A LITERARY COMMUNITY POWERED BY VIDA: WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS

On “Little Books,” the Physicality of Writing and Revising Fairy Tales: Gina Fragello and Stacy Bierlein in Conversation

HER KIND: Welcome to the Conversation. In her poem “Anatomy,” Monica Ferrell writes: “The heart has no sense of humor./ It offers itself piteously like a pair of handcuffs,/ And is so clumsy that we turn away.” Thinking of when you first started writing to the present, could you explain the “anatomy” of your own work?

 

 

GINA FRAGELLO: So I’ve been reading this quote all day, and Monica Ferrell’s entire poem, trying to sort out what I feel about this—  not even so much with regard to the anatomy of my writing as, perhaps, the anatomy of my own heart…and if I can speak for Stacy a little bit here, because she and I have known each other for a long freaking time, have seen each other through a lot of that “quarry full of marble statues, with heads and genitals erased” that Ferrell calls “the past.” It’s a stunning poem, and incredibly provocative, and has been haunting me, and yet I’m not sure my own heart recognizes it entirely.

I think the heart has a sense of humor. I know my own heart has a somewhat dark, macabre one at times…but it’s definitely there. And when I think of Stacy’s writing, I really think of her entire terrain, almost, as the comedy of erotic love…that to me is what Stacy’s work is all about.  But I’ll stop speaking for Stacy! I’ll speak for myself…it’s hard for me to imagine the heart functioning without humor. I think what Ferrell means here is that the heart in the throes of pain can easily lose its sense of humor for a time. But my own feeling about that would be to say that, sadly, as fucking gruesome as those moments are to live, they’re also the moments when we are most generic versions of ourselves, in certain ways. The heart without humor is a less individual heart, perhaps…and there can be something intense and cathartic about falling into that raw, primal human brew of just blind aching…but I think the heart is also at its most selfish in those states, its least able to care for others or see things clearly or process. I’m (more than a little) interested in self-destructive impulses, certainly in my work I explore those impulses a lot…so I’m not saying here that the heart has to be at its highest water mark or its best self to be interesting or worthy of exploration…far from it.  Still.  A heart without humor?  I guess I can’t quite imagine loving a heart like that, or knowing what love would feel like with a heart like that. Without humor, I’m not sure the impulse to write–to document ourselves–even exists.  Every tragedy is a bit of a tragicomedy.  I mean, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy, right? There’s Romeo, freaking out with love over Rosaline, and in walks Juliet and—  bam— if they’d waited just a few more weeks and gone to a few more crowded parties, maybe he wouldn’t have had to kill himself because he’d have met another girl and been swooning under her window. Romeo lost his sense of humor about himself, if he was old enough to have one. He didn’t realize he was in love with love, or see the larger canvas of his own suffering, but of course Shakespeare did see it, he had an incredibly subversive wit, sometimes crazily subtle.  Can you write without a sense of humor?  I’m not sure.  I know you can’t read without one…

I’ve also been obsessing over semantics all day in this Ferrell poem, since writers are crazy this way. I’ve been thinking, Is the heart the handcuffs, or is the heart the willing, clumsy and desperate slave that thrusts its wrists out to be shackled, with so much raw need that we turn away? I’m not sure what Ferrell’s meaning is here: is the heart the prisoner or the jailer? Is it the same thing, in the end? The heart offers itself like handcuffs. Well, we’re slaves to our hearts, and they can be naked and piteous to the point that we wish to run from them, and are certainly capable of driving others away with them, yes. This part resonates deeply with the writing process, actually.  I think most art, really—  painting, music, writing—  has a great deal to do with having feelings so raw and seemingly unsuitable to daily life and conventional decorum that the impulses need to find expression elsewhere. I mean, generally speaking, songwriters don’t write about what a pain in the ass it is to stand in line at the DMV, even though we all could “relate” to that experience.  Songs, novels…the art we’re compelled to make is usually about a more secret underbelly of human need.  Lust, heartbreak, crime, atrocities of human nature. We write what haunts us— what we’re enslaved to. We usually, when we’re first starting out as writers, also do this without any kind of governor or filter. We spill out onto pages; we gut ourselves. The tightrope of craft is, at its core, all about learning a skill set of how to express ourselves in ways that aren’t wildly narcissistic, that allow and invite the reader in…yet the mysterious alchemy that people call talent or passion or heart has to do with the truth that craft alone can never make writing more than “competent,” and it’s that messy catharsis and nakedness–our slavery to our own hearts–that is the very grist and soul of the human impetus to make art. We strive to communicate the things that are beyond normal modes of communion, but somehow with just enough distance or clarity to make it more than emotional masturbation. Art is mysteriously singular in its ability to convey certain emotional states so strongly that it can produce/replicate them in people who are otherwise not feeling those things in their own lives at that moment–it can suspend one reality and cause the reader to enter another. What else does that? I mean, I was going to say maybe sex, but then you’re a participant in a different sense…or at the very least you can’t…uh…generally reach the same breadth of audience…

I haven’t said anything about the anatomy of my work, except that I guess probably I have.  I started writing very young, like many writers: I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and I started writing my first “novel” at the age of ten on butcher block paper that had to be torn off a roll, in secret, telling no one I was writing, hiding the pages. I did this because my heart was conflicted and twisted and fucked up and hurting and spilling in ways that felt dangerous, because I was confused by violence and inequities I saw in my neighborhood, in my extended family, and I needed an outlet. My feelings were grossly clumsy and uncensored and to unchain them in life would not have just been embarrassing and foolish but potentially dangerous, given my environment at the time. Writing was the one place I could reveal and unleash my messy heart, to which I was very much a slave (so maybe the heart is the handcuffs?), but that in Normal Life I kept well hidden, and feared, and sometimes loathed. As my work…well, what they call “matured,” I guess I learned certain tricks about how to make the piteous heart on the page relevant or accessible to anyone besides myself, and to see a larger canvas. But yeah, without a sense of humor, my heart would be shut down by now–anyone’s would be— and there would be very little point to writing fiction, or to reading in general. On some level, most things that make you cry— in life and perhaps especially in the writing process–should also be able to make you laugh, because laughter is one of the very core experiences that connects people. I’m thinking of Emily Rapp’s new book The Still Turning Point of the World which is about her son’s impending death from Tay-Sachs, and is probably the most brutally heartbreaking book I’ve ever read by an American writer of my own generation. It’s also, at times, incredibly funny. I have never loved a writer who didn’t offer me a clumsy, piteous heart, and I have never loved a writer who lacked a sense of humor, or who didn’t find a place of freedom in the inevitable handcuffs of what it is to be human and to feel deeply…so I guess that tells me a lot about the kind of writer I want to be, too.

 

STACY BIERLEIN: Several years ago I heard a group of writers being asked why they started writing fiction and their answers were lovely and true. To stay in touch with my own humanity, one man said. Yes, to remind myself that I am human, another man said. To lay my heart bare, a woman said.

I think Ferrell is right in “Anatomy,” that too often “the heart has no sense of humor;” always it “is so clumsy.” Too easily we turn away from it. But as I think on the impulse, the very need a writer feels to lay her heart bare … how that phrase has a sweet sound to it, lay it bare, three words we say with ease. But there is nothing easy about facing a blank page with a heart that might fool or escape or confuse or evade you; might offer itself “like a pair of handcuffs” all too ready to chain you to a wall. To lay your heart bare you have to wrestle and secure and interrogate it. Worse yet, you must strive to understand it.

Like Gina, I was always writing fiction, even as a very young girl. Yet the first time I remember really pouring myself into a story, doing the kind of writing that makes your palm sweat against the pencil as you go, I was nineteen. I spent part of the summer with girlfriends on Martha’s Vineyard. On the Vineyard no one wore shoes and we shared flimsy little cottages without bathtubs or phones. We showered at the beach; trusted we would meet up with our friends at whatever beach party was being given whatever night. We never made actual arrangements, things just sort of happened. I’m making it sound a bit too precious, I know, but I guess it was a precious time. We were young and full of ourselves, obnoxious and away from authority— pretending we were born to live inside the JCrew catalogue.

I met a boy–a gorgeous stoner boy with a scratchy voice–and we spent a lot of time making out on the beach. We didn’t know each other’s real names. That summer we all had island nicknames so he was Taz and I was Space and if we were away from the crowd our friends knew we off together making out in the sand. At the end of summer we did what all the other kissing kids did. We said goodbye without exchanging names or numbers and went back to our respective studies at our respective universities. The unspoken rules of that world required me to forget him and move onto a school-year boy. But my god, the way he kissed me and the way I craved kissing him … There seemed no way to forget a boy who kissed you like that. My heart was full of him and my head was full of the romance novels and American soap operas I had been raised on. An older friend tried to warn me that the musings of a spoiled girl desperate for love seldom make great literature. But why not, I thought. Why not? Plus, I was sixty pages in at the time of the warning.

Years later, post beach parties and soap operas, when I had finally become an adult (or believed I had) with real-world responsibilities, I looked back to that manuscript to see exactly why it didn’t work. Where, with regard to craft, had I failed? I was tutoring three nineteen-year-old writing students, one of them writing about a summer love, and wondered if there was something in my own mistakes that could be helpful to them. I was shocked to see that my story had little physicality. The story inspired by a boy who had aroused every part of me had very little mention of the human body. Our touching, our exploring, all that kissing–the playful, fun kisses, the deeper, inspired kisses, the sloppy drunken ones–had not made the page. Instead the story imagined us years later, the him-character attractive and reckless and unable to commit; and the me-character, well, the me-character was dead. It makes sense. I had grown up on stories constructed upon the death of the female. Barbar, Bambi, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Love Story. Recently a friend joked to me that she was pleased when her kids reached for Harry Potter because in the beginning of Harry Potter the dad dies too. But typically in popular American literature, as in current U.S. politics, the female body is the first sacrifice.

About the lack of physicality in that early work: what I saw in the story, years later, was that I had written the heart and the body and the mind as separate forces unable (frightened? unwilling?) to merge. When my character craved the union of her heart and body and mind, I killed her off. It was a cowardly move for a writer, even a young one, but there it was on the page. My character was a goner. How much of this separation of mind and heart and body was bad writing, how much was my own psychology and how much was simply training? As teenagers we were constantly told to guard our virginity by using our brains. How many times were we coached to do this–to put our bodies and hearts in opposition to our minds? Here is something that bothers me to this day: If the circuitries of attachment live within us, why did we allow ourselves to be so easily trained to detach?

In the 1990′s I had the honor to spend time in South Asia where I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. I admired the way Buddhism invites us to synchronize our minds and bodies, to find compassion and calmness (or, let’s say, our hearts) in the mind-body. I noticed American Buddhists saying and writing it this way, mind-body, hyphenated.  It is a simple act of punctuation that held a great deal of meaning for me. I felt that I could thrive as a writer when my stories became more physical, when I retrained myself to consider the mind and body as one. I wrote hard in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s and while I did not write specifically about traveling in Asia, this experience was freeing in a way that I am not sure I can define properly.  The stories in my current collection come from this time of retraining and giving myself permission to mix things up.  In these years I was also reading Surrealist poetry.  I noticed on my bookshelf recently that collections of Surrealist drawing and painting and poetry almost always have the word desire in their titles. In the years I worked on those stories I kept a quote from Kasha Berg’s poem, “Desire,” next to my computer monitor.  It said. “Your eyes make that mirror look so dumb.”

These days, as I work on a novella, I keep a quote from another poem next to my monitor, ”The Straightforward Mermaid,” by Matthea Harvey.  She writes: “The straightforward mermaid starts every sentence with ‘Look …’  This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks.”

 

GF: I love that line, Stacy.  A friend recently pointed out to me that when I’m going to say something that means a lot to me, I tend to begin with, “Listen to me.” If the straightforward mermaid begins every sentence with “Look,” I wonder what creature begins sentences with “Listen”…I think here, of ancient stone statues whose ears have fallen off with time…of a graveyard of earless statues, watching over the past, somehow.  I grew up in a place where girls’ voices were not heard, and as I write that it just made me laugh, because…well, where would be a place, I guess, where girls voices are heard?  Even now, much less in the 1970s. I think of my own daughters, who are twelve and are certainly heard in their home, and even I’d say are heard at school to whatever extent, at least, the boys are heard…but when I think of what they see in the larger culture, from the comparative invisibility of female characters in the Pixar movies they watched when they were little, to the brain-dead images of teenage girls they’d see on popular TV shows, to the incredible underrepresentation of women they see in politics in an election year…the way they see female celebrity represented in the magazines in the grocery store or stacked on the kitchen table in my parents’ house…is there a girl out there who does not need to begin sentences with “Look” or with “Listen,” when girls are still so actively erased and reinvented in a convenient, easy media image?

I love that Stacy was, at the age of 19, writing something that sounds like a Susan Minot novel–it sounds, almost, like an early draft of the novel Evening. Minot is the writer I’ve been comparing Stacy to for ages, although maybe Minot and Lorrie Moore mixed in a blender, because of Stacy’s penchant for and brilliance with organic word-play.  But yes, it’s so revealing that the girl/woman of the piece had already been “erased” in her version…in Evening, the grown up version of this kind of story, the woman is only dying, ha!  She’s still present to unfurl the tumult of her own erotic/romantic nostalgia. Certain images are kind of stalking me through this conversation, and I think the marble statue is one…we talked about Ferrell’s line in which the past is a quarry of marble statues with heads and genitals erased.  But wow–what is the past if not…genitals? Nostalgia is intensely sexual and romantic.  Memory is powerfully arousing. Our pasts present themselves to us, in memory, almost like a series of sexual encounters, or orgasms…we skip all the in-between lulls and our brain rapid-fires the emotional climaxes at us.  This is why memory and the past have such a power to haunt, right? Our eyes and ears and mouths and brains may all be missing from the past…but our genitals have, I think, almost gone into overdrive because of the loss of those other functions. The past is the ultimate unrequited love.

When I think of the anatomy of my work, I realize that I have always written about both The Past, and the body in distress.  These are two of the most powerful and consistent strains in my work, really. My debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, which came out in 2006, is a contemporary retelling of Freud’s “Dora” case study…I’d split Dora into a pair of identical twins who each represented a facet of her personality, and one sister is struggling with pretty brutal physical manifestations of anxiety that are derailing her wedding plans, while the other is anorexic and addicted to painkillers for a back injury, and is engaging in an S/M affair with her father’s law partner. My forthcoming novel, A Life in Men, is about a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis, and her efforts to live a life on the widest possible canvas, rather than being limited by her disease. Both novels–and many of my short stories–have a focal point of an incident or period in the past that still traps the protagonist emotionally and continues to dictate current choices. The schism between who we could be if we could forgive ourselves for the past, vs. who we are when we remain captives to guilt and anger, is one of the most interesting emotional terrains for me.  I don’t know that this always necessarily has to overlap with the body in distress, but for me these explorations have tended to be parallel. My work is extremely sexual and always has been…but it’s also extremely concerned with the body in less than optimal health, with the body struggling, and how the past, sexual expression, and in the moment choice all overlap in the context of an active physical realm. I think literature too often ignores the body almost altogether, and in more mainstream fiction, sexuality almost always seems to be connected with perfect physical health that almost doesn’t even bear mentioning because it’s such a “given.” I think on a very fundamental level, I’m simply drawn, in terms of my work’s anatomy, in terms of my explorations of the heart in handcuffs or the heart’s ability to laugh at itself…I am drawn to the ways the heart and body overlap messily, and don’t step out of each other’s way conveniently.  I am interested in the active relationship between the genitals and the head, without which…well, yes, we would be mere marble statues guarding over a dead Past.  The Past is more alive and kinetic, I think, in my work, and genitals can’t get switched off even when people wish they could–physicality in general inserts itself as a constant force to be reckoned with.  A Missing Head, on the other hand, can carry many meanings.

 

SB: When I read Gina’s manuscript for My Sister’s Continent, the first thing that caught my attention was the strong and unwavering body awareness that both Kirby and Kendra possess.  Sometime later I read Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s tour de force, “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.”  Brumberg beautifully supports the claim that girl culture experienced a turning point in the 1920′s, that by 1930 most American girls became body focused and approached their own body image as a project.  It occurred to me that if I was teaching a gender studies course, I would teach Gina’s novel along side Brumberg. Gina’s protagonists, Kenda and Kirby, reach adulthood in the 1990′s. For both the body is a project that dictates the course of her life.

Kendra is an expert at controlling and manipulating her body. She is a career dancer, daring and poised and most often risking her life in some stage of bulimia and anorexia. In her personal life she is sexually fearless, confident, determined. In Kirby, the sharp observer, emotion never fails to manifest itself physically. Kirby suffers anxiety-induced irritable bowel syndrome though most of the novel. She is unsure of herself sexually. Like so many young adults today, she constantly feels defeated by the mirror, only in her case she does not need to scrutinize her own image in a full-length piece of glass. She has only to look at her twin sister, the ballerina, whose version of their body–and Kirby often thinks of it this way, their body, where as Kendra claimed her bodily independence early on and in various ways–appears to be cooperating, even if it is at way too high a price.

There are important truths in My Sister’s Continent that few novels could tell so well.  With regard to body image and sexuality, Kendra and Kirby face an obstacle that Freud’s subjects and the mid-century girls Brumberg describes did not. The AIDS epidemic created an environment of thinking about sexuality literally in terms of life and death.  Our body’s yearnings could prove fatal.

To say more about this idea of the body as a project: whether we learn it from our mothers, our role models, our peers, or popular culture, Western women commonly view their bodies this way and the project is a rather public one. Our obsessions with appearance are encouraged at every turn. Popular advertising and the fashion industry can so obviously be blamed for contributing to a culture of bulimia and anorexia, but as far back as Nancy Drew–remember how Nancy was attractive and wise, and her chubby best friend was the foil?–we were being sold the so-called virtues of being thin and therefore sexy.

In American culture the body is all-consuming. We crave internal control of our bodies and diet dangerously. Our fixation on weight sells books about calories, fats, and carbs by the millions. Skin care and hair care are multi-billion dollar industries. We kick-box and zumba and barre– fitness clubs far outnumbering libraries and universities and bookstores. We suffer our perceived flaws as we offer ourselves to the world as decorative objects. We exhibit. We adorn and pierce and tattoo.

I saw a picture once— it may have been in Brumberg’s book— that had been taken at Cornell University in 1995.  It was an image of graffiti outside a gender studies classroom that said “Our Bodies Make Us Worry.” This was a response to an assigned text, Our Bodies, Ourselves, which had been published twenty-two years prior. It is striking to me that the more optimistic slogan, Our Bodies, Ourselves, belongs to the earlier generation. I hate that we have in many ways failed our foremothers. I think we owe a lot to the 1970′s, an era that gave women the new feminist literary canon including “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and helped ease (but not quite erase) taboos about virginity.  At the same time, girls were introduced to Judy Blume’s Deenie and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (One of the first things to love about My Sister’s Continent is that Kendra gets into Kirby’s car and quotes Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.)  Deenie taught girls that masturbation was an acceptable form of sexual pleasure and Margaret helped to demystify menstruation. When I first read these books in the 1980′s, I assumed they were new publications. My parents and my friend’s parents considered them somewhat seditious but didn’t forbid us from reading them. It feels unnerving to me that Deenie and Margaret are still considered subversive; that along with Forever (in which a high school boyfriend and girlfriend have intercourse for the first time, consensually, sensitively, and with a condom) they are among the most often banned books in school libraries.

Last year, at my daughter’s school, sex education expert Deborah Roffman gave a talk to parents of children in grades kindergarten through eight.  My daughter was six at the time and some of the other six-year-old parents walked into the program saying, “Oh, they’re only six; we have a lot of time to have these talks.” Deborah was non-negotiable in saying we do not. “Will you wait until they ask about calculus to teach them math?” She wanted to know. I loved this response. Our kids are at a natural age to ask questions about where they came from and how our bodies work. But why don’t we start the conversation, avoid the confusion we felt, and empower them with the answers?

My own mother kept a stack of brochures from our doctor’s office when my sister and I were little. When I had questions about sex or my body, a brochure was supposed to have the answers. But I was a timid girl. I let the questions stew in my brain for a long time before I actually asked them. Yet when I came across the word “masturbation” in Deenie, I immediately asked my mother what it meant. Believe it or not, there wasn’t actually a brochure for that one. She amused herself by instructing me to ask my father when he arrived home. When I asked him that night, he looked at me, stunned, and directed me to talk to my mother. It was the same for my friends, the circling back to the other parent, the non-answer answers. My mother, and her mother before that, was educated about sexuality by earlier versions of the same brochures. But the brochures were cryptic and often left us more confused.  My grandmother referred to them as “the little books.”

I recently read that in the late 1920′s teenage girls whose mothers subscribed to Ladies Home Journal received a pamphlet about connections between their emerging sexuality and germs.  It was written by a female MD and distributed by the Lysol company.  Can you even imagine that some of your early question about sex answered by a pamphlet that is essentially an advertisement for disinfectant?  That’s a pretty serious lack of optimism.

In the novella I’m working on now, a young woman carries a fair degree of anger about the misinformation she received as a girl.  She suspects the storybook and movie characters that she met as a preschooler first misled her. Sleeping Beauty is the one that really pisses her off now.  After sleeping for 100 years, the first thing Sleeping Beauty is meant to do upon waking is to get married.  And most of us bought this story fully as little girls.  Some of us twirled around in our dresses to that sweet song, I think it was called “Once Upon a Dream.”  I wish I had been the girl who said, Um, doesn’t she need to eat something?  How about a boyfriend or two first?  I think we will agree that waking from a hundred year sleep to get married, in all its classic magic, was always a ridiculously wretched idea.  

 

HK: Stacy and Gina, you co-edited the cult-like MEN UNDRESSED anthology in which women wrote about sex from the male perspective. Do you think women shy away from frankly writing about the body, especially from a male perspective? What do you consider an “authentic” voice in this case?

 

GF: I don’t believe at all that women shy away from writing frankly about the body–I think, if anything, the opposite is true, in that some of the most visceral recent body-writing comes from women writers.  Not that male writers haven’t contributed beautiful and naked physical and sexual literature…but I’ve sometimes wondered if male writers are feeling the same urgency to write their bodies these days as previous generations of male writers did, when sexual writing was still so taboo. What writers from Lawrence to Miller to successors like Roth and Updike may have felt, in terms of the proscriptions against such candid body writing, was largely already brought out into the open and accepted by the time of my own “coming of age” as a reader and writer, whereas women writers were really only beginning to own this terrain, still, in the 1970s. Beginning with writers like Erica Jong or Judith Rosner, a wide array of women from Kate Braverman to Kathy Acker to Alice Walker began exploring the body as literary terrain…not just in the States, of course, but elsewhere…with French feminists like Irigaray and Cixous; with Jeanette Winterson…ground was still very much being broken with books like The Bluest Eye, with Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? and Bastard Out of Carolina and other work by Dorothy Allison, and of course Mary Gaitskill, even in the 90s.  I see the response, even, to memoirs like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and it tells me that women are still deeply hungry to explore the body in language, and are greeting texts that engage with that imperative as though gulping for air. What male writers were exploring so deeply in the first half of the twentieth century, up to the sexual revolution…it’s not OVER, obviously, and you still see male writers like Stephen Elliott who are approaching the male body in new ways and making a big impact. You see writers like Steve Almond who write with a raw vulnerability and emotion that the earlier male American writers often deeply lacked or hid under a lot of posturing bravado or explicit description. Men are still breaking new ground in defining the male experience. But it’s ground the exploration of which began much earlier than with women writers, existed on a wider scale, was more embraced by the dominant literary establishment, and has had a wider breadth of examples, forefathers and sources. Women from about the 1970s to the 1990s had a LOT of ground to make-up, in terms of defining their own experience of the female body, rather than allowing future generations of female readers to believe that they were supposed to…well…feel like Lady Chatterly.

So no, I don’t believe at all that women hesitate to write the female body–to insist on claiming it as our own and no longer leaving its terrain to texts penned by men. You see roots of this extremely far back in literary history, though Modernist writers like Jean Rhys may be the first to be widely known for it, and then you see a real explosion of women claiming the female body as literary terrain during and after Second Wave Feminism.  What I do witness is that women attempting to write the male body is a relatively new literary movement, in any wider sense.  I do see writers like AM Homes and Mary Gaitskill being pioneers of something quite new here, as late as the 1980s and 90s…of something that had very little wide scale precedent prior in literary fiction. And that’s the new movement Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience sought to explore and celebrate.  I haven’t researched this, but there are no doubt dozens if not hundreds of anthologies out there celebrating women writers depicting the female body, whether in literary fiction, memoir, erotica, what have you. I don’t know of any projects that aimed to explore what women were doing in terms of grappling with and exploring male sexuality–something male writers, for example we were talking about Lawrence, have done for generations with women characters and female sexuality…

This is an extremely exciting movement to me because it indicates that women writers are now beginning to explore sexuality as a subject matter that helps us not to just be understood but to understand others. As Cris Mazza talks about in the Men Undressed introduction, one of the timeless purposes of literature is to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. We write from a place far deeper than any political agenda, no matter how true it may concurrently be that women need for our bodies to be recognized as every bit as normative as the male body, and not as some Exotic Other. But as writers, we write never just so that others can understand US but so that we ourselves may understand the larger world, and live inside another head for a time.  These needs are twinned, and women writers’ explorations of and forays into male sexuality in fiction indicates to me a deep maturing of the movement of women’s body writing–that women are no longer feeling it so deeply upon ourselves to have to stand up and Represent Women, but that we can, if we choose, simply write as human beings.

As a writer, I think both things have been deeply important to me.  I’ve certainly always considered my work “feminist,” if not in a clean or politically-correct, party-line kind of way of the old Second Wave feminism on which I was weaned. But I think a lot of women writers of the 90s were complicating those old definitions…I hate the term “post-feminist” and think it’s deeply erroneous and problematic and that it also gave way to an absurd amount of woman-bashing by women who then became mini celebrities by telling men how lame and unsexy the feminists were…I object to a lot of what came out of that so-called movement, but I do feel that there were also a lot of pro-feminist writers who were refusing to adhere to certain didactic binaries that were maybe popular in our mothers’ generation. And I have, since fairly young as a writer, always been interested in exploring male sexuality in my work, alongside female sexuality. My first published stories from a male point of view were in the mid-to-late 90s, and my forthcoming novel has…I think five?…male points of view, all of which are plenty sexual. It’s become very difficult for me to even conceptualize writing for very long without a male character compelling me just as much as female characters, and my wanting to get inside their heads to understand what makes them tick. I’ve had one male character who appears in two novels of mine who I found very hard to shake; in the first novel, he didn’t have a point of view of his own, but was only seen through the lens of others’ perspectives, so in the second he became a more major character.

I mean…it’s interesting. I find it almost weird when any woman says she “isn’t a feminist”— feminism seems essential common sense and a basic human right to me. Yet I also find it truly curious when men and women seem to…well, the Mars and Venus perspectives, I guess. Since I was in elementary school, some of my most intimate friends have always been men. I was never a tomboy— I never played sports and I was always kind of girly— so I don’t mean this in a “one of the guys” kind of way.  I mean that deeply intelligent men who have complex, layered hearts are every bit as interesting and comprehensible and compelling to me as deeply intelligent women with complex, layered hearts. I mean that we can find kinship and recognition across gender lines, easily, if we are open to it. There are a lot of people in the world who still seek to oppress women in a variety of ways, and silence the female body, but the group MEN, as in nearly-fifty-percent-of-the-population, is not a group whose feet we can dump that burden at. Men come in as many varieties as women do, and can’t be reduced to Other any more than women have enjoyed being Othered throughout history.

 

SB: I like that Gina argues against the term post-feminist and agree completely. Any suggestion that feminism is over or has been replaced by something else seems insane to me. And I have to admit that I feel betrayed by younger women who reject the term feminist. By rejecting this word they might have embraced they fail to recognize the ways in which the feminist movement has benefitted their generation. This suggests a disheartening lack of context.

I agree completely with Gina that this emergence of women writing the male body is an exciting moment in literature, one we sought to celebrate in Men Undressed. It is my hope that women do not shy away from writing this kind of material; that women who might have in the past will not continue to. I remember as a writing student being told by an editor that I admired that my work would be more successful if I learned to keep my politics out of it. That seemed like an impossible thing for me to try to accept but because it was advice from someone I deeply admired, I caught myself holding back on my political/feminist/womanist views in subsequent works. That became more frightening–the realization that I had self-censored–than the idea that writing revealing my political views might not find its way to publication.  I discussed this with a friend from my writing workshop, and a very fine writer, Don DeGrazia. He told me, “Don’t be an asshole. Self-censorship is the most dangerous kind of censorship.”  He was right, of course.  One of the things that I love about Men Undressed, as well as the story collections Other Voices publishes, is that they might find their way into the creative writing classroom and become permission-giving in some way.  Ideally, they might speak to someone the way Don spoke to me: Don’t be an asshole, just find your best work.

A few years before working on  Men Undressed, I recommended fiction to a family friend who was applying to MFA programs.  We had discussed previously Blue Angel by Francine Prose, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and Secret Son by Laila Lalami.  Thinking of short stories, I suggested she read “Mirror Ball” by Mary Gaitskill, “Spleen” by Josip Novakovich, and the Tania stories by Tod Goldberg. She noticed that the works we were discussing were acts of narrative cross-dressing. I insisted to her that these were not simply writing experiments; these are authors finding important material. I hadn’t had an agenda in pushing her toward those stories other than to show her some very fine fiction. I remember reading a Grace Paley interview in which she described the value of a writer getting away from her own voice. She said that in writing stories she started listening to voices other than her own, and from there she learned to clear her own throat.

 

Gina Frangello is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Sister’s Continent. She is the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in Chicago with her husband, twin daughters and son, and teaches at Columbia College and Northwestern University.

Stacy Bierlein is the author of the acclaimed story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends and a coeditor of the short fiction anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. Her award-winning anthology of international fiction, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, is used in university classrooms across the country. She is a founding editor of Other Voices Books and the Morgan Street International Novel Series. Her articles about writing, publishing, and the arts appear on various websites.  She lives in Southern California.

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