Like many recent English undergraduates, I first encountered Alison Bechdel’s work in the classroom. Her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was assigned reading in an American lit course I took my sophomore year, and after a semester spent dutifully paging through William Dean Howells and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Bechdel’s beautifully drawn memoir about her childhood living with a closeted gay father, her own coming out at 19, and her attempts to make sense of years of family mystery impressed me deeply.
Even so, it wasn’t until a year later, when Bechdel’s second memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, was released and immediately appeared all over campus, that I realized just how popular and successful her work was. Never mind that my copy of Fun Home was emblazoned with its numerous awards: “Time Magazine’s #1 Book of the Year,” the front cover says, and “National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist.” The back tells a similar story, listing 23 publications and websites that listed Fun Home as a “Best Book of the Year.” And then there’s Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 until 2008, introduced the famous “Bechdel Test” for measuring films’ portrayals of female characters, and received numerous awards of its own.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when the MacArthur Foundation announced Bechdel would be the recipient of one of their “genius” grants excitement and congratulations poured from Twitter and literary sites across the Internet. I spoke with Bechdel over the phone in November, shortly after her MacArthur award was announced. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
The Millions: So, first of all, congratulations on the MacArthur news! Is it starting to feel any more real?
Alison Bechdel: Not really. I keep waiting for it to feel sort of normal or real but, no, I feel like I’m in a sort of suspended state of denial.
TM: How did you first learn about the award? You were abroad, is that correct?
AB: Yeah, I was in Italy for 6 weeks at this really amazing artist’s residency.
TM: What were you working on while you were there?
AB: I was basically just doing whatever I felt like, I was treating it as a sort of a creative rehab after getting really burnt out. So I just allowed myself to draw whatever I wanted, and it turned into this project of drawing life-sized figures doing yoga. But it was more about the process than the drawings, which was fun. Because you know, I’m always having to produce stuff and so this was a project where I wasn’t thinking so much about producing anything but just the experience of drawing. It was kind of fun to sort of draw with my whole body, because I was drawing something exactly the same size as I was, standing on the floor like I was.
TM: Yeah, I can see how that scale difference would be liberating. I don’t know exactly how you draw the panels for your books, but in the books themselves they’re very small.
AB: They’re very small, very tiny.
TM: As I was first reading about this years MacArthur awards, I learned you’re also working on a new book about the link between the body and creativity, though I guess I don’t know if that’s a good way to sum it up.
AB: That’s about as good a way as any, I haven’t quite been able to sum it up myself yet. I like that.
TM: Yeah, it’s always difficult to look at a work in progress and say what it’s about. And so I was just thinking vaguely about these large forms and the subject of your work in progress and then looking back at your drawings in Fun Home and Are You My Mother and while there’s a definite continuity between those books, there’s also a bit of an artistic shift. Are You My Mother seems more nuanced — there are more perspective angles, different levels of shading. Do you see that kind of evolution in drawing continuing into your next project?
AB: I feel like my drawing has changed a lot over the past 10 or 15 years. Well, it’s always changing, really — I’m always trying to draw better. It’s gotten more and more realistic. In cartooning there’s this spectrum from very cartoony images to more naturalistic, realistic drawings and my drawings have moved more and more towards the more naturalistic end of the spectrum because of using digital photography for reference shots and because of Google image search, which enables me to quickly access images of everything in the universe. So, I feel like those technological changes have really affected my drawings a lot and it’s fun, it’s exciting to have access to those things and to be able to make naturalistic drawings fairly easily. It’s become very easy to do when you have these resources. But I find that it also makes me kind of more controlled; there’s a stiffness to that kind of work that I would like to undo. I don’t know how to do it. I think part of the process of the book is going to be…I should just shut up about that book until I’ve done it. I mean, the more I talk about it the more I box myself in.
TM: Like, “oh, I said it would be like that, now I have to write the book I described?”
AB: Yeah. I’m very reluctant. I’ve just gotten to the point in my life where I don’t want to do anything except exactly what I want to do. And even myself describing a project, it then becomes something I have to do. But I’ll just say one thing, which is that I want to go back to drawing more spontaneously, and with less preparatory work for every drawing.
TM: Which is something that is really present in Are You My Mother, where there are panels depicting you taking the reference photos for the panels that you’re drawing, creating this interesting artistic loop.
AB: Well, I don’t know about interesting, but it’s definitely a loop. It’s a very self-reflexive work.
TM: And that seems like such a vulnerable thing to do, to put yourself in your book as someone who has this uncompleted project that you don’t exactly know how you’re going to finish, or how it’s going to end.
AB: It was very much like standing out across a tight rope and just hoping that I made it to the other side. And that book, Are You My Mother, changed a lot half way through, and I’m trying to work that in with my tightrope metaphor like, what did I do? Jump off the tightrope? Did I fall off the tightrope, move to a different tight rope? I’m not sure. But you know, there’s a point in writing anything where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so I guess any book, whether it’s fiction or memoir, has that exploration and depth.
TM: So Fun Home is about a lot of things, but one of them is the constant redecoration and reformation of this house, which is drawn beautifully and in incredible detail. What was it like to try to revisit that house and essentially recreate the house that your father spent his life redecorating and restoring?
AB: It was uncomfortable. I felt like it was almost a kind of penance. I spent my childhood like trapped in this place, dusting all these fucking knickknacks, and here I was as an adult, recreating it, drawing it, in a way that was much more tedious than dusting it ever was. And you know, I didn’t think of this at the time, it was only after I finished the book and heard people start to discuss it that I saw the way that my creation of the book was very parallel to my father’s creation of this house. It was a very obsessive creative enterprise, very focused on detail and losing track of other aspects of life. Making a graphic novel is a very absorbing task and a lot of other parts of my life were really put on the back burner during the time that I was working on it, very similar to the way that my dad would neglect relationships, and to an extent I did too. But I feel like in an odd way Fun Home was a kind of collaboration with my father, just because I happened to have all these photographs that he had a taken of the house, that he had staged and then had a photographer friend shoot, so I had all these great images that I could just draw from.
TM: Something that I see a lot through Fun Home is this attempt to tell a true story about your life and looking back and seeing where maybe the story you’ve been told or have told before wasn’t exactly right and then exploring those moments and different ways of telling. You have your childhood diaries and you look back on them and say, actually those aren’t accurate, those aren’t telling the full story of what was going on in my life at that time, and you consider the distance between the story your father’s letters to your mother tell and the lived reality of their relationship, so that Fun Home becomes this attempt to rediscover your own past and your own history. What was that like, to go through your childhood diaries, to go through your childhood drawings, to go through your parents’ letters, and try to pick out that narrative? Did that come naturally, or was that kind of a labored process?
AB: That’s actually what I would probably be doing were I just totally left to my own devices. If i didn’t have to earn a living, if I didn’t have to do anything, I would probably be sitting around and pouring over the various documents of my life, the photographs and diaries and letters. And there’s obviously something I’m looking for, there’s probably something that I was missing. In my family there was very much this sense that something was happening that I didn’t understand. There was always this mystery.
I remember when my dad started putting some photo albums together. I was maybe eight or nine, and he decided he was going to put our family photos in this album, and I was spellbound by this process of selecting images and labeling them, putting them in a certain order on the page, grouping them in a certain way. It was like making sense out of this chaotic pile of images. There was something very formative for me in that process, I was just really excited by it. And I feel like in a way that’s just what my work is, it’s just these albums that I’m arranging and then rearranging, in hopes of finding something out. But I probably wouldn’t have that drive if there hadn’t been this central mystery or secret or conundrum at the core of my life, my childhood, my family. And part of it is also my own record-keeping, my own diary. I not only write down the stuff that happens in my life, but I do often still go back and reread it with great curiosity about what I was thinking or doing at an earlier moment in my life, still looking for some kind of answer to…I don’t know, “who am I?” I mean, that’s ridiculous, but I am lacking some kind of structure of the self that I’m hoping to replace with all this self-narration that I’m doing.
TM: I do the same thing, I keep all these journals — my family’s like “this is out of control, there’s paper everywhere” — but I can’t imagine turning mine into a book, or literally sharing pages from the diaries. Again, that’s this very vulnerable choice. Similar, I think, though perhaps not very similar, to your depictions of the therapy in Are You My Mother, which is something that I don’t see a lot of people writing about right now.
AB: Well, there’s very good reason for that, probably. It’s not a very — it doesn’t lend itself to drama, let’s just say.
TM: Yeah, therapy does tend to be so discursive, and a little repetitive, not in a bad way but not necessarily in a particularly spellbinding way, either. What was it like to go back through those years of therapy and try to shape them into a story, into an arc?
AB: Well, in my earliest years of therapy I did take a lot of notes. I was just so curious about everything that was happening and the process that I would just write down everything I could remember from the session and these odd pivotal moments where the therapist would say something that brought other things into focus. I stopped that at some point — I simply didn’t have the time to continue documenting like that, but I do have these carefully documented sessions.
What was it like? Sometimes it was just nauseating, I just felt like oh my god, I’m steeping in this stew of my own juices. Sometimes it just go to be unbearable. But mostly I’m endlessly fascinated by myself and my past and by what has happened to me and how I’ve changed, and I wanted to show that. So when I first started to write these therapy scenes they were very long, just two people in a room talking, talking, talking, nothing’s moving, nothing’s changing, the movement is all internal, and so eventually I realized that I had to really, really compress things. It was a problem. I started watching that series In Treatment on HBO, and it’s funny because it’s basically just therapy sessions. The main character is a therapist, and you see him with all his different patients, and nothing really happens, it’s just two people there talking. And that gave me a little more encouragement, like “no, something important really is happening here.” So, I don’t know. I’m not satisfied with how I did that. It was a challenge and I gave it a try.
TM: I think it was, again, something that I haven’t seen very many people try to do, and so when I think about therapy and literary depictions of therapy Are You My Mother is the book that comes to mind. And to me it felt incredibly accurate about what that experience is like and how difficult it can be to communicate with other people the revelations that can come from those conversations.
AB: Yeah, yeah.
TM: So, with this MacArthur grant, have you seen, or I guess it may again be too early, but have you seen a larger awareness, a growing audience for your work or for your books? From Dykes to Watch Out For to Fun Home to Are You My Mother, are you seeing a change in who is reading these books? I know that Fun Home was just explosive when it came out…
AB: Yeah, I think there’s been a big change in who is reading my work, and it’s very strange.
TM: How does that, or does it, affect the work that you’re doing?
AB: Well, it has a good effect. I’ve always just wanted to write about myself — I think I’m just a memoirist and an autobiographer at heart — but I couldn’t really do that when I was starting out because I’m a very unusual person. I’m a lesbian, and I couldn’t just start writing about my lesbian life in 1981 and have anyone read it or take it seriously. Not that I was thinking about that, although in a way I did start writing about my life, I started the comic strip. But that was like a distraction, almost, like “don’t look at me, look at this story that I’m telling you about this little community of lesbians, this little comic strip.” It was like a football player that runs in front of you, what do you call those guys? A blocker — the comic strip was kind of blocking me and creating this space for me behind it to live my life and to be who I was, and eventually the comic strip actually made it possible. I mean, the comic strip existed in this very political context, it was part of the whole lesbian gay liberation movement, it was very much engaged with that and influenced by it. And that movement’s accomplishment was for people to just be able to be regular people. And so finally in 2006 when Fun Home came out, it was something people could handle, to read a very unusual story about a lesbian and her gay dad. Somehow that was finally able to fly in a way that it wouldn’t have 20 years earlier. So, I feel like I created this space for me to tell stories about my own self.
TM: I first came across Fun Home in a college course on American literature, and reading through it, even at that time, I was like “you know, she doesn’t seem to like literary criticism very much.” I guess that’s what I’m thinking about when I ask about changing audiences, because this is suddenly being taught on college campuses, and your work is being given to students as an influential work of American literature. And as I was reading Fun Home for the first time, I can remember being very amused by your having to read James Joyce and having to apply all of this kind of crazy literary theory to his work. How does it feel to have your works being taught in exactly that way?
AB: It’s very, it’s very bizarre. It’s funny, I’m actually spending a lot of time this week at the University of Vermont going to classes where students are reading my book and it feels really quite ridiculous because in a way Fun Home is about resistance to literature as a topic of study, as something that gets analyzed and broken down and now my stories are getting analyzed and scrutinized in this very funny way by these students, by these poor unsuspecting kids. But I honestly, I feel a little ambivalent about it. I mean, obviously it’s great, it’s wonderful to have your book taught in college courses, and it has created this amazing new audience. I mean, young people are very excited about my work which is an amazing gift, as someone who for many years only had this very small subculture audience of people very like me, so now it’s wild when these young kids, young men, are excited about Fun Home. It’s just really unusual to me. But it’s great.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Alison Bechdel may now be as well known for her “Bechdel Test“, a checklist for evaluating gender bias in movies, as she is for her genre-making graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Bechdel first came to prominence via her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, collected a few years back in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. MacArthur calls her “a cartoonist and graphic memoirist exploring the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives.”
MacArthur did not honor any writers of fiction this year but several others in literary fields made the cut, including poet Terrence Hayes, whose Lighthead won the 2010 National Book Award; Samuel D. Hunter, a playwright best known for The Whale, a riff on Moby-Dick; and Khaled Mattawa, translator and poet, known for his work on Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction, as well as his own collections of poetry.
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr