Hope and Despair: On Being Women

So I haven’t yet gotten around to writing my 2009 rant about the state of publishing, society, and mainstream media in regards to how all of the above tend to shit on women, but, big surprise, my rant from *two* years ago still applies (okay, except maybe some of the Hillary for President stuff, but, you know, Secretary of State ain’t so shabby either.) So, here ’tis, your slightly recycled but still relevant rant of the day from yours truly…

February 2008:

And now, ladies and gentlemints, as promised, a little HOPE, a little DESPAIR . . .

It seems like a nice thing to do to start of with a smidge of hope, before delving into despair, but, don’t worry, little chickens, I will end with hope, the extended version.

But for now, chew on this, which is taped above my desk, as of yesterday (acquired at AWP at the Kore Press booth. Lovely press. Do check them out.):

“For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts.” — Gertrude Stein

I have just emerged from the land of AWP conferencing (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), which, in a nutshell, is basically a bunch of despairing writers/publishers/editors/et cetera looking for a little hope. I did indeed find some much needed hope. There are a lot of excellent small presses and literary organizations and individuals who are trying to change the world, one book at a time. This gives me hope. I was especially delighted to hear Johnny Temple of Akashic Press inform a crowded room full of writers that what his press was all about was publishing the books that get passed over by gargantuan giant mega publishing houses; that, though agents are lovely, he actually prefers to work directly with authors; that his main goal is to see to it that his authors love every minute of the editing & publishing & book birthing process; and that if a manuscript is part of a bidding war, eh, he’ll pass. That ain’t his thing. He just wants to publish the books that deserve to be published, but that no one else will publish. So, before I start my general rant at the state of publishing, hats off to Johnny, and hats off to Akashic and all the other fantastic small presses out there who are doing the good work (Graywolf, Kore Press, Orchises Press, Wolsak and Wynn, Host Publications, Four Way Books, Fence, Wave Books, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull to name a few, not to mention the hords of university presses, god bless ‘em.)

That said, I am now quite ready for my rant. Ready? Good.

Slight apologies to poor, dear SS, who happened to be the first of my friends to email me this morning (by which I now mean yesterday morning) and so got the first wave of THE RANT. But now, I cut & paste it here, for all of you. It starts off as a rant about the publishing industry in relation to women writers, which emerged out of a most excellent panel I attended (having meant to attend the Charles Baxter panel but having once again ended up in the wrong room) called THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT: THE BRANDING OF WOMEN’S FICTION, but, stay tuned, it kind of opens up into a more general rant about the branding of women in general. And if you happen to not like the words “fuck” or “fucking,” well, fair warning, moral outrage gives me quite a potty mouth:

I’m tired, too. [He was tired, this friend of mine.] This conference I have been attending for the past 3 days was exhausting, but also amazingly GOOD!! Now I just have to find a way to productively channel my rage at the publishing industry, who thinks of male writers just as writers, but when it comes to women writers, the marketing dept. ain’t happy until they’ve pegged us into the “appropriate” box. Chick Lit. Woman Writer.  Southern Woman Writer. Southern Lesbian Woman Writer. Et cetera. The result of which is that, wherever they decide to “place” us, we get shoved in some obscure corner of whatever bookstore is carrying our book, and no one can find our books, so no one can read our books, and no one of intelligence would necessarily know to pick it up, cuz it’s got a goddam chick lit-esque cover on it, or some other thing that is truly degrading and/or wrongly stereotypical that has absolutely nothing to do with what’s on the INSIDE of the book . . . but, sadly, people do indeed judge a book by its cover. I do. We’re just hardwired that way. It’s a shortcut to sorting information.

And of course, the audience for this particular panel was 99.9% female. Men just don’t give a shit. Why should they? They don’t have to deal with any of this. They are just “writers.” Even if they write fucking chick lit.

It’s bullshit, I tell you. And it’s not just publishing where this happens, women face this, on some level, in every fucking industry, in every fucking aspect of their lives. I mean, look at Hillary for fuck’s sake. Is there any greater current example of a woman hitting the glass ceiling, a woman who is profoundly overqualified, but is being poo pooed as “uncharismatic” or “cold” or “fake” while people fawn over the new, pretty, shiny, smooth talkin Obama. And I LIKE Obama, I do, but GWB has so, so, so fucked up our country and the world that we CLEARLY need someone who can step right on day one with her sleeves rolled up, ready to do the good work. Instead, she fucking has to answer questions about whether her “emotions” will work for or against her in her campaign, and is attacked whenever she stands up for herself in response to Obama’s attacks on her (how very unwomanly of her), and has to answer stupid ass questions about her husband, who is, for the record NOT running for president, people. And this whole business of being seen as “fake.” Oh my god. Don’t even get me started. Every fucking woman in the world, every girl, everyone you know, everyone I know, EVERY female HAS to “fake” it sometimes to get by in this world, because it is so much still a man’s world, and for now, it’s the only way we can get by.

Sorry for ranting in your general direction . . . those rants have been building up over the past few days/weeks and I only now have moments to verbalize them and put them in writing . . .

[end of ranty email to poor dear SS]

Ohhhkay. I think we can get back to HOPE now . . .

So, yeah, sucks to be a woman. Sucks to be a writer. But as I mentioned earlier, there is hope to be found in small presses who actually care about books, and I suggest we all head over their way en mass, and leave the major mega publishers to their chick lit, their non-fiction best sellers, their mass marketed paperback piles of crap. (No offense to the authors who do manage to publish with the big ‘uns. Good on ya for actually making some $$, if you have actually managed to make some. You deserve it. I hope your cover art was not too atrocious, and your book was well place in B&N.)

But here’s what else I have to say about HOPE which relates to my favorite rant topic, the trials and tribulations of owning a vajayjay.

We have an opportunity to elect a female leader of the free world.

Because the world at large tends to not hear women, let me repeat: We have an opportunity to elect a female leader of the free world.

As someone deeply involved and committed to female mentoring, particularly in my puppy dog, full-on slathering, sloppy love of and involvement with Girls Write Now I have witnessed first hand the power of a strong female role model in a young girl’s life. 100% of our girls go on to college. 100% of our girls own their voices. They are strong, bold, powerful, intelligent, sexy. But they are also awkward, shy, and think too much about boys (or girls, if that’s their druthers). The same is true for their mentors, though they may not know it at first, or ever, because they look to us, and they think we got it goin on, and got our lives together. What they don’t often realize is that we are looking at them, thinking the same things: Damn, this girl is only 14, and she got it goin on, and she’s got her life together, and goddamnit if she isn’t a better writer than me to boot!

So, this gives me hope, and Hillary Clinton gives me hope. Because if nothing else, she knows from personal experience how fucking hard it still is to be a woman or a girl, and how even intelligent men (and women) will still give you a fucking hard time and make you constantly have to explain yourself and justify your (unwomanly) existence and ambitions and qualifications, and they will judge you for the choices you make in life, and who and how you sleep with, and who you happened to be married to, and they will judge you for showing emotions, and they will judge you for not showing emotions, and they will continue to polish the glass ceiling above your head that gives you all those internal bruises, and they will continue to ignore you, put you down, refuse to listen . . . but Hillary, if you can just make it to the White House, there will be a new well of hope in the hearts of young women everywhere, across the globe. And yes, this gives me hope. A lot, lot, lot of hope.

And so, now, my final story of HOPE. An inspirational tale. I’ll try to keep it short, because, little chickens, if you are still with me this far down in this excruciatingly long blog entry, you deserve it.

The setting is the Girls Write Now end of year reading at Astor Place Barnes & Noble. The voice is that of Jessica Valenti, who is reading from her newly published (by a small press, of course) Full Frontal Feminism. She, too, develops a potty mouth when talkin up the moral outrage. So at the end of the reading, this teacher who had brought along some of her students to the reading (I think maybe 5th grade, but don’t quote me), checked in with them, wanting to know if they had any questions or concerns about the reading. She thought they might be offended or shocked or at least blushingly giggly about the potty words, and so she wanted to give them the chance to voice their thoughts so she could properly respond to them, reassure them.

They didn’t give a fuck about the godddamned potty words. (Why would they, really. Surely they’ve heard them before.) This is what they asked their teacher:

“We want to know more about this word, ‘feminism?’”

So there you are, folks. Short and sweet. There is still HOPE in the world. For women, for writers, for future generations.

As the Dixie Chicks say (ahhh, remember when they were lambasted and labelled “unpatriotic” for saying something not glowingly positive about GWB? Like, that maybe he should not have dragged our country into war so quickly. You know, that war that has been going on for umpteen years now, in which thousands and thousands of people have died. For . . . what exactly? Really, what were they thinking, those Dixie Chicks? Clearly unwomanly thoughts. Not very dixie or very chicky of them to dare to open their pretty, painted mouths other than to sing pretty, happy, i-love-my-country songs).

Ohhh, look how I got one last little rant in there. Wahoo!

But back to hope, for real, and cowboy hats off to the Dixie Chicks, and all other female artists who won’t keep their pretty mouths shut:

Sunday mornin’, heard the preacher say, Thou Shall Not Kill.
I don’t wanna hear nothin else, ’bout killin, and that it’s God’s will.
‘Cause our children are watching us, they put their trust in us, they’re gunna be like us.
So let’s learn from our history, and do it differently.
I hope for more love, more joy and laughter.
I hope we’ll have more than you’ll ever need.
I hope we’ll have more happy ever afters.
I hope we can all live more fearlessly.
And we can lose all the pain and misery.

But no, I can’t just leave it there. I have to leave it here, circle back around to my own voice and the voices of the women and girls who inspire me and give me HOPE every minute of every day, the women and girls of Girls Write Now. Yes, indeed, something was in the air on May 19, 2007:

Straight Outta Workshop…
An Exercise from the Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Normally, we just feature a few outstanding pieces from a GWN workshop. But something was in the air on May 19, 2007. Mentors and mentees had such incredible responses to this exercise, we couldn’t resist sharing many more.

Enjoy! — Write On, Girl! (official GWN newsletter)

Turn off your logical brain that says 1 + 1 = 2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1 + 1 can equal 48, a Mercedes-Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse. Don’t tell your autobiography with facts, such as “I am in sixth grade. I am a boy. I live in Owatonna. I have a mother and father.” Tell me who you really are: “I am the frost on the window, the cry of a young wolf, the thin blade of grass.” — from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Jeanette Anderson: I am the body that rolls over drunk with harsh shots of morning air. I am the crack in the window letting bits of Brooklyn in. I am the hands on your hips discovering you like a tourist on Broadway. I am the wine who rivals her sister Red. I am my mother’s coffee cups left in the bathroom after a shower, waiting. I am the plane you almost missed as socks spilled from your luggage, hungry to escape.

Grace Bastidas: I am your favorite t-shirt, an unexpected wink, that cherry on top, a sneeze in the morning, and a single white cloud coasting on a blue sky.

Caroline Berger:I am the sun bleeding into a cool Bed-Stuy morning as seen from my fire escape. I am my grandmother’s wedding ring, which I wear around my neck. I am the cat who waits patiently by the door for you to come home so I can swat playfully at your dangling, homemade scarf.

Nana Brew-Hammond: I am a raised fist shaking with conviction and fear. I am an overflowing waffle cone of vanilla ice cream. I am the song I sing in a 20-minute shower.

Kerri Davidson: I am the dust that dances in the light of a sun-filled window. I am the thought that has yet to be written, the sand on a California beach, held in a souvenir bottle.

Sami Diaz: I am a plague upon existence, the black ink in the felt of a Sharpie, the pixilated picture on myspace. I am made of real hair and eyelashes and nails. They call me Sami Cyanide, the poison that stops your mitochondria. The instant death, the sound of your computer starting up, headphones on your dresser, your posters, your idols smeared with black eyeliner. That old book smell that keeps you going, the turn of the page, bad handwriting, your flaws and imperfections, the holes in your stocking, the poison, the zombie. The girl.

Jazmine Gray: I am the perfect verse over a tight beat, I am the one pink rose in the midst of weeds, the dream that never came true.

Lauren Gurfein: I am a single leaf caught in a swirl of wind, lost and free, the sticky air that surfaces when summer rain meets pavement.

Mona Haddad: I am a collection of other people’s stories, ice cream in the freezer, the surveillance camera outside, a half-cracked glass, a hidden jewel. I am the thing that can only be felt, not seen or named.

Stephanie Huancas: I am…the first snowflake that falls on a warm face, the adorable laughter of a child, the twilight breeze through your hair, the encouraging smile you anticipate.

Sarah Jang: I am the “Oh! What’s in this?” the overly curious newborn puppy, the soft light that reflects the white wall, the huggable plushie.

Phantasia Johnson: I am the letter-creating words that make sentences into a story. I am the colors of a rainbow that represent gay pride. I am the eyes of an observer that see everything but says nothing.

Lisa Ko: I am a wound watch, ready to turn. I am the still air before a summer thunderstorm–weighted and expectant. I am the lion hiding in the grass, biding the time, catching her breath.

Ebony McNeill: I am an angel flying through the sky, dancing among the twinkling stars. I am the clouds bursting with chocolate strawberries. And I am the chocolate strawberries that fill your mouth with joy.

Zaedryn Meade: I am one solid tree in a field, I am the blenny fish in the tidepool after you’ve overturned the rock, I am caught sheep’s wool on a wire fence.

Rhonda Palacio: I am the sun while it’s at ease. I am the rainbow after a sun shower, I am like burnt bread, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.

Mary Roma: I am the Wonder Woman on Halloween and all other days (but I’m just not wearing my costume), a human library of celebrity parentage and sob stories, a dream of guppies.

Catherine Shu: Appearances can be deceiving. People tend to think that I am very sweet and polite but, in reality, I have a mouth so filthy that being force-fed the entire contents of a Bath and Body Works distribution center wouldn’t clean it out. I am so deceitful that I make Dick Cheney look like Little Lord Fauntleroy. I have so little self-control that I make Mary Kay Letourneau look like Martin Luther.

Erica Silberman: I am that frisky horse that runs away on the first beautiful day. I am the scent of hyacinth remembered from a long time ago. I am a hurricane that rattles things and chairs up your deep desires.

Michele Thomas: Who am I really? I am the last grain of sleep before you wake up, I am the scent of your favorite dish, I am the friend you forget you know, but have always really liked.

Natalia Vargas-Caba: I am a blood spurt from an open-heart surgery, the neglected shirt hanging behind his bedroom door. I am the stitches on an animal in laboratory testing. I am the sunrise, watched by another male.

Briana Wilson: I am the chores your mom makes you do, I am the guilty conscience, I am the crack in your mirror, I am the addiction you can’t break, I am the white lines on your bathroom sink.

Rashri Shamsundar: I am a hurricane, the twisted tornado jumbled up, the quiet right before the storm.