So to Speak, founded in 1993 by an editorial collective of women MFA candidates at George Mason University, has served as a space for feminist writing and art for nearly twenty years. So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art that lives up to a high standard of language, form, and meaning. We look for work that addresses issues of significance to women’s lives and movements for women’s equality and are especially interested in pieces that explore issues of race, class, and sexuality in relation to gender.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists
Did you know that in 2013, 39 men and 33 women were published in Fence Magazine? Or that, in the same year, Conjunctions published 50 women and 51 men? How about that 55 women and 49 men appeared in New American Writing? And that Callaloo published 78 women and 65 men? Or that 2013 also saw the Paris Review publish 48 women and 47 men?
But why, you ask, are these numbers important?
Because literary publications that achieve near contributor gender parity are in a strict minority. Furthermore, the publications noted above who have actually featured more women than men in their pages are even more of a minority. It is not typical that a literary journal or magazine believed to be a “thought leader” within the arts community will publish or review an equal number of men- and women-identified writers. What is quite typical, though, is that a publication’s table of contents will skew heavily toward male writers. But see the numbers for yourself. Check out the pie charts graphing this male/female dichotomy of writers published and reviewed in our country’s leading creative journals and magazines.
All numbered out?
Some of these numbers are probably worse than what you expected, right? I felt the greatest devastation when seeing McSweeney’s publishing of 13 women compared to 43 men. We know sexism is not dead, but we always hope for the best in people, right? And when it comes to the artifacts we create, we want to believe it’s the art that speaks for itself, not the gender of the artist. But this isn’t the reality. Women’s voices have been and are consistently hidden, and because of this it is “easy” for a general public to believe/assume that the inequality doesn’t exist.
In Sarah Vap’s newest, The End of the Sentimental Journey, a vivisection of language, gender, and poetics, she writes at one point about the severing of a dog’s vocal cords during scientific experiments to prevent the dog from barking. In the silence, those conducting experiments were able to avoid hearing the dog express pain and fear and begin pretending it did not feel at all. She compares this to human to human interaction and to the way minority communities are forcibly silenced to offer the privileged majority a reprieve.
Silencing of a community on mass scales, in turn, encourages complacency and a denigration of our human rights. Bringing those voices back into the conversation is the work of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and it is the tireless volunteer work of VIDAs who have brought you these statistics. For more in-depth reflection on The VIDA Count 2013 numbers read Amy King’s “Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses.”
VIDA is changing the tide.
For four years now VIDA has tallied and published the results we’ve always suspected but did not yet have the hard data to back us up. (It is part of the reason why so many women have chosen to write under masculine pen names.) In the words of Count Director Jen Fitzgerald, “Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. We do this to offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed. We do this to ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse. We do this each year because our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.” If you are curious as to how VIDA counts, you are welcome to review the methodologies.
The New Republic publisher and editor, Chris Hughes, responded to the latest VIDA Count saying, “VIDA [has] released a breakdown of the genders of contributors to the major literary magazines in the country, including The New Republic. Unfortunately, we were near the bottom of that list. Our print contributor breakdown looks more like what you would expect from 1964 than 2014, and it must change. We will hold ourselves to a much higher standard in 2014.”
This is tremendous news, and the actual goal of VIDA: to encourage all of us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Check back next week for Part II of VIDA: How We Can Number Up.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
I did not start identifying as a feminist until I was in my mid-twenties. Like so many women (and men, too), I didn’t understand what the word “feminist” really meant, and because I grew up in a conservative household, I thought I was protecting myself by staying away from the label. I thought “feminist” meant not letting my dad open the car door for me, or thinking less of my mom because she stayed at home to raise me and my brother. I thought “feminist” meant male-bashing and being angry all the time. But as I came into my own as a young woman with big dreams and big ideas about the kind of world I wanted to live in, I discovered the true meaning of feminism—the idea that women and men are equals in the workplace, the home, and society—and I realized I’ve probably been a feminist since before I cut my first tooth. It feels that natural to me to say I am a feminist, and always have been.
As troubling as it is to see women who hold a prominent place in our culture publicly reject the label “feminist” (here’s a recent round-up), I can also sympathize a bit, because feminism as a movement does have a history checkered with negativity and militancy, and not all women who call themselves feminist actually use that word to mean they value true equality.
Instead of listing all the things feminism is not, I want to showcase all the things that feminism is. By reframing the word in this way, I feel I’m doing my small, little part to dispel the negative energy that surrounds the word “feminist” and to encourage all humans everywhere to embrace the label for what it is:
pure and simple.
It’s more than just a gender binary. Feminism is for all who are straight, gay, lesbian, trans*, bi, or questioning. Feminism is for everyone, because feminism is the belief that all humans are equal, regardless of how they were created.
There’s a brand of “white feminism” out there that ignores the concerns of ethnic minorities. But feminism is a wide umbrella, and there’s room for everyone under here.
It’s initiatives to bring health care and education to women in parts of the world that are struggling to develop these resources. It’s the women who’ve risen to top political roles in countries around the world, and the men who have supported their rise, and the citizens who seek simply the best candidates, regardless of gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.
of biology. That is, feminism is aware that men have penises and women have vaginas. But feminism is aware, too, that biology isn’t always that simple.
Most often associated with women, and the ideal that women have an equal place in society with men. Some fights women have won on this front include the right to vote, the right to serve her country, and the right to make choices about her body. These rights are often challenged, and so a lot of feminists carry with them a feeling that their work is never done, particularly in the face of ongoing legal, social, and political challenges from equal pay in the workplace to affordable contraception; from the right choose an abortion without fear of harm or harassment to herself or her physician, to the right to marry whomever you love. (The list goes on…though it shouldn’t.)
About believing men are humans, too. A lot of women feminists are perceived to be (or are) anti-men, and that’s not the point of feminism. Feminism is all humans working together to raise each other up, not tear each other down. It’s a disservice to our cause as feminists to issue ad hominem attacks against an entire gender in order to make our point. (Women sure don’t like it when their gender gets smeared in
hurtful and hateful ways, so why do it to men, too?)
Recognizing equality among all humans means recognizing that men have the same snowflake-like individuality among them as any other human does. Men, like women, are complex beings with feelings, ideas, fears, and dreams. Magazines and blogs are always publishing lists and articles that try to “explain” one gender to another, such as this one, which suggests that what’s true of one man is true of all others (among other offensive claims). These lists are terrible examples of how both genders are demeaned, marginalized and caricaturized in pop culture—and especially in dating culture.
A school of literary and rhetorical thought, a lens through which to view and understand issues that affect women as they are depicted in literature. (Feminism is also shelving the works of prominent female writers next to their male counterparts, not off in some other “women’s lit” section.)
Supporting the choices of others who are not like you. Feminism advocates for the freedom to make the life choices that are right for individuals, based on their particular, individual circumstances. For women, it’s about ending the “mommy wars” and being supportive of each other’s choices as women: breastfeed or use formula; spring for the epidural, or don’t; give birth at home or in a hospital—or not at all. For parents, it’s supporting those who choose to work, those who choose to stay at home, and those who choose to do both. For all of us humans, it’s about supporting each others’ decisions and abilities to procreate, adopt, or remain childfree. Feminism is about seeing past cultural norms and looking at each other as real people, with real choices to make, many of which are quite hard. Feminism is understanding that just because someone doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it, that doesn’t mean they’ve done a wrong or bad thing.
in the face of adversity and courage in the face of life’s challenges. It’s about keeping a positive attitude, seeing beauty in the mirror, and embracing your self-worth. Feminism is a way of life, not just a label. There’s a lot to like about feminism and people who are feminists, and a lot more to be done to shine a positive light on this term that means equality for all. It is my hope that more and more humans will encounter the word “feminism” find within it the warmth and hope for the future that I have found.
The hush of cold greets us in the opening circus of Hibernaculum. A family in winter navigates through the chatter of its children, young adults, and older adults. Firm boundaries between each age-restricted grouping of relatives provides our speaker a way into understanding her changing role as a woman in the culture of her family. Our attention begins to narrow onto our speaker who fights to come into her own and be her own type of girl through the re-imagining of yonder tales. Poet Sarah E. Colona, dissects story and fable like an animal in her first full-length collection from Gold Wake Press (2013).
Divided into three sections, Hibernaculum is not a resting place for the animal or storyteller in us all. The first section is full of familial musings, some written at a slant digging into a deeper pain as in “Custody of Ghosts,” and some beautifully tender as in “Visiting John, 1990.” In this piece our speaker visits her brother in the hospital along with her parents. Too ill the boy cannot be touched, and the gift they bring for him as a guarantee he will be leaving those sterile conditions cannot be left with him. Soon our speaker begins to see herself as a twin in those around her. As a reflection in a mirror, in statues, in a dead girl, our speaker whispers to be noticed feeling a futility in her efforts as well. Here we begin to uncover what slinks into our rooms after all the lights are turned out, and enter a ramping toward the surreal.
Section Two goes Grimm, goes ancient Greek, and fills us with the dark fables we learned young. As adults we re-experience these stories with acute awareness of our growing skepticism of fantasy in the shadows penetrating our daily lives, and yet the soft animal inside is still quivering.
Colona has an intriguing ability to move between disparate periods of storytelling, placing a poem inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast next to a piece on Psyche. She doesn’t conflate the two but connects them through a female voice that seems to transcend time. Through an empowered female voice, the characters Colona embodies provide an alternative context to the story surrounding them and the unflinching myth they’ve been transformed into.
I found “Cruelty,” the last poem in the section, to be a kind of Ars Poetica for Hibernaculum.
make no mistake
stories are predators not pets
But we long for company
Here Colona conflates the mythic with the contemporary. She moves in and out of danger constantly confronted in stories; not only in fictional tales we read, but through the news we hear on television. This poem confronts the temptation, danger, and hatred reflected in stories mirroring our lived experiences. Our speaker, by the end, tames the beast, Story laid its head in my lap/ and purred encouraging an effort to remember there is still decency in the world.
The third and final section brings us back home. We return to the present day engulfed by scenery, this time haunted, not by myth or fable, but by anger and regret. And this section comes out swinging, carrying some heavy fist-pumping anthems. Here we navigate perception and Colona opposes the categorization of women specifically based on gender. She calls out that hypocrisy in poems like “Another Round with Loneliness,” “Have At,” and “The Little Engine that Did” forthrightly. But also examines closely one’s inherent hypocrisy as in “That Girl We Killed” and “Bitch.” We end in the stories we create of ourselves, not to become mythologized stone, but to lean toward an empathetic understanding of what is around us and how we’ve framed our love.
Sarah Colona is currently at work on a new collection poetry, That Sister, and a novella based on Burlington New Jersey (her hometown) folklore and history. Hibernaculum is available on Amazon.
Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where a list of her publications can also be found. She is the Website Assistant for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, and volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University. Follow her @smcmulli
Filed under: Christina C, Fiction, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists
The Little Mermaid’s Predecessor That Most Feminists Don’t Know About.
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a goldmine for contemporary feminist fairy tale re-writers. Regardless of how they choose to respond to the original tale, they find plenty of material to work with. What they emphasize, what they change, and what they reject all together provide insight into whether the little mermaid, as she initially stands, should be considered a positive female figure. One of the tale’s more sensitive issues among feminist writers is the notion that the woman must cater to the man’s world and adapt to his life. To feminists’ disappointment, Andersen’s mermaid willingly adapts.
Most rewriters of “The Little Mermaid,” however, are not familiar with the little mermaid’s surprisingly progressive ancestor, Agnes, from the medieval folk ballad “Agnes and the Merman” (sometimes known as “Agnete and the Merman”), an early literary example of exogamous marriage. In the first half of both the folk-song and Andersen’s tale, the protagonist immigrates to the man’s world, leaving her own world behind. The second half of Agnes’ story, however, will surprise and interest feminists. It is necessary to disclose what becomes of the human girl, Agnes, after she has immigrated to a merman’s world, for her ending may be the very ending that feminist rewriters unknowingly seek.
After Agnes lives with the merman for many years and bears him seven sons, she soon longs to return home. The merman gives her leave to visit the land as long as she promises to return to her “children small” (Olrik 114). Instead of keeping her promise, she chooses to remain on land and abandon her mer-husband and children. When the merman comes on land to retrieve her, he beckons to her: “Heed now, Agnes, what I say to thee! / All thy little children are longing after thee” (115). Agnes’ answer is harsh and surprising: “Let them long as they will, let their longing be sore, / I shall return to them nevermore” (116). Indeed, she rejects her role as wife and mother. Even when the merman tries to exploit her maternal sympathies by asking her to think of their children, Agnes remains firm in her final answer: “I think not of the grown ones, nor yet of the small, / Of the baby in the cradle I’ll think least of all” (116). She rejects all that is traditionally thought to be a woman’s lot in life: marriage and motherhood. By refusing to return to the sea, she rejects the limitations of this ideal, as well as the notion that a woman must cater to her husband’s lifestyle.
Whether or not one agrees with Agnes’ choice, her self-directed and unapologetic repudiation is remarkable. Her ending presents an alternative to the little mermaid’s outcome—the possibility of liberation from the traditional path through a means other than death. For this reason, Agnes’ liberating ending may indeed be the ending that feminist writers seek but cannot find in their revisions of “The Little Mermaid.” Feminist revisions, after all, seek to expose, question, and challenge the implausibility of traditional gender constraints and social expectations, and, above all, liberate the original text and its readers from those constraints and expectations. Agnes is the embodiment of that liberation—a kind of radical feminism far ahead of its time—but, unfortunately, her story has been lost. Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” as a newer tale of “the double world” theme, was so popular that medieval Agnes was inevitably forgotten. Perhaps feminist rewriters of “The Little Mermaid” are, without realizing it, attempting to reclaim some trace of Agnes. Or if they’re not, then maybe they should be.
Three writers in particular have striven to reconstruct Andersen’s protagonist: Barbara Walker in “The Littlest Mermaid,” Joanna Russ in “Russalka or The Seacoast of Bohemia,” and Emma Donoghue in “The Tale of the Voice.” They each have something different to offer, but all three respond in some way to the problems of voice and autonomy in the original tale. Interestingly, none of these revisions responds to the original little mermaid’s goal of immortality. All three stories focus only on her secondary goal of winning the prince and attack her pursuit of a romantic ideal. This focus may perhaps be explained by the fact that the romantic ideal and the notion of self-sacrifice for romantic love are dominant in the minds and lives of contemporary women.
Ideally, a feminist version of Andersen’s mermaid would remain able to rely upon herself for success rather than upon another. Perhaps, even feminist revisions cannot break free of certain contradictions; perhaps we still embrace the notion of woman as self-sacrificer. It seems, then, that the most realistic goal is to find a happy medium. Perhaps there is no definitive way to achieve this medium—perhaps Andersen’s mermaid can only be happy in death, and perhaps Agnes’ abandonment of her mer-family is not an ideal model of behavior—but in the end, every little mermaid should maintain the human right to pursue her own ends on her own terms, with her own voice intact to guide her.
Olrik, Axel, ed. A Book of Danish Ballads. Trans. E.M. Smith-Dampier. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
Christina Elaine Collins, in addition to serving as So to Speak’s Assistant Editor, is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate and English instructor at George Mason University. Her fiction can be found in various literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Poiesis Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia. You can find her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CElaineCollins.
In my family, we tell stories to tell stories. It’s the way of things. We joke that it’s a cultural norm in our slice of Appalachia. How else is your listener going to know you have something to say? You must cue them in with the opener before you usher in the main act.
Mother’s voice in my ear redirects my attention. “Listen. Gabbow’s tellin’ now.”
“So, I says to the boy, “Youns think youns are gonna fly with that flying thing? Bah! Only birds and brothers fly. And that’s how your Uncle Babe got away from the Klan when they was a-chasin’ him with their white sheets. He flew down that road so fast that they couldn’t see him no more. They didn’t like Hunkies and Catholics like us.”
At five, I learned to hug the midline between my Irish and Slavic halves. It’s not easy to weave together tales punctuated by old language hooks when your small teeth are still cutting your native tongue. Don’t know what the words mean? Follow an immigrant’s path: Make up as you go. Give voice to what breathes around you. Remember that your audience is always listening.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Where did Sam get that green eggs and ham?”
“What was Tito planning to do with those jars full of eye balls?”
It takes time to wag a tongue in the expected cultural rhythm. You have to know when to pause for effect. When to grow a voice big. When to take a bite of cold meringue whipped pie and sip your pop for effect. And, most importantly, when to take the hand of a grandmother who makes room for you at the table and says,
“Youns! Kelly has something to say and youns are a-gonna listen.
Now, child, go on now. Tell us.”
She picks up her fork to snatch the last sliver of almond in the tin pie plate.
“Well, um, there was this tree and a blue dog…”
[Adults smirk and smile. The Child notices. Eyes shift. The Child’s right leg jiggles nervously when she opens her voice again.]
“And the moon came down to take the dog for a walk and the tree came along ‘cuz it was bored.”
[Adults laugh. Child feels encouraged but is still shy.]
My people love a good story. I bet yours do too. If your people are like my people, then you have to sell it. Make it come alive for them. Pull the right bait out from your tackle box of words. Toss out a few lines. See what bites.
“Quiet, youns! She’s a-telling us something.
Why was this tree bored?”
[Adults lean in. Eyes blink with interest. The generational veil drops and all are children again.]
“The moon and tree are teaching the blue dog how to sing better. The tree knows someone who knows someone, so they’re all gonna go find him. The tree says to follow the noisy winds. They know they way. And, they sing them all to the man who lives behind the bridge that’s lit with fireflies. He knows how to howl and he teaches the dog a new song with a whistle in it, which made the moon so happy that she shone brighter than the sun. And they all lived happily ever after, especially the dog and moon who learned new tricks.”
[Adults are quiet now. Child’s eyes shine with light.]
When spinning magic with magic words, you can’t croak. You can’t let the frog in your throat stop you. You gotta sing, even if your voice competes against others’ songs. Even if it gets drowned out by the competition. Even if it’s rejected. Even if….
“Good girl! Now, youns, wasn’t that a good story? “Noisy winds?” Clever and true.”
[Adults nod seriously. Child feels satisfied. Glows on the inside.]
“Now, what was it youns was a-gonna tell us?”
The Frog Prince [Title]
I sit in my bed,
an amphibious sprite,
Wet from the bath,
Wetter still from the thick humidity
Captured by my spider-grass body.
It feels so real that I wonder
If this human body is just a dream.
Maybe I really sit on a lily pad
In the darkness
And croon with the crickets.
I’m singing my heart out
against the competition,
tangling up in discordant chords
I observe a tower from my squat
And wonder when its lady
Will get curious enough
To come down for a kiss.
When she does, I plan
To smack her with my lips
And pull her in
Just like any other
In her gasped surprise,
I will allow the best parts of her
To slither down my throat
And into the blue fire of my belly,
Even though she’ll probably
Recoil and wipe the luscious slime
Off her pretty, pouty mouth.
Kelly McGannon is a professional writer and shamanic healer living in the Washington D.C. metro area. A graduate of Yale and Princeton Universities, her creative writing has appeared in DreamTime magazine and is forthcoming in Outside In.