Tag Archives: politics

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Standard
Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


hidden-figures

If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

hidden.png

Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

Standard
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

bozena-cover

What is a biographical collage? Collage is a form that has allowed me to express myself through the years when I hadn’t the words to say what I felt, but of course traditional collage focuses more on image, less on text. Why don’t we see collage writing more often? The beginning of Parker Ervick’s third book reminded me of some potential hurdles: giving the original texts proper credit, obtaining permission to use those texts, and organizing information to make meaning in a creative way. I began with an obsession: track all of the source material while I read and be sure I knew who wrote what. Parker Ervick tells readers in the introduction that we will see footnotes for the fragments from other texts and that the font would be italicized when the sources were primary. But would she note when she cut information out of an original passage and rearranged it? And where would I find her voice?

Of course, I was stupid to begin in such a fashion. It’s like I lacked… imagination.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage is organized beautifully and helpfully. In “Introduction: This Is Not a Biography,” Parker Ervick explains her obsession with Božena Němcová, a Czech fairy tale writer from the 1840s who influenced Kafka. Parker Ervick began visiting Prague in 2003 and has been back many times, seeking not only to find all things Němcová, but her extended family. Due to political and historical factors, Němcová’s writing has remained largely untranslated, and thus unknown to English language readers.

bozena-maiden

“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

bozena-money

Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

432048_4416914863970_666673969_n

Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Standard
Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

living-with-a-wild-god

Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

ehrenreich-18

Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

ehrenreich-today

Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

Standard
A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

Standard
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

bad feminist

Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

shirll

The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

west norton.png

What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Explosion

Standard
Explosion

Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:

zarina-banner-500x263.png

Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

zabrisky pussy riot

Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!

SOURCES:

Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.

 

Little Fish

Standard
Little Fish

 

Title & Author: Little Fish, written and drawn by Ramsey Beyer

Published by: Zest Books in September 2013

Note: I pointed out recently that I will be using page numbers in my reviews to “practice what I preach” to my comp students, but this book does not have numbered pages!

Little Fish Beyer

Although the cover is in color, the rest of the book is black and white.

I decided to check out Ramsey Beyer’s work because she was recommended during a Grab the Lapels “Meet the Writer” feature with comic artist Liz PrinceLittle Fish is a graphic memoir that looks at the author’s first year of college, starting with the summer before she leaves in small-town Paw Paw, Michigan, and ending just as summer begins after her spring semester at an art college in Baltimore concludes.

In the first few pages, the author introduces herself in the present. She says she’s Ramsey, 28 years old, and lives in Philly where she makes comics about her own life. I like this introduction, as it shows readers that Ramsey Beyer became a “successful adult.” Liz Prince started in a similar way in Tomboy. Prince’s adult self would jump in the narrative of her childhood to add insights she’s gained since she was a girl. Ramsey Beyer’s adult self never comes back, and I wasn’t sure why not. There were many times I wanted more reflection of what freshman-year Ramsey felt.

The majority of Little Fish is told through lists that Beyer wrote while she was in college. I didn’t like these. They add very little insight and could have served as reminders to the author of how she was at 18, or the author could have commented on the lists and how sometimes her feelings changed really fast (like from depressed to bouncy, for example, in a matter of days). Some lists provide better insight, such as the one that talks about why she wanted to go to a school in the city. Here are a few reasons:

“–i need to push my boundaries in every way

–i’ll make better art if i’m uncomfortable and inspired

–i don’t want to be able to fall back on my friends and family. if i lived nearby, i don’t think i would end up pushing myself”

Some of the other items include immature observations, like “the East Coast seems so cool!” but there are moments where Beyer shows us she was a deeply reflective 18-year-old. It just that most of her lists don’t demonstrate that, and lists consume the pages of Little Fish.

list (2).jpg

Two lists on one page. Many pages look like this.

What I did appreciate about the lists is that they were constructed in a visually appealing way. Many were cut up and placed on top of textured back grounds, like strips of duct tape, bubble wrap, or knitted fabric (Beyer was in knitting club in college). These textured backgrounds are made of materials popular with teenagers, but also demonstrate Beyer is thinking about the composition of images.

Little Fish is also told through Livejournal posts the author made when she was 18. Ramsey Beyer graduated high school and went to college the same year I did, so I could relate to how popular Livejournal was at the time. Also, Beyer and I both grew up in small-town Michigan. I frequently drive past her hometown of Paw Paw on my way to visit relatives! I’m not sure that the Livejournal posts will add much for all readers, but to me, they added a level of nostalgia for 2003-2004.

livejournal beyer

Beyer writing a Livejournal post on the airplane.

 

Since this is a graphic novel, there has to be some panels like we normally think of in comics. I liked these the best, as the author drew herself asking questions and thinking about what’s going on during her first year at college. She worries that she’s not political enough, and her new friend Daniel prods her to consider her position on topics like feminism and animal rights. This was the interesting material; the conversations with her friends and subsequent reflections on the conversations are rich. The drawing style is simplistic–a bit like the cartoon Doug–which keeps the attention on the ideas and not the drawing details.

Overall, Little Fish is a slice of life story that begins and ends arbitrarily: with the start and conclusion of Beyer’s first year of college. Although she expresses frustration with her art classes, readers are never shown any of her art projects or actually see her struggling. Classes are often mentioned on a list. For instance, on the list titled “school is hard sink or swim” she writes, “–my very first assignment in drawing class was to draw 100 hands and 100 feet by the following week. thats a lot of drawing (!!) and that was only one class out of four that i had for homework that week”. I wanted to know how that week went! Was she constantly drawing? What did the hands look like? The only point of reference readers have for Beyer’s artwork is the book they hold in their hands. She also changes majors to animation, a form of art she’s never done but ends up loving after taking one class. What do they do in that class? What are her projects like? Beyer leaves readers hanging.

Instead, Beyer mostly focuses on what “kind” of friends she has and how having people who know everything about her affects the depth of her feelings for those individuals. Beyer’s friends from Paw Paw, MI, knew her since she was five. Her new friends in college are totally different. Yet, readers don’t get to know anyone well. They’re mostly described in lists! More lists! For example, “Olivia likes: activism, films, going on dates, trying new food, and veganism.” The lists don’t help the reader, but they seem to help Beyer think about what friends are and where they can come from. After living together and talking intimately for 2 semesters, Beyer’s new friends earn a place in her heart because they know so much about her. As a result, when she’s at college she wants to be home, but when she’s at home, she often misses college! This is good stuff that would be helpful for new high school grads. That is the best audience for Little Fish: high school graduates off to college.

I felt like it was refreshing to read about someone who represents straightedge life, even though Beyer hates that term–because she’s the kind of person I was at her age. Everyone wants to see their story told in media, to see themselves represented and identify with the people depicted. But, this book doesn’t push the author. It’s a lot of cut and paste (literally) from 2003-2004, causing the book to tell readers quite a bit of information without showing it, and without trusting readers to pick up on visual ques in a visual medium.

Bitch Planet

Standard
Bitch Planet

“Are you non-compliant? Do you fit in your box?

Are you too fat

too thin

too loud

too shy

too religious

too secular

too prudish

too sexual

too queer

too black

too brown

too whatever-it-is-they’ll-judge-you-for?

You may just belong on…

BITCH PLANET”

Bitch Planet Vol 1

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine (Oct 2015, Image Comics) is the trade paperback version of the series by writer Kelly Sue Deconnick. The first book of the graphic novel came out in December of 2014, so this is a relatively new series. The first five books are included in Extraordinary Machine. You’ll get from the beginning of the series to problems that occur before the big upcoming fight.

Bitch Planet is the nickname for a prison that houses “non-compliant” women. Offenses can be anything (see the list above), making this story an obvious look at feminism and the patriarchal system that controls them every day. What is referred to as “The Feed” (a strange-looking pink computer woman) legally must appear on all TV screens on Earth, encouraging women to stop with their gluttony, pride, and wickedness—basically, the biblical stuff.

The Feed

She’s so creepy, like a pink demon.

The men on earth decide who goes to Bitch Planet, and the leaders are called “Father” (also very biblical). Bitch Planet actually is another planet, though, so women have no hope of escape.

One notable prisoner is Penny, a very large black woman in her early twenties, known for fighting in prison. We see she has a tattoo that says, “Born Big.” It seems like a symbol of pride in her size, but we later learn that it was the name of Penny’s bakery on Earth. She grew up with a loving grandmother who taught her how to bake, but was taken away when men show up at the house and her grandma instructs her to “run.” We don’t know what the grandmother’s crimes are (or if the men are coming for young Penny?), but “non-compliance” can mean almost anything. Men decide, women are punished.

Penny’s character is interesting; she represents race, size, and gender issues in contemporary culture. When the guards hook Penny up to a machine that will reveal what Penny actually thinks her ideal self looks like, the guards are surprised. They expected the image to be a “desirable” woman—most likely thinner, lighter, and well-behaved. But Penny’s image comes up looking exactly like her.

Ideal Penny IS Penny

Ideal Penny IS Penny

People tried to fix Penny along the way, before she was put in prison. A white woman attempts to “tame” Penny’s black hair, saying, “You need to learn to see yourself through the Fathers’ eyes. And I will teaching, Penny. I will teach you if it kills us both.” Author Deconnick is obviously packing in as much feminist discourse as she can into this one story.

Then there’s Kam, another black prisoner, who fights in a style that seems very ninja (the images remind me of Riley and Huey in The Boondocks). Because she fights to save the life of another prisoner, the guards view her as “a star,” and she is charged with putting together a team to fight in the Megaton games, which as far as I can tell is a sport for guards vs. prisoners. But prisoners fighting in games has been done many times, from Death Race to The Longest Yard. Megaton seems different, though, because the prisoners are not told they will win their freedom. In fact, Kam is warned that someone will kill her on the field. At first, Kam doesn’t want to lead a team, but it seems like everyone on Bitch Planet has to behave because the Fathers have human collateral. In Kam’s case, there is a sister somewhere.

Bitch Planet Kam

Karate Kam

In each individual book the author includes a page of old-school ads that you would see in magazines or comic books. All of the ads are ironic in a way, such as a “Missed Connection” that has a fact about domestic violence, or a big ad selling parasites that says, “STOP BEING SO FAT AND GROSS YOU BIG FATTY!” Other ads tell you they’re selling bullshit and are disappointed in you for buying it. For example, “MONEY BACK GUARANTEE. If you try to order a diet parasite from us, we will donate your money to the Girls Leadership Institute in the hopes that tomorrow’s generation fares better. And we will be sad for you. GUARANTEED.” Sometimes the ads seem over the top. Yes, I get it—women buy a lot of dumb stuff to adhere to society’s standards of beauty. But, if I really get it, then why do I buy things to help me follow the norm? Just because women understand what’s happening to them doesn’t mean they fully see the asinine nature of their decisions, which Deconnick captures in her ads.

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Back on Earth, Roberto Solanza, an “Off-World Overseer” from the “Bureau of Compliancy and Corrections,” is working with one of the Fathers to organize the forthcoming Megaton game. Together, they hire a gentleman who goes by “Mack” to create the arena. Mack, though, has a motive for building an area in an impossible time frame: for a chance to see a specific prisoner. Deconnick suggests, wisely, that though this is a story about woman’s plight, men are caught up in what happens to the female population. The women who “behave” (and have white skin) also serve as enemies to the “non-compliants” on Bitch Planet by serving as representations of “good women.” As a result, the story seems less man vs. woman (though there is plenty of that) and more power structure vs. people being abused by that power. Deconnick can thus appeal to a wider audience, as I am sure Bitch Planet will be labeled a diatribe for “those” feminists.

Since I already closely follow the current feminist movement, Bitch Planet didn’t have quite the effect on me that it will surely have on younger women, perhaps college-aged. It has a positive reception thus far, and I even saw a images of young women with  tattoos of the “NC” (for non-compliant) logo. I was impressed that the message was delivered through a graphic novel medium, which isn’t exactly female-friendly. According to The Atlantic, comic books are still read mostly by men, which is not surprising considering graphic novels are a genre written by, for, and about men, but the numbers for women are rising.

Non-Compliant tattoos

Non-Compliant tattoos

O, Democracy!

Standard

o democracyO, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, April 2014)

by Kathleen Rooney

*Review by guest Kim Koga

Working for the senator has fouled Colleen’s language and dimmed her outlook.

But she still has the impulse of idealism that brought her here.

Before I even started reading this book I felt intimidated by it because I don’t follow politics very closely. I felt ill prepared, but in reality this is a work of fiction, no matter how closely it may mirror real life. O, Democracy! begins in the spring of 2008 and Colleen Dugan is working as an aide for the Senator’s office. Even though I felt daunted, as I began to read, I found that political knowledge wasn’t important because that’s not what the story is about. This is a story about Colleen Dugan and the inner workings of a political office, not the glossy exterior, but the true texture of a political office. Throughout the book we get to see what this life is like through Colleen’s thoughts and perceptions.

I love Rooney’s descriptions of people – like a crossword puzzle or Jeopardy clue: “The first hit single by a female pop star who got her start at the age of ten on a game show whose stated mission was to search for stars and who lately has been better known for her repeated breakdowns comes over the stereo.” There is enough to signal who this is or usually enough of a description that I can search the internet and figure it out. Even if I couldn’t figure it out, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, or detract from my understanding. I found that these descriptions made me more interested in O, Democracy! in that the reader can imagine whomever they want; this is not to say that any person could fit the Junior Senator or the wife of the forty-second president, but rather that the lack of given name puts a flex into the story that would not be otherwise present.

Only some of the characters have names while others are referred to as the Senator, the Chief of Staff or Chief, Junior Senator, etc. I like the way that the lack of name allows the book to float through time, into any election year in any state. While many references are Chicago specific they are not too frequent as to limit the book to being tied to specific geographic spaces. The reader can imagine what these streets might looks like, they can replace Lake Michigan with Lake X, and Rapacious British Oil Company with any oil company.

Colleen has ambition and talent, but isn’t a good fit for her office. She’s perfectly competent, but there is something else out there for her. She’s worked hard, but isn’t recognized or promoted in the office. She speaks to her supervisor about raises, but gets the runaround because there “isn’t money in the budget”; however, she notices that her supervisor receives consistent quarterly raises. She pretends but necessarily doesn’t fit in with her co-workers & hides her creative pursuits. At some point Colleen is told that her art life and work life cannot overlap at all. Although, she tries to make them function together by working on her photography in her few free moments between assignments, but she’s quickly rebuked.

Bouncing from past to present, we see how she got where she is and how her outlook on politics have soured. Colleen’s story succinctly showed me the violence of idealism and made me think about how these things happen. Although Rooney did work as an aide, and much of the book reflects events around the 2008 election, this book must be read as a work of fiction. We cannot confuse Rooney with Colleen, and all of the events in the book must not be confused with reality. Throughout Rooney is intelligent, humorous, and engaging. At nearly 400 pages, this book went by quickly and was quite enthralling. In flipping back through the book, I realized that I missed how the reflections at the beginning of the book tie-in to the complexity of the Colleen’s story, so I will definitely be going back to read this excellent book again.

*Kim Koga is a freelance writer and editor, and a managing editor for 1913 Press. Tinfish press published her chapbook Ligature Strain in 2011. Her work has been featured in ­­­_list magazine, Lantern Review, and Ariel among others. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame and currently resides in San Diego, CA.

Women in Clothes

Standard
Women in Clothes
Book Cover

Book Cover

Women in Clothes (2014, Blue Rider Press) is an anthology unlike any kind before it. At 515 pages, you may wonder what so many women have to say about their clothes, their relationship to clothes, and what they think of other women’s clothes. In 2013 I was still an active on Facebook (you won’t find me there now). Sheila Heti was a FB friend of mine, though we didn’t really know each other. She had done a reading at my college, and I liked that her work was odd, and that she, too looked unique in a way I couldn’t place, so I friended her, which many of us do. Through FB, Heti put out a call for participants in a survey for women about clothes. That was about all I knew, but I felt the tug of my past quizzy self asking me to do it, thinking of those years as a teenager when I filled out hours of questionnaires (what’s your favorite color? what’s the first thing you do when you wake up? etc.) my friends sent to each other, typically through AOL e-mail. I responded to Heti’s request and filled out a long survey about clothes, style, make up, and jewelry.

Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, & Sheila Heti (L to R).  Photograph by Gus Powell.

Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, & Sheila Heti (L to R). Photograph by Gus Powell.

In 2014, I learned that Women in Clothes was not only a reality, but it was a huge project. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton collected surveys from around the world, conducted interviews, gathered photo evidence, stories, and diagrams about fashion from over 639 (myself included) participants. The anthology is described as “essentially a conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities—famous, anonymous, religious, secular, married, single, young, old—on the subject of clothing, and how the garments we put on every day define and shape our lives.” I received my contributor’s copy and must admit, I was a bit shocked when I held it. This book is enormous, and because it’s not a narrative, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. In all honesty, I put the book in my bathroom and decided it’s short sections would make such a room the perfect place for it. Occasionally, I would take the book into another room and read it there, but there is so much information that it seemed better to read only one small section at a time.

I read Women in Clothes cover to cover, skipping very little. One page shows a diagram of stains on clothes, which I didn’t care to read thoroughly. The fiction stories, though there aren’t many, were too avant garde for me. But overall, I read the whole thing, front to back.

The anthology begins with a conversation between Heti, Julavits, and Shapton. It’s a bit gossipy and teenager in tone, which I found grating, but I can see how the authors were trying to keep the dialogue as real as possible, or perhaps they even recorded what they said and typed the conversation verbatim. I’ve read a number of reviews on Goodreads that point out a dislike of this introduction to how the idea for the book began, and I must admit that I also wish it started more professionally.

What I didn’t notice about Women in Clothes at first is its power to change the reader. First, I was copying quotes I enjoyed onto my Goodreads account to share with others. But half way through, suddenly it dawned on me that I was staring at strangers’ outfits, comparing the clothes people in groups wore, and grabbing and feeling all the fabrics in clothing stores as I walked by the racks. I began trying on clothes, noticing cut and color with a more fastidious eye that I had previously, back when I figured if it covered my body it must “fit.”

dresses

Tania Van Spyk’s dress sets part II

People tended to respond to my quotes on Goodreads. I often found women funny, strong, curious, and confused about clothes in a way that I am, but didn’t realize. Here are some excerpts where women discover things about themselves:

from You Don’t Know What I Deal With: the women from the podcast BLACK GIRLS TALKING:

“That’s an advantage of living in an area that’s populated by actual black people. You get to see other black people living relatively normal lives, with bangin’ hair. I only found natural communities because I have scalp issues…probably related to getting relaxers, and I was just Googling, and I was like What else can I do? Then I found natural hair, and I kind of just waded my way through the murk.”–Alesia: (25-27)

from a survey titled “Men Looking at Women”:

“In my family, I was know for my ‘sausage fingers.’ There was a family friend I really respected, a father of one of my friends. One day in the summer when I was reading on the couch, just being an awkward teen and feeling really ugly, he walked through the room and said, ‘You have the hands of the Madonna.’ I realized that we tell ourselves stories about he we think we are. It’s better if it’s a nice story.”–Karima Cammell (329)

And then there are informative moments, where readers can learn something:

from Flower X: smell scientist Leslie Vosshall speaks to Heidi Julavits:

LESLIE: “The current fashion in perfumes I find very depressing. A lot of people smell like vanilla blackberry ice cream: very vanilla, very musky, but with fruit layered on top.”

HEIDI: “I hate to tell you this, but I’m wearing a vanilla scent. It makes me feel like a cookie. A happy cookie.” (253-256)

And, of course, there is lots of humor when women talk about clothes:

from a survey titled “Strangers”:

“I once met an elderly woman on an airplane and we started talking. I told her how much I liked her outfit, which I can’t remember in detail now but which I definitely remember as being quite fabulous. She thanked me, then said, Every morning that I wake up and realize I’m not dead is a chance for me to say ‘Fuck it.’ So I dress like this.”–Fatima G. (351)

Women describe photos of their mothers

Women describe photos of their mothers

Women in clothes isn’t just pages of writing; there are a number of images, such as photocopies of women’s hands, pictures of mothers, and a series of women who swap outfits (so we can see how clothes change with bodies). There are tons of images, both in color and black and white. I found the most touching to be pictures of mothers that daughters submitted, who then describe what they think of their moms.

I recommend this book as a cultural artifact. I recommend it for it’s uniqueness. I recommend it to get you thinking about your own exterior and how it affects your interior–and vice versa.

This review was written after I read my contributor’s copy. I make no money and gain no success from having two of my survey answers appear in this book, but it could cause some bias because I want the book to do well, yet feel that it stands on its own merit.