My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.
(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)
But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.
Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.
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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.