A LITERARY COMMUNITY POWERED BY VIDA: WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

Minal Hajratwala: I have to say that my first response to this prompt is kind of “Meh.” I’m not sure how much I resonate with the term bitch at this point as an identity, personally. It’s important as part of the range of female expression, of course, and I think in my angry 20s I was very excited about claiming bitch-ness as a right. But at 42, I find I’m more interested in how to be kind AND free. Which requires having a spine, of course. But at the risk of offending our publisher here, these days I think of bitchdom as more of a transient, and maybe even, adolescent stage or posture in undoing the conditioning of patriarchy—not necessarily a full-fledged, healthy, adult persona. I don’t think Claire Messud was being a bitch, really, just giving a sensible and real response to a stupid question.

Bitches as characters are super interesting, though. I’m writing one now in my novel and it’s so much fun. She gets to do and say very exciting things, and her destructive force is quite glorious to watch. I don’t think anyone would want to be her friend.

 

Sophia Starmack: I hear you on meh. When I heard the theme was Bitches, I felt a bit of oh-fuck-what’ve-I-got-myself-into, wondering if we were going to be asked to write on some sort of 90s-style bitch-as-insult-or-reclaimed-identity prompt. I’m younger than you at 32, but old enough to be a bit bored of that particular strand of ra-ra Third Wave feminism. Bitch isn’t a word I identify with, nor one I feel particularly triggered by.

I liked what you wrote about your primary interest these days being “how to be kind and free.” I think a lot about kindness, myself, and freedom, and wonder what it might mean to be truly both. What is the largest, most expansive state I can imagine for myself and the world? How do I practice living it daily? I must say though, being socialized as a super-girl from day one (be polite above all, be kind, be pretty, be sweet), and as someone who as an adult earns a living as a teacher (a traditionally female, caregiving role), I grapple with the concept of kindness. In my personal and professional lives I often feel I’m too accommodating. Real kindness must entail some amount of what you call “spine.” Real kindness must involve upholding some standards, I think, and lovingly (but not necessarily “nicely”) speaking up when those standards are not being met. And real art, of course, requires some space and time. I still need practice on that.

I don’t think Messud was being a bitch, either. What she did was speak up and raise the bar a bit during that interview. I admire her for turning the question to her own purposes. It reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s trenchant shutdown of Matt Lauer’s “dress malfunction” probing: http://feministguidetohollywood.blogspot.com/2012/12/anne-hathaway-shuts-down-matt-lauers.html (Whatever about AH and Les Mis, but she didn’t take that one lying down.) I admire people who can think on the spot!

I used to dream of having a consciousness-raising workshop where I’d get a bunch of women together and we’d all share the moments where we’d felt temporarily speechless in the face of some harassment or idiotic comment, and then we’d reenact them, changing the ending of the scene to include all the fantastic repartee and insightful lines we wish we’d zapped back with.

Messud’s novel is about a woman who’s deeply unfulfilled, right, who grapples with those sorts of “my needs or their needs”, “nice or real,” “art or survival” dichotomies that often attend a woman’s psyche, or maybe everyone deals with them, regardless of gender—I would like to believe are no longer relevant or simply the product of a repressed mind. But statistically women are still earning somewhere around 77 cents to the man’s dollar (women of color earn less than white women), women take the lion’s share of the childcare, housework, and domestic labor in a state that provides little to no public assistance, and a lot of traditional “women’s work” (teaching, caregiving, housekeeping) is grossly undervalued and underpaid. It does put a bit of a damper on the creative impulse, on the ability to dream big and wild of that state of “kind and free” you so beautifully named.

And yet, of course, the further you get from the center of privilege the sharper you see, and the more you’re able to imagine other ways of being. I’m not trying to make good here, but that keenness, so often either experienced or read as rage, is where I, at least, want to go. Not only women, but humans in general, are constantly being encouraged not to think, told our thoughts and dreams are impractical or offensive, or told to shut up and be grateful for what we’ve got. We must be sharp and clear if we’re going to move beyond the current desperate state in which we find our planet.

Tell me about writing bitch characters. Did you relate to the part of the prompt that asked if you find yourself censoring? Do you worry that you’ll be too closely aligned with your characters?

As a poet, my first thought was, “Um? I write poetry? There are no characters?” But of course, the poem is always speaking out of the self. Even if the poem is written in the third person, the implicit character is “I.”

Do I worry I’ll come off as a bitch? Not particularly. One of my jobs as a poet is to go for the discomfort, to live in the place where I don’t necessarily come off as a fabulously moral person.

However, I remembered that in my MFA program an enormous number of women-student poets fiercely resisted using the “I” in the poem. They would come right out and say how uncomfortable they felt in the first person. Uncomfortable in one’s very self! It was as though they were trying to write poems that literally effaced the speaker. When I tutored undergraduate and graduate students, I found that many women had the same struggles in analytical writing. They would come up with incredibly convoluted syntactical structures, all to avoid the occasional authorial “I.” I have not undertaken a scientific study here, but I haven’t come across any male writers who feel that writing the word “I” is such a deeply ingrained taboo.

Write back as you see fit, or if you’d like a “prompt,” I wonder:

  • What “bitch” characters are you writing about or have you written? How did they come to you? What do you enjoy about them or writing about them?
  • What do you find puts a damper on your imagination? What liberates it? How are these related to your lived experience? To your personal, family, geographic, cultural histories?
  • What’s your relationship to resentment?

I’ll wrap up with a poem; I write from a deep Catholic inheritance—ha-ha can you tell?

The Wisdom of the Virgins
Matthew 25:1-13

Not because they remembered to dress nice
—but not too nice—for the party.
Not because they kept their make-up natural,
or because not one of them outshone the bride.
Not because of the fork-and-knife lessons,
the nightgowned waltzes late in the parlor.
(In fact, they were somewhat bruised from studying,
and at least one had gone all the way.)
Not because their flasks were so chastely filled,
their wicks so respectably trimmed,
not even because they slept so slightly
the whitest sigh would wake them.
It was because they kept their oil to themselves.

They’d given so much already, the gesture hollow like a lamp.

 

MH:  I love your poem so much.

I am considering your prompts and meanwhile—wonder if you have something to say about virgins and bitches . . . bitchy (frigid?) virgins . . . being immaculate, staying pure, holding oneself apart?

I appreciate what you have said about the “I” and as it turns out today’s poem of the day is titled “I”: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15897

I want to send you some poems too . . .  if that’s OK?

 

SS: Hmm, virgins and bitches, bitchy virgins. The real-life matters of virginity never much intrigued or troubled me. (For that I must plug my friend Therese Schecter, whose fabulous film and blog on virginity can be glimpsed here: http://www.virginitymovie.com/blog/.) That said, literary virgins have always fired me up. I’m looking up “virgin” in Merriam-Webster right now, and interestingly, the first definition is “an unmarried woman devoted to religion.” Funny, nothing about sex in there. That doesn’t come in till definition two, “an absolutely chaste young woman,” or definition three (ha!) “VIRGIN MARY.”

I like this idea of a virgin as one who’s devoted to something, to her own vision? That’s what got in under my skin about Jesus’ parable. I happened to be at a church service one Sunday, and the text was Matthew 25, the wise and foolish virgins. In the story, there’s a big wedding celebration, and all the young girls have to go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom, who’s due to arrive late that night. Half of the virgins are prepared, but the other half are late and lazy and their lamps go out. They ask the first set if they can borrow some oil, and are quickly rebuffed.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that Jesus (the bridegroom) could show up any minute so you’d better keep on your toes, but the whole thing made me so upset. Why wouldn’t the first set share? Weren’t they being selfish? Wasn’t the whole point of Jesus about sharing and doing unto others, etc.?

I had to write the poem to reconcile myself to all this, and in the course of the writing I discovered a certain virginal wisdom in, if not selfishness, at least a healthy self-interest, a willingness to not give it all away.

My favorite literary virgins (besides Mary—I mean, come on!) were Joan of Arc and Jane Eyre. Joan of Arc (like Mary!) was not only mysteriously powerful, but she had this incredible sangfroid, an insane but beautiful faith in what she’d seen and heard. When Joan came to court everyone mocked the little peasant girl, but unfazed, she calmly said her piece and then ratted out the dauphin, who’d disguised himself to play a trick on her. It’s that unshakeable confidence, that unflappable adherence to one’s inner voices and visions, that I think makes her loveable to so many young women.

Jane Eyre of course shacks up with Rochester in the end (“Reader, I married him”), but she doesn’t give it up easily and there’s something in the torment she feels at love that I find archetypical. She’s a misfit, an intellectual, a poet, and as there was no place in her world for such a thing, she mediates her internal and external worlds by becoming a governess (a virginal profession, of course, and like Mary, she raises a child but doesn’t bear one). When she experiences passion, her whole world goes up (literally) in flames. She doesn’t know how to navigate that one—how to be the idiosyncratic, independent, deeply moral Jane and the Jane who longs to love and be loved.

I remember Joni Mitchell speaking in a documentary about wanting to get married and then suddenly being beset by the memory of her grandmother, who’d kicked in the barn door at age fourteen because she’d wanted a piano so badly, and knew she’d never have one. Joni said that in that minute she froze, terrified that if she went deeper into the relationship she’d end up beating the barn door over and over.

These days we’re supposed to believe that we can have it all, but these questions always plagued me, too. Can I be an artist and be in a relationship? I can, I am, and yet, the fear runs under the surface like a plucked thread in a stocking, always just noticeable, threatening to unravel the whole thing. What about all my women ancestors, who struggled to negotiate dreams and realities: my great-grandmother, who danced and laughed and drank and spent her life running her husband’s bootlegging business, later his bar; my grandmother, who wanted to be a scientist and settled for nursing (though her father found even that too risqué); my mother, who went to music school while raising three children? I often feel that I’m writing in conversation with them.

And on that note, another poem, one written (though she doesn’t know it) with my grandmother.

Yours very warmly!
SGS

***

I Interview My Grandmother

Q. What happens when we die?
A. Something leaves the body at this moment.
But don’t trouble yourself looking for its traces. It is colorless and odorless.

Q. Why is death so difficult?
A. It doesn’t have to be. Morphine is a wonderful thing.

Q. It seems to me that men die and women linger.
A. I don’t like to make generalizations.
But if you don’t tell anyone, I’ll agree with you.

Q. Why do we rage so against death?
A. Let me tell you this.
The universe is large and magnificent and follows an order we cannot comprehend. After death, we’ll see just how insignificant we here on earth really are.

Q. I see. I suspected this.
A. I hope I haven’t confused you. You still have to do a good job while you’re here.

 

MH: Yay! I am going to read this in more detail soon.

And also, wah! Our deadline approaches!

I feel like I’m still having trouble connecting to the center of this topic and I am wondering whether some sort of collaborative exercise would be fun/interesting to offer. I was re-viewing some writing prompts for another purpose this week, and wondering if you would like to do something like exquisite corpse or a cut-up collage or the surrealist dialogues (Q&A format) . . . that we could do via email or perhaps more expeditiously over a Google chat / Skype session? Something open and poetic and creative/assemblage-ish as a shared response?

If you want to talk or chat live as a way of developing or wrapping this up, I am in India, which is 9.5 hours ahead of NY time, so your mornings up till about 12-noon work well for the time difference. I am reasonably free Sunday, Mon, or Tues at that time.

Also I am interested in your teaching work and have been thinking about how as a teacher this question of the female student’s confidence/voice/right to tell her story or any story at all is such a terrible & predictable constant. Currently I am teaching an online course with 20 students, of whom two are male. This is a pretty regular ratio in my workshops, by the way, whether live or online. :) The two men have no trouble posting, critiquing, etc.—they have their own writing struggles of course, but their right to be present, even in a place where they are a decided minority, is not contested. Among the women students, and this is a constant across courses & situations, a good portion of them are so paralyzed that they never or almost never share their work with the class, thus losing out on the entire workshop aspect of receiving peer feedback and affirmation. And those who do often preface their work with apologies and disclaimers.

In a 90-minute session, if I don’t explicitly ban them from apologizing before they speak, I have counted the number of “sorrys” from the women students and it is often in the double-digits. When called on in discussion: “Oh, sorry, is it my turn?” When sharing work: “Sorry, this is really rough, but OK—.”  When engaging in dialogue: “Oh sorry did I interrupt you, go ahead . . .” Ceding, ceding, ceding so much space and authority.

I am not totally sure what “bitchiness” has to do with this but it is certainly an antidote. And also, the female student who takes up “too much” space is much more likely to be labeled a bitch within her cohort—especially, I think, in competitive contexts like certain MFA programs—vs. the male student who takes up too much space, who at most is considered to be a bit egotistical or somehow lacking in social skills. (Another version of boys will be boys?) But even the occasional woman who cheerfully claims the title bitch for herself will still, usually, be plagued with the same uncertainty & hesitation.

So as a writing teacher & writing coach I feel like a lot of my work with women who are writing is really just to encourage and hold space and say, “Yes, you DO have the right to tell your story as you see it.” And I also went through this process myself in writing my own family’s story—so many doubts and fears and questions—some of which could really only be answered in the end by a firm “FUCK OFF” to the internal(ized) critics who were telling me that I could not tell certain stories or give certain interpretations because it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t good to spread family secrets, it wasn’t my right, people might not like me, etc.

Shedding the fear of being disliked, or of not getting (authority) (parental) (teacher) (peer) (critic) (etc.) approval for one’s writing is, I think, the key to growing up as a female writer. At least for some of us (obviously—this trajectory doesn’t apply to everyone). Growing up from the talented youngster who has something special that others approve of and like and encourage, to the adult writer who says whatever she needs to say without regard for how many people will be tweeting her praises. That desperate desire for approval, which social media can really feed, is necessary to outgrow. Or else it becomes a noose—another version of the “good girl” syndrome.

It makes sense to me that any woman who is grown, as a writer, will have developed this strength and fuck-off-ness to some extent. From Toni Morrison to JK Rowling, y’know!?

I am also interested in and think it’s important to note how bitch-ness is racialized. What it takes for a Black woman to be called a bitch is often so tiny, for example. Like, just existing. What are the things that different women get away with or not, based on race, gender presentation, class, age, and so on? As an Asian American/South Asian woman, perceived as being from a so-called model minority, when I express anger it is sometimes very surprising to white folks. I remember being in a poetry workshop, when I was quite young, in my early 20s, and I read a poem, and one of the other students, an older white South African woman, looked at me and said, “But you look like such a nice girl.” HA! Adrienne Su has some great “bitchy” poems that are stunning and tight and poetically superb.

Also: The relationship between bitch-ness and cute-ness. Like, the more perceived/standard cute-ness you have, the more bitchiness you can get away with. Maybe? A working thesis.

OK, that was all super stream-of-conscious but given the deadline, I wanted to just put out a bunch of text to then massage and work with (somehow—how?!) .

OK some writing—

***

Angerfish

…who ‘wrap up’ anger—that is, wrap around [themselves] repeatedly the anger based on the thought ‘he reviled me,’ and so on, like wrapping up the pole of a cart with thongs, or putrid fish with straw—when enmity arises in such persons, it is not appeased, pacified. —Dhammapada I.4

I.

On the first day
the fish wrapped in straw
starts to stink.

On the second day
if you walk by the barn
it enters your clothes.

That evening your wife
sniffs your suit
but says nothing.

On the third day
dressed in your skin
the fish begins to walk.

Your friends know
to hold their breaths.
This is not the first time.

If nothing else happens
the fish retreats
to its mean nest.

You shower.
It sleeps
waiting for you.

Fish oils
soak the hay
of the whole barn.

The chickens begin to dream
of seaweed,
of roe.

II.

In the middle of it
the fish
is the wisest
truest thing you know.

It whispers
sweet sauces—
We are brought here to love, yes,
but not blindly.

Its jelly eye
winks at you
codes of Morse—
No remorse.

Every oracle
takes its price,
skin for scales,
gold for gills.

Some days
it is a bargain.
Or else it costs
everything you have.

III.

I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Somehow in the cradle, rocking,
I caught a whiff; or in the crib clutching
at rails

a bit of fish caught
rough in my scream.
Swallow.

Since then the fish has grown in me
like bubblegum or seeds of water
melons.

Since then we’re bosom tight
thick as thieves sealed with a
kiss — kin.

Is this what I meant
when I longed for teeth?
Is this what they meant

when they named me fish?
Soon I shall slit my
belly

to stroke its silver scales
bilious, slippery
as love.

IV.

At last the fish
swallows its own tail

scale by creamy scale
orgy of self-

righteous     lips
on sharp bone

tongue sucking spine
vertebra by vertebra

teeth shredding
gummy ovaries

ripe with black meat
millions of living

egg of fish.
Belly full of self

soft pulsing
heart of fish

parallel eyes
forehead

white gills
filled

with the last sea.
When the fish

is all jaw
row of incisors

grinding plankton
coral     salt

churning oceans
like milk

into sweet fat
gold

then I will be ready
for you.

***

<Below is a snip—the first section of a longer prose-poem in several parts>

 Archaeologies of the present
“. . . a trained student can master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months.” —Margaret Mead
“Everything, everything is cinema.”  —Jean-Luc Godard

 

1-2000 The Beautiful

Luxury at this time in America meant white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, the material used in bathing towels, found in five-star hotels. The stars were a rating system indicating the quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one had generally to be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough to be projected upon: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides were enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means existed to simulate blood.

A sweetened, tomato-blood chemical sauce was the nation’s most popular food.  Others: Grainstuffs elaborated as stars, flakes, O’s. Dried strips of cow meat sold individually or trussed in plastic.  Tasteless tablets of all sorts containing nutrients & chemicals designed to manipulate the body’s reactions, at the cellular level.

At the cellular level the people had no awareness. The living world was mute around them; some wore devices to enhance their hearing, while others plugged their aural orifices with synthetic music. Synthesizers simulated joy, art, sex. Love was consummated not in stamens & pistils, but in leather & lace. Each woman’s thighs were obscene. Breastfeeding took place only in closets.

Elaborate & costly systems of organizing closets were available. Entire stores existed to sell containers for items sold in other stores: clothing & other forms of body decoration, scrubbing tools, pig fat in hundreds of hues to dramatize the lips. It was rumored that the color of a woman’s lips indicated the color of her labial arches. Archbishops denied all knowledge of the topic. Sexually transmitted disease was rampant among celibate priests, & debates raged over their homo- or hetero-sexuality.

Homogeneous vitamin-fortified milk was sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying desires for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, were white.

***

 

Minstrelry

My sisters & I write all day & night about silk
its delicate weft      golden peacocks & parrots
rush of wind through dark hair      waiting.       Just the word

chanted like a sutra     silk      silk      silk      silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on musks of exotic suffering.      Whatever

we say       love      war      race      hate
if we wrap it in silk they will take it
home, unminding.      It will live in their rooms amid demons

of jade      throw pillows      Chinese funeral papers
marble dust from the Taj Mahal.       At night
we will wriggle out in ribbons of soft meat      like worms

feasting.

***

*

Novel scene of bitch character getting her comeuppance—

 

Re: your prompts—a quick thought/note: I have loved writing this character and seeing the inside of her suffering. Although she is a total bitch in the story, I see the deep roots of trauma in her, and so she is also beloved to me.  And fascinating. She gets to behave in ways I never would, but maybe sometimes would like to.  (Since she’s a vampire, for example, she often just kills people who irritate her. Full entitlement & unchecked power — that’s sexy!!  As pure fantasy.)  The violence she does is intense but also teeny in proportion to the violence that has been done to her.  So she is a victim as well.

One theme I realized today I am exploring in this novel:  the actual & imagined victimhood of the powerful &privileged.

<Editor’s note: Novel scene excised by Minal because she doesn’t want it published at this moment.>

 

MH: Sophia, sorry to email you again without even waiting for a response! I got excited and wrote a poem (rough-rough drafty draft!) for you.

 What we bitch about when we bitch about “bitch” or What kind of question is that?
for Sophia Starmack

“Meh” to the old debate about rights,
the dated defense, the fuck-you to fuck all yous,

transient/adolescent posture for undoing
patriarchy, her destructive force

quite glorious to watch. Today bitch
is a verb & bee-yatch a joke/mace young men

hurl to bond with each other
over our bodies—swelled battlegrounds

ripe with blood, fat but intact,
lumpy like pickles, preserved in rage-brine.

I’ll give you Mina Loy’s virgins + curtains,
the slow testifying of Rachel Jaentel,

streak of women who claim the capital “I,”
stone in the throat of Juror B37.

You give me the wise & the foolish,
a series of prompts,

questions of liberation
& resentment. So much more to explore

than the -archy’s twisted mirror,
that evil genie grin:

Would you like to be my friend? Please will you be
my friend? We couldn’t friendbook her could we?

Let’s take our three wishes and run.
Let’s picnick on islands where kindness

is no excuse of doormats, but a spine
risen like datepalm into hot free nights.

 

Notes: Barbara Kruger, “Your Body is a Battleground.”  Mina Loy, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.”  Rachel Jaentel and Juror B-37:  women involved in the Trayvon Martin trial.  May 2013 Publisher’s Weekly: Claire Messud, to interviewer who remarked that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist: “What kind of question is that?”

 

SS: I love this poem, and I feel so gifted. Thank you. I am drawn to your vision of giving as a sharp vision, and I love the closing image of a savage-spikey kindness growing out of the dirt into the wild sky.

I woke up this morning thinking about language, about limitations, gaps, lacunae. There you are in India, hours, miles, existences away from me here at the sticky kitchen table in Brooklyn. Yet, we are sending each other packets of language, hoping that by paying attention to words, by entering into the logic of our poems, embracing their anti-reason, something will be created. It’s 6:30am here, and I’m skimming the NYT, glancing at the NYC sanitation guidelines posted in the foyer, steeling myself for the morning peek at the friendbook. Language. It offers infinite opportunities for dulling, creating easy and false connection, of soothing me away from seeing. It is also the dimension where with attention, I begin to touch the unknown. I write my way closer to you; we hold the space, we know and not-know, we write ourselves into being.

And here is a poem for you, too!

The Angry Ugly Feminist in Poetry School
for Minal Hajratwala

was just so exhaust—try—a letter with missing—
what wanted was—no—this too was cliché.
again. wanted to tell—no.
wanted to pour a long—glass—of milk?
deserved nothing but everything owed.
a story with missing—once was told upon a time—
god like the sun. shone. what wanted was forward—and burn.

 

Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach and author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by The Washington Post. She is the editor of Out! Stories From the New Queer India, a groundbreaking anthology of contemporary LGBT literature since the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Her first book of poems, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, of which she is a founding member. minalhajratwala.com

Sophia Starmack is a poet and teacher. She received an MA in French and Francophone literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, Best New Poets 2012, and others. Sophia lives and works in New York City. sophiastarmack.wordpress.com

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