Welcome to So to Speak

March 2, 2011 by So to Speak · 3 Comments
Filed under: Announcements 

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.

Feminism is… pretty simple: Fiction Editor Liz Egan Cuts to the Equality Chase

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:

FEMINISM
IS…

Equality,
pure and simple.

FEMINISM
IS…
For everyone.

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

Inclusive.

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

Global.

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

Aware

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

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.)

FEMINISM
IS…

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

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.)

FEMINISM
IS…

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.

FEMINISM
IS…

Strength
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.

 

Hibernaculum: Dissecting Story and Fable like an Animal

March 30, 2014 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Reviews 

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

Reclaiming Agnes: More musings on Fairy Tales by Assistant Editor Christina Collins

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.

Works Cited

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.

 

The Origins of The Frog Prince

March 16, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Nonfiction, Poetry, Uncategorized 

Poet Kelly McGannon on the origins of her poem The Frog Prince:

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

down there

rhythm making

against the competition,

tangling up in discordant chords

and hopeful.

 

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

Tasty morsel.

 

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.

 

Using the Common Thread of Connection to Craft Character and Story

March 12, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fiction, Nonfiction, Opinion, Uncategorized 

Kelly Ann Jacobson on the feminist path she walked to write her novel Cairo in White:

I discovered feminism in a very strange place: a Critical Methods literature class during sophomore year of college at George Washington University. Critical Methods was a requirements for an English major—the major I switched into after realizing that Environmental Studies majors actually had to take science classes—and the instructor was Todd Ramlow, a professor who taught both English and Women’s Studies courses. Though he was a wonderful professor, I could have cared less about linguistic theory, and so I was surprised to find myself unexpectedly rapt when we read an essay about the pressures placed on women. He also taught us to look at how strong and supported our arguments were, not whether we agreed with a position or not. I took another class with Professor Ramlow the next semester, this time a Women’s Studies course, and then the next semester I took another one…and suddenly I was a Women’s Studies major.

In truth, my Creative Writing classes were what had convinced me to switch into English in the first place. I still pursued my passion for Fiction as a minor, and as I learned more and more about feminism, it began to creep into my creative work. I was dating an Egyptian man at the time who, when asked about the gay men and women in his country, told me there were no gay men and women in Egypt. So, a character emerged in a short story (later to be the first chapter of a novel), a woman of color, a Muslim lesbian struggling with feminism in her own country and then in ours. As my boyfriend explained Egypt’s lack of gay acceptance, Zahra was born. Even a little bit of linguistic theory made its way into Zahra’s life.

Of course, as soon as I became a Women’s Studies major, I started questioning my writing. I took a class on Standpoint Theory, and as I read the arguments for and against writing from “the other’s” point of view, I began to reconsider my novel. Was it wrong to write Zahra’s story? Should her story only be written by an Egyptian? A lesbian? A Muslim? What if I got something wrong? What if I quoted a bad translation of the Qur’an, or misinterpreted it by accident?

Eventually, I put my doubts aside. This was a story that had to be told, and as Zahra and then her daughter appeared again and again in my writing, it seemed that I was the one to tell it. I couldn’t give up on my project, so I did everything I could to get close to my characters. I learned Arabic. I asked my boyfriend (and then fiancé) everything I could about Egypt. I visited Cairo. I spent hours poring over Internet descriptions and photographs of the sites in Cairo that passed in a blur during a whirlwind trip, recreating the city for my reader and for myself.

The key to writing this novel, in my experience, was finding my own connections to the characters’ experiences. I, too, questioned my own sexuality. I came from a religious, conservative family, and my borderline Green Party ideals, protests, Egyptian fiancé, and Women’s Studies pursuits didn’t always fit. And, at the same time, I struggled to reconcile some claims of third wave feminism with my Pennsylvania upbringing. Aisha was easier, since I was an American seeing Egypt for the first time and, like Aisha, trying to impress my religious future in-laws.

No, I’m not a Muslim, Egyptian lesbian, but maybe I don’t have to be. Perhaps writers, in order to do justice to the characters and the cultures they write about, just need to find the common thread that connects their experience to their characters’. To empathize, and to work hard to understand. I followed that thread for six years and through countless drafts, and, though it wasn’t easy and though I’m not sure I got everything right, I finally completed a work that I am proud to call my own, my first novel: Cairo in White.

Excerpt from Cairo in White:

Zahra woke in a sweat, her silk nightgown plastered to the curves of her body under the light sheet. The shadows on the walls indicated the time was past noon, and by the feel of the air around her, the temperature was more than thirty degrees Celsius. She turned on her back as the repetitive whoosh of the fan struggled to mask the heat. The oasis between her thighs was wet like the rain stored in a succulent’s leaves. A dream, perhaps, of another sleek body, half-covered and close.

She kicked the sheet off, a scorned lover still damp with her perspiration. Usually she woke to the sound of her mother heating milk in the kitchen or clattering pans as she baked, but only silence met Zahra’s ears. Once her feet slid into the worn cotton slippers at the foot of her bed, she stood and faced the heat like a warrior. Miriam was not in her bedroom, where she sewed loose prayer dresses in flowery patterns. She was not in the kitchen, where she spent her time with the bags of cumin, coriander, and cardamom, combining these lovers into Dukkah mixtures and Mulukhiya. And she was not in the living room, where Baba’s clocks ticked the seconds of a new day.

Zahra looked out the balcony window at the pyramids—sentries that hovered in the distance, reminders of the toil of her people. At the glass, she pressed her palm against the warm window. Zahra judged by the missing grocery bags that her mother would not return for at least four hours… enough time to take a risk, to prove that Zahra owned those wonders as much as any other Egyptian.

__________________________________________________________________________

Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author of the novel Cairo in White. She recently received her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she is the Poetry Editor for Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. Her young adult novel, Dreamweaver Road, is forthcoming from Books to Go Now, and Three on the Bank, her novella, was a finalist in Iron Horse Review‘s Single Author Contest and is forthcoming from Storylandia! this summer. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.

Find a copy of Cairo in White at Musa Publishing or any major online bookseller.

 

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