Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton
The two touch on a variety of topics, from taking risks in your 20s, writing memoir vs. writing fiction (Phair herself is at work on a novel and a book of linked essays), music, motherhood, and the rise in sexism ostensibly ushered in with last year’s presidential election.
PHAIR: I think what we’re seeing politically is the result of people having developed atmospheres around them that make them untouchable, to the point where they don’t feel empathy for people who are in a more vulnerable state.
WURTZEL: I see sexism everywhere, and I think it has to do with that. I’ve begun to blame sexism for everything. I’ve become so overwhelmed by it that, even though I love Bob Dylan, I don’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, because I don’t want to listen to men anymore. I don’t care what men have to say about anything. I only want to pay attention to what women do. I only want to read women. I’ll tell you how intense my feelings about this are: You know The Handmaid’s Tale, the show, which is feminist in its nature? Because men are behind it, I don’t want to watch it. That is the extent to which I am so truly horrified by what is going on.
PHAIR: I have felt that same wave coming through. I’ll try to rent a movie, and every single title is for men, by men, about men, and I’m just like, “Where’s my world? Where’s my zone? Where has it gone?”
At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
The New York Times has an essay by Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond that’s equal parts memoir and travel writing. Diamond, who’s also an editor at Rolling Stone, takes a drive through Florida from top to bottom, getting to know the state most of his family eventually settled in, but which he has only flirted with for months at a time here and there, mostly when he was much younger. Traveling from one region to the next, he comes to realize that there is no one single Florida. It’s a collection of disparate cultures.
Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.
It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.
I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen and he was one. I have a single Polaroid of him: a family shot taken when he was a few months old, nestled in Mama’s lap. Like her, he had a full head of dark hair and searching eyes. For years, I didn’t know how best to reach out to him or how to let him go.
I wondered what became of him. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out. At sixty, I didn’t want to reach out to a brother I’d left behind only to be turned away, or worse, blamed for the hard life I’d left him in.
If I’d stayed, I could have protected him. That’s what I believed. Maybe he believed that, too.
Then Mama died, and I put aside fear. I used every resource I had, and some money too, to find a likely contact number. I discovered it through a fee-based public records database. His number, listed and active for years—kept through every change of address and dropped like breadcrumbs as he went along—convinced me he might want to be found. Still, I had to muster the courage to connect.
With trembling hands and a trembling voice, I left him that message and waited.
Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, during which members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed unarmed college students who were protesting the Vietnam War, after they burned down the campus’ Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. To mark the occasion, NPR has an excerpt of 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings , Philip Caputo’s 2005 book about covering the massacre as a 28-year-old reporter for The Chicago Tribune.
My first question was, “Where the hell is Kent State?” I had never heard of it. Informed of its location, I booked the next available flight to Cleveland, packed a bag, said goodbye to Jill and drove to O’Hare airport. During the hour-long flight, I read a wire-service story to bring myself up to date. Ohio’s governor, James A. Rhodes, had blamed the disturbances on “outside agitators.” I had learned to be skeptical about such claims, but was willing to set my skepticism aside. The burning of the ROTC building was right out of the Weather Underground’s handbook. Except for that – and it was no small exception – the protests appeared to be like those at Illinois. Maybe there was one other difference. Illinois Governor Ogilvie had taken pains to calm the situation at Champaign-Urbana. Gov. Rhodes adopted the combative approach. At a press conference on Sunday he’d compared the protestors to Nazi brown shirts, describing them as “the worst sort of people we harbor in America,” and promised to “use every weapon possible to eradicate the problem.” A bit of political grandstanding perhaps – Rhodes was then involved in a tough primary fight for the Republican Party’s senatorial nomination – but it struck me as an inflammatory statement.
My memory is patchy. I believe the shootings took place while I was flying to Cleveland and that the report I heard on my rented car’s radio was an update. My immediate reaction was the one you would expect: I was stunned.
At Refinery29, Ashley C. Ford has a moving personal essay about getting to know her father now that he’s been released after thirty years in prison Her father has missed so much of his daughter’s life, but that’s not all he has to catch up on. Having been incarcerated since the late 1980s, he is way behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s new to the whole world of cell phones, not to mention texting.
At least once a day I open my phone to scroll through our one-sided text conversation. There are a few sentences from his end, words separated by periods. He has trouble with the space bar. I see the uninterrupted column of my selfies and views of my surroundings. I know he appreciates the technology that allows him to see my current world so clearly, as he missed so much of my past. Because he has trouble responding with text, he calls to say how wonderful I am, how proud of me he is, and how much he wishes he could see the things I see every day. If I can’t answer he leaves minute-long voicemails. He is a talker, and I am his rapt audience.
I know someday he’ll figure out how to text exactly what he wants to say. When that happens, I’ll miss how much we’ve had to fit into phone calls, and how I’ve had to describe all the things he can’t see about who I am and where I am. I’ll miss his voice, too. His strange and familiar voice that sounds so much like my brother’s, and his brother’s, though the thoughts often sound just like mine.
Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2017 | 9 minutes (2,349 words)
HappyAdenomyosis Awareness Month! Never heard of it? Allow me to enlighten you about this painful affliction, which is similar to endometriosis, and something of a mystery to modern medicine. I know about it because it wreaked havoc on my life for 25 years before a hysterectomy at 43 — an operation I had to fight for, and almost didn’t receive — gave me the relief I needed.
The Virginia Quarterly Review has a personal essay by Meghan Daum in which she discusses the recent reissue of her 2003 debut novel, The Quality of Life Report. Daum is nervous about the book’s reception the second time around. Fourteen years after publication, the book is entering a different kind of political climate: A satire about a New York television reporter who moves to the midwest, it pokes fun at overly sensitive liberals, coastal elites, and P.C. culture, and makes jokes about gender, race, and class.
The book can be buffoonish and broad (for better or worse, I was reading a lot of John Irving the time) but I’ve never in my life had so much fun writing anything. I remember sitting in my chair during those years and at times practically falling out of it from laughing out loud. This is not a regular feature of my creative process.
Last year, after not having looked at the book for a very long time, I reread it and found myself laughing all over again. I also found myself utterly shocked by some of the content. Though the reviews back in 2003 had been mostly positive and, moreover, made little if any mention of the risky humor around things like race, class, and gender (or the political undertones of sexually irrepressible farm animals) the humor seemed to me by today’s standards to be something bordering on unacceptable. Were the novel to be published for the first time today (and I suspect it might not be) there’s a good chance it would be the target of such excoriation on social media and elsewhere that its fundamental message—that liberals can be the most illiberal of all, just as urban coastal types can be the most provincial—would be dismissed as irrelevant, if not lost altogether.
Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.
Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.
I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.
I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.
Guernica has an essay by novelist Ayana Mathis about owning one’s writing ambitions, despite never really having felt entitled to them. In this excerpt from Double Bind: Women on Ambition, an anthology edited by Robin Romm, Mathis’s opens with an experience beyond her wildest dreams: A phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who tells Mathis her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. From there Mathis delves into the things that had held her back from reaching for great achievement, and sometimes still do: Her mother and grandparents stressing the importance of being reserved and never seeming hungry. The messages she received as a young black girl about not being deserving were often the opposite of what was promised to the much more privileged “lean-in crowd.”
Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions? This is not a question for the lean-in crowd. That conception, of leaning in, useful though it may be to some, is the province of the entitled classes. Women who come to the big boy’s table with education and privilege; perhaps just not quite enough to make more money, to have more power, to be more successful. This is an inadequate model that implies that the old hierarchies, the old systems of inclusion and exclusion, the old distribution of power and wealth are perfectly acceptable, it’s just that the ladies should be sitting at the big table too. I and mine are not lean-in women. Mine is a long and illustrious heritage of elegant survivalists and creative realists. We made our way without a road map, or even a road, as is the case for those of us who were, by virtue of race and class and gender, barred from the paths to success. We have dreams aplenty, some realized and some not, but the manifestation of our ambitions is not a given. It isn’t even a given that we will recognize our right to have them.