Post-40 Bloomers

Maker & Marketer: An Interview With Caitlin Hamilton Summie

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Take one or two steps into the world of literary marketing and commerce, and you will likely encounter the name Caitlin Hamilton Summie. In particular, if you are a champion of independent publishing and bookselling, the degrees of separation to Summie will be few. For literary writers coming out with a debut, or perhaps seeking to improve their second or third book’s visibility, the search for an independent publicist will likely begin with personal recommendations; and it’s via that word-of-mouth chain that Summie -- a lover of books but also, clearly, of the human side of literary creation and marketing -- rises to the top of the referral list. It’s commonplace these days for authors to participate actively in publicity efforts, and, while doing so, to comment on the fact that publicity requires an extremely different temperament and skill set from writing. And so it’s not often that publicists double as authors. Here, too, Summie, age 47, is exceptional: next spring, her debut collection of stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, will be published by Fomite Press. Bloom: You’re a books and lit person through and through, that much is clear. When and how did it start? Did you grow up in a bookish family? Caitlin Hamilton Summie: I grew up in a household filled with books, and both my parents are avid readers. I remember falling in love with writing before I fell in love with reading, oddly enough. I started writing as a preschooler. I wrote stories and gave them to my mother to read, but since I couldn’t write yet and had only scribbles, she quite smartly asked me to read my stories to her instead. I have always appreciated the respect she gave me, even then. I can’t remember when books became as important to me -- lifeblood -- but I believe I was an adult. Bloom: You’ve worked as a bookseller, a marketing and publicity director for a corporate publisher, a marketing, publicity, and sales director for an independent publisher, and as an independent publicist for both individual authors and small presses. We who love books but have never worked inside the business don’t realize how complex is the web of book publishing and selling. But we authors do hear stories of how dysfunctional the publishing world can be. I wonder if, as someone who loves books as much as you do, knowing so much of the inside baseball -- the “sausage-making” as they say -- is ever discouraging or demoralizing? CHS: Yes, it can be discouraging. There are several things about the industry that can wear one down, especially for those of us deeply involved in the small press world -- the fight for review space being one. There is the continual vast difference in resources in general -- financial, staff -- that make small press life more of a challenge. But I am interested in what books and publishing can become. I am quite energized by the revolution in books, the different ways people can now publish -- POD [print on demand], hybrid, traditional, large press, small press, self. There used to be only one real way to share stories, but now we have stories being published in a variety of ways, and I think we as an industry will benefit, that it will spur continued innovation. Every discouraging moment comes with a moment of success or joy -- a great and important review, the discovery of a new talent, that perfect pitch to a niche outlet -- and so we here in this firm get up and turn the lights on to make certain those voices are heard. Bloom: Of all the jobs above, which would you say is/was the most challenging, and why? CHS: I think that publicity is the hardest right now. Things are changing quickly, as we go mobile and more communities and publications proliferate online, and more books hit the marketplace. But those very challenges keep it exciting, too. One has to keep learning, and I believe that is a great thing in a job. Bloom: Most of your work has been in the indie world. Has that been a deliberate choice, or just how it turned out? CHS: I began in the big house world, in editorial at Vintage. But I am not a New Yorker, and so my focus changed the day I started counting the trees in my neighborhood. I thought I was leaving books for good when I left New York, but of course I didn’t. I worked at an indie bookstore, then slowly found my way back to publishing by joining MacMurray & Beck. At the indie bookstore I handled events and also maintained the biography section. Sadly, I could never decide how I wanted the section to look: should I alphabetize by author or subject? On the floor, I hand sold the same two novels over and over (Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi) so I learned the power of handselling, the importance of independent bookstores, and what they mean to a community. I remember that when we closed, I was somehow tasked with the job of announcing the discounts over the PA system. I felt such resentment as people swept through the doors, people I had never seen before. My dad came in looking guilty, and I told him to buy away. He was a genuine, regular customer, and he of all people should get a discount. At MacMurray & Beck, I was the marketing director, but I was also the publicity director, and for two years roughly I managed all sales nationwide, from Barnes & Noble to mom-and-pop stores. My college major was in Middle Eastern history, so basically I learned everything about marketing on my feet. As my career progressed, I developed a growing love of small presses, and so yes, it became a conscious effort on my part to remain involved in the small press community. Bloom: What made you decide to open up your own book marketing and publicity firm in 2003? CHS: Ah! I was laid off from Penguin Putnam and looking for jobs. But quite quickly, the phone began ringing. First, a small press publisher needed publicity help for a really literary novel. I had done publicity, marketing, sales, and bookselling so I felt ready to assist in a variety of capacities, which is what I did whenever someone called: I determined where they needed me on their team (and still do.) I really enjoyed my freelance work, and about the third time the phone rang, it hit me: I have started a business. Bloom: What advice would you offer to authors who are considering hiring an independent publicist? What have you learned about how/whether a book “breaks through” to get press attention and sales? CHS: I advise any author who wants to hire a publicist to treat this as a business. Develop a set of expectations and a budget prior to speaking with publicists, and make certain they fit your needs and plans. I believe publicity is all about fits, so an author should interview people, review their websites, speak with them to make certain working with them on a day-to-day basis is possible, get references. Ask questions. Sometimes breaking out an author is actually a ten-year process, a slow build from book to book. Sometimes it comes in a lightening-flash of bookseller and media love. I have seen it happen both ways. What I have learned is that for the books I represent, there is no set formula. There are definitely things that we know will be helpful -- starred trade reviews, other reviews in publications that really fit the book’s audience, a striking cover, handselling -- but I believe in remaining creative because you can develop all those things for an author and still not break out. Bloom: I confess that for a long time, when you and I were corresponding about Bloom, and book biz, and other subjects, I assumed you lived in New York City. Talk about that common misperception -- that all literary work and life happens in New York -- and the ways in which it’s wrong, misguided, possibly even damaging to literary life? CHS: You are not alone! When people find out I live in Tennessee, there is usually an awkward pause. People forget too easily the importance of the South to American literature, and even more so forget the importance of Tennessee itself to American letters. We have Parnassus Bookstore, and Burke’s, and Union Avenue Books. Vanderbilt and UT both have MFA programs. Also, we host The Southern Festival of Books and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. And so many writers are here! Pamela Schoenwaldt, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Kallet, Michael Knight, Amy Greene. Alex Haley was originally from Nashville, Charles Wright was from Pickwick Dam, James Agee was born in Knoxville as was Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy set his first four novels in East Tennessee. William Gay lived in Tennessee as well. Poets Laureate Allen Tate and James Dickey went to Vanderbilt, and Robert Penn Warren, also a Poet Laureate, taught there. The fact is that for the majority of my career in books (all but one year), I have not been in New York. There is a vibrant, different literary world outside New York—and some incredible work being done—and I think the presumption that the best of literature is in New York or that New York is the center of literary life is in fact damaging. MacMurray & Beck published the first novels of Steve Yarbourgh, William Gay, Patricia Henley, and Susan Vreeland, among others, out of small offices in central Denver. Free Spirit Publishing, with whom I was an intern the summer after I graduated from high school, is in Minneapolis. When I interned there, they were publishing books for gifted and talented kids that address real life issues, something they began back in the 1980s to fill a gap. They’ve continued to innovate. She Writes Press in Berkeley is succeeding with a new publishing model. Don’t get me wrong. New York is important, of course. But as book lovers and readers we are more than what one city discovers. Bloom: What would you say have been some of the most significant changes and trends in bookselling, marketing, and publicity over the last 20 years? 10 years? What do you think might be the Next Big Change? CHS: I have seen tons of changes: the shrinking of book review pages, the development of paid reviews, the rise of the Internet and Internet media, the development of the citizen (consumer) reviewer, and the creation of online engagement through social media. I’ve begun to think the next change will be in delivery -- in the methodology itself as well as in how current delivery options are perceived. I am so intrigued by the book vending machines abroad. I imagine soon we will be delivering books in great, fun new ways here, too. I think POD ought to be more acceptable than it is in some quarters. It is a smart choice for smaller houses. Bloom: A Next Big Change for you is that you are about to become a published author of a collection of short stories.  A lot of folks who work in publishing -- as editors, publicists, booksellers, etc. -- have creative projects going on the backburners, in hopes that their time will come. And it has for you, after many years of working steadily and quietly on your fiction. Tell us about those years, that journey, and what this moment means for you. CHS: I earned my MFA from Colorado State in 1995 and had had a few stories published in 1995 and 1996. Since then, I have continued to write. I even sent a few pieces out, though none were accepted. Like many, work and motherhood were happy distractions for many years (and still are.) The recent acceptance of my short story, “Sons,” at Mud Season Review, was a sweet moment. I wrote that story in 1992. I have always loved it, and for someone else to find merit in it was really exciting. For as long as I have been writing, the book acceptance happened very quickly. As tickled as I was to get the news, I was also stunned. A few days later, when my family met to celebrate, I was more joyous than the night I had read the acceptance email. It is tremendously exciting! Bloom: What do you think lit the fire under you to begin pursuing publication more seriously recently? CHS: I had been working on a middle-grade novel and needed a change, so I decided to revisit my stories. I had sent a couple out, including “Sons.” When it was accepted, I thought, “Why not go for it?” I sent more stories out and then decided to go for it wholeheartedly and sent the collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, off to Fomite. Bloom: What can you tell us about the stories in your forthcoming collection? CHS: The stories are about family -- often about loss and about accepting each other as we are, sometimes about accepting ourselves as we are. Many of the stories are set in Minnesota and involve snow. I grew up in Minnesota and Massachusetts -- snow everywhere during the winter. That may sound like a trivial detail, but snow, and weather in general, are important to my writing. The collection begins with the story of a kid, follows people as they age, and ends with the story of an old man. But what links them isn’t as much age or aging as it is the themes of family, loss, and hope. Bloom: How will it feel to put the marketing, sales, and publicity of your book in the hands of someone else? How do you see yourself being involved? CHS: Fomite is a press with a small team and asks authors to do a lot of the marketing, so I will be working on my own book, with the assistance of my husband, who is also a book publicist. We chose the cover image with the publisher shortly after the book was accepted and just chose the book title and that has been a great process. We made team decisions, which I like. I have no problem letting others in on the marketing. In my experience, teams are best. Even when a team disagrees, we all refine our thinking and get better. Also, I may be too close to these stories and so having the Fomite team share their perspectives is essential. Bloom: Are you working on new fiction now? CHS: Yes! I am taking the middle-grade novel through a last rewrite and then revising a couple of children’s picture books. I still have a few short stories to reconsider. Also, because some of the stories link, I want to revisit a manuscript that is a novel-in-stories—a few pieces for that book are from the collection and then there are a bunch of others to add. Bloom: You have so much experience with book release triumphs and disappointments; and you’ve already said that a book’s reception is unpredictable. What will you consider a “success” for the roll-out of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts? CHS: Reviews. Good reviews will mean the book is a success to me. Sales would be sweet, but short story collections are always a tough sell. The critical reception matters most in building my brand as a writer.
Post-40 Bloomers

It’s Complicated: On Amy Gustine’s ‘You Should Pity Us Instead’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In an age of ubiquitous self-revelation, I consider myself discreet: I don’t gossip, don’t share intimate information -- mine or others’ -- in public places. The idea of discussing my physical or mental health, or personal, professional, or financial struggles, with anyone other than close friends or family feels wrong. I know many do so gladly in the name of openness, destigmatization, and shining a light on our underlying commonalities. That’s fine. Me, I don’t even want to fill in my relationship status on Facebook. But this doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other people’s. A quick and unscientific survey of my Friends, for instance, reveals that most married people identify as married. Beyond that it falls off steeply: a few show up as single or in a relationship, one or two as divorced (many more actually are), one friend as widowed. And, for whatever reasons, no one in my Friend universe has checked off “It’s complicated.” And what does that mean, anyway? I imagine various possibilities involving too many words for a pull-down menu -- a nonexclusive relationship, or maybe an unrequited one, or a breakup that has lasted way past its expiration date. But really, if we’re talking about relationships, doesn’t “It’s Complicated” apply to everyone? Of course it’s complicated -- relationships with lovers, spouses, friends, enemies, parents, children, siblings, coworkers, neighbors. The complexity of human bonds is endlessly fascinating; this is why we tell stories, and why we read them. Telling them well, though -- doing justice to the endless entanglements we navigate every day -- calls for emotional intelligence and a steady hand. Debuting with her first book of stories You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande) at age 45, Amy Gustine answers that call and demonstrates a deep respect for those complications. 2. Each story in You Should Pity Us Instead approaches then strips away the cliché at the center of a relationship -- the insufficiently parented child, the unfaithful husband, the obsessively fearful new mother, the black son of a white adoptive family -- replacing it with something finely tuned and delicate. And yet there is nothing ephemeral about Gustine’s characters. Each exists in careful balance to their partners, antagonists, and kin, but at the same time their integrity shines, unshakeable. “In order to even begin writing I’ve got to have some sense of there being an irresolvable complexity, even contradiction, in the story,” says Gustine. “It’s unpacking the contradiction and nuance through the events and the dialogue that makes writing intriguing. Consistency and singularity are boring.” Thus you have Sarah in “Half-Life,” a 22-year-old nanny only recently aged out of the foster care system who is trying to work out what she needs to know as an adult through the children she cares for. Or Spencer, from the story “Goldene Medene,” an Ellis Island intake doctor whose recent heartbreak clouds his judgment about the immigrants whose lives he holds in his hands. Or Shayla and Mike in “Prisoners Do,” two doctors engaged in an extramarital affair for whom nothing is simple: Mike is the caretaker for his disabled wife and three young daughters; Shayla’s mother has metastatic brain cancer. Locked in their respective orbits, the titular prisoners circle ever closer but their paths never align. Gustine takes their measure as they cycle through the messiness of desire, envy, disaffection. His daughter had sounded very sweet, and that simple exchange they had—'Is your Dad home?' 'Sure, may I tell him who’s calling?' -- had brought her heart into her throat and Shayla didn’t know why. She really, truly had been fine with no kids. Was still, when she thought about it, fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was something else. 3. These are grownup stories. The author’s powers of perception and empathy have been honed over a lifetime. Gustine’s parents divorced when she was young, and both sets of grandparents stepped in to help raise her -- growing up she felt, she said, that she had six parents and four households, each with its own rules and mores. Without being aware of it, my sister and I learned how to fit in with each one. Jokes you might make to my dad wouldn’t be okay with my grandparents. Shows that Grandma might watch with us, like a soap opera, wouldn’t be approved of by Dad. Sometimes I think juggling four different microcultures, as well as the culture of our private Catholic school, which was yet again very different from our home cultures, is what created a certain fascination with families, with relationships, and a certain empathetic imagination. Always a reader, Gustine found books to be a perfect portable comfort. “When you move from house to house all week every week, and you don’t have your own bedroom,” she explains, “a book is a marvelous little thing that you can carry easily. You can just about live in it.” She read everything from Little Women to the Trixie Belden series to James Michener and V.C. Andrews (the latter two were lying around her grandparents’ houses) and, in high school, the Russians -- Leo Tolstoy, and even more so Fyodor Dostoevsky -- and Milan Kundera. Gustine always considered herself a writer, she says, typing at an old metal desk in her grandmother’s basement. She wrote on weekends while working full-time after attending the University of Michigan, then earned an MFA at Bowling Green State University when her daughter was a toddler. When her son was born four years later, she stayed home with him for the first year and then started him in daycare and began writing full-time. “Even though I knew I shouldn’t, sometimes I felt self-indulgent sending them off while I wrote,” she admits. “If I’d been getting a regular paycheck for the work, I doubt I would have felt that way. I did my best to ignore those feelings and push ahead.” There were dry spells and productive periods,” Gustine adds. You Should Pity Us Instead gathers stories written over 15 years, most published one at a time in literary journals beginning with “An Uncontaminated Soul” when she was 35. Two stories, “The River Warta” and “Goldene Medene” (a title that needs to be spoken out loud with the proper Yiddish inflection, GOLdeneh MEDeneh), were pulled from a collection of linked fiction based on her family’s immigrant experience at the turn of the century, which she began at Bowling Green; the rest emerged gradually. “I chose those to include based on two criteria: how much I liked them and whether or not they seemed to fit a family or parent-child relationship theme.” And as every one of us knows, family relationships are invariably complicated. Take even a straightforward setup like a mother and an absent, beloved son. “All the Sons of Cain” opens the collection with palpable tension, a crowd of anonymous protestors milling outside a grieving woman’s bedroom: After they find out where she lives, they start coming every week, sometimes every day. Wednesday morning they come especially early, waking her. R’s mother stays in bed, yearning for coffee and the bathroom, but fearful of nearing the window. Her son, a young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, has been turned into the conflict’s literal poster child, his photograph hoisted on their placards: “Sometimes they use him to protest another prisoner trade, sometimes to support it; sometimes to urge settlements, other times to condemn those already built.” His mother believes him dead. But when he turns up on the television news in a video, claiming to have converted to Islam and holding a recently dated newspaper, she grabs a change of clothes and a handful of old photographs and departs for Gaza to find him. Here, as throughout the book, Gustine shows her flair for painting a simultaneously interior and exterior portrait -- micro and macro -- with the same strokes: As her plane descends into Cairo’s International Airport, R’s mother looks down on the glittering high-rises lining the Nile’s shore, then inland, to the raw-concrete worker’s homes, squatting in twilight. To the east is the City of the Dead, crumbling, necropolitan mustards, and to the west the dark, ancient deserts of Giza’s tombs, so singular and grand they strike her not as burial plots, but as alien settlements. Everywhere there are minarets, looking from above like missiles. R’s mother doesn’t succeed on her mission. Instead, she finds other sons, and other mothers; a 13-year-old boy from the street who alternately taunts her and aids her, a young girl whose difficult birth she helps with in the back of a dark house. Still, this is not a heartwarming story of shared humanity. There is no great equalizing blanket of motherhood, or longing, or need. This is in fact a recurring pattern in the complications of Gustine’s characters’ lives: what could serve as a common thread and, in a simpler version of the world, bring them together, more often drives them apart. 4. Gustine’s characters’ relationship to faith -- as a common language, a redemptive power -- is, like all other relationships in Gustine’s stories, complicated. In the book’s title story, Molly, the wife of an academic who has written a Christopher Hitchens–like polemic against religion, moves with her family from Berkeley to her Ohio hometown, where her husband, Simon, has taken a position as chair of a philosophy department. Soon she realizes that their publicly atheist beliefs are in a stark minority. Once Simon’s book has been featured in a newspaper article, they also find that “invites to card nights and progressive dinners have dried up and the girls have been skipped over for several birthday parties and sleepovers.” Molly’s relationship to her own faith, or lack of it, is complicated both by her desire for community -- for herself, for her daughters -- and the fact that her beloved grandfather, whom she visits daily, is growing frail. “Everybody’s going to die,” her husband tells the girls, but this isn’t enough of an answer for any of them. The question of where faith fits into this puzzle hangs over them all; even its absence is couched in the language of belief: One day she looks up from her book and sees that the elm’s ten thousand pods, which blanketed the gardens in late May, have sprouted. Somehow this mindless, unwanted propagation makes being lonely okay. Even in the form of a plant, the world has violence and invasion at its core. Being lonely is the least you can expect. It’s so light a disappointment, it almost counts as a blessing. Perhaps because of her Catholic upbringing, the spiritual questions Gustine’s characters ask wear a well-worn luster. “When We’re Innocent,” for instance, while not explicitly religious, is a story of the complications that come with (or without) belief: culpability, guilt, and the ways we grant each other mercy. Obi, who has come to Phoenix to clean out his daughter Jolly’s apartment, doesn’t know if her death by overdose was accidental or a suicide. Brian, who lives next door and is awaiting a trial on rape charges, is unsure of whether -- or perhaps unwilling to admit that -- the sex with a woman he met online was non-consensual. The two sit in Brian’s apartment, crushed by their unanswered questions, able to offer each other sympathy but not salvation. 'What am I going to tell her mother?' [Obi] bleated, bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose until his knuckles went white. 'She had to have a reason.' 'Tell her it was my fault,' Brian said. 'Tell her Jolly lived next door to a depraved soul unworthy of her, and if he’d only been a better man, Jolly would still be here.' 5. The state of loneliness -- when relationships have gone awry or missing -- is layered with complications as well. Lavinia, in “An Uncontaminated Soul,” is, bluntly, a cat lady. Widowed, living in her late mother’s house next door to her nemesis, the hostile and meddlesome old man Pultwock, she shares her cat food-slippery, piss-smelling home with 56 cats; her granddaughter is no longer allowed to visit. But love is love, and Lavinia -- actually Mary, a lover of literature who renamed herself after “Emily Dickinson’s sister who liked cats” -- is alternately convivial and achingly tender with her feline charges. After rescuing two newborn kittens from a hot car, she pinches their flesh and rubs her finger along their gums. Each is a bit sticky, so she sets up the humidifier in her bedroom, shooing out all the other cats, and installs the kittens in a box lined with sheepskin car-seat covers from the towed Olds. In the kitchen Lavinia warms milk, corn oil, salt, and egg yolks on the stove, then feeds each kitten with a doll’s bottle. Afterward, she massages their genitals with a warm, moist cotton ball and they relieve themselves in her palm. She prefers to do it that way at first, so she can be sure who did what and how much. Her story doesn’t end well. But in the process of pulling at our hearts, Gustine also asks something of us: that we not only rethink the dismissive trope of “cat lady,” but also that of the angry old man who eventually calls the Humane Society on her. In his catless loneliness, Pultwock -- whose mien is as abrasive as his name, but whose own heartache the reader catches just a glimpse of -- may be even more desperate for love than she. 6. “You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious,” says Molly to her fellow Midwestern mothers in an attempt at lightheartedness. The truth being, of course, that we are, all of us, lonely and anxious in our unending search for connection amidst messy, imperfect lives. “It might go back to the issue of contradiction,” Gustine admits. “I don’t believe in purity. There’s good in bad and bad in good. There are no easy, straightforward situations or solutions.” Its title to the contrary, You Should Pity Us Instead is a book distinctly devoid of pity. Gustine treats her characters -- and thus her readers -- with dignity and compassion. Our complications, she demonstrates with each story, may drive us and often damage us, but they’re important. “All meaning seems to derive from connection to others and all connection requires caretaking, inevitably leading to a conflict between duty and pleasure,” she says. “So to live a meaningful life we must at some point sacrifice pleasure. That’s a paradox: to feel pleased we must not be pleased all the time.” True, it’s complicated. But, Gustine wants us to see, it couldn’t -- and shouldn’t -- be any other way.
Post-40 Bloomers

Does Becoming a Mother Mean Immolation?

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. “Some writers say, ‘You’ve got to write the book that’s been writing you forever, and then maybe you can go to another topic.’ I’ve never had any other topic but this topic, motherhood.” -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 “I always kept time for myself,” said my mother once in one of those conversations where we talk about how different the world is now from when I was young -- how free my brother and sister and I were to stay out of doors all day, with little to no supervision. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.” I’m sorry to say the remark didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. I thought it was one of those throwaway comments mom made that tended to dismiss whatever she did well in the name of modesty. Tell her “Dinner is delicious” and she would say “I don’t think I added enough salt.” It was a habit of hers I picked up and have been fighting ever since. But her comment came back to me while I was reading Desiree Cooper’s engaging and unsettling collection, Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press), published in March. Indeed, I think it would be impossible to read the book without thoughts of one’s own mother constantly intruding. A collection of about 30 very short stories -- some only a page or two, some a paragraph -- Know the Mother is a constellation of stories about women who are mothers. Not, it must be emphasized, a paean to the institution of motherhood, nor stories of children or spouses honoring their mothers. Not stories of bravery or sacrifices or what they gave to their families, although some of that can certainly be found here. Cooper’s fiction is anchored in the women themselves, the ones who are contending with their unexpected transformation from a person into a role. We live in a culture where our identities and our roles are often inextricably entangled, and nowhere is this so clear as in tension between “self” and “mother.” Mothers are supposed to be selfless -- a troubling idea and an unrealistic expectation of any woman. I found myself wondering if my own mother ever felt guilty or defensive about the time she took “for myself.” I hope not, because it is my memory of her in those moments that I am most drawn to, even now. A sense of self-sufficiency is probably the greatest example she ever set. 2. “Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?” asks Cooper in the book’s first story, “Witching Hour.” And why does the night abandon us to twinkling worry, to the rattling breaths of our children, to the hard floor of our long prayers? What fresh dangers tap against the black window? And why do our men snore so easily while the horror gathers? Every story in the book seems to be an answer to these questions. They are not comfortable answers. There is the physicality of motherhood, for one thing, the grueling toll it takes on the body. “I’d never been so beat up -- like physically attacked,” Cooper told The Rumpus of her own experience of childbirth. She brings the full force of that experience to her work: a woman collapsed in pain on her bathroom floor as her water breaks in “Icthyophobe.” Another at work determinedly finishing her phone call while she feels herself miscarrying (“Cartoon Blue”). Yet another waiting up in the dark for her daughter to get home, remembering how suicidal she felt at nine months (“Mourning Chair”): “I prayed all night as I paced by the cabinet of poisonous things, by the drawer of sharpened knives. I thought about throwing myself down the stairs or starting the car in the garage.” Then there is the fact that the moment a woman becomes pregnant she forfeits her sense of self in the eyes of almost everyone around her. Her career is on hold or over, her life is no longer her own, her husband and children and even the government seem to have a claim on her body. “If you wanted to have babies,” says a law firm partner in “Ceiling,” “why did you go to law school?” The scene is shot through with metaphor -- the man’s tie is “burqa blue and the yellow of a runny egg yolk.” The woman feels faint confronting him, “a useless bride, crossed legs as brown as firewood ready to be doused.” Does becoming a mother mean immolation? Lovers change overnight into people with expectations -- they want her to keep the child or not, to submit to this change in her life, to arrange things so they don’t have to. They demand she take it easy, as if a plus sign on a pregnancy test both turns her into an invalid and invalidates anything she might want for herself: Jim steered with one hand, driving into the quiet evening, preoccupied with important things. Kate stared jealously at how easy driving was for him -- like an extension of breathing. Because she had been put on bed rest -- and then had a C-section -- Kate hadn’t been able to drive for months. She tried to remember that feeling of absolute, one-handed control. (“Origins of Sacrifice”) They take choice after choice out of her hands. More than one woman in these stories is prone to dreaming she can fly away into the night sky. 3. Many of Cooper’s women are persons of color, facing the full range of racism -- casual to overt -- that being “not white” brings down upon them, and “identity” starts to feel like a life or death battle. A simple trip to a supermarket with two tired, unruly kids who want Double Stuf Oreos becomes a kind of gauntlet for one exhausted woman, who can almost hear the accusation “welfare mother” from all the people around her. A young black mother takes her baby to a market off the Japanese army base where her husband is stationed, and endures the leering comments of the vendors when they notice her child’s much lighter skin. The women ignored her, clucking like hens. Tears began to rise up instinctively, but Bobbie Jean resisted the urge to back away. This wasn’t the rural South, where uppityness could cost her life. This was postwar Japan, and her husband was protecting both his country and theirs. She had every right to be in the ginza buying a roasted sweet potato. (“In the Ginza”) “You got white GI?” they ask her, as if she were a whore who pulled off a good trick. Even a modern, middle-class, liberal school becomes a locale for the erasure of black women, as one mother discovers when she finds out teachers are ignoring her daughter in “The Disappearing Girl:” I turn off the radio, which I always do when the kids are in the car, just in case something bubbles up from their mysterious lives. Lately, my daughter has become impenetrable. When I hug her, she stiffens. Even though I am her lifeboat, she will not touch me. She is the kind of lonely that cannot be explained, so it becomes someone else’s fault. Mine. “Did you know I am invisible?” Her words come in a scratchy little-girl voice, but she is too old for make-believe. She is stating a fact. My heart is a block of ice. 4. [A]ll mothers are single mothers. Society is structured in such a way that women have to devise, invent, and cobble together motherhood, each and every time, on their own.  -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 If there is an overarching point Cooper wants to get across, I think it is this: The disconnect between social and cultural ideas of motherhood, and the actual experience of the woman who has become a mother. Her stories are centered on the woman navigating this state of motherhood that is perhaps not unwelcome (some of the women in the stories are happy to be pregnant, some are not), but for which she discovers she is unprepared. Cooper eschews stereotypes and archetypes in favor of the messy, gritty reality of motherhood as it feels to the woman who finds herself facing it. Our mothers are flawed, often afraid, sometimes resentful, generally in awe of this role they have stepped into. They “cobble together motherhood” in spite of us, their children. Their family. The people who stand behind them in the supermarket or sit next to them in the waiting rooms, measuring and judging. Like some of the women in her stories, Desiree Cooper left a law practice to become first a mother, and then a writer. She is a poet, fiction writer, and journalist, and -- as will surprise no one who reads her work -- a community activist on behalf of women. But if she has the eye of a reporter, she has the sensibility, and the pen, of a poet. The most gratifying thing about Know the Mother is the beauty and daring of its language: One night, as I lay awake in the sweltering darkness, the stars called me back to the beginning. I went outside and gazed skyward where Orion hung low and the Milky Way dangled within reach. A current of evolution stirred; suddenly I was certain of my fetal wings. Pressing my bare soles against the damp ground, I angled my crooked spine and pushed up on swollen knees. I was aloft. (“Soft Landing”) It would have been easy to let such themes -- motherhood, and particularly black motherhood -- become a polemic. The author is passionate about women’s reproductive rights and critical of the sacrifices women (especially black single mothers) are expected to make: I do think we’re allowed to raise our voices when it comes to single motherhood, but we’re on that pedestal of “hero” and “Big Mamma.” Just taking it on and making it work and keeping our babies safe and keeping that Sunday dinner going. We’re not allowed to say, “This hurts. This is ridiculous. Some of the rest of y’all need to step up here.  -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 But Cooper is interested in deeper things, and she is not afraid to push the language to reach for it. She finds in goldfish a metaphor for fear; in a bright dress, a symbol of death. Many of the stories are set at night, in the dark -- sometimes a warm dark, but just as often a fearful thing. In fact, for a book about mothers, there is as much death as life in this collection, as much mourning as celebration of birth. Sometimes, you think you are reading about a dream -- like the woman who flies into the sky at night. Sometimes, you hope you are reading about a nightmare -- like the increasingly violent scenarios of a woman, a gun, and her sleeping children in “Something Falls in the Night.” One of the most beautiful pieces in the collection is the title story, “Know the Mother,” where the narrator -- we are never told if the speaker is male or female -- is sitting by the bedside of his or her mother as she dies, caring for her wasted body (“already, she smells like a garden unearthed”). The language is intense and immediate, which is why, perhaps, these are all very short stories. It would be unbearable to stay in any of them for very long. Taken together, Know the Mother is a welcome antidote to the fetishization of motherhood that tends to reach its obscenely sugar-coated peak in the month of May. Because let’s face it: chocolate and flowers are a wholly inadequate acknowledgment of the woman you are supposed to be honoring. Possibly the best gift you could give your mother for Mother’s Day would be to read Desiree Cooper’s book yourself.
Post-40 Bloomers

Awaiting the Next Revival: In Search of Isabel Bolton

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In 1997, the four-year-old independent publisher Steerforth Press published New York Mosaic by Isabel Bolton, in hardback and paperback. A trilogy of Bolton novels that were originally published in the '40s and '50s— Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, and Many Mansions —­Mosaic is now long out of print. An introduction by Doris Grumbach began with a provocative observation: It is one of the accepted truths of the publishing world that many good books appear, are critically praised but attract few readers, falling between the cracks of their time, and are never heard of again. Grumbach had previously suggested to her own editor that he republish The Christmas Tree, but he declined, calling it “old-fashioned.” Now, she wrote, readers of the reissued trilogy would “have the pleasure of encountering, most probably for the first time, a unique (if somewhat ‘old-fashioned’) writer of originality and great power.” That I came to Bolton’s work via a 1997 rereleased edition of three out-of-print mid-century novels that had itself gone out of print seems to confirm Grumbach’s dire statement. Isabel Bolton has fallen into obscurity a second time. How and why does this happen? What accounts for the failure of a work to catch hold, in spite of outstanding reviews? What makes a critical mass of readers respond favorably, or not? Is there a viable explanation for the truth of Grumbach’s claim? 2. In his 1946 New Yorker review of Do I Wake or Sleep, Edmund Wilson, one of the most prominent critics of his day, called Isabel Bolton’s voice “exquisitely perfect in accent.” He compared her stream-of-consciousness prose to Virginia Woolf’s, her technique to Henry James’s -- “the single consciousness that observes all”-- and the novel’s mood and sensibility to that of Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart. Diana Trilling at The Nation heaped on more accolades, regretting only that she hadn’t discovered Bolton first. Do I Wake or Sleep was “quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine,” and Bolton was “the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Trilling too compares Bolton to Bowen, noting “the same scalpel-like precision of observation and expression.” Three years later The Christmas Tree was published. Two early excerpts had appeared in The New Yorker, priming fans of Bolton’s first novel for her encore. Trilling wasn’t disappointed. With The Christmas Tree, she wrote, Bolton “establishes herself as the best woman writer of fiction in this country today.” Other reviews were enthusiastic, but with qualifications. The Saturday Review found “her talent, her exquisite sensitivity unmistakable,” her lyric prose “almost perfect” at times, but the second novel not equal to the first. Bolton’s third novel, Many Mansions, was published in 1952 and was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award; yet reviews were mixed. Kirkus Reviews dismissed its “drawing room elegance and withered gentility.” The American Scholar thought Bolton “conveyed most effectively the peculiar flavor of recollection. One feels very directly the spirited and courageous old woman’s emotional response to life...” -- but went on to say that neither the protagonist’s story nor its setting materialized vividly for the reader. In addition to Woolf, James, and Bowen, Bolton was compared during her brief span of renown to Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust. Even so, she soon disappeared from the public eye, and the novels went out of print. We don’t have posted sales figures or Amazon ratings from the mid-20th century, but if the reputation of the publisher is any indication, we can’t find fault there: Scribner was of course the venerated publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and countless others. 3. Finding a fascinating out-of-print author is like stumbling across a hidden garden behind a rundown building or delicious rhubarb pie at a forgotten off-road diner -- and just as serendipitous. I first learned of Isabel Bolton from Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City. Gornick’s memoir is a series of sketches about her life in New York and New York in her life. In the midst of mostly personal recollections, one vignette begins: “She was born Mary Britton Miller in New London, Connecticut, in 1883...” I read with curiosity about this Mary Miller, who wrote conventional, unremarkable stories and poetry that were published but overlooked. Then at the age of 63, she published Do I Wake or Sleep under the name of Isabel Bolton and became an overnight success. Gornick was struck by Bolton’s engagement with New York -- the three novels’ interplay between the self and the city, loneliness, and solitude. These are Gornick’s own themes. She observes that Bolton “had lived long enough to see that modern life, with its unspeakable freedoms mirrored in the gorgeous disconnect of the crowded city, has revealed us to ourselves as has the culture of no other age.” Neither Gornick’s discovery, nor mine, would have been possible without Bolton’s brief but fortuitous revival by Steerforth. Gornick herself reviewed New York Mosaic for the Los Angeles Times in 1997. Of the continuity among the three novels and their protagonists, Gornick wrote that each “is presented as a woman able to make her deal with life because she has the city to love, urbanity to merge with.” She referred to well-known women writers of the first half of the 20th century who produced “a kind of poetic, interior, reverie-bound prose clearly influenced by modernism and Freud,” naming Jean Rhys, Anna Kavan, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf; and expressed her belief that Isabel Bolton “belongs in the ranks of these writers.” 4. The three novels of New York Mosaic reflect and refract one another, forming a strong, almost continuous narrative. Reading them consecutively in a single tome, I found an enhanced synergy and impact beyond that of three individual books published years apart. Each has a female protagonist -- progressively middle-aged to elderly -- through whose eyes and musings we see New York at distinct points over a decade. Do I Wake or Sleep (the closing words of John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”) depicts a day in 1939 in the life of 40ish Millicent. The action is removed, and what there is of a storyline -- Millicent wants Percy who wants Bridget who goes off with the millionaire -- is the path we follow through Millicent’s interior narration, her observations and recollections, her affinity with the city: There was, she thought, a magic, an enchantment -- these myriad rainbow lights, now soft and low, now deeper, stronger -- all the stops and chords and colors played like organ voluntaries, over the moon, the clouds, the grass. Bolton’s narrative voice is absorbing and evocative, her sentences dynamic, fluctuating from crisp -- “But here you walked in a vacuum.” -- to molten. The following long and florid Jamesian passage, for example, continues for another 200 words: And seeing suddenly, as though in a magnified and inconceivable vision of the Apocalypse, all the choirs of windows, all the tiers of little lights, the towers and terraces and tenements -- the bevies, the hives, the sections and intersections and cross sections of human habitations collapsing, toppling, falling, one upon another, and all together in their downfall proclaiming the final judgment and annihilation... Like Mrs. Dalloway, the novel takes place in a 24-hour period. Millicent’s inner voice as she extols New York -- "What a strange, what a fantastic city -- there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth" -- projects a vivid image of Clarissa Dalloway in London: "Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh…" I could readily understand the linking of Bolton to Woolf in their reflective voices and rhythmic language, their weaving of past and present. The protagonist of The Christmas Tree, Hilly Danforth, a widow in her 50s, engages in a precarious juggling act when her gay son, trailed by his recently cast-off lover and her former daughter-in-law with new husband in tow, descend on her for Christmas in post-war 1945. I was struck again by Bolton’s innate sense of narrative flow and structure. With limited action and dialogue, we’re privy to Hilly’s interior voice, her reflections on her own youth as she seeks to understand her son. Bolton broadens the novel’s perspective by contrasting Hilly’s voice with her son’s. On the train from Washington to New York, Larry thinks about the joys of travel: [I]t eased the body and liberated the mind just to sit and look out of the window, to feel at one with the earth, with sky, part of the physical world, part of the mystery; the train established rhythms; your thoughts moved freely; you wished to go on and on, to have no responsibilities save to this flow, this mysterious sense of time, of space, of memory. The straightforward handling of Larry’s homosexuality -- this was 1949 -- led The Christian Science Monitor to call it “a morality play for moderns.” More recently it was listed in Lost Gay Novels, a 2003 compendium of works from the first half of the 20th century. The third novel Many Mansions, opens thus, in 1950: Miss Sylvester stood at the window. She had finished her manuscript and she sighed heavily. Her novel had left her with a feeling of incredulity occasioned not so much by the fact that her story savored of the unusual, if not to say the melodramatic, as by the positively imponderable strangeness of the human condition, one’s existing in this world at all. Miss Sylvester’s novel is her own thinly disguised story. Now in her 80s, she reimagines it as she rereads it, and her foray into the past is juxtaposed with present developments. Contrary to the consensus of the original reviews, Babette Deutsch wrote in The American Scholar in 1970 that she found Many Mansions “the most effective of the three” and undeservedly allowed to drop out of sight. She praised Bolton’s style and the story itself, its background of social history and “what the novel has to say and to suggest about the ‘generation gap,’ a phrase that the old lady recognized without naming.” Many Mansions is in fact my favorite of the three novels: by the time I read the last of the trilogy, Bolton’s distinctive voice and mood had securely rooted in my consciousness. The indictment of gentility notwithstanding, Bolton doesn’t shrink from addressing issues of her day and ours -- women’s sexuality, gay oppression, thwarted love, aging, loneliness, failure, change. New York Mosaic left me satisfied like a three-course meal at a fine -- classic but not nouveau-chic -- Manhattan restaurant. I couldn’t understand Bolton’s absence from the canon of women writers. Surely I would find her in my 1,200-page Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, but Amely Bolte was followed by María Bombal. Who were they, I wondered; why them and so many obscure others, but not Isabel Bolton? 5. Bolton published another novel in 1971, The Whirligig of Time. Kirkus Reviews acknowledged that Bolton had made “a small reputation” in the past thanks to her influential supporters, Edmund Wilson and Diana Trilling. But the reviewer doubted that contemporary readers would respond to a “prose style given to budding trees (three times in forty lines) and birds ‘singing, ascending, pausing on the brink of some imperishable bliss,’” and summed up with the opinion that “the perfumed sensibility is just about unbearable.” Twenty years after her ascendancy, Bolton had been dismissed as a flash in the pan or a fluke. The republication of her novels couldn’t resuscitate her in spite of garnering more accolades. What about the author herself? Little was known about her private life, and it seemed she had chosen to remain an enigma. The only information she provided for her book jackets was that “I have lived some time in Europe...was brought up in America...New York has been my home for many years.” Might her reticence have contributed to her descent? I was intrigued by Bolton’s mystique and was thus elated when I discovered her memoir, Under Gemini. Bolton tells about Mary Britten Miller and her identical twin, Grace -- from age five when they’re orphaned until Grace’s drowning death at 14. For Mary it was “a blotting out of life.” She tells how the two girls, raised by wealthy, distracted relatives and a beleaguered governess, had a joyful existence that revolved around each other. “It was never I but always we,” she wrote. Being an identical twin was, for Bolton, “the source of whatever insight into human nature or response to the beauties and mysteries of the natural world I may possess.” Under Gemini was published in 1966, reissued in 1999. It too fell by the wayside twice; now it’s listed at NeglectedBooks.com. The trail of Mary Miller aka Isabel Bolton is sparse from then on. She spent a few years in Italy, but there’s no record of them. She lived alone in New York from the age of 28 and never married. There’s speculation that she was a lesbian, rumors of an illegitimate child born in Italy. We don’t have the life, but we have the work, and the mystery of Isabel Bolton must perhaps be gleaned from her novels. Is Many Mansions partly autobiographical? The novel within the novel, Miss Sylvester’s roman á clef, tells of a young woman who falls in love with a married man and gets pregnant. Her family ships her off to Italy to have the baby, which they have taken from her at birth and given up for adoption. My favorite Bolton legend is from Gore Vidal’s appreciative 1997 review of New York Mosaic. In the wake of his own first novel being ignored by Edmund Wilson, he recalled Wilson gushing over the 1946 inaugural effort of the unknown Isabel Bolton. Vidal asserted that Wilson was known to have a penchant for nubile flesh combined with writing talent. Thus, with Wilson’s praise of Bolton, Vidal wrote, “a star was born...[and] a comic legend was also born:” as he told it, Wilson projected the loveliness of Bolton’s lyrical prose onto the author herself before learning that his targeted conquest was an imposing 60-something matron. Vidal didn’t know if the two ever met, but he offered a fictional imagining in which Wilson goes to meet Bolton. He’s greeted at her door by a beautiful young woman, his vision personified, and a majestic white-haired woman. Assuming the latter to be Isabel’s mother, she corrects him, explains that she is Isabel Bolton and the girl is her ward. He hears Ms. Bolton calling for smelling salts as he drops to the floor in a faint. Another scenario appeared in The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era by Edward Field, a gossipy account of Yaddo in the '50s when Bolton was a writer in residence: Wilson had asked to meet her, but she was wary and arranged their encounter at a street-side bench in Central Park. She saw him walk past her, then back and forth several times -- no doubt in denial -- until she identified herself and squelched his fantasy. A friend of Doris Grumbach who knew Bolton at Yaddo described her as “imperious, sharp-tongued, demanding, witty, often a delightful conversationalist, and always difficult.” I see those qualities in a 1966 photograph. The overall impression is severe and self-contained, but there’s a glimmer in her eyes and the slightest curve to her mouth -- as if someone had asked her about Edmund Wilson. 6. Grumbach believes Bolton adopted her pen name to remain anonymous, but I question if that’s what she really wanted. It seems more likely that she disassociated herself from earlier failed efforts in order to forge a new identity for her new modernist voice. Either way, her anonymity may have contributed to her fall from grace. Her reputation was never sufficiently grounded to enable her to compete with contemporary tastes, themes, authors. “Jamesian” is alright for Henry James, but it isn’t what many readers seek in contemporary writers. Doris Grumbach told me she had no idea why Bolton’s work never gained the recognition it deserved beyond these explanations, common to so many authors who fade from view. “Perhaps,” she added, “her rather standard method of narration fell out of favor.” She expressed hope that Bolton’s time will come around again and offered Herman Melville as an example. Melville fell into obscurity not many years after Moby Dick and the notable short stories “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” His centennial in 1911, 20 years after his death, started his revival. New York Mosaic failed to stimulate a similar resurgence on behalf of Isabel Bolton. But Vivian Gornick raised another flicker out of the ashes, and I’m trying to fan the flames. Isabel Bolton died in 1975 at the age of 92 in her Greenwich Village apartment. Shortly after her death, a man by the name of Harry Smith delivered a shopping bag to the New York Public Library that contained the papers of Mary Britten Miller from 1947 to 1974. Her correspondence, legal papers, typescripts, galley proofs, and reviews now occupy two boxes in the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, an opportunity awaiting the architect of Bolton’s next revival.
Post-40 Bloomers

What’s So Civil About War, Anyway? On Occupation and Rebirth

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. It’s been said that all great literature comes from one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Take them both together, throw in some worldwide conflict, and chances are you have a war novel on your hands. As evidenced by well-known war stories from Homer onward, the journey part of the narrative is reliably satisfying and dramatic. But a stranger coming to town -- especially when that stranger is alluringly familiar -- has menace and intrigue all its own. “The Great War is a ghost that continues to haunt us,” wrote Andrea Molesini in a recent essay for Literary Hub. Molesini -- writer of children’s books, poet, translator (of Ezra Pound, Charles Simic, and Derek Walcott among others) and essayist -- teaches comparative literature at the University of Padua and lives in Venice. At 55 he published his first novel, Non tutti i bastardi sono di Vienna (released from Grove Atlantic in February as Not All Bastards Are from Vienna), and the impact of that ghost on his countrymen is clear: inspired by the diary his great aunt kept during the final days of World War I, Not All Bastards Are from Vienna went on to win the Campiello Literary Prize for fiction in 2010, the 2011 Comisso Award, the Latisana Award, and the City of Cuneo First Novel Prize. Molesini’s novel offers up the other side of the well-worn battle story -- the tension of a quiet occupation, in which the veneer of civility remains in place, like a shattered mirror whose shards of glass need only a tap to come cascading down. 2. The arriving stranger in Not All Bastards materializes out of the night: first as a monocle glinting in the light of a raised lantern, then resolving into a man -- a German general -- on horseback. The bearer of the lantern runs to fetch her mistress, and from that moment the Spada family’s fortunes begin to shift and crumble, as their villa in a small town north of Venice is occupied first by the billeting German Army and then by the Austrians. It is autumn 1917, just after the Battle of Caporetto. Austro-Hungarian forces have broken through the Italian front line. The Germans are moving toward the front and, they believe, their inevitable victory, taking what they need from civilians in their path -- in this case, the Spadas’ ancestral estate in the rural town of Refrontolo. The Villa Spada offers up an ensemble cast in the best Commedia dell’Arte tradition: masters, servants, and lovers. The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Paolo Spada, lives with his eccentric grandparents and aunt. Grandpa Guglielmo is the family patriarch, but it’s Paolo’s Grandma Nancy who is the muscle of the Spada household -- a formidable woman whose power may or may not stem from a regular enema regimen: Her bathroom was a poem: bedecked with beige, ochre, black and flesh-coloured enema bags. There were two or three of them on every arm of the enamelled clothes hanger...The bags were rounded, pear or pumpkin or melon-shaped, and made of oilcloth. Reflected in the white tiles, the opaque rubber tubes looked like the tentacles of sea creatures with hooked beasts. (The bags are also, as it turns out, the perfect place to hide the family valuables.) Paolo’s Aunt, Donna Maria, was orphaned in the same accident that had taken his parents a few years earlier. A dignified beauty, she loves horses and the church -- most likely in that order. There are three servants at the Villa: Teresa, who cooks (and administers Grandma’s enemas); her daughter, the pretty and sullen Loretta; and the steward, Renato, Paolo’s one role model of masculinity in their eccentric compound. “He was my favorite, and knew how to do everything, how to fish in the river with harpoon and knife, and also how to pluck a chicken ready for Teresa’s stewpot.” Last, there is the lovely and mysterious Giulia, neither a servant nor relative, who lives on her own, nearby -- a redhead six years older than Paolo, and the object of all his longing. Not All Bastards is as much a coming of age story as a war ballad; the boy grapples simultaneously with wartime privations and hormones, bravery and bluster. Paolo loves Giulia, and he loves his family, and though he tries his best to be a warrior, it’s his innate sweetness that consistently wins out. 3. The Germans throw Villa Spada into chaos immediately, filling the courtyard with horses, trucks, and motorcycles, pitching tents and building bonfires, and brutally looting what they can from the villa’s peasant tenants -- only slightly more politely appropriating the Spada family’s goods. (Grandma manages to double-cross them, hiding the costume jewelry where it will be easily found and stowing the true valuables in her enema bags.) They put their feet up on the furniture and dig latrine trenches beside the family cemetery’s headstones. The Spadas make do. Paolo moves into the attic loft, sharing a straw mattress with his grandfather. They eat in their grand dining room only when invited, which turns out to be often: The German officers break out good bottles of wine taken from the Spada cellars, and Teresa cooks -- swearing in the local dialect under her breath -- while Loretta serves. There is something of a camping-trip spirit in their accommodations, a sporty manifestation of noblesse oblige, and they assure each other that the Germans will be gone soon. The illusion of civility is destroyed soon enough, though. Soldiers kidnap and rape several village girls, and although the girls are rescued, the lighthearted nature of the game has changed. Grandma calls a family meeting to explain the new rules of conduct: Between these people and us I want there to be a barrier of tight lips and sour looks. After what has happened we cannot behave ourselves otherwise. We will put at their disposal whatever they would take in any case, which means to say everything -- except our dignity. And this we will defend by maintaining a scornful silence. Any remaining villagers, she adds, “cannot and must not attempt foolish actions like today’s. To get oneself hanged is downright foolish.” 4. What hasn’t changed, though, is the elder Spadas’ entrenched faith in social class. Rural Italy in 1917 was still a semi-feudal society, and lines were drawn accordingly. The soldiers may be unwashed, ragged, pillaging louts, but the officers -- first the elegant German Captain Korpium and then, when the Germans are replaced by Austrians, the smooth-talking Baron von Feilitzsch -- are gentry. They, too, believe in decorum. They keep their men in line; they treat their horses well. By now, the reader is beginning to see what the characters, for all their discussion of the situation, can’t: Despite the education, the drawing-room manners, and a hundred years of history that define the occupying officers’ place in their unshakable social structure, in reality the Spadas and their servants are the true wartime allies -- an overturned order that discomfits everyone. When Teresa intercedes between Grandpa and a threatening Austrian sergeant, the old man is as distressed as he is relieved: “'Defended by a cook...a servant...’ He sighed, as if to get a load off his chest. 'That woman Teresa is worth more than me, she’s got more guts than me, she’s of more use to the world than I am.'” Because even as the world around them is rocked by turbulence, everyone -- occupiers and occupied, servants and masters -- is less afraid of the disorder they know than the uncertainty of what might take its place. “Do you know what is good about war?” Captain Korpium asks Donna Maria one evening while they dine together: That it makes things simple. It puts the good men on this side, the bad men on that. You know you have to kill that man: your uniform tells you so. You know you have to give orders to this man and you owe obedience to that one. You only have to glance at his insignia. Only the cook’s daughter Loretta seems to find some solace in the leveling of the playing field. “We were eating leftovers, as she had often had to do, and our sheets were a little less white than usual -- for even lye was hard to get -- and now we too were not our own masters.” Donna Maria is drawn to both officers -- first the imposing German, Captain Korpium, and then Baron von Feilitzsch. As an educated and aristocratic single woman of a certain age, with no other eligible men in sight, her attraction is only natural -- or is it? Her time spent strolling with the officers, we discover, may not merely be self-indulgent. For the Spadas are subverting the order a bit more aggressively than simply throwing sour looks at the enemy behind their backs. While the officers sit at their dining table and drink wine from their cellars, the family -- and Renato, who turns out to be a resistance agent -- are gathering intelligence and transmitting it to the British planes that fly overhead every day. Grandma has developed a complex code involving the order of window shutters left open and closed, and of clothing hanging on the line -- for after all, what is a more aristocratic wartime effort than spying? It allows one to be patriotic and still appear polite to the guests. Paolo is elated when Renato includes him in the intrigue; first posting him in a cupboard to eavesdrop, and eventually having him accompany the steward and Giulia -- another agent, we discover -- on missions to reconnoiter with a downed English pilot. Between Renato’s manly approval and Giulia beginning to return his advances, Paolo is swept up in the twin thrills of love and war, only slightly dampened when Renato confesses that he first brought the boy along on the nighttime expeditions only as insurance in case of capture: “No one likes to shoot the children of the gentry,” Renato admits, adding, “If these Germans win the war, as they think they are going to, they will have to govern this territory with the complicity of some...And who do you think they will try but the people who govern it already?” 5. As resentments build, the boundaries between occupiers and occupied blur further -- and more dangerously. Even as his involvement in Renato’s nighttime missions becomes more radical, at home Paolo finds himself drawn to the baron’s civility. “He told me about life in Hungary, where he and his wife had been for several years, and about Vienna, where his heart lay...He spoke to me of that world of courteous smiles, of unspoken feelings, of neat flower beds and blue drawing rooms, the leisurely world in which he had grown up.” As the Italian Army rallies at the front, what social order is left at the Villa begins to fray. When Brian, their English pilot ally, is shot down and wounded, Renato kills two soldiers in the raid to rescue him. The Austrians discover Brian in Paolo and Grandpa’s attic loft, and suddenly what was all about derring-do and intrigue has become a war crime -- a hanging offense for Renato, Paolo, and Grandpa. Von Feilitzsch sits down to an elaborate roast chicken dinner with the family, and makes an announcement as coffee is served: “'Ladies and gentlemen,' said the baron, patting his lips with his napkin and setting down his demitasse, ‘I’ve invited you together to inform you that you’re all under arrest.'” 6. It is up to the reader to discover what fate befalls Paolo and his family. The outcome, though, is secondary to the chill of watching the Spada family confuse the parities of class and comportment with good will, to their great peril. Even Paolo’s cynical grandpa has mistaken etiquette for amity: “I know it doesn’t take much for them to hang Italians, and in war there’s no sending for a lawyer. But our baron is a devotee of good manners, and good manners can be counted on.” In the end, Donna Maria’s growing closeness with the baron has no currency. “You see, Madame,” he explains when she comes to beg him for clemency for her father and nephew, “I believe that subjects are like children...They want a firm hand on the reins, a hand that never falters.” He goes on: What is it you say in Italian...the doctor’s pity lets the wound become infected...right? If the prince gives the impression that he doesn’t know what’s best for his soldiers, for his realm, then the magic of the royal throne flickers out and everything collapses. This is wartime, though, and everything collapses no matter what. In late 1918, the Italian Army would surge and defeat the Austrians; a truce would be signed after enormous losses on both sides. In Refrontolo, the Spada family would suffer its own losses -- of property, of loved ones, and -- along with the rest of Europe -- a way of life that would never return to what it had been. As he faces the Austrian firing squad, watched by his family’s tenants, Paolo realizes that: The baron spoke my language and those peasants didn’t, he gripped his fork and lifted his glass the way I did, and those peasants didn’t...And just then, if those miserable poverty-stricken men could have laid their hands on their pitchforks, they’d have cut the baron’s throat, not ours, even if the resentment they nurtured for us was far more justified. The author pulls no punches here. Paolo is the new generation, the future of Italy, unfettered by the assumptions of an archaic -- and largely useless -- social order. It’s not only those who stride out into battle who get the chance to prove themselves. Those who stay, who outlast the destabilizing strangers, are the ones who get the chance to recreate what’s left. Sometimes, Molesini wishes us to see, the hazards of occupation are redeemed by the opportunity for rebirth.
Post-40 Bloomers

Small Victories, Large Discoveries: On Fishes, Ponds, and Finding Open Spaces

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a lengthy chapter to the proverbial fish-in-pond question: Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Most of us would surely answer, “Well, it depends” -- and Gladwell (with his characteristic passion for truisms) acknowledges as much: There are times and places where it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond; where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Two of these times and places, according to Gladwell, are 1) Paris in 1874, and 2) Brown University in recent years. In the case of the former, he refers to the first independent exhibition mounted by Impressionist painters, who for years had failed to gain access to the prestigious Salon and accompanying patronage such access guaranteed. Their scenes of everyday life, indistinct figures, and visibly expressive brushstrokes did not at all please the tastemakers of the day. When then-outsiders Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet led the charge in April 1874 to hold their own small, DIY exhibition apart from the Salon -- 30 artists in three rooms on Boulevard des Capucines, in contrast to the Salon’s massive production in which paintings were hung floor-to-ceiling on countless walls -- it was a risky, scandalous moment. They were scorned by the Academy and its patrons. But their goal was to “advance without worrying about opinion,” and this they accomplished. It was, in Gladwell’s unqualified estimation, “better” that the Impressionists -- at the time a mere collective of unknown, experimental painters -- chose to be big fish in the little pond of their own making. History would, of course, agree. Gladwell’s contemporary argument -- which focuses on choosing a college and is exemplified by the story of a young woman named Caroline Sacks -- can be summed up thus: when it comes to indicators of success, how smart or talented you are is not as important as how smart and talented you feel. Caroline Sacks earned her ivy-league degree, but, in the end, she didn’t pursue studies in science, which was what she loved; she was subsumed by competition and feelings of inadequacy. “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be doing science,” she says. Gladwell’s conclusion is that it’s better to place yourself in a milieu where you feel confident and visible rather than inferior and lost-in-the-crowd. In an intellectual environment, being a little fish in a big pond is demoralizing; demoralization leads not only to failure but eventually to quitting your path, sacrificing your dreams and passions to the deep-sea bottom of the big pond. Notwithstanding Gladwell’s oft-maligned tendency to oversimplify -- to make social science of anecdotes -- his arguments at the least proffer hypotheses worth taking out for a spin (his New Yorker essay on late bloomers was one of Bloom's site-launch inspirations, after all). When I consider the fish-pond conundrum, I find myself shifting to a different nurture-and-thrive metaphor (Bloom-related, of course): any gardener knows that when putting plants or seeds in the ground, you must mind the distance in between -- too close, and they’ll compete to their detriment for air, sun, moisture, and nutrients; too far and weeds will fill the space, guzzling up the nourishment and leading to sparse harvest. In other words, living things thrive under definite environmental circumstances -- including relative position to fellow organisms. So the question for a student, or an artist, or anyone seeking to achieve goals and dreams might be: Where can I best blossom -- upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished? 2. The pond that Dave and Reba Williams swam in was, initially, that of Wall Street finance. Dave had been an art lover since his youth, though. In his mid-30s, he found himself struggling in his career after “a couple of unlucky or poor employment choices.” He was married, with two children, and he needed to focus and get settled. Nevertheless, one day in 1968, a colleague told Dave about a prints exhibition, where he’d found original etchings and lithographs for sale in a manageable price range, and Dave immediately went to investigate. That day he fell in love with prints, and by 1975, Dave had collected some 25 prints, but he’d also undergone a seismically destabilizing divorce that left him with debts, alimony payments, and private-school tuitions. On the other hand, he was getting married again, to financial analyst Reba White, who would become his lifelong partner in the soon-to-be-launched adventure of print collecting -- an altogether new pond for both of them. Dave’s memoir, Small Victories: One Couple's Surprising Adventures Collecting American Prints, is the story of the Williams’s 30-year journey in dogged self-education and research, collecting, and curating. Published earlier this year by David Godine, Small Victories manages to both sweep informatively through the history of American printmaking and stir the reader to ask herself how she too might pursue her creative projects with the same rare combination of joy, sense of mission, intensity, shrewdness, and humility that the Williamses exemplified. Embarking on their art collecting adventure as a later-life second act and with financial limitations that many collectors don’t have, the Williamses recognized at the outset that they needed to choose their proverbial pond wisely. In 1978, when Dave landed a good position with Alliance Capital, he also landed an office space with empty walls that both he and Reba immediately saw as their “gallery.” “Big prints seemed like the answer for the expansive space,” he writes, “so we gradually added contemporary works by living artists. But this didn’t seem to satisfy.” And why not? Contemporary prints were expensive. Even worse, we were doing what most other collectors were doing in the late 1970s, seeking the big, colorful prints that living artists continued to make following the 1960s ‘print revival.’ Moving with the herd offended my investment sensibilities. Living artists and fresh-off-the-presses prints provided little opportunity to discover new fields or obtain new insights. What could we contribute? It wasn’t that they didn’t have the same acquisitive impulse of many collectors: by Dave’s own admission, he was image-addicted -- “A fever can be treated and cured, but the only relief -- temporary, of course -- from the desire to acquire, is to acquire.” But hand-in-hand with that impulse was an implicit set of values that he and Reba shared, and those values only deepened as they progressed: “What could we contribute?” I read the question as not purely selfless, yet still powerful when understood as a basic human need to do something impactful -- to prosper by way of munificence. The Williamses needed an open space in which to root and thrive, a pond in which to swim and not just tread water among the throng. What they did, in fact, was dig their very own pond. Reba proposed that we use the Alliance walls to build a big, affordable American print collection emphasizing less-familiar artists from an earlier time, the first half of the twentieth century. We would seek the work of artists whose signatures were not household names, try to find great prints by lost or forgotten printmakers. Less money, more prints. It’s notable -- and inspiring to me -- that the fundamental assumption behind the project was that there is a vast trove of extant art that has been lost or forgotten; that what has risen to the surface as “great” or popular at different moments in history is incomplete. Commercial trends, media hype, the whims of good and bad fortune, and occasional nepotism inevitably elbow out quiet or challenging gems of great beauty and value. We can cite many examples of posthumously recognized masterpieces. And so, if you have an opportunity -- plus passion and resources -- it is a worthy endeavor indeed to seek out and discover what has been regrettably passed over. The simple truth -- that not all good or great art is recognized -- is easy to forget. We can too readily entrust tastemakers of the day -- the Academie of 1874 France, A-list publishing houses and magazines, even the Twitter kings and queens -- to point us to ideas, works, and forms that are worthwhile. Recently I was made aware of a new online literary publication called the James Franco Review, the mission of which reads: • This project is about visibility of underrepresented artists and narratives. Not satire. • We have a desire for diverse literature and are questioning literary journals and the publishing industry. What happens when work is considered blindly? What happens when editors are asked to question where their tastes came from? At the James Franco Review, we don’t know why some stories and poems get published while others don’t, or what it means for something to be right for a magazine. We seek to publish works of prose and poetry as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention. An artist competing for an open space of recognition -- the attentive reception due one’s unique talents and contribution -- can only hope that there are James Franco Reviews, and Dave and Reba Williamses, digging their thoughtfully conceived little ponds all the time. 3. As their brainstorms became more serious, the Willliams’s pond became even smaller: [W]e established rules: only prints made by American -- United States-citizen -- artists; only prints made in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the first half of the century; and only prints featuring images of America. And the prints would mostly be black ink on white paper, not color. Why these choices? We learned from dealers that American prints were under-collected by institutions and individuals. We saw them as bargains, compared to Old Master and nineteenth-century European prints. They were mostly American scenes, and they were mainly black and white...Most important, there were many, many possibilities to choose from, and not much competing demand. We dove into our new project headfirst, evading the collector herd. Again, the Williamses fashioned a strategy that was equal parts pragmatism, ambition, and aesthetic passion. They wanted an open space -- enough sun, air, and healthy soil, if you will. Enough opportunity for learning and discovery apart from cutthroat hordes. Having started on their project later in life, perhaps they also felt some propulsion toward more -- bargains, and a large supply with little demand. Having moved in affluent circles, perhaps they knew too well the intense herd mentality of status-seeking among peers. Reba was the voracious student and researcher. So when print dealer David Tunick said, “Spend just a few hours researching any aspect of American prints, and you’ll become the expert on that topic,” an additional appeal presented itself -- to develop a bona fide expertise in a field as yet unpillaged by art historians. Reba went back to school, earning her PhD in art history from CUNY Graduate Center; her dissertation topic was the history of the Weyhe Gallery, a New York gallery that, writes Dave, “early in the twentieth century, did more than any other to promote prints by American artists.” With the scope of their pond determined, with Reba’s talent for research, with Dave’s “addiction” in full force, and with a mission to bring attention to the undiscovered driving them, they went forth to build a remarkable and renowned American print collection. 4. Small Victories is filled with examples of how setting a clear, modest path, away from the din, can lead to moments of great discovery and reward. Dave writes, for example, about how prints from the 1930s WPA era opened windows onto that historical moment: “Although the WPA administrators demanded an uplifting and optimistic tone in murals, the prints were censored very little, probably because prints are often considered a lesser art.” Lucienne Bloch, who had worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera, was commissioned to paint a mural of children in a playground that was located in an African American neighborhood of Detroit. She told us that the WPA administrators wanted only white children in the mural, so that’s what she painted. But she also made a realistic lithograph of the same scene with black children, titled Negro Playground, Detroit. The Williamses acquired and later exhibited this print. Other WPA artists whose prints became part of their collection included Joseph Vogel, John Langley Howard, Florence Kent Hunter, and Rockwell Kent. [caption id="attachment_76946" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Florence Kent Hunter, "Decorations for Home Relief," ca: 1938-9.[/caption] Their WPA research led to other screenprints made prior to the 1960s pop-art explosion. Dave writes that they were “the first collectors to take early screenprints seriously and do the necessary research,” and thus, as David Tunick had earlier predicted, they became “the experts” and “changed perceptions about early screenprints, rescuing them from the art orphanage and reviving them as sought-after collectibles.” Screenprint artists that made up this part of their collection included Ralston Crawford, Harry Sternberg, Elizabeth Olds, Ernest Hopf, Anton Refregier, Hugo Gellert, and Ben Shahn. In 1991, after an exhibition of their prints at the Newark Museum had proved disappointing because their curatorial partner had “wanted to show only the best-known prints by the best-known artists, while we wanted to show great work by lost and forgotten artists,” the Museum’s director, Sam Miller, asked the couple a question that sent them on their next mission: how many of their prints were made by African-American artists? Miller was interested in mounting that exhibition. Once they determined that only one print in their collection qualified -- Sargent Johnson’s "Singing Saints" -- the Williamses set out to locate and acquire more; if the work of African-American printmakers was under-collected and under-exhibited, they wanted to change that (as did Sam Miller). “We took an unorthodox approach -- and one we never used again. We sent Reba’s list [of more than 50 African-American artists] to every art dealer we knew, or had even heard of, and offered to buy any prints made in the 1930s and 1940s by any of the artists on Reba’s list for whatever price the dealer asked.” They succeeded in buying up more than 100 prints. With such an aggressive approach, they did face trust issues. When the African-American artist Raymond Steth heard about their buying binge, he came in person from Philadelphia with his portfolio to make sure they were worthy buyers; he made them promise to never sell his prints and to donate them to a major museum. What likely earned Steth’s trust was Dave and Reba’s evident love for the work they collected. Dave writes in detail about every artist and print featured in Small Victories, demonstrating his intimate relationship with each print and passing that involvement on to the reader. Of Steth’s print "Heaven on a Mule," Dave writes: It is a remarkable print, an emotional experience...Steth explained that there was a religious cult that believed 
that if you put on wings, went to a hilltop with all your earthly possessions, 
and prayed, angels would come and take you to heaven. In the print, a commotion in the clouds overhead hints that the angels are on their way. [caption id="attachment_76948" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Raymond Steth, "Heaven on a Mule," ca: 1935-43.[/caption] Of a depression-era print, Raphael Soyer’s "The Mission," Dave writes: The scene is in a church mission, and the hollow-cheeked, near-starvation poor are concentrating on their coffee and bread -- except for one. A central figure stares out at the viewer in anger, eyes intense and mouth tightly drawn. I can read his mind: “I’m mad at the world. It’s not my fault, but I’m desperate and can’t do anything about it.” Along the way, many delightful discoveries were born of their decision to stay focused and small: prints from short-lived, forgotten creative movements like Indian Space; the discovery that Connecticut, where they had settled by 2007, had been home to a major American Impressionist colony (which they only learned when they agreed to a small exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society); a beautiful collection of flower prints all done in black-and-white that innovated modes for capturing the essence of “color” via monochrome aquatints; and little-known experimental works by star artists who, when making prints, were free to depart from their best-known styles, e.g. Frida Kahlo’s only print, "Frida and the Miscarriage," and Alex Katz’s atypically black-and-white "The Swimmer." 5. I write all of this from Paris -- 140 years after that first Impressionist exhibit, and yet I've decamped here this summer for the very reason of finding a bit of open space. I have lately come to realize that fierce competition -- whether the hothouse of literary commerce, or the more general ubiquity of unbridled American capitalism -- dampens me: I need a regular antidote, lest demoralization set in. Throughout my life I have, by no conscious choice of mine, swum in big ponds, and as a small fish have not fared particularly well. The older I get, the more I seek open spaces and warm souls. I want to grow, upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished. But what of the value of competition and intense selectivity? In a Slate article, ”The Trouble With Malcolm Gladwell,” psychology professor Christopher Chabris writes: Perhaps tough competition gives students a more realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate sense of one's own ability could help the process of acquiring expertise….Finding your skills may trump following your passion. If you can’t cut it, maybe it wasn’t meant to be; you have to compete to find out. Competition separates the contenders from the dabblers. Well, it depends. Of course I come back to what it means to be a “Bloomer,” embarking “late” on a venture or passion. When you’ve lived a little, you perhaps better understand that in the school lunchroom of life, the cool kids’ table is an illusion; everyone’s eyes are wandering, and the competition to get seats at the one table is a sham. Also, Dave and Reba Williams likely did not wring their hands too much over their parameters: they hadn’t the luxury of time to waste, to fall in with the trendy multitude on roads well-traveled and wade toward some dribble of fulfillment. If they were going to make something of their mission, and enjoy it, they really had to start out thinking small. Paradoxically, the imperative of efficiency spawns surprising and significant revelations -- the fact that many talented fish have gotten lost or drowned in the big ponds of history, for example; and that a world in which institutionalized tastemakers are never challenged is a world lacking sorely in creative victories, small and otherwise. Images courtesy of Dave H. Williams/David R. Godine. Homepage image: Raphael Soyer, "The Mission," 1933.
Post-40 Bloomers

A True Radical: Mary Daly, Desire, and Exuberant Feminist Ethics

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Lusty adj: Fired/Inspired by Pure Lust: Wanton, Gynergetic, Biophilic, joyous, merry, robust, flourishing, strong, powerful, vigorous, having an unrestrained inclination for enjoyment -- Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I still remember the day Mary Daly stood in front of our class and asked that question. It caused a distant rumble in my head, like a deep tremor portending an earthquake. I spent the rest of the class, the rest of the semester, the rest of my life, trying to answer it. And with every attempt at an answer the fault line slid a little, the supposedly solid ground of my assumptions cracked and broke and fell away. “What does any of this really have to say to women?” It’s a question I have been asking and trying to answer ever since. That I was in Daly’s class at all was something of an accident. That semester I had kissed my first girl. We had been wandering around a local golf course one fall night, talking about anything and everything, when she finally reached across that indefinable space between us and pulled me to her. I was utterly smitten. I would have followed her anywhere. If she had been into race cars I’d have become a NASCAR fan. But she was a feminist -- a radical feminist -- and had been reading Mary Daly. So instead I went with her to womyn-only music festivals, hung out at lesbian bars, and since I was a student at Boston College, where Mary Daly taught, enrolled in her class. It took a little convincing, since I was in the Russian and Middle Eastern Studies department and Feminist Ethics wasn’t on my course list. I remember planting myself in Daly’s office to persuade her to let me in the course -- the one she only allowed women to take -- with all the clueless confidence of a good student who assumes that if it is written in a book, it can be learned. I had this idea that my new romance would be over before it got off the ground if I didn’t get into that class, so I wasn’t taking no for an answer. That was my introduction to feminism. Not the slow or even sudden epiphany of the inherent misogyny of patriarchal culture, but a simple case of horniness and an overwhelming desire to impress a girl. I’m amazed that Daly took me on. But she was always a generous woman under the formidable rigor of her intellect. 2. Elemental adj: [“characterized by stark simplicity, naturalness, or unrestrained or undisciplined vigor or force . . . CRUDE, PRIMITIVE, FUNDAMENTAL, BASIC, EARTHY” -- Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language]: This definition has been awarded Websters' Intergalactic Seal of Approval Daly was born in 1928 in what she called “the Catholic ghetto” of Schenectady, N.Y. She was possessed of a voracious intellect, something her parents and teachers recognized and, to their credit, encouraged, until she declared that she wanted to be a philosopher -- not an acceptable profession for a young Catholic woman. Daly insists she didn’t know where this sudden determination for a life of the mind came from -- “the school library had no books on the subject,” she wrote. Daly was accepted into a small Catholic college, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Since they didn’t offer a major in philosophy, she studied English, presumably the next best option. She earned her masters at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also in English, since her scholarship required she continue her course of study. But she approached her classes as a philosopher. Hers seems to have always been a study of the elemental nature of existence, of what later she would come to call “Be-ing.” 3. Earthquake Phenomenon 1: the experience of cosmic shakiness, trembling, and dislocation, during which time Gyn/Ecologists share with our sister the Earth the agony of phallocratic attacks 2: Ordeal experienced by Crones engaged in the Otherworld Journey beyond patriarchy, which involved confronting one’s Aloneness as the ground splits open, and Spanning the chasm by Acts of Surviving, Spinning, and weaving Cosmic Connections -- ibid. Her determination to pursue studies in philosophy and Catholic theology eventually landed Daly at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In the 1950s, Catholic universities in the United States did not allow women to study for the highest degree in the field -- a Doctorate of Sacred Theology -- and Daly would settle for nothing less. In Switzerland the faculty was state-controlled, and therefore it was illegal to exclude women. “None of the male students would sit next to me,” she would later recall. “They feared the temptations that might arise from sitting next to a female.” She found the lectures stifling, but the intellectual demands bracing, and the connections she made with students exhilarating. She called it “seven years’ ecstatic experience interspersed with brief periods of gloom...a sort of lengthy spiritual-intellectual chess game.” Yet even in that rarefied ivory tower, the winds of change were stirring. Daly felt the breeze in 1965, when she visited Rome at the closing of the Second Vatican Council. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Vatican II had on people of the Catholic faith. The Council was convened with the specific intention to understand the role of the Church and what it meant to be Catholic in a modern era. Daly remembers it this way: The Rome of Vatican II was a sea of international communication -- the place/time where the Catholic church came bursting into open confrontation with the 20th century. It seemed to everyone...that the greatest breakthrough of nearly two thousand years was happening. We met -- theologians, students, journalists, lobbyists for every imaginable cause -- and found our most secret thoughts about “the church” were not solitary aberrations. They were shared, spoken out loud, allowed credibility. There was an ebullient sense of hope. That “ebullient sense of hope” came with a concurrent feeling of outrage when Daly attended a session at St. Peter’s: I saw in the distance a multitude of cardinals and bishops -- old men in crimson dresses. In another section of the basilica were the “auditors:” a group which included a few Catholic women, mostly nuns in long black dresses with heads veiled. The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic. Daly returned to Fribourg inflamed with reformatory zeal, and wrote her dissertation on the role and place of women in the church and in Catholic doctrine. A few years later, having accepted a teaching position at Jesuit-run Boston College, she turned the dissertation into her first major book, The Church and the Second Sex. It was published in 1968 to wide acclaim. In 1969, Boston College fired her. 4. Courage to Sin [sin derived fr. Indo-European root es- to be—American Heritage Dictionary]: the Courage to commit Original Acts of participation in Be-ing; the Courage to be Elemental through and beyond the horrors of the Obscene Society; the Courage to be intellectual in the most direct and daring way, claiming and trusting the deep correspondence between the structures/processes of one’s own mind and the structures/processes of reality; the Courage to trust and Act on one’s own deepest intuitions -- ibid. The Mary Daly I knew came into existence here, on the cusp of the second wave of the feminist movement. The Church and the Second Sex was a call to reinterpret Catholic doctrine from a feminist perspective -- to see the equality of women as central to the message of love that the Church claims to preach. It was in many ways a response to that vivid scene in St. Peter’s. Her termination caused a series of protests among the then all-male student body. It was, after all, the late ’60s, even on a Jesuit campus. The college administration bowed to the pressure and not only rehired Daly, but gave her tenure. She would spend the next 30 years there, fighting different versions of that same battle for the right of women to speak freely. But by the time her tenure was granted she was no longer interested in trying to reconcile her feminist perspective with Catholic doctrine. Her next book, Beyond God the Father, rejects all organized religion. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church,” she once wrote, “would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.” The Mary Daly I knew was no longer interested in giving those women in St. Peter’s a chance to speak alongside their be-robed and be-ribboned male colleagues. She told us that story when we were discussing Virginia Woolf: Let us never cease from thinking -- what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men? I still have my copy of Three Guineas from that class, and it still falls open to that passage, underlined heavily in black ink. In fact, I have all my books from Daly’s classes. Some of the margin notes are embarrassingly naïve, but years later I still find truth in the passages I so earnestly marked, underlined, starred, and (as in the case of the above quote) copied out and taped to my dorm room mirror. 5. Be-ing (verb): 1. Ultimate/Intimate Reality, the constantly Unfolding Verb of Verbs which is intransitive, having no object that limits its dynamism. 2. The Final Cause, the Good who is Self-communicating, who is the Verb from whom, in whom and with whom all true movements move --ibid. From the early ’70s on, Daly’s theory of feminist ethics transformed into something more like a feminist cosmology. Finding no words in the English language to properly convey the free female existence as she conceived it, she created her own. Not as a secret society only available to the initiate (think of J.R.R. Tolkien with his interminable Elvish, or any Trekkie who claims to speak Klingon), but as a conquering of language, patriarchal overtones sloughed off, so that women could speak without constraint. Daly’s lexicon is a joyfully eccentric combination of puns, etymological emphases, and quixotic capitalizations: boredom: a feeling of ennui Boredom: the official/officious state produced by bores (that is, a synonym for patriarchy). Her invented words with their reclaimed meanings first appear in Pure Lust. Eventually she had to write her own dictionary, which she called a wickedary. For a young woman coming to terms with her attraction to other women, that first class gave me a way to talk about women, and about what it was to be a woman, that felt true. That I didn’t know how to do this was not something I realized until Daly flat-out asked me: “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I hadn’t realized that was a question I could ask. Or needed to be asked. Mary Daly was by far one of the smartest and most intellectually brave people I’ve ever met. In all time I knew her, I never once heard her dismiss a student’s challenge, or reward someone for parroting back what she might want to hear. She liked a good argument, Mary Daly did. More than anything else she showed me how a person could be true to herself, a true radical, and still remain alive and awake to the world. Taking Daly’s classes did not, by the way, keep my first female romance alive. Alas, the girl eventually left me for an ex-nun-turned-baker at a vegetarian restaurant. Who can compete with fresh baked bread? But I did eventually answer the Shakespeare question to my own satisfaction. I was far too fond of the plays to reject them in a fit of politically correct pique, and decided he did have something to say to women -- to me, at least. Women speak in Shakespeare not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in intimate exchanges; parrying words with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions. And here they often eclipse the men at their sides. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not one of them was a doormat. “Thou and I,” says Benedict to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “are too wise to woo peaceably.” Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. Shakespeare, I think, appreciated a woman with witty tongue and steadfast heart. Daly’s exuberant feminist ethics have remained a steady guide in my life -- a way to navigate, and interrogate, a culture that is often rancorous and toxic to its members. What does any of this have to say to women? As a lifelong student of Daly’s, I keep asking. Homepage image by Mary Werner via The Feminist Art Project, Kansas Chapter
Post-40 Bloomers

Punk Rock Indeed: The Two Sides of Viv Albertine

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Sometimes being a Bloomer isn't so much about the dazzling late first act, as it is about the fact that there is a second act at all. Viv Albertine joined the all-girl punk group The Slits in 1977, when she was 22, and played with them until the band's demise in 1982. Hers was an early and well-documented success, a confident measure of stardom and swagger in the early days of the British punk scene -- certainly enough to disqualify her as a Bloomer. But the act of blooming doesn't always follow a single trajectory. And her dogged drive to recreate herself as a musician -- and to redefine herself as an artist -- didn't truly take form until she was in her 50s. Some have bloom thrust upon them; Albertine has earned hers, every step of the way. And her account of that process in her recent memoir, the wonderfully-titled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. (St. Martin's Press, 2014), is both honest and deeply satisfying. And, yes -- punk rock. 2. Those of us who came of age musically at a certain time in the world will be put at ease immediately by the book's divisions: Side One and Side Two, like an album, or maybe a cassette tape. And like any good album, Side One is front-loaded with the hit singles, the stuff the DJ is going to play to win her listeners over. It's punk rock dish of the highest order: Albertine is in a band with a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious when he was just shy, gawky John Beverly; dates Mick Jones from The Clash (who wrote "Train in Vain" about her after they broke up); shops at Malcolm McLaren's iconic King's Road shop SEX, and says of The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, who had her eye on Albertine’s future spot in The Slits, "But they wouldn't ask Chrissie. No one wanted to be in a band with her, she's too good." She picks up a guitar because that's what a music-loving art school girl does, with no illusions about becoming a musician. "Mick and I go to Denmark Street to choose a guitar. I've got no idea what to look for. I might as well be going to buy a semi-automatic weapon." What Albertine has is gumption and the particular musical zeitgeist of mid-'70s London, where one doesn't need musical talent so much as attitude: I'm trying to be a musician in front of all these new people, a very bold move as I can't play guitar and haven't written any songs. Sometimes I think I might as well say, "I want to be an astronaut." The other thing any self-respecting punk rocker needs, of course, is an aesthetic -- the visual kind, and a lifestyle aesthetic as well, a certain ethos that, if lived whole-heartedly, results in an actual level of credibility. Albertine has both in spades, and The Slits -- along with singer Ari Up, drummer Palmolive, and bassist Tessa Pollitt -- end up making a little slice of musical history. They are unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall, wild women, in the right place at the right time, and their influence reverberates across the next 30 years: the Riot Grrrl bands, Björk, Sonic Youth, and even The Go-Go's cited them as influences. If this were Behind the Music, or even the story of poor misunderstood John Beverly, we know what form this story would take. But Albertine is never much of a druggie, not even a drinker -- for all her youthful rebellion, she still cares about upsetting her mum. She's smart, with a strong streak of self-respect (and a small one of prudery), all of which serve to keep her from getting carried away in the undertow of those dangerous days. But still, there are forces at work that can undo even -- perhaps especially -- a smart girl who cares about her mum. Which brings us to Side Two. 3. After The Slits break up, Albertine moves back home. She teaches aerobics for a while, goes to film school, directs some videos. Along the way she falls for a handsome motorcyclist she meets at a party and marries him. Gets pregnant, loses the baby, and embarks on a long, excruciating course of fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization; this chapter of the book, appropriately, is titled “Hell.” Eventually she carries a daughter to term. Three months after giving birth, she is diagnosed with cervical cancer. She survives that too. It’s a harrowing bit of reading, all the more so because Albertine stays away from hyperbole; the big moment in her recovery comes when she finds herself sweeping her kitchen floor: I don’t remember deciding to sweep the floor, getting up and going into the kitchen, I just notice that I’m doing it. I used to enjoy sweeping up, it was the only household chore I liked. I remember thinking to myself when I was well, Poor old Madonna, never gets to sweep her own floor, someone does it for her, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. I think there’s something very healthy about keeping your own cave clean...As I sweep, I realise that this is the first time for a year I’ve felt motivated to do anything that’s not absolutely necessary, and I know that a little shift has occurred. It gives me hope that maybe, if more little shifts start to happen, I might get better. She, her husband, and the baby move to a beautiful white house by the ocean. And there she languishes as her marriage stagnates, and Albertine finds herself living out a story more Henrik Ibsen than VH-1. But Albertine is still the same woman who allowed her life to be changed once by the impulse to pick up a guitar; this time, by sweeping a room. Like a dowser, she is good at following her own instinctive movements one way or another. A long-distance flirtation jars her out of her somnolence; ultimately unconsummated, it nevertheless has the power to remind her of her own dormant life force. “You know how it is when you meet someone new, someone you admire or fancy: you imagine them watching you and you glide about, a superhero in your own little universe...I’ve found someone who gets me.” Albertine picks up her guitar again. This time, she decides, she will learn how to play it. And she does -- slowly, often agonizingly. She recruits a girlfriend to accompany her to the local open mic nights where, she admits, she is terrible at first. But she keeps on with it, and improves, week by arduous week. Here, too, is the reader’s reward for having stuck with her through the chapters on infertility, cancer, unhappiness. Following Albertine as she accomplishes what she has set out to do, gets better at it, divorces her husband, and eventually records an album and goes out on tour -- it’s good to know this kind of thing can happen, and that it happened to a person like Viv Albertine. By the time Side Two winds down, the reader -- this reader, anyway -- is a little smitten with her honesty and sweet, genuine voice. Carrie Brownstein, the guitarist of Sleater-Kinney -- another seminal all-female rock'n'roll band, formed a dozen years after The Slits broke up -- wrote in Monitor Mix of Albertine's 2009 solo gig opening for the re-formed Raincoats in New York: at the Knitting Factory on Friday, watching not The Raincoats (who were fantastic, by the way) but Viv Albertine, I realized I hadn't really witnessed fearlessness in a long time, at least not at a rock show. As one of my friends put it, more succinctly: "This was one of the punkest things I have ever seen.” If there is a voice in music that’s seldom heard, it’s that of a middle-aged woman...A woman who isn’t trying to please or nurture anyone, but who instead illuminates a lifestyle that’s so ubiquitous as to be rendered nearly invisible...It raises questions that no one wants to ask a wife or a mother, particularly one’s own. Are you happy? Was I enough? What are you sacrificing, and are those sacrifices worth it? In her new album, The Vermilion Border, Albertine sings about very different concerns than she covered in her years with The Slits: motherhood, marriage, middle-aged sex, and cooking. She shreds like a teenager playing air guitar in front of her bedroom mirror and she swears like a sailor, but through it all you never forget she's a 50-something-year-old woman with a very real history behind her. And that...that is punk rock indeed.
Post-40 Bloomers

Secret Lives: Katherine Heiny’s ‘Single, Carefree, Mellow’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University¬ -- “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate -- and you send it out to 31 literary journals, all of which turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say. When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what The New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with The New Yorker. So, on a Thursday, you send the story there, and the next day Roger Angell, the fiction editor, calls you -- early enough that he wakes you up -- and says he wants to publish it. You do not believe him: you are a poor grad student, behind on your rent, and you think the caller is really your landlord trying to trick you into talking to him. And you doubt the magazine reads stories so quickly. But it really is Roger Angell, and the story appears in the September 1992 issue of The New Yorker. Half-a-dozen years later, the magazine reprints it in an anthology, Nothing But You. Your name is in the table of contents between Jean Rhys and John Cheever. That story helps you get an agent, but you and she later part ways and it takes more than 20 years before you finally publish, at age 47, a book under your own name, a collection of stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow. You are elated you have a book out in the world, but then the book brings you significant attention, especially for a debut collection of short stories. A month before its publication, Entertainment Weekly runs a half-page interview with you in a piece about books the magazine’s editors are anticipating for the year. Glamour and Elle exhort their readers to buy it. On Super Bowl Sunday, The New York Times reviews it, calling it a “wry, bittersweet debut,” and saying the work is “something like Cheever mixed with Ephron.” The next day the newspaper publishes a long feature on you and the book. When the reporter talks about your first publication in The New Yorker, she describes your start as “explosive” and adds that, because of your “disappearance from the literary scene for nearly two decades,” your story carries a whiff of legend, but is actually “more prosaic and compelling.” The truth is, however, that although the work that followed your first story did not get the same attention as “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you did not, of course, disappear. You were just continuing to live your life and write -- write a lot. It was just that most people did not notice. 2. When you were growing up, you were different in some crucial ways from everyone else in your family, who are all scientists. You were raised in Midland, Mich., home of Dow Chemical, and your mother was a chemist, your father a chemical engineer. One of your brothers is also a chemical engineer, and the other one a software engineer, but you say, “My math and science grades were, well, let’s just say that I may have been the wrong baby brought home from the hospital.” You “read like crazy,” reading every sort of fiction you could get your hands on, including Judy Blume and later Stephen King, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel; all of them will influence you as a writer. You say, “I used to get into trouble because I would read in school when the rest of the class was doing other things.” You allude to this sense of being different in some of your stories. In one, “Dark Matter,” a character who is a physicist makes fun of his sister because she does not know the difference between Ebola and E. coli. “Sometimes I really think we brought the wrong baby home from the hospital,” he says. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a naïve minister comes to stay with a family that is amazed because he knows so little about their world. You write: So many experiences were new to him! It was like having an exchange student from the Sudan...Reverend McWilliams had never eaten risotto or drunk Pimm’s. He did not know that shampoo could cost forty dollars...and he jumped every time the GPS spoke in the car...He had never seen a Wii before [and] had never seen Jurassic Park. You decide to become a writer because, you “have never been any good at anything else,” and in college you take every writing class you can; so many, in fact, that when you apply to law school because you feel obligated to find a career that will allow you to support yourself, you joke that they all reject you because of all of the creative writing classes on your transcript. Having no other idea what to do, you apply to two graduate writing programs: at Columbia University and at the University of Iowa. Columbia accepts you and you go there, in both poetry and fiction, and study with a faculty that includes Peter Cameron, whose story “Jump or Dive” you’ve read multiple times because it is what you call “comfort reading,” i.e. work you read over and over again because you love it so much. You say, “The fact that I was writing stories and he was reading them was so exciting to me.” At Columbia, you also take a workshop with Rick Rofihe, in which you write the story you will sell to The New Yorker. At the time, your only income is from reading the slush pile submitted to a literary agent, Roberta Pryor, whose big book was Peter Benchley’s Jaws nearly 20 years earlier, and who also was P.D. James’s American agent. You read the unsolicited novels that people send in, mostly thrillers, and write reports on them. You get paid only $7 for each report you submit and yet you feel obliged to read every manuscript all the way through even if you know within the first 25 pages you will not be recommending the novel to Roberta Pryor. This is what you are doing for a living when Roger Angell calls, and why you do not have enough money to be current with your rent. The magazine pays you an unimaginable dollar a word. 3. After you publish the story in The New Yorker, it does not change your life in any significant way but, contrary to what the Times writer later says, you do not disappear from the literary scene: you continue writing, and your work appears in some of the best journals in the country, including Narrative, Ploughshares, Greensboro Review, Glimmer Train, and others. You also sell stories about young girls and their unrequited love to Sassy and Seventeen, and a publisher for a series of young adult romance novels contacts you to ask if you would like to try writing a book in the series for them. You write more than 20 romance novels. You do it largely because the money is good; compared with what you are earning as a waitress, it seems a fortune. The work is hard but you enjoy it; when you have a contract for a book, you end up writing every day, and while your name is not on any of the books, you nonetheless learn “to deal with deadlines and how to write a novel-length manuscript.” The publisher insisted on an outline first before you would get the go-ahead on the project and you realize “that the outline is half the work. If you have the structure and you are not just meandering along, it makes it easier.” It also teaches you the value of persistence; you say, “When I first started writing YA and had a contract for a 200-page novel and I would write five pages, I would freak out at all that there was left to do but it taught me that you write a little bit every day, it gets longer. You get there.” You give it up after you marry and are expecting your first child and the doctor tells you that you need to stop working so hard for your sake and for the baby’s. You regret having to stop, but you do, and then you have a second child, and then family life means you cannot go back to it, but you continue writing short stories. 4. A few years ago, you decide that you feel at sea without an agent, so you find a new one. She asks you to send her what you have. You worry that you do not have a novel, as you have heard that agents cannot sell collections of short stories; but your agent says that is not the case, not in a time when a collection, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize, as did another novel-in-stories, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. You send her 30-something files, all the stories you have, not organized in any fashion. She tells you that you can make a collection from your work, and the two of you go back and forth, choosing stories -- including “How to Give the Wrong Impression” -- and organizing them into a collection of 10 stories, all about women, most about women having affairs. In “Dive Bar,” a woman agrees to meet her lover’s soon-to-be ex-wife. In another, “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid,” a bridesmaid helps her more glamorous friend get married, although even as she prepares to go down the aisle, the bride has been having affairs with two other men. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a married woman has an affair with a man she meets while she’s running -- a man who, it turns out, betrays her by having another affair, with the woman’s next-door neighbor; perhaps worse than that betrayal of her affections, however, is the fact that she considers her neighbor silly and uninteresting. Three of the stories give the collection a sort of narrative spine as they all center on the same character, Maya; in the first of the three, “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” she is preparing for the death of her dog who has cancer, while at the same time she is trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend, Rhodes; in the second, “Dark Matter,” she and Rhodes are engaged but she is having an affair with her boss at work; in the third, “Grendel’s Mother,” she and Rhodes are married and expecting their first child. On Halloween 2013, your agent calls to tell you that Knopf is offering you a two-book deal, for your collection and for a novel you’ve recently begun that will appear in 2016. In the middle of editing the collection, you have an idea for a new story. You imagine a high school girl, a good student, who begins having an affair with her history teacher who gives her a “B” in his class so that no one will suspect they are sleeping together -- although, ironically, she is such a good student that her father, while not suspecting the affair, does find it odd that she earns only a B in the class. Like “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you write this one, “The Rhett Butlers,” in the second person because, you say, “Very early on I imagined the scene where getting the B in history lowers her GPA [and her class rank from 10 to 11], and I knew that it would be funnier to say, ‘Will you think of this bitterly in the future?’ and then say, ‘You better believe it.’ That’s funnier in the second person. It wouldn’t be in any other point-of-view. I will do anything for a joke.” The story appears in the The Atlantic, and you ask your editor if you can include it in the collection. She agrees, making the final count eleven stories in all. (Your collection will also have a third story in the second-person, about a mother staging what turns out to be a nearly disastrous eighth-birthday party for her son, where the mother is groped by a nearly inept magician she hires for the event who perhaps is naked beneath his robes.) 5. Your work is, in fact, marked by humor; but also secrets and sometimes a gentle sadness. The jokes: some of them are wry observations your characters make. In “Andorra,” the last story in the collection, the main character, who is having an affair with a man who is in marriage counseling with his wife, muses at one point about what she has in her life: “two little boys...and a 50-year-old husband named Roderick who worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a big house in Washington, D.C., and a minivan full of dog hair.” She thinks, “The fact that she has all this and a long-distance lover seemed to her a sign of strength and character.” In “Blue Heron Bridge,” your character is preparing to go with her husband and daughters to a block party where she knows she will run into her lover and his wife and spends a good deal of time on her appearance beforehand. As she is about to leave the house, she realizes that her husband and children do not look to her satisfaction, and she thinks, “dating...was easier when you were single and had to make only yourself, and not your whole family, presentable.” In yet another story, “Cranberry Relish,” a character has an affair with a man she meets on Facebook (who later replaces her as his lover with someone he meets on Twitter), and after she decides the sex is not just disappointing but bad, she thinks, "She was just a boring fool who’d had sex with a man who sometimes wrote defiantly when he meant definitely." The sadness: in “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” after her dog dies and Maya’s boyfriend seems to grieve even more than she does, she realizes that she cannot, as she had planned, break up with him. She thinks, “There is such a thing as too much loss.” In “Andorra,” as a woman contemplates a relationship that is ending, she thinks, “This was how it was going to be from here on out...nothing but a long series of partings.” Your fascination with secrets arises from your own life. After you start seeing the man you eventually marry, he confesses that he is actually an MI-6 agent, something you cannot reveal to anyone, not even your family after you marry, because it can endanger your husband and perhaps your entire family. You feel anxious about letting the fact slip (although it’s okay to talk about it now, after he’s left the agency), and so you channel your anxiety into your fiction. In nearly every story, a woman keeps a secret from those closest to her: women hide their affairs from their husbands; in “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” the narrator tries to hide from her roommate the fact that she loves him, and the fact that she is not actually in a romantic relationship with him from everyone else. In the title story, the character tries to hide from her boyfriend the fact that she wants to leave him, at the same time she is discovering that perhaps he is really too good for her. In “That Dance You Do,” the one story in the collection not centered on some kind of romantic love, the mother does not want to reveal to her son that she abhors one of the friends he invites to his party. 6. So now, almost a quarter-century after the day that Roger Angell called you with the news that he wanted to publish your story, a book with your name on it is at last out in the world and bringing you acclaim that surprises you. The attention is good, and you appreciate it, but then you go back to work on the novel you are writing for next year because, as you once said, there are few things better for a working writer than to be writing. You say: [Writing] is such an important part of my identity. When I’m not writing and people ask me what I do, I feel like such a fraud. [I]t’s also a coping mechanism -- a good one. Nothing so awful can happen that I can’t write a story about it. Click here to listen to an audio interview with Katherine Heiny.
Post-40 Bloomers

Yahya Frederickson in Yemen: The Gold of the Wayfarer

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Some poets travel to distant lands and bring back exotic sights and smells. But others go to witness turmoil or violence, to be at the center of political or social change and to bring back the news -- not as journalists do, but shaped through language and image in ways that awaken our sensibilities and our emotions. Bloomer Yahya Frederickson lived in a distant land and has brought back something completely different. The grandson of a Norwegian, a Dane, and two Swedes, Frederickson grew up and went to college in Moorhead, a small city on the Red River in northwestern Minnesota. In an effort to try something new, he went off to Montana to earn an MFA. Then, because his taste for adventure was whetted, and since he’d never traveled outside the United States and was eager to see the world, Frederickson skipped the continent to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer -- and where he landed happened to be Yemen. That first year, he experienced his adopted country as a tourist might, paying attention to what made Yemen different. Gradually he made friends and began to see Yemen as a home filled with people no different in their desires and thirsts from the people in Moorhead and Missoula. Then the Gulf War began and all Peace Corps volunteers had to leave the country. Some of that group did not return, but at the first opportunity, Frederickson went back -- in his year at home he discovered that he’d fallen in love with Yemen. So he completed his two-year obligation to the Peace Corps and stayed. In the four years that followed, while he taught at Sana’a University, he made lifelong friends, met his wife and married, had children, and converted to Islam. His conversion was not the act of a rebellious young person, nor was it a rejection of a faith he’d grown up in, since his family was not particularly devout. In an interview some years ago, Frederickson spoke of living in a country that was 99 percent Muslim. At first, he found the calls to prayer exotic. “The calls to prayer...would start...in what seemed to be the middle of the night. Just the...loud but hauntingly beautiful call to prayer, the ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar’ in the dark and you’d wake up because you’ve never been awakened by anything in the middle of the night like that before.” Eventually, though, the call “turned out to be something that I really grew to appreciate despite my apprehension and distrust of it at the beginning.” Frederickson was drawn to this ritual devotion and its relaxed attitude toward worldliness, toward business and commerce; an attitude that was less fraught, less demanding than in the United States. He saw that “they weren’t running, running, running all day long...there was a social value...to sitting with people and discussing things, having conversations.” Frederickson realized, “I’d been looking for something to believe in and something to use. You know, a faith that will direct your life, not just direct your faith.” In the Islamic faith he found a way to connect his spiritual life to his bodily life. After six years total in Yemen, Frederickson returned to the Midwest with his family and went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota. He now teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead and has returned to the Middle East as a Fulbright Scholar -- to Syria in 2005 and to Saudi Arabia in 2011. When I asked Frederickson to comment on the current coup underway in Yemen, he replied: “Yemen has been in turmoil almost as long as I’ve known it.” After the first Gulf War, inflation and high unemployment made life difficult for many Yemenis, and a civil war in the mid-1990s added unrest to the instability. Following the Arab Spring of 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 35 years, was forced out of office, though his successor has had his share of troubles as well. Relations between Yemen and the United States are delicate, in part because, while Yemen has been an ally in the “War on Terror,” Yemenis have been victims of failed drone attacks. “I’ve learned,” says Frederickson, “to see that people are not their governments. People are people, with the same hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings as anybody else.” This knowledge, he says, is what he is trying to convey in his most recent, full-length book of poetry. “And isn’t this realization -- that people are not their government -- something that we’d want people in other countries to realize about us?” The Gold Shop of Ba-’Ali, winner of the 2013 Idaho Prize for Poetry, follows Frederickson as he becomes a member of the community, converts to Islam (and relinquishes his given European name for "Yahya"), marries, and has children. Yet the book is not memoir or confession. Readers won’t find here a speaker wrestling with his identity or his faith, and while there are a few poems that consider the political life of Yemen, the book is not the poetry of political witness. What then, is this remarkable book of poems, how do we understand it? 2. The book begins with two hadiths: “Be in this world as if you are a stranger or a wayfarer,” and “The people of Yemen have come to you, and they are gentler and softer-hearted. Belief is Yemeni, and wisdom is Yemeni.” A wayfarer, or one who journeys, is an apt description of the speaker in these poems: one who moves through the world -- through his life. But he’s not alone, in the journey of this book, the people of Yemen come to him -- friends, students, new family members, shop owners, even a man at prayer with a Kalashnikov. In the first poem, “Crossing,” the speaker describes a dry riverbed where sheep “lip leafless stems” and where a boy “without pants or sandals / pees into the ravine.” The speaker follows this boy into the souq, or market. The poem ends: To earn a living, all a seller needs is a word and the throat to wield it. Let mine answer why I am in this life so far from my own, why I enter every day, no desire to buy. The poet sets out here one purpose for the book: it is an opportunity for the poet to make sense of why he's here, in this place, far from his “own.” The first section of the book is filled with poems that enjoy the sensory particulars of Yemen: “waxy taffy slabs” in the market; the “booty” of shops: “mutton on hooks, / shelves of jarred honey, carpets from Turkey;” the smell from a hookah: “the smoldering tang . . . tendrilling around us.” Amidst this sensory lusciousness are moments that pull us back, that refuse an urge to revel only in what’s beautiful and exotic. At an outdoor restaurant, a man named Hamoud joins the speaker. “In English tempered by movies and rap, he’s cursing his father’s homeland, its soldiers who don’t like what might be hiding behind his car windows’ purple tint.” In the living room of a friend hangs a poster that shows “Saddam Hussein atop a white stallion, greeting a clapping throng.” In the prose poem “The Last Time,” the speaker goes to the apartment of his friend Ahmad, only to find that Ahmad’s older cousin Salih, “an officer in the military,” is there with a woman, “poised like an empress...dressed in a gown of turquoise satin.” Things turn strange: Salih leaves the room. When he returns, he is no longer wearing his olive uniform but a white terrycloth bathrobe, his belly protruding over the cinched belt. Our presence will not alter his objective. I cringe to picture it. Our queen looks too fresh to be a prostitute, too comfortable to be a victim. For her delights, how much will he pay? Also in the room is another man, a cousin, unnamed, who is there “maybe to watch, maybe to wait his own sloppy turn.” The speaker and Ahmad go to another room where they pick up guitars and try to make music, but their songs “don’t merge.” The poem continues: We try a Bob Dylan tune that both of us know, but even that is hopeless: inside the room closed tight as a small fist, our discordant notes crumble onto the floor. We can’t even keep time anymore. Frederickson perfectly captures this moment of cultural and social awkwardness. He does the same in the poem “All-Night Teashop:” Under the lone fluorescent bulb, an army transport rattles to a halt, emptying its cargo of young soldiers. Their carbines sleep across their laps as they devour sandwiches of jam and cheese, glasses of mango juice. Watching these young soldiers prompts the speaker to ask, “And what am I?” The answer: “I offer no opportunities, // nothing, except maybe / the forgiveness I see, no greater wish / in the world than tea.” This wayfarer speaks with a gentle, humble voice, a voice of one willing to look honestly at the world. 3. In the second section of the book, the speaker learns to be a member of the Yemeni community. “I've learned the futility / of proof, a commodity no one hoards,” concludes a poem about passing through checkpoints. He has followed the lead of others in passing through checkpoints with aplomb. At the end of “Malarial,” the speaker is on the beach practicing his Arabic with a boy, following fishermen to a mosque, and watching as “an old man hacks melons open, / sings wedding songs.” The poem’s quiet, observant reporting ends with the speaker watching fishermen return with their catch: They’ve come to devour sweet red flesh. No reason to remember names, places. Only the nectarous juice running down the brown cords of their arms, the fever their foreheads press into damp sand for the God who brought them back. This quiet comment on prayer reveals the speaker’s own slow turning toward the faith. And thus it is that in the third section, the speaker describes his conversion -- quietly, almost incidentally. In “Embrace,” the speaker’s student remarks that he dreamt the poem’s speaker was a Muslim. Says the speaker, “Last night, who worried more / about my eternity than he?” The tourist is no longer a tourist, but a member, loving his new faith and community, entering into both their purity and imperfection: Like this, I fall in love with every pure but imperfect intention: every stone staircase with uneven steps, every mud wall built to lead me away, every peel and pit strewn in the fruit souq because the buyer couldn’t wait, every bent key to open a gate. 4. The narrative of this wayfarer ends in a fourth section that begins with the speaker marrying. “We will learn / that love means what we have begun.” His father misses the wedding because of illness, and the bride’s father is not alive: the two young people must begin their lives together without fathers. And it is just as well, since it is clear that neither would have approved. The two poems that capture this familial difference are followed by a prose poem in eight parts entitled “Secession.” This poem captures the time, from May to July in 1994, when Yemen was engulfed in a civil war. While anti-aircraft guns go off, the speaker helps carry a judge’s paralyzed wife for a bath, boys throw rocks at dogs, a neighbor tapes her windows with black Xs to “prevent them from shattering, neighbors leave for rural villages,” and “in a small mosque, old men read Surat Yaseen in unison for those whose homes Monday’s Scud exploded over them.” The poem gives us an honest experience of life under siege, neither maudlin nor prettifyied: The whitecaps of your nightgown roll toward the warm beach of night. I make plans by praying. Plans with you and falling water, flattened trees, the earth of a different brown country. Whatever manner of flesh will rekindle our blackened bones, Allah can raise it above the pounding, cover it with the coolest mist. In the last poems of the book, we witness the survival of the speaker’s premature twins. While his son is being examined by the doctor, the speaker goes outside, to escape the smoke of other men in the waiting room. “A garden nearby perfumes the night with lemongrass, / jasmine, and onion. I know he’ll be healed.” This appearance of the onion helps us to understand the last line of the final poem in the book, “Praying Beside a Mujahed:” Were I to turn my head to the left, I could gaze deep into the dark eye of the Kalashnikov. Never think that a trigger tripped, a skull separated onto plush carpet, is an accident, for destiny allows no accidents. After the prayer, we’ll say peace. His hand will shake mine with vigor. Until then, closing my eyes, all I can see are onions, glorious and sweet, thundering in the damp loam of Heaven. 5. What sort of a book is this? A speaker journeys to another part of the world and as he looks around, as he meets the people there, he changes and grows, he converts and joins the community, he marries and has a family: even with its seemingly exotic, politically charged content, the collection has all the elements of a bildungsroman, a universal coming-of-age story. But the book is also a lesson in understanding and forgiveness. In recent days, we’ve watched how easy it is in this world to castigate a whole people, a whole community, for the actions of a few. Forgiveness requires intimacy. Frederickson is suggesting, among other things, that we can come to know and forgive others, people who are strangers, if we journey to them and learn up close their gentleness, their soft-heartedness. And of course, we must make that journey bringing our own attitude of gentleness and honesty, just as Frederickson does in these surprising and beautiful poems. For more on Frederickson, check out this Q&A with Bloom. 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