what stayed in was another hierarchy: when I was at the yoga studio feeling swarthy and lower-class, among these much more bourgeois women with their diamond rings and their Lululemon yoga pants. These female spaces are sometimes so much about consumerism, and a hierarchy of class, and yet they can be these really intimate spaces.
RADAR: That tension is what makes it so complicated.
Kate: I obviously think one can form female friendships without consumerism. They’re so fetishized somehow in our society. I also write in Heroines about visiting Sephora when I was feeling terribly lonely, and feeling I was friends with the girls and women who worked there, although it’s a weird charged-unequal not-really-friendship built upon capitalism. I talk about this in Green Girl as well. Online I think I have deeper connections. Although often when I meet these (mostly) women in real life, who I have established such intimacy with over the internet, it’s strained or different. For me, there’s a struggle to have connections, although I don’t think this is universal. But you’re right–Simone de B. does write about that loneliness as well. All these houses lined up, isolating.
RADAR: Yes, and it’s significant and I think terribly important to write about these spaces because we spend so much time in or around them. One of the challenges I find in being girl/woman is the amount of time to be spent on maintaining appearance, and how that inevitably takes away from cultivation of other aspects of ourselves. But, on the other hand, it can be extremely pleasurable (or I feel it is, like you describe feeling in the book) to buy and put on makeup, to shop for clothes. The “raw food” piece we’ve been talking about in Heroines made me think about how dishwashers and washing machines were invented to reduce the amount of time women might spend on housework, but even with all these conveniences, many women still choose to spend significant amounts of time on cultivation of themselves, their home, etc. This is the component I think about quite a bit–that there’s desire, that a desire still exists to spend a lot of time living like that.
Kate: Yes. It’s such a weird ambivalence for me. I tend to, when I’m feeling the most unhappy or alienated or depressed, become hypervigilant about my appearance. I’m turning 35 this year and I’ve become ridiculous worrying about aging–I’m hoping it’s a phase, it will pass, and that a lot of it connects to depression. Because I am looking forward to growing older, obviously. But I agree. It’s really important to write about our vanity and our relationship to our plainness, to quote Woolf. I think I’ve tried to do that in my work. Is the desire informed by capitalism, or is there desire outside of capitalism? That is the question now I think. How commodified are we, in these desires.
RADAR: Exactly! That question of desire and the way it is produced is one I think about all the time. It’s all become so tightly bound: capitalism, commodification, and desire. It’s very difficult to separate them (which many Marxists, and I think Foucault would argue is how capitalism succeeds). I think you definitely have addressed this “vanity” in your writing, and I think there needs to be an honesty about it. The lack of acknowledgement of pleasure in this vanity is part of what I think has kept so many women outside of “feminism” (whatever “feminism” means anymore…), or so uninterested in interrogating it. There can be a shame, especially in the academic world, the one you write much about, in taking pleasure in femininity.
Kate: Yes. That shame tied with feminism is the question to ask now.
RADAR: You also write a lot about your struggles with menstruation in Heroines, painful, heavy periods.
Kate: Yes. I had endometriosis surgery right before the last rewrite I did for Heroines last September–like Vivienne (Eliot) and her bloody sheets, her insisting that she and Tom (Eliot) wear black satin pajamas and sleep on black satin sheets to disguise the blood, the hotel sheets she would steal and send back laundered, to Tom’s horror.
RADAR: I just read an essay by David Foster Wallace about Wittingstein’s Mistress, a beautiful book by David Markson. Markson writes about this woman (incidentally also named Kate), and refers to her heavy periods. In his essay, DFW writes that many women and women critics objected to Markson’s writing of menstruation in the book–that it felt unrealistic, “clunky,” like a constant reminder to the reader Kate was a woman. I disagree in the sense that it didn’t remove me from the book. I think your writing about menstruation in Heroines was really important–that experience of the body has a profound affect on the way women move through the world, and has been so attacked, rendered shameful. Irigaray writes about this a lot, too–women’s unique relationship to blood. Was their any hesitation on your part to put it in the book?
Kate: Oh my god, I’m SO GLAD you just mentioned Wittgenstein’s Mistress! I had no idea that DFW wrote an essay about it. Yes, the woman named Kate. I read that very recently, and thought it hilarious, that Markson has the character menstruate on every page! It’s a reoccurring joke between me and John [Zambreno’s partner]. John, like you, adores the book, it’s one of his all-time favorites. And for awhile I resisted reading it, because, well, I don’t know. I work a lot with heavy referentiality and fragmentation, and so I think that’s why I didn’t read Markson and Maso for so long. But I was totally turned off by all of the menstruating! You know what it is–something turns me off about a male author having that be a character detail about Kate, as if to define her femaleness. She’s bleeding all over the fucking page! But, I do think it’s really important for women to write their bodies. Not that men cannot write the female body–of course they do–they have painted it, written it, for centuries. But all that blood–it infuriated me. I’ve always written a lot about my periods online. I think that defines a lot of the blogs I follow–I’m thinking of Ariana Reines posting her bloody panties on her Tumblr. I actually look at my blog as my menstrual calendar.
RADAR: I think a question to ask here is whether it’s infuriating because a man wrote it? Would it be so obnoxious if it had been a woman writer?
Kate: God, I love that you asked me that! No, not at all. It would not be obnoxious at all. BUT. I don’t think a woman would have had to have her character menstruate on every page, as a way to show the restraints of her body. I wrote a blog post joking about it where I started counting all of the menstruating. It was a lot. I mean, it seemed heavy-handed. We should write of our bodies, even our periods! All the fluids. All fluid. But our bodies also don’t overdetermine us, don’t overdetermine our genders even. I can’t believe I’m in agreement with David Foster Wallace about this, but there you go. I’ll have to go look for that essay. I mean, something about a genius male writer writing of a woman bleeding constantly makes me want to punch something. That might be my own special hang-up.
RADAR: You know, it’s a great essay.
Kate: I’m so excited I’m shouting to John in the other room that this is what we’re talking about!
RADAR: Yes! I’m glad I brought it up.
Kate: I should write a nonfiction novel starring a Kate that satirizes Wittgenstein’s Mistress and 5 people will get the reference. That seems about right in terms of my ability to come up with commercial books.
RADAR: YOU SHOULD. It would be amazing, I’m sure. Okay, I just pulled the essay out. Let me quote a part here; DFW actually writes he’s more concerned with a different kind of misogyny he sees in the book:
“I find in WM the same complex and scary blend of Hellenic and Evian misogyny…it is here the novel falters technically by betraying its authorial presence as thoroughly male, outside Kate and or womanhood generally… It seems very interesting to me that Markson has created a Kate who dwells so convincingly in a hell of utter subjectivity yet cannot finally himself help but objectify her…”
He basically takes issue with the fact that Kate’s madness is related to the death of her child and a divorce, that her madness is explainable because of her female transgression of social expectations, as opposed to just being “mad.”
Kate: Hmmm. Interesting. What do you think of this whole idea that if an author (male) writes misogyny convincingly, that it is somehow feminist? I’m thinking of the dialogue around Junot Diaz (whose new book I haven’t read). I also find it interesting that DFW is the one writing this, although it has been argued to me that he is feminist. But I keep on thinking of how he sends up Elizabeth Wurtzel in The Depressed Person.
RADAR: The Junot Diaz misogyny question is a huge one for me, I think about it a lot: I love DFW, I love DeLillo, I love Bolaño. I love so many male writers/thinkers enormously, passionately, and their work has been transformative in my life and in my reading. But, then I listen to a DFW interview where he says completely misogynistic things, shows an utter lack of understanding, almost a kind of disgust towards women. Reading Diaz, too, I feel something similar. Yet, as Diaz has said, that “misogynistic” experience of women was part of his experience. I get that, but for me, these portrayals are ultimately damaging. They resist challenging anything–I think you can be honest and still challenge. More, it cuts me out, as a woman reader, in those sections. I feel tossed out of the narrative.
Kate: Yes, “cuts me out, as a woman reader in those sections”–that’s lovely. I’ve felt that cutting, too. With Heroines, I’m trying to wrangle this. Jessa Crispin teaches, or taught a class, on Wonderful Writers Who are Horrible (not saying any of the contemporary male writers we’re talking about are horrible, they’re not). I think that’s partially what I wrangle with in the book. My love of D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller or Gustave Flaubert. How Flaubert just seemed to absolutely despise women and the feminine.
RADAR: Yes, your book absolutely does wrangle this–one of the reasons I loved it so much. I remember reading The Second Sex in a philosophy class and all the young men saying it felt “too dated,” that the problems she addresses aren’t problems anymore, they’d been “solved” (while, I might add, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was lauded in that same class as incredibly truthful and pertinent in its portrayal of sexuality.) And just the other day, in fact, in a grad school seminar, I was struggling to communicate the significance of Cixous and Irigaray’s work. There’s a failure to understand why feminist projects are important, a continual need to defend their place. And when I read parts of Diaz, or DFW, it’s so, so, so flagrantly necessary.
Kate: Right. I like what Simone de B. said, even though I disagree with a lot of The Second Sex, or at least her conclusions, and both Green Girl and Heroines wrangle with her concept of The Young Girl (in both) and The Wife (in Heroines), that by and large, equality has been won, but it’s the small, subtle communications and rhetoric that still creates this hierarchy. These feelings of inferiority we are just supposed to swallow, to internalize. I think that swallowing is a violence. Even the young men saying that in that class–that is a violence. I’m not of the liberal feminist camp that thinks that it should all be about equality in laws and institutions. People just want us to shut up about it, though.
RADAR: Yes, yes, exactly. It is a kind of violence. And as we talked of earlier in the discussion of housewifery, the fact that even though choice is available, women still, much of the time, choose to remain in situations that suppress them. That fascinates me, and I also struggle against it myself.
Kate: It’s true. What we desire is often not what is the healthiest for us. But, I think Freud gave us something very liberating–probably his most liberating, despite serious issues–we desire what we desire. I think that’s why I’ve often felt more kindredness with queer or affect theory than a lot of feminist theory (which often can be about empowerment, or almost a prohibition about speaking about not being empowered). I am sometimes not the best feminist. I don’t think many people are.
RADAR: I agree completely. You know, I’ve also always been drawn more toward queer theory–I find it more willing to explore the complexity of sexuality and desire, less prescriptive. I had a female professor in undergrad whose class was incredibly influential for me. That was where I read The Yellow Wallpaper for the first time. She said that one of the reasons feminism fails is because neither party (men nor women) see it as ultimately being beneficial to them, and that it needs to become something that could be seen that way in order for it to succeed. This idea haunts me. Any thoughts on that?
Kate: That’s interesting. I am interested in the relationship of feminism to desire. I think sometimes people in our contemporary moment boycott feminism because it might stand in the way of their desires (for passivity? for suppression?) Or they perceive it as standing in their way.
RADAR: Yes! I think that’s absolutely the case much of the time.
Kate: I think sometimes the impulse towards passivity can be very strong. For myself, at least. And Second Wave feminists, and hell, even young intersectional thoroughly contemporary feminists now, often dismiss women seen as passive, or female fictional characters seen as too passive. I was going to write a book about it–I mean this is my next book of essays, if I can ever rebuild myself to write essays again. But, I think though–to counter your professor–The Yellow Wallpaper is a thorough satire. Gilman is writing this clear-eyed satire of the poisonousness inherent in the traditional heterosexual couple. Sometimes people have read Heroines–good readers, thorough readers–and don’t get I’m actually trying to critique heterosexuality and the fascism of individual relationships and their rhetoric. I have been asked–by brilliant readers–why don’t I just leave my husband? Which, of course, I mean, John and I have a very loving and equal partnership. I am theatricalizing a lot of it in the book. But we desire what we desire…
RADAR: And a lot of homosexual couples fall into the same pattern of one taking on a more passive or “hysterical” role, the other domineering or placating, which can be seen as a product of heterosexuality. Do you think that’s more about heterosexuality, or more monogamy?
Kate: I think (and I’m not an expert, and cannot speak of others) that often monogamy mimics heteronormativity. A heterosexual dynamic I think is intrinsically hierarchical. Maybe people have totally equal partnerships, maybe queer partnerships are more equal, but in my observations that has not been the case. I liked what Jeanette Winterson wrote in Oranges, how she needs someone who can destroy but also be destroyed, and that in the male-female relationship, that is more rare, to find a partnership where each one destroys but also allows themselves to be destroyed. But this is essentializing. Maybe nonmonogamous coupledoms are more equal, I don’t know.
RADAR: Right. I have definitely heard women specifically express something similar to Winterson about being with other women. Many people desire to at times be dominated, or dissolve into someone else. It can feel like a relief, a literal relief of self to let someone else be in control. To clarify, or be fair to my professor, her comment wasn’t directly in relation to The Yellow Wallpaper itself. She made the comment on feminism needing to be beneficial in speaking of Sex in the City and Ally McBeal. She criticized those shows as expressing “false feminism”, depicting women in positions of power and freedom economically, but still obsessed with being loved by men and seeking traditional partnership.
Kate: Yes. The whole postfeminist debate. Is it false feminism? That is one view, I mean that’s the major view. But when you have most younger- generation feminists still drawn to these narratives of romance, are they all bad feminists? This is something that obsesses me and I don’t know the answer. I mean, Carrie Bradshaw and Ally McBeal are not feminists, I don’t think. But maybe the girls or women who watch them are.
RADAR: Very well put. I know–these are narratives certain women and men still not only ask for, but again “desire.” But the problem is, as with our discussion of Diaz and DFW and the way they write about women, do these books and programs reinforce the narratives of how we live? How we want to live?
Kate: Right. That is the big question. It is the main one I’m obsessed with. Susan Brownmiller.
RADAR: I don’t know her…
Kate: She wrote that 70s book about rape–Against Our Will–she argues that Little Red Riding Hood is a rape narrative, that we are inculcated into passive positions from childhood.
RADAR: Ahh, okay, I’ve heard of that theory.
Kate: One of the best critiques I ever received was from Lauren Berlant, who met with me for all of 15 minutes when she advised my Masters’ thesis. And she told me that I must remember that people can be reactionary and critical with popular culture, that they can speak back against the screen, while still finding immense pleasure in these narratives. I think that’s true. So the books and programs might reinforce narratives, but I think we can watch but still be resistant. Maybe.
RADAR: That is so, so true, and I think part of why so many turn away from theory and feminism: they fear these other narratives being “taken away,” told they’re stupid or shallow for watching and enjoying them.
Kate: Right! I think Jack Halberstam is writing about that with Gaga Feminisms, but I have only read his blog posts about that. I haven’t read the book.
RADAR: So, how was it for John to have had you write this book? Did it change your relationship, or the way you viewed remaining in a heterosexual relationship?
Kate: No! But the thing is, it’s not like I tucked in for years and never showed him anything.
RADAR: I think your conscious struggle/thinking/obsessing over the relationship is actually one of the most beautiful things about Heroines. As we were saying about the possibilities for watching narrative, you never stop questioning and considering yours, yourself in the relationship, lifestyle. I think that’s vital.
Kate: John has been always the first reader of my writing–Heroines is in so many ways a collaboration, like Vivien(ne) reading The Waste Land for Tom, and writing “Wonderful, Wonderful” next to the lines of marital discord in “The Game of Chess.” That was John. Always scribbling, “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Although he is such a critical bastard reading my writing–we get into a lot of fights when he’s reading me. But he’s still the best and most empathetic and brilliant reader and editor I’ve ever had. When the work was a novel–Mad Wife–the whole book was about editing, the husband editing the wife. Some of that got lost when it became this work for Semiotext(e). Maybe someday I will still write a work about editing. Some of the self-consciousness was lost.
RADAR: That would be a really interesting interrogation–it’s like the question of translation….
Kate: Yes–have you read Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert?
Kate: Oh, you have to read it. Brilliant postmodern work about translation. She’s the Canadian Cixous. Three versions of the work, all about translation. It’s a work I was really inspired by when I was working on Mad Wife. Someday I’d like to go back to that idea–this work about editing.
RADAR: I will absolutely look it up. Translation theory is one I am most interested in, part of what I’m pursuing a graduate degree in.
Kate: Yes, Nicole Brossard! Also Yesterday at Hotel Clarendon! Queer, brilliant, totally referential. Brossard’s characters are obsessed with writing, with translation, with literature.
Kate: That’s my RADAR recommendation!
RADAR: You mention your mother a few times in Heroines, that she, in struggling to deal with her terminal cancer, was hospitalized for mental instability. Is that right?
Kate: Yes. It’s one of my narratives I keep on trying to exorcise.
RADAR: That must have contributed to your interest in wanting to research and write about madness, too?
Kate: I wrote an entire work–The Book of Mutter that is coming out in 2014–that circles around this, trauma, madness, other characters like Henry Darger and Marilyn Monroe. Yes–my experiences with psychiatry have radicalized me. When I was a psychiatric patient, when I had a breakdown during college, and then when my mother was institutionalized while dying of cancer. I would not have been a writer, I would not have written books, if my mother hadn’t died, if she hadn’t died in such a way.
RADAR: You being told you’d “always be spinning your wheels” by that psychiatrist in college….
Kate: Yes. I was put on a cocktail of medications–Lithium, etc. I was supposed to be institutionalized myself, until my mother and father intervened. There are many people who struggle with mental illness and with issues with mental health. But I was being disciplined–for being a fuck-up. I mean, I still have mental health issues. I have struggled with depression my entire life. But I am someone who drugs do not help.
RADAR: Right–there’s a line between having a genuine mental illness, and/or having deep struggles with the world and yourself in it. It can be hard to make the distinction, and our society has, I think, very much over-diagnosed, over-medicated, over-prescribed. So, it’s fascinating to me you decided to go back to a psychologist, when you were in Ohio?
Kate: I always am trying to go to a psychologist. It has so far disappointed me. Currently, I just was in weekly treatment, dialectical behavioral therapy–a lot of emphasis on mindfulness, which I am shit at. I am shit at mindfulness. It is very hard for me, often, to exist in the world, without worrying or feeling like I want to escape somehow. I just fired my therapist. I am not against therapy, by any means. But I sometimes wonder at how all the institutions–of social work, psychology, psychiatry–are about personal responsibility, as opposed to looking at a fucked-up society.
RADAR: I have that exact same frustration with psychology. My mother decided to become a therapist some years ago, perpetuated partly by very difficult changes in our family, and her desire to seek a new career, part of herself. She is very interested in mindfulness, Buddhist psychology. It ultimately has helped her so much, she’s found it tremendous in understanding herself, her marriage, her family….but, I disagree with so much of what therapy is about. I think a lot of it allows very easy explanation, “He’s a narcissist. Period.” Or, “that’s transference.” For me, this doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t really explain anything.
Kate: Right–it’s one system for explanation. I worry at using other’s language to describe our experience.
RADAR: Exactly! It becomes a way of “reading” the world via someone else’s reading.
Kate: I like mindfulness. I think in our society now, with the Internet, etc., being in the moment is very important. It’s just not the only solution. I like DBT too. I like the idea of dialectic, because that’s so much of what we’re talking about. The idea of “acceptance” and “change” and how these both can exist. But, I’m very resistant to change.
RADAR: Yes, and I feel like so much of writing depends on being nostalgic, or melancholy, or dissatisfied.
Kate: That’s interesting. Must be interesting to have a mother who’s a psychologist.
RADAR: It can be frustrating at times, but we’ve productively challenged each other on a lot of topics. I also wanted to express how terribly sorry I am for the loss of your mother, and didn’t mean to gloss over it.
Kate: You were beautifully empathetic. Don’t worry. It’s now almost a decade. It has just become part of the skin. It is in the skin. It is not raw or sensitive.
RADAR: I also wanted to ask about your upcoming projects. You have two, at least, right? The book in 2014?
Kate: The Book of Mutter, which I wrote a while ago, was one of my first books, and it comes out in 2014. I am working on a series of essays in a book entitled Slapping Clark Gable, circling around feminism and desire. I just wrote a long essay about the actress-director Barbara Loden, the notion of the depressed muse, and failure, for Two Dollar Radio’s Frequency–that’s from this work. And then I am starting to get back into a novel project I abandoned when I began rewriting Heroines two years ago–Under the Shadow of My Roof –which is a parable of the hidden girls in society, starring a libertine named Monkey trapped in the cellar by her father.
RADAR: These all sound absolutely amazing! I can’t wait to read them.
Kate: Well, I told myself no more essays for awhile. But now this conversation is reinvigorating me! And of course there’s my satire of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I will self-publish.
RADAR: You must, must, must do that!
Kate: You can be my one reader
RADAR: Ha! I bet you’d have more than just me. I’m sure there are other Markson fans. Kate, I could do this all day, but one more question I thought of when you described your upcoming projects: how does the process of writing a novel versus writing memoir/personal writing play out for you?
Kate: I’m still trying to figure that out. I don’t think of my essay working as memoirs–I think of them as essays –because I’m so interested/engaged in the movement and work of an essay, the notion of an attempt, a failure, within an essay, after Montaigne, but subverting Montaigne. I think of them as critical memoirs. I think the critical memoirs are fed more by the blog, by diary work, by reading. I don’t know. I know the essays require more critical faculties, in a way. The novels can be more ludic. Although my novels have essay elements in them. I need to go to therapy to figure out my writing modes!
RADAR: Haha! It’s such an important question in Heroines, too, of needing to write the personal. That scene in the book of you teaching Jean Rhys in a class– and the negative reaction of the women in the class invalidating it as not a real novel, but merely her “diary” –haunts me.
Kate: I love that Rhys scene. I think that scene–the woman in the Continuing Adults class claiming that Rhys merely wrote a diary and Ford Maddox Ford edited her, and my passionate, almost violent reaction to them, is a lot of stuff of the book.
Kate: Yes. We need to reclaim these ideas of the “minor.”
RADAR: I think that’s what Jack Halberstam’s book [The Queer Art of Failure] is about that too, reclaiming failure.
Kate: Yes –I am really into that book. It is really informing a lot of my recent ideas of not only the essay but writing experience, writing the girl. I think the girl is a failure. I think feminism is a failure. I’m always drawn, intrinsically, to failures.
Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels O Fallen Angel and Green Girl, and the critical memoir Heroines. Her anti-memoir of broken myths and orphaned women, The Book of Mutter, will be published by Counterpath Press in March 2014. She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her partner John Vincler and her puppy Genet.
Rebekkah Dilts is a lover of literature, poetry, film and theory. She lives in San Francisco, where she is currently pursuing a graduate degree in French and English Comparative Literature. Her work can be found on RADAR’s blog and on her own, at TheSinclairProject.com
Guess what?? RADAR is holding its 3rd Annual Eli Coppola Poetry Chapbook Contest and YOU should apply.
What does it entail, you may ask? To submit simply mail:
• Cover sheet with name, address, phone and e-mail address
• 1 copy of 18-24 pages of poetry (manuscripts will not be returned)
• $15 entry fee with check or money order made out to RADAR Productions * to offset judge’s honoraria
The author’s name or other identifying information should not appear anywhere except the cover sheet. Email submissions cannot be accepted at this time.
Mail your chapbook-worthy materials to:
c/o Ali Liebegott, Managing Director
909 Hampshire St. Suite 4
San Francisco, CA 94110
THE POSTMARK DEADLINE is September 15, 2012
This year’s contest judge is amazing poet and editor, Lenelle Möise.
Oh yeah! What about the prize?? The winner will receive an invitation to read in San Francisco’s RADAR Reading Series and 25 author copies of a professionally-designed chapbook of her/his work!
Any other questions? Please email us at email@example.com
*Eli Coppola was a San Francisco based poet who was an important part of the city’s spoken word and literary scenes in the 1990’s. She died in 2000. Her many chapbooks have been collected in the volume Some Angels Wear Black, published by manic d press.
Adrienne Rich makes the short list of one of the most publicly
prominent poets and intellectuals of the last generation, a considerable feat considering the fact that she was a woman and a lesbian and wrote about such.
She also makes the list of one of the first women thinkers I was really moved and inspired by. A well-marked old copy of Rich’s book Of Woman Born sat on my mother’s bookshelf and she pulled it down and gave it to me.
She told me that she’d tried to give to her mother when she young, but wasn’t sure my grandmother had ever read it. I did, though, and continue to.
When I feel discouraged or frustrated with the state of things, and what it takes to push forward in the world of literature, poetry, etc., Adrienne Rich has and will continue to be a glowing source of inspiration and encouragement.
This year, my first favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, turned 50.
My dad and I read the book together when I was six. He and I, or my mom and I, would read every night before I went to bed. Until A Winkle in Time, our selections were mostly hardcover children’s picture books or short, happy-go-lucky, chapter books about fairies or first grade girls like myself stomping through the rain on their way to school.
I don’t know how the decision to pick A Winkle in Time came about, but I know that it changed the way I approached books forever.
While the story also focused on a young girl, the plot took the most strange and unexpected twists: to different dimensions, planets, there were mysterious, witch-like characters whose names were questions. I was fascinated. I remember squirming in my seat at school, or out amidst the gray concrete of the playground, wishing I could be caught in Meg’s strange tale, tessering between the planets. My mind already liked to wander off into imaginary worlds of my own construction, but now I’d found one someone else had invented that was intriguing enough to want to be a part of.
I had understood books and stories could be about different worlds and places, I’d read children’s versions of the Greek myths and Anderson fairy tales. But those harkened to the past or a place entirely imaginary. A Wrinkle in Time merged both the reality I knew and a world completely invented, a genre I’d never known existed. It opened a door.
Hearing reports about the book now, for its 50th anniversary, it’s clear it meant the same for publishers and readers alike: the novel was rejected over and over, and many instrumental to its eventual publication still claim not to fully understand the story now.
Books and art like this–queer, unusual, frequently or initially misunderstood but fearless in presentation–have come to occupy a deep space in me because of their innate humanness, the fact they they provide hope that there is always a place to go and those who will receive them.
Happy 50th A Wrinkle in Time, and here’s to all others that will follow your inspiration.
Like many women, I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with makeup and beauty products. I was raised by two parents who were firmly against them–my mom wore no makeup and warned me against its addictive nature (‘Once you start wearing it you won’t be able to stop…’) and my dad frequently let me know the beauty industry was out to suppress and oppress women, and my purchasing and using makeup and beauty products would mean I was falling their prey.
I respected (and respect) them both greatly, and the truth is, they were in some ways very right. But I’m an incredibly curious person and another member of my family, one of my aunts, is a model and actress. Besides being physically beautiful, she’s one of the most wonderful people I know, so I respected (and respect) her, too. I relished going into her bathroom and examining what seemed dozens of jars of sparkling dust in titillating colors, rows of brushes poised and propped elegantly, bottles of sweet smelling perfume. To my parents chagrin or not, once I turned 13, she started giving me really nice makeup as birthday and Christmas gifts. So began my journey.
Over the years I have called into question my use of makeup and the construction of my physical self quite a bit. There is no denying that a woman is perceived very differently depending on her use of makeup and beauty products, and that it gets not only expensive but time consuming, pulling women out of other more potentially cerebral projects. But I also don’t think using makeup/constructing one’s appearance is necessarily negative or wasteful. Rather, I’ve discovered that the subject is fascinating, incredibly layered, and pulls so many issues around gender, identity, sexuality, labor and capitalism along with it.
I recently came across writer Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s really interesting project, The Beheld, a blog dedicated to the exploration of beauty and what it means. I asked her if she’d be willing to let me ask her some questions on the subject, to which she kindly said yes, and provided some really great responses.
Rebekkah: Thanks so much for talking with me and RADAR! How did you first get interested in taking on beauty as an intellectual project?
And I suppose by being a fairly cerebral person, the work can seem intellectual, though I haven’t done any formal study of beauty or aesthetics. Through writing my own experiences I found more literature that tackles these questions. I hadn’t known that beauty had ever been treated as an intellectual topic and it felt like a relief to find these works. What I’m doing isn’t necessarily intellectual in that tradition; I’m a writer, not an academic of any sort–I’ve got a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in women’s studies. But what I’m doing is treating beauty with a certain degree of seriousness for an audience that isn’t reading philosophical treatises on the matter. I think that’s important to do for plenty of topics of interest to intellectuals, but particularly beauty, because it’s such a part of our lives and there are so many messages we get about it every day.
Rebekkah: Can you explain a little bit about your wonderful new work with The New Inquiry?
Rebekkah: I have talked to so many different people (men and women, academics, artists, writers and others) about the challenge for women to integrate their physicality/beauty with component of self within society. Yet it always seems to boil down to the notion that female beauty exists in a way male beauty just doesn’t. Do you think culture will always uphold female beauty? Do you have any ideas/propositions about this being dealt with alternatively?
Autumn: The changes our culture would have to undergo in order to not hold female beauty in the light it currently does are so radical that I can’t even imagine where we’d begin. I think we’re talking about the sort of change that happens not with a generation, but with generations, lots of them. I don’t think woman-as-decoration is innate; there are plenty of societies throughout history where men have been the ones who have been seen as the ethereal beauties. But in our culture? No. I don’t see that sea change happening anytime soon. And I’m actually less interested in eradicating that than I am in ameliorating it. Obviously feminism has been an enormous amelioration here, and things have changed pretty quickly when you think about it. I think we can continue to call out double standards and to make sure that we keep women of all stripes in the public eye–women who have the cultural currency of conventional beauty, and women who don’t, and not stratifying women along some faux spectrum of smart vs. pretty.
What I would really love to see eradicated–and will do my part in helping eradicate–is the notion that because women’s beauty is this innate, primal thing (supposedly), that means it has a power over men, and that if women just learned how to tap into that power more we’d have arrived at a place of “separate but equal.” I think that’s bullshit. There are undeniable benefits that come with beauty, but the real benefits of that beauty are equal for men and women–better pay, for example. The “power” that beautiful women supposedly have over men boils down to free drinks, essentially. Some women may be able to work their beauty to their benefit to get, say, mentoring or tutelage–that’s what Catherine Hakim argues in her book Erotic Capital. But that “power” can be whisked away at the whim of the person with the actual power. That is, at the whim of a man.
Rebekkah: What are you reading right now?
Rebekkah: What issues are you really interested in tackling or exploring more deeply, both with The Beheld and otherwise?
Rebekkah: How do you personally define “beauty labor”?
Autumn: I’ll confess that I don’t read that many new books, and in fact I rarely read fiction at all. So I’m drawing here on my own experience as an essay writer and blogger, and on the discourse that’s surrounded women’s writing lately. With that in mind: The Internet, I think, has been a huge development for women’s writing seeing a broader audience. Women have always written letters and diaries; we’ve been socialized to prioritize the personal. What’s been happening for a while now is that women’s “personal” writings, which now can have an enormous public stage, are being seen in a more political context. Before, only women’s studies people were really looking at women’s diaries as valid literary works, and today it’s being looked at more seriously in the literary world. That said, and to answer the second part of your question, we need to remember a writing 101 maxim: Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting. I’d like to see diaristic women writers more fully understand that what makes their work important is that readers may be able to relate to it, and they should be able to walk away from your piece with what we call a “takeaway.” Use the form to illuminate a broader female experience, not to illuminate how rare and special a butterfly you are. I have little patience with preciousness, and I think that’s true of most readers.
Rebekkah: How has your project with The Beheld made you feel differently about yourself and question of beauty/women/identity? What surprised you the most?
Autumn: The biggest surprise I had was that I quickly found out that I didn’t want to let go of the artifice of beauty–rather, I quickly learned that my instinct to engage with that artifice wasn’t something that must be overcome. Before starting The Beheld I was much more binary in my thinking about beauty: I knew I felt fascinated by it, but I wrestled with feeling ashamed of that fascination because all that was fluff, right? And beauty labor was a way of trying to not feel bad about the way I looked, right? But once I started formally interviewing other women and articulating more of my own thoughts on beauty, I realized that wasn’t the case much of the time. For example, I began to see my use of makeup not just as a daily nod to the patriarchy–which it is, in part, I admit–but as a way of defining my public face to the world, and of articulating how I wish to be seen.
I feel more passionately about the articulation of femininity and gender than I did before starting The Beheld. I’m working now on seeing the diversity of how femininity is expressed by different people–how someone who isn’t what you’d call “girly” might express her femininity, if being female feels like an important part of her identity. Perhaps there are some people for whom their sex doesn’t feel terribly relevant to their identity–it feels enormously relevant to me, and I know ways that plays out in my self-presentation, but I want to know more about how it plays out with other people. One of my favorite interviews was with Kelli Dunham, a wonderful boi comic and founder of Queer Memoir. She identifies as butch, a boi, and she doesn’t really perform femininity. But as she put it, “A new haircut is a butch accessory.” So what I would call beauty work was still a part of her gender expression. She was rejecting traditional beauty work but it wasn’t entirely absent either, and that illuminated for me how a binary way of looking at beauty work wasn’t going to be helpful. *
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano began her writing career in New York as an intern for Ms. Magazine. She’s since had an extensive reach as a freelance writer, her essays having appeared in Marie Claire, Salon, and Glamour. Her work in copy–editing beauty pieces for women’s magazines led to the creation of the Thoughts on a Word series, in which she examines the etymology and usage of words used to describe women’s appearance, as well as The Beheld. She has also just become a regular blogger for The New Inquiry.
Your Favorite Cookbook Â
My old-reliable favorite cookbook is Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz even though I’m not vegan anymore. I think it’s because it’s one of those cookbooks that has a lot of anecdotes between the recipes which I used to think were really boring, but now in my old age kind of love. When I’m really stressed about why-the-fuck-is-the-Uhaul-website-down, I can just imagine all of the seitan I’m going to make in my new kitchen and bliss out.
Double Duce by Aaron Cometbus is about living in punk squats in Berkeley and Oakland and gives me a lot of nostalgia both because I read it right before I moved to the Bay Area and because it reminds me of nasty and tender-hearted places I have lived. A recent reread kind of bummed me out because this book is really hetero, but there aren’t that many books about living collectively and/or that help me romanticize living sandwiched between two liquor stores so I’m going to give it a pass.
This website is really aptly named. I lost a couple of hours looking through the archives. Did you know that you can make a lampshade out of a tree stump? Did you know that you can make a bird feeder out of a tangerine? Did you know that you can make steamer trunk out of a filing cabinet? I will probably never do any of these things but I take great comfort in knowing that I could.
Witchy Self Care Zines
The Mental Health Cookbook is a really good resource for things like medicinal teas and super nutritious fermented stuff and positive energy flower tonics. Self care is a radical act is what I like to say when I need everyone to leave me alone while I sip lavender tea and browse tumblr.
I find righteous anger to be the most get up and go emotion. I reread part of this awesome critique of neoliberalism and hulked out so hard that I set up all of the utilities at my new apartment and emailed like ten people on Craigslist about furniture.
Histrionic Musical Numbers
I don’t know if it’s related to moving, but I’ve been really into Bette Midler since the relocation process began. The 1993 TV movie adaptation of Gypsy is amazing:Â http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrpXoNBCz7QÂ
“You qualify for a free scalp and hand massage at your appointment today,” the receptionist at the hair salon told me. “Lisa will get you started. Follow me right this way.”
She motioned her long fingers, and I followed the swoosh of her dress to a room in the back where I was laid in a reclining chair. Lisa was already there waiting for me.
“So, what type of scented oil would you like for the massage? We have vanilla, grapefruit, jasmine, sandalwood or lemon grass.”
Lisa put herself to work right away, lifting my hair into the bowl behind me, running her oiled hands through the strands, then moving her fingers back and forth along my scalp.
I could see the crux of her armpit as her hands moved over my head and I could smell the light scent of her perfume. I watched the line by her ear where her concealer ended, leaving slightly lighter skin. She was wearing a dress with a flowered skirt and a gold belt. She didn’t speak to me, remaining completely focused on her task.
Once she had finished with my hair, she lifted the chair forward and asked me to hold out one of my arms.
“Vanilla still?” she asked.
Once I was upright, I started to look at the other women in the salon. Two women were seated to my right, also receiving their complimentary massage treatments. The expressions on their faces were pleasant and relaxed, lots of half smiles. The women working on their arms and heads were like Lisa, brisk and business-like but all well dressed and coiffed.
“I had the Brazilian blowout treatment at this one salon,” I heard a woman across the room, who was having her hair trimmed, say to the stylist working on her. “It was a nightmare.”
“Really? Where? Can you tell me the name of this salon?”
The place smelled of slightly burnt hair and the intermingling of different perfumes and shampoos. It struck me fully at that moment that I was seated in a room full of all women, women bent over one another, women all working in one way or another for beauty and maintenance and validation.
For a moment, I smiled at this thought, placing it in the context of positive communal experience and embracing the pleasure of having warm, soft hands rubbing mine, of being made beautiful, of being in the presence of beautiful women.
But I felt and always feel a sharp twinge of resistance to this somehow. An edge seems to exist in all these places that pricks. Every compliment—“What a great pair of boots—where did you get those? But I could never wear them anyway, I’m too old now….”—“You have such beautiful hair– and the color! What do you use? You don’t color it? It’s natural? I hate you. I would kill to have a natural color like that”—contains a bit of violence and self-loathing.
I have never been in a salon, or women’s clothing store, or make up counter, and not heard self-deprecating comments from women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
Last year, I went to a swanky, women-only “Clothing Swap.”.
There was a bar at the event and they served sweet sugary drinks in childlike pink and peach colors. The bartenders were all women in corsets with bright pink lip gloss and bleached blonde hair that had been curled into sticky looking ringlets. They asked: “What would you like, honey?”
There was a huge tapestry draped over the top of the bar featuring a rendering of a beautiful, leggy woman in a black leotard with slits cut out along the sides of her ribs. She was wearing strappy black stilettos and was lying on a bear skin rug with her back arched. Her long, black hair was draped alongside of her, bangs covering part of her eye and face. She was holding a martini glass and had one long, milky white leg bent upward, the other stretched out along the white fur of the rug.
“That’s what I look like every night when my husband comes home,” my friend joked, gesturing her peach filled glass towards the tapestry. “More like I’m wearing sweats and my hair is a disaster.”
I stood with my drink in hand, listening to the sound of all the high heels sliding across the marble floors, watching heavily manicured hands delve into piles of dresses, seeing slick, dyed heads of hair snap back and forth.
Many men have said to me: “Don’t you get it? Women have all the power.”
But it’s not women themselves—it’s beauty–and particular kinds that have power. Beauty is made out of impossibility: it’s ephemeral, never completely attainable, barely graspable, always fleeting.
And we are not the gatekeepers. It is only deference to this larger force, pulled from time and place, from fabric and pixels, that we might qualify.
Of course I want it—perhaps even have some of it–but it scares me. I’m petrified of the extent of its power, its control, but its pleasure perhaps most of all. I work towards it, just like all those women at the salon, at the clothing swap. I invest time and I invest money in creating and maintaining it. There’s even investment made in looking as if there has been no investment at all.
I won’t deny I often smile when examining my own image, taking pride in the success of my construction. Of course compliments pertaining to my looks are sources of flattery. But there’s also the memories of sobs of defeat in dressing rooms over ill fitting items, moments of panic when catching sight of myself in an unflattering photo or store window. It leads to the jagged fear that I’m too ugly to deserve the body of a woman.
A few months ago, I walked once more into a salon. There was a woman getting a pedicure, and when one of the over-eager attendants encouraged her to also get waxed, she shook her head and laughed.
“Oh no, honey, I’m married! I don’t have to try anymore.”
“You’ll be married in a couple of years,” an older man once told me upon us discussing the question of female beauty maintenance. “You won’t have to even think about it.”
But the fear I articulated to him wasn’t desiring to be soothed via a permanent relationship, nor do I believe it will go away as I age. It’s about something deeper, it’s more about recognition, about wanting to build something people will come to.
And the trouble is, so much of what’s available to me dictates I have to start with my body, that the splash of my face and the turn of my waist are where both I and home belong.
by Lena Brooks
Wow! I just got back from Japan! Have you ever been to Japan? Neither had I, in fact I’d never been out of the country except to a handful of Mexican border towns and those don’t really count. Now I’m so jetlagged that I don’t remember my own name, but I do remember that this was the best trip ever and everyone should go to Japan right now. Like, right now right now. And did you know that you can even get a free plane ticket over there thanks to recent natural disaster type things? Obviously you’re already convinced to book your trip since you like free things and Lost in Translation, so I’m just going to cut to the chase and tell you about all the awesome things you should do when you get there.
1. Go to Tokyo and go to Shibuya and go to 109
Well you’re clearly going to go to Tokyo when you’re in Japan because who doesn’t go to Tokyo when they’re in Japan? Shibuya is one of the big, neon-y neighborhoods with general sensory overload and a lot of shopping. If you want to distill Shibuya and mainline it you should go to 109 which is sort of like Japan’s Forever21 and also sort of like a fish market. Inside is eight or nine floors of madness. You’re packed in so tight you can only slowly shuffle toward any pair of Jeffrey Campbell knockoff shoes you want to examine, store employees are yelling constantly into paper megaphones, and a different dubstep remix plays in every kiosk. Since I was there during New Year’s, a big sale time, my experience was probably even more bizarre as armed security guards ushered us into an underground holding area before even letting us in to the store. If this is all too much for you, Japan’s rough equivalent to Target, Mega Don Quijote, is a respectable substitute and chock full of delightful and inexplicable souvenirs like the 3D hologram portrait of a beagle wearing glasses that I picked up.
- Shibuya 109. It was just like this.
2. Use a toilet
You can probably manage that right? Bathrooms in Japan are really cool, but this is also coming from a person who wanted to make a bathroom Zagat for her college campus (Which ones have the most insightful graffitti? The people need to know!). About half of the toilets in Japan are these high-tech deals that have about 10 buttons a piece. Things get really stressful really fast when “flush” and “bidet” aren’t marked in your language though. But you’ll soon be soothed by the bird songs or babbling brook noises that a lot of them play, unbidden. Unfortunately, the rest of the toilets are traditional and are pretty much a hole in the ground that looks like you set a urinal on it’s back. These are either awesome or awful depending on who you ask and how much they like low squats.
- Technology has served us well.
3. Eat street food
If you’re in Japan during a festival time like New Year’s or Obon there will be a bunch of street food and it will all look really cool. You should probably eat all of it.
4. Get a little culture
I could tell you to go visit Japan’s awesome art and historical museums or beautiful shrines, but what I am going to tell you about is the pop group that’s sweeping the nation that you should become as fascinated by as I am. AKB48 is Japan’s number one girl group right now. It has 59 members (at least one of which is actually a computer-generated amalgamation of ideal physical characteristics), scores more “trainee” members, and a general underage-school-girl theme. There’s AKB48 branded everything and they’re constantly on TV and the radio–I did not choose to become so transfixed by AKB48 that I extensively researched them, but does anyone ever really choose these things? Watch this music video only if you are ready to be confused and amazed.
5. Drink what you realize only later is Japanese 4Loko and throw up in a Tokyo subway
Maybe don’t do this. But what you remember of it will make a pretty good story.
6. Go to an onsen
What I learned from frequently messing up shoe removal etiquette is that Japan has a lot of feelings about hygiene. Bathing is a big pastime and public baths are popular. If you feel comfortable being naked in front of strangers who are probably silently judging your foibles in operating the pre-bath shower, DO THIS. I happened to be in an onsen on my birthday and turned twenty-three in an outdoor hot spring under a gentle snowfall. It was magical. I want everyone to do this. A note to the not nakedly inclined: foot onsens are also a thing.
- …was right next to this.
7. Shop at a konbini
A konbini is just a convenience store (say it out loud), but it’s an interesting snapshot of Japanese life just like an AM/PM is of America. I think places like this are kind of interesting everywhere and I love breaking at truck stops whenever I’m roadtripping to buy novelty lighters and marvel at weird regional snacks.
8. Visit Daikanyama/Little San Francisco
Japan doesn’t really have a Little San Francisco, but one Tokyo neighborhood is so eerily Bay Area that it can’t be a coincidence. Daikanyama is full of vintage clothing stores, record shops, vegan restaurants, and microbrew coffee houses at a concentration I didn’t encounter anywhere else in the country. They had a vintage camera shop. I wasn’t sure if I felt at home or parodied, but I did get some really good coffee.
9. Go to a cat cafe
What is a cat cafe you say? Well, imagine that amid the deafening blur that is Tokyo, you were able to ascend an unassuming staircase that opened into the most peaceful place you have ever been. Everything is warm pastels, piano versions of 70’s hits play softly in the background, and for 1000 yen (~$12) an hour you get unlimited access to coffee, cocoa, and a pack of mildly sedated cats. Essentially the best place in the world. After arriving and being given a run down of the rules you’re introduced to your soulcat (mine was named Mochi) and invited to pet/bother the felines to your heart’s content. If I open a cat cafe in America will you promise to come so I can be rich in both cats and money?
- So unassuming for the best place in Japan.
- Me n’ Mochi
Alright, that’s everything! Also the south of Japan exists, but I didn’t go there. So maybe you should? They probably have cat cafes and Japanese 4Loko down there too, but I’m not making you any promises.
One of my oldest and closest friends has just temporarily moved in with me. My place is small: a tiny Parisian-like apartment (meaning every room is the size of a petit placard) in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in San Francisco. It’s undoubtedly close quarters for two ladies, but there’s a huge benefit: having full access to her movie collection.
She has Westerns, Hitchcock, melodrama, classics. It’s been delicious to head home every night contemplating what movie–even if I’ve seen it before–I’ll curl up with and watch with a bowl of pho from the Asian soup place down the street I’m quasi-addicted to.
I love movies and I’ve seen a lot of them. People frequently remark on my extensive cinematic knowledge, and I usually smile and shrug. But since my friend and amazing film collection have moved in, I realize that I have her to thank for it.
We met our junior year of high school at a time when I’d been feeling very frustrated with life. My best friend and the guy I’d fallen for were dating, which was terrible, but beyond that, I felt lonely and trapped. I was getting more and more interested in books and poetry and strange music and wished I could find someone else interested in such things too…
Then she appeared in my English class, new to the town and school and mysterious. She wore pretty hats and big dresses with combat boots, and was one of only two people in the class willing to read her poem out loud.
I wanted to know her, but I wasn’t the only one. Her uniqueness had piqued many of my classmates’ interest as well, yet she seemed to eschew their attempts at friendship which definitely intimidated me. But fate, in the form of an English presentation for Idylls of the King, brought us together. Our bond was immediate once we started working on the project. She was everything I’d been wanting in a friend: quirky, creative, artistic, and a music, art, poetry, movie lover.
Neither of us had cars at the time, so we spent much of the beginning of our friendship walking around town, trying on clothes at Goodwill, sitting in coffee houses, wandering the long aisles of Rasputin. All the while we’d take turns recounting the stories of our lives thus far. Hers were much more interesting, but she listened to mine all the same.
Frequently, she’d stop me mid-sentence and remark, “That really reminds me of the relationship between Troy and Lalaina in Reality Bites–have you seen that movie? What! You haven’t? You have to watch it.”
“I feel like you’re very much like Andrea in Girl. You haven’t seen that movie either? You have to see that.”
At that time, I’d hardly seen any movies, aside from a few classics and the occasional blockbuster hit. Who were all of these characters, these people who somehow related to my life?
She had an interesting and complicated living situation, but that’s another story. To put it simply, she didn’t live with her parents but with a woman and her daughter, and they loved movies too. They, in fact, had stacks and stacks of them. So we started staying up all night watching movies, all of the ones I’d never seen, and ones she didn’t mind watching over and over.
But the one that really stuck with me, that sold me, that made me realize the extent to which movies can affect you life, was Ghostworld. Most of the movies I’d seen thus far, especially ones relating to young women, showed them as distant figures. They were viewed by guys through windows, or across the school yard, or in slow motion, or climbing out of pools in slow motion shaking their wet heads of hair. More, friendships between girls seemed easy and simple, or worse, just not explored. Where were the layers, the odd combination of jealousy and love, the pain of watching someone change faster or slower than you, or simply in a way you couldn’t and didn’t want to understand?
I loved and love everything about Enid. She’s smart, bitter, cynical but still desperately hopeful. I love how instensely she and Rebecca resented things together, the way in which they stood against the world side by side. And yet, ultimately, they had to make their way separately–not out of circumstance, but for the more complex and murky reasons most friendships change form.
I related to that movie so much at the time–not only because I felt Enid so accurately emboldened much of what I felt as a teenage girl–passionate yet pessimistic, yearning yet unsure of for what–but also because her friendship with Rebecca mirrored one I was struggling with. Interestingly though, in the decade since, I continue to go back to that movie and find myself and my friendships in different manifestations of those two–including the one with my temporary roommate and fellow cinephile.
Over the years, a lot has changed. For one, my cinematic preferences have gotten much more high brow–I now have my own extensive movie collection devoted largely to Bergman, Fassbinder, Varda, Pasolini etc.
And, my friendship with her has gone through its own ups and downs. When I left for college, she stayed in our high school town. Even though I didn’t go to school that far away, it was hard to maintain the same level of intimacy and strength. I, perhaps to be expected, made lots of new friends and got immersed in college life. She had a series of bad breakups that wore her out, and I encouraged her to bounce back and welcome them as one of the painful but necessary milestones of being in your 20s. She found my advice callous and not compassionate, which I now can understand, but then I resented.
There were times she needed me, but I was too caught up in my own life and I think felt pressured to somehow rescue her from the numerous stressful situations and overwhelming people (mostly men) whom she seemed to attract like a magnet.
We’ve now both essentially lived in SF for three years, but have often gone months without seeing each other.
But the other night when I got home, she pulled Sunset Boulevard out of her tall movie stack.
“You’ve never seen this? How can you have never seen this?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered.
“The woman in this is like three different women we know! We have to put this on!”
Just like a good movie, the best relationships offer the chance to be reviewed, re-seen, and go some place new, no matter the length of time and what’s happened in between.
Plus she was right, as she’s always been. Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard did remind me of like three different women we know.
This morning, I saw this article on the New York Times and instantly read it:
“Don’t get too close. Astronomers are reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought. Such holes, they say, might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the universe. One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.”
Conceiving of such abstract and massive forces has always left me both confused and intrigued. With social media, with globalization, the world feels smaller and more incestuously connected than ever. Thoughts of quantum theory and black holes feel for me an odd but genuine mental relief–they’re free from the current woes of this planet anyway.
It was true–I could not do anything for the next day except think about it. Many of von Trier’s films have this effect; he lingers until you feel this massive heaviness, even in the simplest of scenes and moments. (Melancholia is also, like many of his other movies, visually stunning and beautifully shot).
But this movie was different: there is, especially in the first part, more action and movement, and the heaviness builds over the course of the film, rather than being located in any one specific scene. The story follows two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), opening with the evening of Justine’s wedding party, held at the expansive manor of Claire and her wealthy scientist husband. Justine is young and pretty in a very all-American way, her new husband the same. But it quickly becomes clear Justine is not so sure about her marriage, and finds it increasingly difficult to remain at the party, ducking out for longer and longer periods of time. Her ambivalence seems to strengthen after the sisters’ mother (played by a perfectly cold Charlotte Rampling) an evident person of challenge in the family, openly denounces marriage during her “toast.”
Claire, the older and more nervous of the two, pleads with Justine to get it together, begs of her to just be happy and to not embarrass the family. Justine is given constant reminders of how much money was spent on the wedding, of how so much is going into “making her” happy. Yet despite some effort on Justine’s part, the possibility of the marriage dissolves with the night. By dawn, Justine’s husband leaves with the rest of the wedding guests.
The film then transitions some time ahead, taking Claire’s perspective. Still located in the dark and unwelcoming manor in which the failed wedding was held, Claire, her husband John (Keifer Sutherland), and their son Leo, welcome an incredibly forlorn and depressed Justine to stay with them indefinitely. Sliding alongside the interpersonal plot of the two sisters, is the question of a planet, named Melancholia, which is to be imminently passing by the Earth.
Claire’s husband is deeply involved in its study, monitoring its movement, watching it from his high-powered telescope. Claire has been doing research of her own about the planet (much to her husband’s chagrin) and is petrified that it will not simply slide past, but rather make contact with the Earth, obliterating them. John eschews Claire’s fear, accuses of her being a very nervous and unreasonable person, begs her to “trust him” and science: they’ll be safe. Yet as the planet gets closer and more visible in the sky, Claire’s anxiety increasing to the point she purchases what seems to be cyanide or something of the like, Justine’s depression alleviates. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Claire finds Justine lying alongside a riverbank bathing naked under its light.
To leave the synopsis there, yes, Melancholia is a very heavy film, although for reasons unexpected. There are many (and many excellent) films on the problem of depression, and Melancholia is certainly making a case for the fact that such depression is due to a kind of inherent faultiness in the world. But that’s what makes this movie different: the faultiness goes beyond structure or society–it’s embedded in our very galaxy. What the film proposes, the necessity of a new planet, new light, I thought stunning, à la my passive interest in quantum physics.
It reminded me very much of one of my favorite scenes in part 5 of Roberto Bolaño’s apocalyptic tome, 2666, when two of the characters reach the top of a hill:
“Look at the stars,” said Ingeborg.
He lifted his gaze: it was true, there were many stars, then he turned to look at Ingeborg and shrugged.
“All this light is dead,” said Ingeborg. “All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It’s the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn’t exist, life on Earth didn’t exist, even Earth didn’t exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It’s the past, we’re surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can’t do anything to stop it.”
Reading that passage in 2666 for the first time, I felt a similar message to the one I got from watching Melancholia: we are surrounded by, and locked into a past we are literally unable to see our way out of. Even the light of the stars project a history which dooms us.
Returning to Earth, the fact that women are the way in to this idea, more connected to a level of intensity, is undeniable (this is even true in the above scene from 2666). In every sense, Justine and Claire are completely ungrounded in comparison to their male counterparts: Claire’s husband John is focused entirely on science, Justine’s betrothed is unaware of her misery, easily loving her because it makes sense socially, the sisters’ father is portrayed as a sweet but immature skirt chaser.
This prompted me to open back up a book of essays by Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality, that I’ve been making my through on and off for the last few months. In it, Zizek writes a lot about female depression and the way it’s perceived socially, but I found some interesting connections to my thoughts on Melancholia in the essay titled “Otto Weninger or Woman Doesn’t Exist.” It takes from the philosopher, Weninger, who Sizek describes as the “author who brought anti-feminism to its unsurpassed acme.” Weninger’s one and only book, Sex and Character, posits that women are entirely sexual beings who exist only via their relation to men. In his essay, Sizek takes Weninger’s pithy thesis and Hegelian-izes it: a void is still a space, and so women exist precisely in that they are the void:
“Weninger fails to accomplish…recognizing in this ‘nothing’ the very negativity that defines the notion of the subject…He [also] fails to recognize the very striving of the subject for substantial support…Wenginger’s aversion to woman bears witness to the fear of the most radical dimension of subjectivity itself: of the Void which is the ‘subject.’..as Hegel puts it, this inwardness of the pure self must enter into existence itself, also become an object, oppose itself to this innerness to be external, return to being.”
Part of being woman is being part of a perpetual search, Sizek suggests, for a structure within which to adequately gain definition. The fact that men fall more easily into structure, are more defined, perhaps at times stifles them from seeing or noticing what is outside of it. This idea of seeking form connected to Melancholia: the planet being both more defined but also unknown, an encounter, for the women, with a total force so much like themselves. Perhaps this is why Claire’s scientist husband John has such difficulty with the planet once it escapes the bounds of his control and cannot bear to come in contact with it, outside of it being a distant orb he can gaze at from afar.
“Feminine is this structure of the limit as such, Sizek writes, a limit that precedes what may or may not lie in its Beyond: all that we perceive in this Beyond are our own fantasy projections.”
Ultimately, what I thought was so striking in Melancholia was the suggestion that perhaps the only “solution” to all of this is a new planet, a new star, new light that must come from a “galaxy” outside of ours. Something that might need to come from farther than we can even conceive. Whereas many movies that poke at depression and the inability (of specifically women) to be satisfied with what’s given provide few alternatives outside of falling directly back into the structure they’ve been struggling against (Lost in Translation, The Good Girl), or depict death as a direct result of a failure or difficulty to join the given structure (Varda‘s La Bonheur and Vagabond come to mind), there was something so big and beautiful about a movie that stretched itself quite far outside, that leaves given structure altogether.
In another strange, synchronistic turn, just the other evening I was with an older woman, a friend’s mother, and we were discussing fears. My friend shared that his greatest fear was a home invasion–specifically him coming home and finding someone already there, rifling through his things, ready to attack him when he opened the door. My friend’s mother interjected quickly–before he was done describing–and said that her greatest fear was a meteor, or a star, or some planet crashing into the Earth and obliterating us all (she had not seen or heard of Melancholia).
My friend scoffed a bit and remarked, “But that’s so unlikely! The chances of that happening are so small.”
But she shook her head: “I wake up at night sometimes and think about it. I can’t imagine anything scarier.”