It was thrilling to see my short story “Salsa” in the latest edition of So to Speak. I’d worked a long time on this character and story (Montserrat appears in two other stories I’ve written, so I’m invested in her). I’m grateful that the editors chose “Salsa” and gave it such a lovely platform.
I sent my short story “Salsa” to So to Speak because I felt that my main character Montserrat was a woman who missed the energy and drive of the feminist movement. Maybe it was her culture. Her age. Her own internal rigidity. She wanted to be a dancer. A musician. A mother. None of these things worked out, but instead of giving up, she followed her husband and his career around the United States worked in the schools in the cities they moved to. She might not have gotten what she wanted, but she was of use. She felt useful. And yet that certain something was missing for her, and this became even more pointed when her husband died. And as her mind began to unravel, she was left only with the need to do something. To be of use again in the ways she knew how.
Montserrat’s drive reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy. In that poem, the speaker looks not at the façade or shine of things but at their function, their use, the work of those things. Her gaze is the same; she writes, “The people I love best/ jump into work head first.”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” focuses on this drive as well, the speaker stating “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,/ of a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it did.”
Montserrat never forgot even as she was forgetting.
I’ve been in academia all my working life, though I’m not a true, rigorous academic. I’ve written around the genres—fiction, poetry, non-fiction—and I’m not really sure my work contributes to feminist discourse per se, though I know all female voices add to our story. When I write, I don’t aim toward a particular agenda or philosophy, and I’m pretty sure feminists aren’t reading my work on purpose. In fact, I’ve written in a genre that feminists in the past have attacked: romance.
As I was growing up in the 1970’s, feminists were wearing shirts that read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And romance? It’s all about the woman needing the man (in a good romance the man needs the woman, too). In the romance world, fish ride bicycles all the time. And yet, my goal as a writer is to show people as rounded and human. To depict men and women un-stereotypically even if they are falling in love.
With literary fiction, I am basically trying to figure out my characters, and by doing so, I peel away the outer layers, exposing the true humanity. We are all thwarted and flawed and interesting and challenged in some way. That’s what I want to write about and what I want to read.
As a woman who benefitted from all the women before me, I want to make sure that everyone is able to do what she wants. I encourage my students to write it all down, no matter what it is. To go for it, no matter what the job is. Though I was born in the early sixties and was raised initially in the 1950’s mode, I came of age after various social movements broke open everything. I feel very lucky to have gone through high school and college thinking I could do what I wanted, though I know there are still special doors I cannot enter. But I’m doing exactly what I planned back in my freshman year of college. I found my journal from that time a few years ago, and I read my own words: “I want to write and teach.”
And I am. What a blessing.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including “Her Daughter’s Eyes” and “When You Believe.” She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing classes for UCLA Extension.
“I move/ to keep things whole,” writes Mark Strand, “wherever I am/ I am what is missing.” The paradox of having a complete experience is knowing time moves. To move, to also remove. To speak in the past tense, to recognize we can never be in that moment of time again.
Absorbing every millisecond becomes so much more intense when I think like this, and so much harder.
Does routine allow ourselves relaxation? What does it feel like to not think about a life in the past tense, but a continual be-ing? I think routine makes time seem less important, or relatively non-existent. En route we are reminded to think of the passage of time, again. Notice how our bodies have changed. En route we see the evolution of landscape; we compare to the day before, create new associations, begin to change ourselves, change our routine, get comfortable if we’re lucky and relax for a moment. If we stay in one place too long, we start to measure time through the dust collected. A new routine then. Notice how the things have aged, how we’ve gotten older, more experienced. We move to keep ourselves a part of the world. We remove to keep ourselves apart from the world.
Sarah Vap’s 2012 collection Arco Iris moves our speaker with Lover and ghosts through a foreign-to-her, sometimes wild and perfect, sometimes manufactured electricity-dominated and commerce landscape. We are in South America on the Amazon and in markets. Our speaker travels by bus for a whole day and wants coffee. She is hungry and starving to be touched by Lover, and frequently by Lover. Perhaps Lover can show her how she is feeling. She knows Lover cannot actually do this. She is mass and lonely; she is desperate and learning; she is moving to keep things whole.
“It was hard to tell what was important” ends the opening poem “Ghost.” This “Ghost” is the first of many poems samely titled. In this first “Ghost” we are given a vague map— told “We moved pretty slowly down,/then across, then up, then across, then down.” With a book cover of a rotting skeleton head decorated with wilting blue hydrangea, pink roses, and rose petals are we in the underworld, do we praise the dead? Because our speaker finds herself in an usually new place we have no sense of what is “important” or “not-important.” So the book opens as a blank slate for the traveler to make a connection and establish herself as an importance in the new landscape. Vap exemplifies the emotional work of traveling well with repeating title motifs showing the infinite variations one moment holds. Through the collection we see our speaker become acquainted with South America: “We saw, at our beginning, what is furious/ become part of how we would love. Quite a bit of fuss/ at this market.” Furious at first at what traveling is—frustrating, exhausting, and confusing— our speaker comes into loving the constant movement.
Through traveling we learn to love the confusion as a part of the learning. This book, at its heart, is dealing with conflicting and simultaneous emotions and physical responses when interacting with otherwise lovely people. Like every great book, readers should be asked to reevaluate how we treat those around us, no matter the situation. Arco Iris asks us to reevaluate and encourages us to become more empathetic, especially when it comes to participating in other cultures.
The Smithsonian’s March 2013 magazine published an article on the “Lost Tribes of the Amazon.” This piece profiles tribes hidden in the deep forest purposefully wanting nothing to do our Western or modern cultures. In recent efforts, South American governments are beginning to respect the tribes’ privacy, arguing in order to create private rain forest boundaries they have to pursue and locate the tribes. Inherent in the desire to protect and eventually leave alone is the necessity to observe. A similar tension is found in Arco Iris. Our speaker wants access. More specifically, wants access to those she sees every day living their lives in South America. In the markets she walks with those selling goods she “imagine(s) how we might touch. I find more way I want even more ways to touch—whoever you are who think that I don’t want you—here. Take this money. Give me something beautiful you have made.” She cannot fully have and feels regretful of an incomplete experience. Many of us, I believe, feel this way when we travel significantly and to places where we don’t fully speak a shared language. Becoming so visibly the other while traveling can be exhilarating when you are not feeling the fear of being lost, how to get what you need, embodying the ripped-off chum. Typical reactions, and reasonable ones as well, are to accuse globalization and tourism markets for denying world citizens a full experience, and only providing a curated and non-negotiable fringes tour. At the same time blaming yourself for not having studied harder during language courses could have been that blanket access key into an entire, most beautiful, more perfect world. This perfect world would claim you and hold you and finally give you your home. Travel over the rainbow into this magical world where everyone loves you just because you came here. This isn’t overly-dramatic pith, it is a real urge to understand and participate fully.
We all know this is desire. This desire isn’t restricted to travelers. We know, though, no matter how much language we studied, a brief exploration anywhere couldn’t lend itself so completely to you. We resign to “okay” because building a home takes a long time—we know that. But we can wish it didn’t take so long.
Linguistically, the poems contain beautiful lyric lines and build tremendous memory waves: “This morning, rainbowlight-cerebellums in the arc of water that is spitting out from the engine.” Our speaker is constantly questioning the affect of memory: “would you call this remembering./ Would you ask: did the garden become a market. And did the mountain/become a station.” And while our speaker resists memory in trying to build it in a new landscape, she is constantly reflecting back to a spinning ballerina in a music box she owned as a child.
“Begin with the memory of collapsing the ballerina back into the music box after she twirls in her white plastic dress slower then slower to somewhere over the rainbow. Her feet glued to the spring, she moved, I thought, as much as she possibly could. Loneliness across a whole life. Even here, in Guayaquil.”
“Fuck me, or something like it I said every night. That lock, the click at the plastic bent over. He wanted to—at the spring she was glued to. The plinks, and the crank that turns her.”
and finally she tells us of when the dancer broke, but stayed in the box, and she lost the key. “It is a stupid memory, it was a stupid song./ It is the worst-possible thing to have loved.”
Desiring touch, company, and experience complicated, our speaker mourns. Perhaps the ballerina and the song is stupid, but I can’t believe the memory is. This memory is what connects the present with the past. The beautiful constantly rotating girl but never moving. See, the ballerina cannot be whole, and then broke and melted into a ghost memory. Our speaker felt like this once—spinning but not moving with a limited 365 degree scope of the world. But our speaker is not broken and it quite alive. As she becomes more familiar with Guayaquil her thinking ribbons part past and part present mixing the ballerina with Lover. Who is our speaker now? I see her changing. She’s not someone else. She’s more her now.
For those with the heart to travel I recommend Arco Iris. Even more I hope those who have travelled read this poetry for contextualization of the emotional return to our home lands. Know we all felt binary and conflicting emotions when we first got back, we still feel this way and it isn’t wrong. Reading Arco Iris for the first time let me grieve over my own time in China and how sad I am today to not still be there with my friends. This book helped me remember, maybe, one day I can go back. Coming home isn’t the end of the travel, but the start of our figuring out why we came back and “what are we supposed to that about that.”
♥ Sheila M
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry. Her first book, Dummy Fire, was selected by Forrest Gander to receive the Saturnalia Poetry Prize. Her second, American Spikenard, was selected by Ira Sadoff to receive the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her third book, Faulkner’s Rosary, was released by Saturnalia Books in 2010. Her fourth book, Arco Iris, was released in November, 2012, and was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2012. Her book End of the Sentimental Journey is just released from Noemi Press. She is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Poetry.
Happy May, everyone! We had a stellar group of blog posts this past month and a really terrific Will Read for Women donation drive in Washington DC. This month the StS team will make the final edits for our 2013 Fall issue and prepare the rising staff to take over their new roles as current editors charge to graduate with their MFA degrees from George Mason University!
This month we will say goodbye to Editor-in-Chief Kate Partridge, Managing Editor Mike Stein, Poetry & Blog Editor Me (Sheila McMullin), Nonfiction Editor Chrissy Widmayer, and Fiction Editor Dan Hong. We will be heartbroken to say our farewell, but so proud to be sending such strong feminists into the world and see what good work they do next! We all feel so thrilled for the rising staff and can’t wait to see what projects and goals they accomplish! Look forward to StS interviews with out-going staff members at the end of this month and beginning of June.
• Friday, April 12th Will Read For Women Donation Drive was a great time with readings from Kim Roberts, Mel Nichols, Nicole Idar, Kyle Daragan, and Jill Leininger in support of Virginia’s Bethany House women’s shelter.
• Spring 2013 fiction contributor, Sarah Seybold shares her thoughts on writing her piece “Empty Cases.”
Looking forward to what’s coming next!
With love as always,
Filed under: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
I was pregnant three weeks after I was married. It was unexpected, delaying my undergraduate graduation for longer than I care to admit and derailing my plans for graduate school until a later season in my life. I was just getting comfortable in my feminist skin, full of enthusiasm for equality and full agency for women in our society.
I still remember the day I called to let my internist know I was pregnant. I was coldly informed by the office staff that the internist would not need to see me again until after I had delivered the baby and had an internal medicine issue; they suggested that I call an obstetrician’s office. Just like that, I was severed from the only healthcare provider I had seen since moving to Virginia to attend college. Instinctively, intuitively, instead of calling an obstetrician, I asked a fellow student, who was expecting her third child, if she had ever heard of midwives in the area. It turned out that she delivered her children at home and could recommend her midwife.
Finding a midwife, in my mind, was an expression of my feminism. I felt fully empowered to birth on my own terms, with a caregiver who treated me like a friend—a neighbor, a sister—rather than a number shuffled from specialty office to specialty office in a cold and impartial way. It was a step that began, perhaps unconsciously, with my earlier reading of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. The way in which Naylor’s colorful character embodied feminine wisdom had not left my mind more than eight months after finishing the novel. In addition, just the year before, my aunt, a labor and delivery nurse, chose to deliver at home unassisted. The newly blossomed feminist in me was drawn to these strong women who were questioning the politics of birth and bucking against a patriarchal model of care. They both exemplified full agency in their womanhood.
Years later, when pregnant with my fourth daughter, I traveled to Richmond to lobby for the legalization of home birth midwives in Virginia. In my mind, it was a clear matter of Choice. Women deserved to make their own choices about where and with whom to birth. It seemed a logical feminist issue, but when I approached female Democratic General Assembly members, who typically supported pro-choice measures, I was shocked at their unwillingness to see home birth as anything but a throwback to the dark ages. Instead, I humbly found myself working with politicians on the other side of the aisle—often white-haired conservative men—and linking arms with religiously conservative women. It was a stark lesson in gender politics and the ways in which women can unite whether they identify with feminism or not.
Later I would write a paper that a professor nominated to a national communication organization for an award. It was a project that involved feminist narrative research and women’s stories about birth, in particular birth with a midwife. The professor was an academic feminist legend, a nationally known scholar who had devoted her career to feminist communication; she was shocked when the award committee didn’t take my project seriously. I was not. When researching, I have found very few scholarly books or papers on choice in childbirth. Most of feminism rests on issues around choice in pregnancy and sexual orientation and inequalities in pay and violence against women, still extremely important issues. But, what about the eighty-five million women who give birth in America? Isn’t full agency in childbirth an important issue to embrace in feminism?
Today maternal mortality is on the rise and our minority sisters are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth—no matter economic status or education level. There is feminist work to be done around childbirth. I’ve had the fortune to work, as a grassroots organizer, with women who are bringing awareness to the inequalities in childbirth, and the importance of a woman’s full agency in the birth experience. Women like Jennie Joseph, Ina May Gaskin, Juliana Fehr, and many nonprofit organizations like the International Cesarean Awareness Network, Every Mother Counts, Childbirth Connections, Midwives for Haiti, and the White Ribbon Alliance. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to come together over this issue—whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight—women advocating for better birth options is an issue that embodies what feminism is all about.
Would you like to contribute a birth story? We’d love to hear about your experiences in childbirth, in particular whether or not you experienced full agency throughout your maternity care.
Check out VIDA’s website for a new interview with our EiC, Kate Partridge, about So to Speak! The Editor’s Corner features regular interviews with editors on their publications, the publishing climate, and their own philosophies.