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.

 

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.

 

Post-AWP Withdrawals

It’s now been almost 72 hours since Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie closed the annual national celebration of all things writerly known as AWP.  But writers everywhere, and this writer in particular, remain jetlagged and not just because of the 12-hour trips each way for those of us in the east coast.

(Ahem, if you don’t know anything about AWP check out Peter Mountford’s Guide to AWP for People Who Don’t Know What AWP Is. His Useful Stereotypes are especially on-point: example 1. Earnest Poet, example 2. Mid Level Writer You’ve Never Heard Of. )

This was my second year attending AWP and I have to say I was a little less dazed and confused but just as googly-eyed as the first time.

There was running into my undergraduate prof., Allen Gee, at the top of the fourth floor escalator on registration day, then later in a rather intense panel on Writing Fictional Characters of Another Race led by the phenomenal Randa Jarrar and Mat Johnson among others.  (I chased them both after the panel and hope to feature them on StS soon!)

While womanning the StS table at the bookfair along with StS Asst. Poetry Editor, Alicia P, I saw and invited (manhandled-fawned) over the Great Joy Harjo whom we featured back in November, and yes there were pictures and yes this is us bragging.

 

There was the joy in Joy Castro‘s packed panel on Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family which offered touching and surprisingly humorous tales of the logistical and emotional negotiations endured when writing about everything from incest and sex addition to adoption and parenting and autism. StS will work tirelessly to bring Joy to you in the near future.

Dorothy Allison was greatly missed at Lambda’s 25 for 25, but at least I was able to see Butterfly Boy’s Rigoberto Gonzalez in action. Then, there was the pleasure of a first-time reading with Chang-Rae Lee and the discovery of the lazy charm of Chris Abani. (You had to be there! Were you? Tell us about it in the comments! But rest assured Abani would approve of my qualifier.)

Finding and sitting next to former StS Blog Editor, Sheila McMullin, at The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikeable Women in Fiction, where Samantha Chang and others referred to Edith Wharton and Claire Messud’s work to illustrate how Likeable = Respectable in literature and in life, was a special treat. And an impromptu reunion with StS featured poet Javier Huerta in the convention lobby and later at a ConTinta/CantoMundo offsite reading moved me so, it’ll have to be its own post.

So l’ll  stop here and not bore you with any more of my literary stalking, or with what could very well have been three George Saunders sightings –Asst. Fiction Editor, Julie D. is my witness–except we couldn’t be sure. We were too tired and either non or under-inebriated to approach him, though he was, we swear, no more than 5 feet away all three times.

Will continue AWP-detoxing  for weeks to come. Bear with us.

 

Pine Box Reading in Seattle Tonight!

For those of you in Seattle for the AWP conference, don’t forget the So to Speak reading today, Saturday, March 1, from 3 PM to 5 PM! Our reading features poetry by Laura-Gray Street, fiction by Jessica Barksdale, and nonfiction by Tim Denevi and takes place at the Pine Box, a restaurant and bar located only a half-mile from the Washington State Convention Center at 1600 Melrose Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98122.  We’d love to celebrate great feminist writing and have a drink with you! Most importantly, you’re not going to want to miss the line-up!

 

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