In the age of “leaning in” and “having it all,” the superwoman model for female living persists with a vengeance. Feminism is supposed to be a refuge from all that perfection-seeking, but even there, it’s easy to feel bested, lured by things that are bad for women but great for entertainment: Cue your guilty dancing every time “Blurred Lines” comes on the radio.
In her new essay collection, Bad Feminist, out August 5, author Roxane Gay wrestles with this conundrum. “When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core,” she writes. “I am mortified by my music choices.”
Gay—literature professor, novelist, prolificTwitterer, and blogger who imparts life wisdom couched in cooking advice—is best known for her deeply personal essays about everything from politics to pop culture. Most of the writings in this collection have been published at various outlets, including at The Rumpus, where Gay is essays editor.
Bad Feminist reads like an autobiography, segueing from elements of Gay’s life—her Nebraska upbringing, her Haitian-American family, her cooking—into smart critiques of everything from reproductive rights to the Sweet Valley High andTwilight books. It’s a mix of the somber and the hilarious; Gay aptly quotes both Judith Butler and the Ying Yang Twins. “I am flawed and human,” Gay writes. “I am messy.” And capital-F feminism could do with a little more messiness.
I caught up with Gay a few weeks after the release of her latest novel, An Untamed State, as she prepped for back-to-back summer book tours, to discuss her survival tactics for social awkwardness, her Scrabble obsession, and why she never shows her writing to her parents.
Seriously obsessed with the Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin collaboration from 2010.
Sir is a quiet book that says a lot. It moved me in a terribly visceral way. I mean, I cried. And, of course: it’s a book about the speaker’s grandfather (Sir) and his death, the speaker’s grandmother (Mrs. Alice) and her dementia, the seventy-year relationship between the two grandparents. The speaker emails with her grandfather as he adorably tries to figure out emails. The speaker shares the worst news with her grandmother, not even halfway into the book, but you, the reader, are already gripped by this loss. You already care so much, associate this pain with your own grief and fears. It’s such a heart-wrenching moment:
“Mrs. Alice, I have some sad news to share with you. There was a very long pause. Mrs. Alice, Sir’s been sick, and he had to go back into the hospital again… Well, let’s go visit him… Well, that’s the thing, we can’t… Well, did he die?… I do not know how Mrs. Alice knew this, and it felt like my mouth was now somehow broken. Yes… Sir has died?! My Sir has died? My Sir? My Sir? Has died? Died? Dead?… In this exact second, I knew that Mrs. Alice knew this, but I felt like I was watching this scene from outside of my body, and it just continued to unfold in these elongated seconds that I was no longer directly a part of anymore. Yes. But then in less than a minute, it had gone entirely. I had never seen anyone take on such concentrated grief and then, in the same moment, lose it.” (23)
All the while, woven in is the speaker’s own struggle with her gender, sexuality, and relationships:
"I like when people call me ma’am because it gives me hope that genders might be fluid. It becomes a special occasion for me, and I celebrate it by marking it on my calendar. But more often I’m called sir, and if I’m feeling extra confident, I like to respond, I am not a sir!” (21)
"What does it mean to be a human alongside another human? That was the original question of this project. Sir, I wanted to interview you and Mrs. Alice and just ask this question repetitively (There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.), but now you’re dead, and Mrs. Alice can’t carry a conversation.
I feel like a hypocrite writing this project because Danielle said she wanted to be on her own now. I mean, what the hell do I know about being a human alongside another human? Clearly not very much.” (60)
The speaker’s relationship with her grandparents is extremely close, emotional. Nothing feels sentimental; the writing, like the subject matter, is tender and straightforward.
Something about the meditative tone of the book— or was it the structure, with short prose poems, one per page, which could also be read as a drawn out essay— reminds me a lot of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. For example:
"The house that I’m now living in has a television, which is the first time I’ve lived with a television since I was in high school and lived at home. I’ve now learned from Oprah what forgiveness means. She said that to forgive someone means that you’ve realized you do not wish you were any different than you are right now. This does not mean that you must love what is to be forgiven… Or it went something like this… There were no colors. This never happened.
I understand now that this is what happens when a human tries to become an and: the language won’t let us.” (37)
Ultimately, despite the book’s concern with grief, loss, relationships, and love, there is an overall questioning of language: how language, or poetry, serves us and fails us. In the second half of the book, the speaker writes letters to her deceased grandfather:
Where are you in your migration? Is there a language there, and can you read my letters? You’ve stopped responding. (70)
I can’t remember how to go into the place where words exist as sentences. How do you say noun then verb and have it sound right? I just want it all to sound right again. Noun verb. Noun verb. Noun verb. No, no. That’s backwards, isn’t it? How’s it go again? Is it verb noun now in this language? Yes, yes. I think that’s right. Sir, please hear me. I am calling to you from this place of and. I can’t find the nouns and verbs.” (71)
When Hengauer writes: “All I want to do is say, I and you in the way where and is a verb, like I do this. I love you. I and you. Do you understand what I am saying now?” (76) there is no way you cannot understand, or feel, what is moving beneath, inside, and in between those fallible, struggling words.
myth - muriel rukeyser
Jennifer Tamayo’s Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Mistakes is a book I also love, and love to teach, and love to share with friends, so have you read it yet???
There is nothing to do with this amazing book other than just quote from it. Here is a list of the quotations that moved me the most. You will find your own. I realize this blog is just me fawning over books but what else is there, what else is there to do with books so thrilling and intellectual and embodied and well-written?
It begins with an intro by Eileen Myles (of course), reflecting on her early experiences as a young girl:
"I just knew in a quiet way I was ruined. If I agreed to be female. There was so much evidence on the screen and in books. I read Doris Lessing in literature class and that depressed the shit out of me too. I just hated reading work by women or about women because it always added up the same. Loss of self, endless self-abnegation even as the female was trying to be an artist, she wound up pregnant, desperate, waiting on some man."
So that sets the stage. And then Chris Kraus follows the fish hook of romance, desire, obsession, right to the very end of it, into the grotesque stomach of the thing, and back out again. This is a spoiler: she survives. She doesn’t end up waiting on the man, or ruined. She lives on, her self intact, or even more so, because of what she goes through, the whole drippy emotional mess of it, in her desire for this one man.
She writers herself through it.
“As soon a sex takes places, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange. The two together get too scary. So she wrote more about Henry James. Although she really wanted both. “Is there a way,” she wrote in closing, “to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?” (51)
Writing herself through it—and writing often directly to him, the desired male object—she meditates on marriage, possession, feminist art, female desire, the act of writing itself:
"Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m going through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes—Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there’s something inherently grotesque, unspeakable, about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time." (138)
"Shame is what you feel after letting someone take you someplace past control—then feeling torn up three days later between desire, paranoia, etiquette wondering if they’ll call." (170)
On love, Kraus (the character?) writes letters to Dick (the character!):
No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling.” (257)
"This incident congealed into a philosophy: Art supercedes what’s personal. It’s a philosophy that serves patriarchy well and I followed it more or less for 20 years.
That is: until I met you.” (230)
On feminist art:
"I’m wondering why every act that narrated female lived experience in the 70s has been read only as “collaborative” and “feminist.” The Zurich Dadaists worked together too but they were geniuses and they had names." (150)
"WHO GETS TO SPEAK AND WHY?, I wrote last week, IS THE ONLY QUESTION." (191)
"Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it’s neuroticized and personal; when it feeds back on itself? Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?" (207)
“Dear Dick,” I wrote in one of my many letters, “what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s lease described.” (208)
The meditation on feminism bleeds into her ars poetica:
"And why’s Janis Joplin’s life read as a downward spiral into self-destruction? Everything she did is filtered through her death. Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix all suicide too but we see their deaths as aftermaths of lives that went too far. But let a girl choose death—Janis Joplin, Simone Weil—and death becomes her definition, the outcome of her “problem.” To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form. Dear Dick, I wanted to make the world more interesting than my problems. Therefore, I have to make my problems social." (196)
And the absolute ultimate quotation, already shared often on Tumblr, another ars poetica, the one that I connect to most:
"Because I’m moved in writing to be irrepressible. Writing to you seems like some holy cause, cause there’s not enough female irrepressibility written down. I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be 20 years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronize with style.” (210)