Author Archives

‘What Is Missing Is Her Soul’: Women and Art, Girls and Men

John Stillwell / PA Wire / Press Association via AP Images

Alana Mohamed | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,756 words)


Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was a surprise best-seller. “Who was going to read a book about a Dutch painter?” Chevalier remembers wondering. But her fictional, highly compelling heroine, Griet, made for a popular window into Vermeer’s world. As the maid sent to work for Vermeer’s family in 17th century Delft, Griet elucidates many of the divisions of the time — between rich and poor, man and woman, and Catholic and Protestant. Chevalier said she was compelled to write the novel after wondering “what Vermeer did to her [the model] to make her look like that … I saw it as a portrait of a relationship rather than a portrait of a girl.” Readers praised Chevalier’s research, which took her to Amsterdam and the Hague while pregnant. “Chevalier’s writing skill and her knowledge of seventeenth-century Delft are such that she creates a world reminiscent of a Vermeer interior,” a brief New Yorker review reads. The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor were both similarly impressed with Chevalier’s world-building.

Some readers were, however, resistant to the idea that Griet, who in the novel possesses a keen artistic eye, would become an integral part of Vermeer’s work. In its review, Publisher’s Weekly claimed these details “demands one stretch of the reader’s imagination,” and “threaten to rob the novel of its credibility.” In 2017, Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel rankled feathers in the historical literature community when she criticized the proclivity of modern writers to empower their historical subjects in such a way. She asked, “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?” The question is reductive and misleads, but does point to the impossibility of writing about women forgotten by history as just themselves. Like Griet, they become conduits by which we dissect their cultures.

Today, uncovering women’s lives has become a mainstream project. The Paris Review has started a “Feminize Your Canon” series dedicated to underappreciated women writers. The New York Times’Overlooked” series is a retrograde edit of its obituary section, long dominated by white men. Both projects seek to increase the visibility of women who have long been rendered invisible by historical ambivalence. However, these are women who accomplished the extraordinary, women who may have been waylaid from greatness. As the Telegraph also notes, for Chevalier, “Research failed to make good the gaps Chevalier’s imagination was already painting in like a picture restorer.” Read more…

A Mysterious Crack Appears: Past Trauma and Future Doom Meet in “Friday Black”

A sinkhole opened up in Philadelphia on Monday, January 9, 2017. Matt Rourke / AP

Alana Mohamed | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,988 words)

There is a certain genre of viral news story that we recycle every so often: odd activity on the earth’s seemingly stable surface that, while probably having a reasonable explanation, is reported on with breathless excitement when its cause is still unknown. “Mysterious Crack Appears In Mexico,” one headline shouts. “Mysterious crack appears in Wyoming landscape”; “A giant crack in Kenya opens up, but what’s causing it?”; “Splitsville: 2-Mile-Long Crack Opens in Arizona Desert”; “The White House lawn has developed a mysterious sinkhole that’s ‘growing larger by the day.’”

The follow-up stories (“Giant Wyoming Crack Explained”; “Let it sink in: The White House sinkhole is no more”) rarely gain the same traction. The mystery offers a chance to surrender control, an increasingly tantalizing option in a world algorithmically engineered to offer us the appearance of optimized choice. We choose, momentarily, to believe in something bottomless and chaotic. Read more…

Michelle Tea and the Betrayal of Queer Memoir

Feminist Press

Alana Mohamed | Longreads | August 2018 | 12 minutes (3,094 words)

Michelle Tea has made a career of memoir, and in doing so she has chronicled a generation of queer and punk subcultures. Growing up a lonely and shy teenager, for me Tea’s autobiographical novel Valencia represented freedom. She wrote about sex and friends and death in a way that made me feel alive, kind of like the way watching Party Monster makes some want to do a face full of cocaine. I wanted to be her, or the women she portrayed, who were all so brash and powerful and sexy. With her latest release, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms, Tea continues to write explosively about her life. But she’s also slowed down and become reflective — while still delightfully contradictory — dissecting the history of the ruptures within the communities which she has documented so well.

Recently, I’ve gotten in the habit of saying people have been “so generous” when sharing their stories. Post-#MeToo, radical disclosure has become typical, if not necessary, to speak frankly about sexual boundaries and trauma. “Thank you for being so generous with your story,” I say to the woman who just described her first fisting experience to contextualize her rape. It feels right, like it acknowledges the spiritually taxing effort that goes into disclosure when someone offers a highly personal narrative. But who talks about their first fisting for the good of the general public? Often, they’re talking about it because no one else will, and someone needs to. It’s not so much a matter of generosity as one of necessity. Read more…