WHAT'S NEW: "Streetcar Deconstructed" published in A Wreckage of Reason 2: Back to the Drawing Board, An Anthology of XXperimental Women Writers, Spuyten Duyvil Press, http://amzn.to/1hQiBWE. And "Should You Ever Be Allowed to Feel Good" published in The Big Book of Orgasms, Cleis Press, 2013.
The walls in the back room at Jak’s are painted apricot, contrasting the dark brown paneling. The very basic metal-pedestal tables are covered with long white tablecloths, and the floor’s whitish tiles have seen better days. A cracked mirror ball hangs above it all, perhaps a survivor from one of the previous century’s original discos. The decor at Jak’s might be charmingly outdated, but the food and drinks are both carefully prepared and low-priced, and the management has always welcomed writers, letting them hold events for a nominal fee or no fee at all.
It’s the first Monday of the cruelest month, and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of English is hosting a reading to celebrate the fact that three of its recent or soon-to-be graduates appear in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board (WoR2): Brooke Wonders, Lyndee Yamshon, and Snezana Zabic (yours truly). To make the coincidence stranger, our professorCris Mazza and our classmate Megan Milks appear in the first installment of Wreckage of Reason. In fact when I submitted, I assumed I would not get picked because I figured (on top of all the regular contingencies), what are the odds?
It’s a bit past 6 PM, and our classmates, professors, and friends fill the room. Due to the tight schedule of the Program for Writers Reading Series, the reading takes place as planned, even though the anthology has not officially come out; this is actually my first time hearing Brooke’s and Lyndee’s WoR2 pieces. I do know from our past encounters that the three of us share a tendency to play with genres and resist easy classification as either fiction or nonfiction writers. Our evening’s MC, poetTyler Mills, has us go in the alphabetical order, our last names squished right there at the end of the alphabet, missing only an X.
First, Brooke reads her completely fictional short story titled “Memoir,” a fable starring a talking, living book and her owner Lucy. “The Book” not only self-records the owner’s most embarrassing moments, but also passes itself down the matrilineal line generation after generation against the recipients’ will.
Next, Lyndee regales us with “Frankly Fucked Up In E-Town,” a humorous snapshot of an unemployed drama school graduate forced to move back into her old room in her overbearing parents’ upper-middle-class home in Evanston, IL. The audience relates immediately, because we all know what it means to be infantilized by our parents as we and they age, regardless of the economic and geographic circumstance.
So, we’ve got a fable and a satire. What else is missing? A haibun, of course. My piece, “Failing Haibun” grabs the Medieval Japanese form and stretches it to fit an episodic narrative that travels from a humble tube radio in a kitchen in Yugoslavia in 1979, to a transatlantic plane stranded in Brest, France in 2001, with the 1990s Yugoslav Wars squeezed in between.
Afterward, Tyler delivers a few parting words, this being the last reading of the Series for 2013/2014. It’s Brooke’s birthday, so we sing, and then the crowd slowly migrates to Jak’s main room and beyond.
As I write this, I wonder about the subtitle of the anthology and the effect it has: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental Women Writers. Is there something inherent in our gender that makes our writing experimental? Of course not, and the term “xxperimental” is purely tongue-in-cheek, lest anyone think all this comes from some essentialist impulses. Rather this anthology is a political statement.
Just a final thought—in the past two decades, on both sides of the Atlantic, the only spaces that were open to me as a writer were the “innovative,” “experimental,” “non-commercial,” “non-marketable” ones. And yet, my writing is quite accessible, as is Brooke’s and Lyndee’s and, I have no doubt, our fellow anthology contributors’ work. Yes, we play with form and language, but all in the service of crafting compelling writing for a broad literary audience tired of formulaic prose. So what gives? Do the politics of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism collude or collide? And how do writers fight? Well, to be continued…
Meanwhile, keep up with all the contributors’ adventures on the WoR2 superblog!
The success of women measured as a group as opposed to the success of individual artists deserves special comment. Growth in the pop music business has been so large since 1955 (1700 recordings were issued 1940–55 and about 11,000 1955–72) that the artists who have attained Top 40 status have received much attention and made an enormous impact. Notable among these are Barbra Streisand, a major singing and acting star over a long period, Joan Baez, who became the first international star of the folk revival in the 1960s, and Carole King, whose album Tapestry is one of the best-selling recordings by a single artist (more than 13 million copies had been sold) and who has won several Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, in 1971, a first for a woman.
A couple of years ago, my agent gave me a copy of a book she’d represented, The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker. His thesis is that function words, such as pronouns, articles and prepositions, words we almost completely ignore, tell us more about a person than we could imagine. Function words represent 1% of our vocabulary, yet we use them more than half the time. It’s interesting and provocative, particularly in the case of pronouns, that usage revolves around gender.
We might assume that men would use I, first person singular, more often than women. But, in fact, women use first person singular more often. It turns out, according to Pennebaker, that people of high status use first person the least, and people of lower status use first person the most. People of higher status look at the world, while people of lower status look at themselves. This is an important point for professional women, particularly if their career is male-dominated. I would argue that gender neutrality in language, for women, could be one of the keys to success.
After I read the book, I went through my emails to people who were important to me; department heads, department chairs, director of this, director of that—- and what function word dominated the conversation? First person singular. Horror! From that moment, I became acutely aware of how I used pronouns— and strived for gender neutrality. Function words don’t dictate content, of course, but, according to Pennebaker, they do indicate our relationships to the people around us. Function words, almost invisible, are powerful social words.
Today, after I compose a business email, I scan the text, and make adjustments accordingly. As a woman, I really don’t want to write like a man, but I do want to be taken seriously. An email or a report that might’ve begun “It is clear to me” or “I believe” now reads “It’s important that” or “Results indicate” or any other variation that doesn’t use first person singular. Men use language differently from women— and this makes sense because we process the world in different ways. However, In the immortal words of James Brown, this is still a man’s world, and until that changes, knowledge is power.
The three writers are not only featured in the anthology, but are also (soon-to-be) graduates of UIC’s PhD program, and all three write hybrid prose not easily classifiable as either fiction or nonfiction.
"The truth is, when you banish the gods from the world, they eventually come back - with a vengeance. Humans can’t stay away from gods, and gods can’t stay away from humans. It’s the natural order of things."
The sky is a canopy of close enough to touch pink and purple clouds at sunset. All the houses are the same; brick ranch with color coordinated aluminum trim. Box hedges underneath the bay window, and flowers parallel to the driveway; violets, pansies and petunias. In the summer, sprinklers arc back and forth on green grass, casting rainbows in the sunlight, and the men edge their property into precise squares and rectangles. Towels, underwear and socks on the clothes line.
Tonight, the parents are out. The little brothers are tucked into their cocoons, bunk beds with a trundle. Cowboy sheets with matching pillowcases, madras plaid bedspreads. A clown with big button eyes on one wall, on the other, two perfectly square windows. Back in the living room Creature Features on the Magnavox. Moon light floods the room. Cigarette is smoked on the front porch, stars in the low sky, and looking west— an abandoned cabbage field and railroad tracks. It’s a lonely place at two in the morning. My mother likes to rush in smelling of perfume and whiskey, Go to bed, she’ll say, It’s late. But they’re not back. It’s not like them to be so late. Another cigarette is smoked. Another check of the brothers. Back out on the porch, back up again at the sky.
The movie is black and white from the early 60s. Terror in the Crypt. The brass clock ticks on the mantle. The dishes are washed, and stacked in the drain. Straighten the dish towel, and look out kitchen window into the backyard— the pool is aquamarine in the moonlight, a purple sting ray on the lawn by the redwood picnic table. Squat down in front of the liquor cabinet. A white ceramic cup, with swizzle sticks. A jar of maraschino cherries. Vermouth. Cheap brandy. Bitters. A few shot glasses. A quick swig of brandy, followed by two sweet cherries.
Their car pulls up in the driveway. But something is wrong. He turns off the ignition, and they sit in darkness. At the threshold of the garage. No one gets out. Move from the kitchen window to the back door, unlock and open it. White moths flutter in the yellow porch light. What is wrong with them? Minutes go by. No one gets out. Until, finally, he does. Walks past me. Doesn’t say a word. Pours a shot of brandy. A compact man with a small mustache. Of gypsy origins.
Why don’t you go ask her, he says.
Step out onto the small concrete porch, into the cloud of moths. See the north star in Ursa Major. And the Seven Sisters. Suddenly, her door opens, and she gets out. Stumbles. Rhinestone shoes in one hand, smoking a cig in the other. Her blonde bee-hive is crooked. Walks with her head down.
Go to bed, she says, not looking at me.
Her lip is swollen and bleeding. Her mascara is smeared. She pushes past me, opens the screen door. At the kitchen sink, she throws up.
Go to bed, he says, I’ll take care of your mother.
The next morning, she’s working in the vegetable garden behind the garage. Peas, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and radishes. Hair tied back with a paisley scarf. Dirt beneath her fingernails.
Ma, I say to her, don’t you think the sky is lower here than anywhere else?
Put the lettuce in that bowl, will you, and run it under cold water.
A brother zips out in a lime green bathing suit, athletic socks up to his knees, white sneakers. My mother laughs,
Your brother dresses like an idiot.
A monarch lands on a tree branch. Someone is mowing their lawn. It’s Saturday morning. The sun rises up, higher and higher.
"To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it “contaminated time,” and apparently women are more susceptible to it than men, because they have a harder time shutting down the tape that runs in their heads about what needs to get done that day. The only relief from the time pressure comes from cordoning off genuine stretches of free or leisure time, creating a sense of what Schulte calls “time serenity” or “flow.” But over the years, time use diaries show that women have become terrible at that, squeezing out any free time and instead, as Schulte puts it, resorting to “crappy bits of leisure time confetti.”"
Thursday morning, riding up the elevator, end of the semester. A colleague joined me, dressed in a bright purple track suit— despite the fact he was close to 60. He seemed to know me. I tried to be polite. But I was preoccupied with a meeting later that day. The college might be cutting a program which meant a 40% loss of income. We got off on the same floor, and, coincidentally, his office was right down the hall from mine. Later, on my way to class, there he was again. He asked, did I want to have a coffee with him after— the final days of the semester are always so challenging.
I said yes, but it was a pragmatic decision. I knew I had an hour to kill before the meeting, and I would be hungry. He suggested the newly-opened, faculty lounge— which, after a few minutes, was completely deserted. He talked about himself; how he’d taught in Puerto Rico, but now lived in the Bronx. How he was lonely. I just wanted to eat my yogurt. But, I sure perked up when he mentioned a part of my anatomy in very crude terms. He spoke at length about how this part of my anatomy bewitched and bothered him. And why hadn’t I ever noticed him? And we should have dinner. I got up, and went to my meeting. He followed.
The next morning I began the laborious process of formally reporting sexual harassment. First to my union— where I received a list of instructions. Following their guidelines, I sent an email to the Director of Human Resources, The Director of Diversity and Compliance (DDC), and the Special Counsel to the President. The latter, a friend, and someone I admired. This was especially embarrassing. I received immediate replies from all of the above, and thought, Thank God for Anita Hill. I had my first meeting with the DDC, a professional and pleasant woman, in the President’s conference room. My colleague had lied about his name, but I knew his department, and could certainly describe him. Yet it still took about two months to find him. And because his office was just down the hall, I ran the risk of seeing him, every time I came to work.
When they finally tracked him down, he essentially told the same story as I did, except, of course, he would never have spoken to me in that way. It was just not in his nature. The DDC, in her tasteful suit, said, at our final meeting, so it’s essentially a He Said/She Said Situation. When I got back home to Brooklyn, I scrounged around my medicine cabinet, and found a lone Percocet from a back injury— which essentially knocked me out for about five hours. He would never have to formally apologize to me. He would continue teaching to a demographic that is 68% female, and his office would still be down the hall from mine. My only consolation is that today, more than two years later, when he sees me in the hallway, he looks terrified.