Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.
* * *
Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.
It had been several days since she smoked.
“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.
“No, do you smoke?”
Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.
The woman offered to go get some.
Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.
Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.
Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.
The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”
Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”
Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”
“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.
* * *
She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.
* * *
During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”
In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.
This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.
Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.
Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.
The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:
MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.
Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”
One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.
Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.
The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”
Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?
Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.
“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.
“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.
The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?
Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.
“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.
From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.
She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.
“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.
But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.
Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”
Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.
“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.
It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.
Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.
Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.
Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.
The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.
Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.
Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.
* * *
From the book THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport looks at the creation of Cane alongside his own personal history as a black man with racially ambiguous features in an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, where he beautifully muses on the difficulty of forming a solid black identity in the wake of violent white supremacy, past and present.
I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.
Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2015 | 18 minutes (4,597 words)
Lizzie Skurnick is a voracious writer, critic and, now, head of a young adult publishing imprint. She began her career as a poet, then wrote young adult novels, a longstanding litblog called “The Old Hag,” and a Jezebel column about YA books that became the memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing that launched in 2013, republishes those very books: YA classics from the 1930s through the ‘80s, by writers including Sydney Taylor (my own childhood beacon), Norma Klein, and Lois Duncan.
I met Skurnick at her apartment in Jersey City, where she served me tea and sat across from me in an armchair. The occasion for our conversation was the publication of her new book, That Should Be a Word, a compendium of imaginative neologisms—like “smearch: Google someone in hopes of finding bad news”—drawn from her New York Times Magazine column of the same name. (Disclaimer: the column was published on the Times’ now-defunct “One-Page Magazine,” for which I also wrote.) We spoke for several hours, during which Skurnick jumped up repeatedly to show me family photographs or books she’d written or reprinted (or, at one point, to grab a water bottle that approximated the size of her son, Javier, when he was born). Our conversation ranged from how she goes about creating such inventive new words to what the current backlash against YA literature is all about.
How did your New York Times Magazine column come about?
It was actually a very happy circumstance and coincidence. They asked Maud Newton, who I’ve known since 2003, from our blogging days, “Would you like to do a column on word play?” She said no, but Lizzie Skurnick can do it! [Laughs] It was good, I could really do them—I think because I’m a rhyming poet and I’m always doing loser puns. They came very naturally. It’s not like I was sitting there and being like, “How do I write these words?”
What do you mean, they came naturally? Like a new word will pop into your head as you’re walking down the street?
Yes, I do what my mother always calls “submit the query,” which means I submit the query to my brain. And then in the meantime, it’s like warm-up stuff. I’ll look at rhymes for the word. I’ll look at related words and I’ll go through the thesaurus and I’ll do those rhyming things online. But that’s never the word. It’s never usually even related to the word, but it gets my brain juiced up. And then I take a walk and it usually comes on the walk or in the shower.
I remember when the first word, “smearch,” came to me. And it was in the shower after I’d been grumping around on words that didn’t work. Because there is always the obvious word. And then there’s always the Urban Dictionary word, like “hangry.” They must be the harmonics of our language; they’re the words that everybody comes up with, but in a good way—some natural pairing that we all can find. My words never intersected with Urban Dictionary’s. Read more…
The infamous 3% statistic points to the percentage of publications each year in the U.S. that are translated into English. But even that number is inflated, as it includes technical material — manuals, guides, instructions — and new editions of canonized authors like Leo Tolstoy and Plato. American readers interested in the full-throated energy of contemporary world literature, of global book culture beyond their particular location and language, have limited options. Publishers suggest that literature in translation doesn’t sell — excepting a certain Swedish novelist called Stieg, of course — but my thinking is that readers like good things to read, wherever they come from. Readers are a curious sort.
I am ignited by literature of the world. I am fascinated by the stories and styles that come from different places. My Top 5 Longreads shouldn’t be considered a *best* list; rather, a cultivated selection of the year’s most interesting reading on international literature, translation, and storytelling. But this conversation isn’t finished; there is more to be said.
1. The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami by Sam Anderson — New York Times
I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea.
2. The Joyful Side of Translation by Adam Thirlwell — The New York Times
The theory of translation is very rarely — how to put this? — comical.
3. Who Owns Kafka? by Judith Butler — London Review of Books
An ongoing trial in Tel Aviv is set to determine who will have stewardship of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published works, currently stored in Zurich and Tel Aviv.
4. Arabic and Hebrew: The Politics of Literary Translation by Olivia Snaije — Publishing Perspectives
Today, the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Arab countries has impacted heavily on translations between the two Semitic languages, which are now viewed by many with mutual suspicion and distrust.
5. These Infantile Times by Jessa Crispin — Kirkus Reviews
Crispin interviews Dubravka Ugresic about her new essay collection, Karaoke Culture. Discussed: the author’s relationship to pop culture and how a Hemingway lookalike contest fits into the same essay as the war criminal Radovan Karadžic.
Ellen-Wayland Smith | Longreads | March 2018 | 15 minutes (4,127 words)
One morning about a year ago I was sleeping on the sofa in my parents’ apartment when I was woken by the sound of my father dying in the next room.
At first I couldn’t tell what the noise was, or even locate where it was coming from. It was a ragged, scraping sound, like metal being pulled through tightly-packed glass. Then it shifted: like someone breathing in a viscous liquid in greedy gulps, aspirating yogurt. When I realized the noises were coming from my father’s throat, I froze.
According to the hospice manual I had scanned the night before, “death rattle” refers to the sound produced by “the pooling of secretions” in the throat after the body loses its ability to cough them up. “The air passing through the mucus causes this sound,” the booklet instructed me matter-of-factly. This symptom is listed under the rubric “When Death is Near.” Family members of the dying person frequently find this noise upsetting, according to the medical literature. Hospice workers recommend an anti-secretion medicine to dry up the mucous: one syringe-full against the gum.
We had had almost no time to prepare. A mere ten days earlier, my father had gone in to his doctor’s office to pick up the results of a routine scan, which turned out not to be routine at all: stage four pancreatic cancer. His physician, an old family friend, almost teared up when he delivered the news. “It is very difficult for me to say this to you,” he’d begun, gingerly. “Not as difficult as it is for me to hear it,” my father responded. He was 81 but looked much younger: six-foot-two, straight as a poker, salt-and-pepper hair and beard. After a bout with polio when he was 14, he’d never been sick a day in his life. We thought he was invincible.
Namrata Poddar | Longreads | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,636 words)
I remember writing workshops and story gods — firm believers in the real, in an alabaster universal and unhappy endings.
I remember hearing for the nth time from story gods: do not write about writing. I would nod. Of course. Last thing the world needed was another writer staring deep into their navel.
I remember visiting a Thai restaurant with my cousins once. They ordered jasmine rice with red, green, or Panang curry. I ordered coconut rice, as usual. A cousin snapped shut the menu and said, “You had to be different again?”
I remember writing workshops and lessons from story gods — no adjectives, no adverbs, no prepositions, no over-thinking, no over-remembering, no over-feeling, less interiority, more action, the usual elements of white male style.
I remember looking for a story goddess in workshops, one with chai skin and a foreign accent.
I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway.
I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, John Updike, and John Cheever. When it was time to be diverse, there was Grace Paley and James Baldwin. When it was time to be radical, there was Bob Dylan.
I remember growing up in a city once called Bombay and the carrot halva cake Ma had made in the shape of a human heart for my fifth birthday. I was wearing an overused Jinny & Johnny dress discarded by one of my rich cousins. I bent over the candle, squinched my eyes, and made a wish: please please please Krishna, let Mumma and Papa be here for my next birthday too.
I remember Bombay years and Papa singing, always singing aloud with whoever was playing on our red National cassette player. Unlike Ma or Didi, my older sister, I was the one to hover around him. As he ironed his cotton shirts for hours, I would sit cross-legged on the floor next to him, pored over my drawing book with Camel crayons. Once done ironing, he would introduce me to classical North Indian, to devotional and ghazal singers, to Bollywood stars. I must have been 6 or 7 then and my parents had yet to call it quits. I don’t recall every name, but I remember Ravi Shankar, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mohammed Rafi, Kishori Amonkar, Nargis, Meena Kumari. I told Papa I liked Madhubala the most — she had a Colgate smile. Nargis and Meena Kumari cried too much.
When Ma and Papa called it quits, I remember looking for another model of that red National cassette player in electronic stores for years. I never found it.
I remember looking for a story goddess in workshops, one with chai skin and a foreign accent.
I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway.
I remember summer vacations when my parents hadn’t exactly called it quits. Papa was no longer living with us in Bombay and had moved back with my grandparents in Calcutta. For several summers, we visited Papa, Dadu, and Dadi at the Poddar house in Bara Bazar. A typical May afternoon in Calcutta, thunderstorms and pounding rain, followed days of homicidal heat. Didi was busy playing Ludo with my older cousins in our room upstairs, but I wanted to watch rain fall on Bara Bazar streets. I hopped down to the gaddi on the first floor where Dadu was chitchatting with the neighbors passing by. He was perched on his rocking chair in his usual outfit — a silk beige kurta and a white muslin dhoti — with one of his English dictionaries in hand. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology was his favorite, but I don’t remember the edition he was reading that day. I pulled his kurta and dragged him to the main door so we could watch the rain. “What nice smell, Dadu!” I clutched his walking stick, as tall as me, and watched the parched street exhale fumes as if Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed and a genie might appear any moment. Dadu removed his Gandhian glasses and inhaled theatrically. “Petrichor,” he said. When I asked him to repeat the word, he opened his dictionary and raised my index finger to a page starting with P. I stood on tiptoes to see the word clearly and nodded each time I repeated, pet-ree-chaur.
I remember standing on tiptoes to touch Papa’s sitar, enthroned above a bookshelf with locked glass doors. I’d started reciting The Daffodils from my English textbook; reading poetry in Hindi, Marathi, French, Spanish, or Creole would come later in life. Reading in my mother tongue may never happen; Marwari is a space of my heart, of family, music, dance, and a part of me wants to protect us from texts. That day, though, as I tried to reach Papa’s sitar, I remember squashing the tip of my nose against the glass door and staring at the hieroglyphics on Papa’s hardcovers — voluptuous curves in black ink extending in all directions and connected by a horizontal line.
I remember recounting the story of Romeo and Juliet to Dadi when she visited us from Calcutta to help Ma who’d taken a third job since we didn’t have Papa or his income around anymore. I must have been 8 or 9 and I parroted every word Betsy Miss taught me at school that day. “Shayspeare wrote the world’s most famous love story. The world remembers it even after 500 years.” I stood against the lime-washed wall of our one-bedroom flat in Bombay, locked my palms, and brought them closer to my chest, as we did in the elocution period at school. When I was done, Dadi continued shelling peas and discarding the pods into a circular cane basket. “Dying because you can’t live without your beloved?” She lowered her glasses and gave me the grandma look. “But that’s desperation, beta. Not love.”
I locked my palms tighter into each other. “Betsy Miss said Shayspeare wrote the most famous love story!”
I remember Bombay years and singing with my teenage sister who’d started learning French: Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez-vous? I didn’t understand the language but I loved feeling my tongue around those foreign words; I enjoyed their familiar tune, too. I knew then I would learn French on growing up. What I didn’t know was how hard I’d fall in my love of the different.
I remember undergraduate years of Business School in Bombay and repeating to my uncles and aunties for the nth time that I did not want to get married to their Marwari friend’s brother’s cousin-in-law’s nephew whom they were proposing as the brightest possible future for me, a divorcee’s daughter. I did not care to pursue an MBA, IAS, IFS, CFA, or software engineering after marriage should my future husband allow me either. Instead, I wanted to pursue my love for French and an education in the Arts — now.
“MA in French literature?” one of my uncles said. “What next, M.A.D. in Swedish cake baking? Soon, you’ll go mad, child. Mad!”
“Oho, whose salvation vill your degrees achieve anyvay?” my aunt added, sipping the last of her chai.
I remember undergrad years in Bombay and my first class of Yoga — a casual curiosity, a cheap opportunity. After practicing asanas for an hour, we moved on to a lesson in meditation. I remember the boredom I felt after the first few minutes of staring into the candle’s flame, a way to steer the mind into stillness. What I didn’t know then was how hard I’d fall in my love for Yoga, a worldview rooted in union, and at the other end of my love of the different, a worldview rooted in separation.
I remember begging Brahmin professors at a university in Mumbai to let me in their Masters program in comparative literature. I remember being told that they couldn’t lower the program standards by enrolling baniya Business Majors.
“I mean, Marwaris are good at making money, but culture?” a professor said with her oxbridge drawl, stressing the “w” and “r” instead of the local pronunciation, Marvaadee.
I remember daydreaming day after day about my escape to America, the most hospitable land for immigrants (I believed media stories at that age), the best way I knew to escape a life that would be imposed on me in the name of family and love. I worked hard with my books and won a fellowship for a PhD in French in one of those private American schools that paid a stipend for summer months too.
I remember grad school years in the U.S. and white colleagues suggesting I take lessons in American English, more than once. When my brown colleague — we’ll call her Oshun — found out about this, she put her foot down for us foreign students. Over the years, Oshun taught me how books could save — and kill — but that day, she simply told our white colleague, “Will you cut the racist crap? Indian English is English.”
I remember story gods on a very long reading list whose mastery would allow me to continue a PhD in French literature — Montaigne, Racine, Rousseau, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, Hugo, Baudelaire, Michaux, Perec, the usual suspects. I remember pleading with the one in charge to replace a few on the list with gods and goddesses closer to my home by the Arabian Sea — once an archipelago of seven islands, my home. I wanted to add black and brown writers who wrote in French. “From the Indian Ocean? Like, who?” the one in charge asked.
I remember visiting Montreal from Philadelphia over Christmas because winter break was too short and the fare to Mumbai five times higher. At the Trudeau International Airport immigration desk, the red-haired officer asked me about my student status in the U.S., then continued his interrogation in French. As he opened a fresh page to stamp my passport, he said, “You speak very good French.”
“Thanks, you too,” I replied.
He stamped my passport over a lingering silence and raised his hand to summon the next traveler.
Uprootedness felt strongest in those early immigrant years when I knew so little about walking the xenophobic labyrinths of a liberal First World.
I remember census survey forms. One day, when applying for a job, I was filling out a form online. My buddy Elijah was visiting me in Philly from London and watching a Woody Allen movie on TV. He sat on the couch beside my desk with a bag of pretzels.
“What would you pick for me, bud? Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Black, Other?” I read aloud the relevant options and didn’t need to explain how ridiculous they read.
“Caucasian,” Eli said, eyes fixed on the screen, as he popped another pretzel into his mouth. “Aren’t you guys the real Aryan deal?”
I remember the 20s and their ceaseless game of hellos and goodbyes, a game of switching homes across the planet. Dadu passed away and Papa’s singing was becoming a distant memory since I migrated to the U.S. Uprootedness felt strongest in those early immigrant years when I knew so little about walking the xenophobic labyrinths of a liberal First World. I remember a constant longing for home and seeking it in the bodies of men, hoping that lust would lead me to love and love would lead me home.
I remember landing at LAX with Philly years packed in two suitcases. I was excited about a job that would bring free weekends, warmer weather, and new people into my life. I’d said goodbye to my Philly boyfriend, and realized, as one often does after grieving via denial, that I needed to fill my weekends with something other than men. I’d been amassing volumes of personal diaries — another attempt at finding home — but I hadn’t taken my desire for creative writing seriously. Wasn’t that kind of literary life a gora luxury for those who eat, pray, love, and indulge their muse? It never occurred to me that an artist’s life could be in harmony with my life.
The new job offered me enrollment discounts so I signed up eventually for a creative writing workshop. One day, when reworking a story draft at Peet’s, I remember my fingertips tingle and a bubble of silence expand around me as it drowned rush-hour traffic outside and the barista’s calling out the names of clients awaiting their cappuccinos, Americanos, peppermint white mochas, and holiday spice lattes.
I remember a blond friend from Connecticut (or was she from New Jersey? Or Pennsylvania?) pulling me aside at a writing conference in Vermont once. “Now I know how much you love your In-dia, but can you teach me how to pronounce Amy-Tuh-Vaah Gosh? He’s my favorite writer,” she said. Her gray-eyed biracial bestie from Connecticut (or was she from New Jersey? Or Pennsylvania?) faked a cough.
I remember meeting the friends of a new date at a bar in Beverly Hills. Halloween was approaching and ideas on potential costumes for the next party were being exchanged over dirty martinis. One couple settled on Red Riding Hood and the wolf, another couple settled on cop and prisoner, and yet another, on doctor and nurse. When my date and I were quiet, the desi American lawyer, most talkative of them all, suggested we dress as Cowboy and Indian. I wanted to be liked by my date’s buddies so I decided to play sport, almost. When my date and I went to the party, the lawyer complemented the feathers on my outfit and asked me, what kind of Indian wears bindis on her forehead?
“The thoroughly confused kind.” I winked.
I remember the first visit to my ancestral house in Shekhawati region of India’s Thar desert. The blooming cacti of Southern Californian streets and those first road trips across Death Valley made me miss my grandparents and the stories of their desert past I’d grown up hearing. I remembered family lore and endless variations on how our town was founded by one ancient Poddar family, how Marwari merchants once commissioned artists to paint their homes with the latest trends in the visual arts, how Shekhawati is the world’s biggest open-air gallery.
I called my sister in Mumbai one day, booked our flights, and made my first visit to the ancestors in Ramgarh, one of the richest towns of 19th-century India, a ghost town now that trade routes had moved from the Thar desert to the Indian Ocean ports. Rumor spread fast in the small Rajasthani town that Poddar girls from Mumbai and LA were visiting.
For years, I’d not spoken to Papa. For years, I’d kept deliberate distance from Papa’s family — Dadi, Dadu, cousins, uncles, aunts — as if they were not my own. For years, I’d declared myself a nomad, uninspired by bourgeois, nationalist ideals like roots. For years, I pretended I’d no memory of the letters I wrote to Papa as a child, week after week after week: Papa please come back, Papa I miss you, Papa you promised last summer, Papa I’m still waiting, Mumma doesn’t tell me why you left, Dadi doesn’t tell me why you left too, yesterday I heard that Kishori Amonkar song on TV, today I saw Guru Dutt’s poster in a store, do you know Tina’s papa plays the sitar too?, why you left us Papa?
For years, I believed my father had read my letters, because at 7, you believe what the elders in your family tell you, and because at 7, you just goddamn believe.
Walking around Ramgarh, our tour guide showed us Poddar houses, Poddar temples, Poddar cenotaphs, all covered in some of the region’s best preserved frescoes, what pride in roots! The guide took us next to our ancestral house, the Poddar house where Dadu and Dadi regularly spent their winters. He gave us a tour: here, a flour mill made of stone in the former kitchen, there, the outer courtyard where our forefathers traded in spices, wool, and cotton with the passing caravans of the Silk Road, and out there, in the alcove, the bookkeeper’s cabin, across from the main door, so he could check out the visitors before letting them in. I was playing the fresh-off-American-Airlines tourist, taking pictures faster than I could breathe, when Didi sauntered to the gaddi’s corner and picked up a scroll with a thick bed of dust on it.
“What language is this?” my sister asked the guide as she opened the pages with a script that resembled long lists, each line ending with numbers in parentheses. I lowered my camera and walked toward the scroll. The script resembled Urdu as each line started from the right side of the page. Or did it? Neither of us could tell. Like other Bombay Marwaris from Shekhawati region, Didi and I were fluent in Hindi, Marathi, and English. We spoke Marwari with our grandparents, a pure version of Hindi, English, or Hinglish with our parents, and a creolized Bombay Hinglish between the two of us. We used to speak Bengali during our Calcutta summers in childhood too; Didi is more fluent in Indian languages as she lives in the motherland. Yet we felt no shame in not reading our mother tongue. Marwaris I know are seldom nationalistic in the same way as Europeans, Bengalis, or Marathis. As migrant desert folk, we believe in adapting wherever we are — a survival mechanism born from harsh weather and scarce resources.
“Must be Marwari, no?” I said, my desert pride shaky then.
“They call it Moody tongue,” the tour guide said. “A cryptic language written in lists. Men used them to conduct business.” When we asked questions on Moody language, the tour guide said he didn’t know the answers; his ancestors weren’t traders. On returning to America, I googled Marwari merchants from Shekhawati and Moody tongue, and didn’t find much. After a while, I willfully quit; there’s only so much I desired in my indulgence of roots.
Yet I remember that mysterious ancestral script written in lists. And upon my return to LA, I remember calling Dadi in Kolkata after over a decade. We talked nonstop for two hours.
I remember November 2016 and a sudden awakening to resistance, to the personal as political among pale American liberal artists.
I remember telling stories to my niece before she went to bed every night I saw her when I visited my family in Mumbai from California. This was my way of making up for becoming her American Masi, making up for the childhood I had missed witnessing: her first birthday, her first walk, her first haircut, her first day of school, her first prize in dance. This was my way of making up to her for the childhood I’d always wanted, one with stories told to me in bed by my parents. I would read to my niece the stories of Shiva, Uma, Laxmi, Ganesha, Arjuna, Aladdin, Ali Baba, stopping often to embellish the story with imagined details, and when my niece would fall asleep, I would whisper in her ear my favorite line from the world of stories: “Tomorrow little one, I’ll tell you a more entertaining story if the King lets me live.”
I remember November 2016 and a sudden awakening to resistance, to the personal as political among pale American liberal artists. The liberals organized conferences, workshops, retreats, seminars, symposia, colloquia, caucuses, tea clubs, Boba clubs, chai hours, coffee hours, happy hours, unhappy hours, and advertised these on social media with the image of a raised alabaster fist. The liberals loved to talk. They talked about Art, they talked about Culture, they talked about History, they talked about Science, they talked about Climate Change Capitalism Democracy Refugees Border-crossing Social Justice Gender Justice Reproductive Justice Environmental Justice, and raised their alabaster fists in the air. The liberals were angry, the liberals were earnest, the liberals were determined to make America great again through Art. Above all, the liberals were funny, always funny. And slow on irony.
I remember Bombay years, the April heat, and the anticipation of story books after final-exam days at elementary school. Ma would take me to the raddi wallah, Ramu Uncle, whose “store” across from our residential building was tucked between Good Luck, the stationery store, and Amul, the dairy store. Ma would buy fruits and vegetables from the street vendors nearby while I would sit, yoga style — as I learned to call it in America — on a heap of old newspapers, sifting my favorites from piles of used books and magazines: copies of Suppandi, Chacha Chaudhary, Tin Tin, Malory Towers, St. Clare’s. Issues of Amar Chitra Katha were always my favorite find — or did narrative drive create this memory in its need to inject order and meaning into a fragmented past?
I remember the parcel my grandma sent me from Kolkata as a housewarming gift when I moved from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach with a boyfriend I’d eventually marry — a resplendent lehenga from her wedding trousseau, covered with handmade zardosi embroidery in real silver threads that had survived decades of coastal Indian humidity; not one thread has turned dark. Gopis in different Kathak positions stand on each of the 39 pleats that frame the lehenga’s central-front pleat, where a pale-skinned Krishna stands on one knee, plays the flute, and looks deferentially at a blue-skinned Radha, his Shakti, who dances in joyous oblivion. Hindu mythology is complex and I’m learning to decode the deeper layers of meaning to this androgynous union, portrayed through a reversal of the couple’s skin color.
Each time I open the saree cover that encloses Dadi’s lehenga, the first thing I do is bury my head in it. I inhale slowly the combination of rose, naphthalene balls, and a musty, woody smell I associate with almirahs of Calcutta summers, and I hear Papa playing his sitar, I hear Calcutta rains with Dadu, I hear my Dadi’s laughter as she pickles dates after soaking them in lemon juice for days, and I remember the letter she sent with her parcel: “This one tells a love story too, beta. A story of union and non-possession that goras don’t get. But first, you learn to read.”
* * *
Namrata Poddar writes fiction and non-fiction, and serves as Interviews Editor for Kweli, where she curates a series on Race, Power, and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in The Margins, Transition, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, among others. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She has lived in different parts of the world and currently calls Huntington Beach home.
Editor: Ben Huberman
Monica Drake | Longreads | March 2018 | 19 minutes (4,778 words)
When my second novel came out, Chuck Palahniuk invited me, along with best-selling thriller writer and friend Chelsea Cain, to share his book tour. We’d make a joint venture of it.
Chuck is established, the author of the novel Fight Club, of course … “and 15 other books,” as he says. We’ve workshopped together for decades. A tour with Chuck would be a roving literary rave! My only hesitation? At 8 years old, my daughter was still young. She wasn’t a baby; still, I was her daily support.
Her father spent long days earning an hourly wage, leaving our house mid-morning and coming back too late to manage her life. A 40-minute commute on public transit added to his workday. He regularly stopped off at a bar before he made it all the way to the house.
When my first novel, Clown Girl, came out, she was a toddler. I’d brought her along on a homespun, couch-surfing road trip of a tour. She and I darted every which way in an old Nissan sedan, sharing bags of chips and sleeves of Oreos, driving between small towns. We met fabulous people. In other words, I juggled indie lit and parenting, and managed without childcare because as a family, we ran on a very slim budget.
Consequently? She attended 43 readings in 52 weeks, pre-kindergarten. It was boot camp; she learned to sit quietly and color while grown-ups did their thing. She learned patience.
This round, my daughter would stay with her grandmother — and she’d be fine — but still I had a clutch of apprehension. If anything were to go wrong, I’d be across the country, reading stories, tipping up a drink, laughing with strangers. The mother-guilt was thick and ready.
Hesitantly, I released myself, temporarily, from the obligations of daily parenting, and went, joining the team.
The summer before I left home for graduate school, I drove down to the rural Louisiana countryside to sit on the porch with my grandma. As I took the four steps up to the house, face scowling at the hot Louisiana sun beating down on my brow, my Gram squinted at me, called me by my nickname, and declared, “It’s time for you to start having sex!”
I’m sure my eyes bugged out of my head, as the horror dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be any old regular visit to the country. There was an accusation in her words, as though this was something my 22-year-old self should have been doing forever. For the record, I had, in fact, had a bit of sex by age 22. For my 22nd birthday, my homegirl, horrified at my post-college near-virginal status, took me to a sex shop and purchased a vibrator for me. There was a classic Black woman read in my grandmother’s words, an unspoken “If that’s true, I can’t tell.” Of course she couldn’t! I was steeped in all kinds of Christian guilt about the little bit of sex that I had had and the copious amounts of vibrating I had done. That, coupled with the asshole I chose for a first partner, meant that I wasn’t having particularly joyful or enthusiastic sex, and most times I was in sanctified denial about my desire to be sexual in the first place.
I made it onto the porch and sat down to listen to my good Christian 75-year-old grandmother, a lady given to elaborate hats and bejeweled suits on the Sundays she didn’t usher at church, extol the virtues of sex to unmarried me. “Back in my day, we did it,” she said. I squirmed. Whoever wants to know this about their grandma? “Don’t ever let anybody tell you we didn’t. We went up in the woods and did it, but we did it.” By the time I was born, Grandmama had been a widow for 10 years. She and my grandfather got married and then had their children. In the way that none of us is ever inclined to think about the sex lives of our grandparents, it never even occurred to me to ask about whether my grandmother had waited until marriage to have sex, or to consider the sexual practices of young Black folks in the 1940s.
For my Gram, access to birth control mattered greatly. She told me that she would have opted for only two children rather than the six she’d had (and raised and loved) if birth control had been widely available to Black women in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Louisiana. “But we couldn’t get the stuff,” she told me. In her own way, I think my grandmama let me know that the women’s movement was a win for Black women, too, because in the 21st century, it meant her granddaughter could have a wonderful sex life without bearing children until she chose to.
My grandmother had already developed a pragmatic blend of both feminism and Christianity that worked in the context of her life as a rural poor Southern Black woman born two years before the Great Depression. I was still far too much of a Christian zealot to be either pragmatic or feminist. My grandmother didn’t have all the language for these differing ideological positions, but she had good sense. She looked at me with those laser eyes that Black mamas use to see right through you, and commanded me to “Start having sex.” She meant real good sex. Sex that left you with telltale signs that you had been touched right and handled with care. I didn’t exude sexuality. I didn’t exude grown womanhood. I did not look like a Black girl comfortable in my own skin. Because I wasn’t.
I was trapped in a raging battle between my spirit and my flesh. The evangelical teachings of the Baptist churches in which I grew up insisted that our flesh — our bodies and their longings and impulses — were sinful, dangerous, and unhealthy. We were admonished each week to bring our unruly flesh in submission to our “spirit man.” Having heard this every Sunday of my life I did not understand how my grandmother, our beloved family matriarch, could dare advocate that I let my flesh win. Clearly, I wasn’t ready for the grown woman theology that this holy woman offered to me that day. Frankly, I thought she had gotten ahold of some terrible theology, and I was determined to live my life as a good evangelical should. I had life goals and desires for success that my provincial grandmother, who once told me to go to the local college and then “get a good clerical job,” clearly did not understand. Sex messed with your head, boys were fun, but trouble, and a baby before you wanted one, could ruin your life. This was my credo in triplicate.
Dismissing grandmother’s words was easy. I felt that my theology, informed indirectly by the advent of the “True Love Waits” purity campaigns of the 1990s, and my ability to recite by rote all the Bible verses condemning sex before marriage made my spiritual perspective more sophisticated, more informed, more correct. I had imbibed a set of social ideas about Black girlhood and womanhood rooted in the fear of being a failure and the social shame of becoming a statistic. I nearly worshipped my mother, but I didn’t want to be a teen mother as she had been. I wanted to finish college, something my birth had prevented her from doing. By the time grandmother sat me down for the talk, I was twenty-two, had completed two college degrees, and was on my way to a Ph.D. program. By local standards, I had already made it.
White privilege works by making the advantages white people have invisible while making the supposedly “poor” choices of people of color hypervisible.
There were no mission trips or classes devoted to sex ed. What my community also had was a teen pregnancy problem — it was not uncommon for Black girls to get pregnant in my middle school or my high school. I can remember only one white teen mom in high school (although I am sure there were a few others), and absolutely none in middle school. For me, the equation was simple. In communities where they talked about sexual abstinence and “waiting,” they didn’t have a teen pregnancy problem. In my community, where no such conversations were had, teen pregnancy was rampant.
These messages about success, whiteness, abstinence, and Christianity converged for me. Black kids accused me of acting white, but the white kids I knew loved Jesus (like I did), did well in school (like me), and got to have interesting discussions and experiences at church (which I didn’t). I have already mentioned the particular challenges of growing up a nerdy Black girl in a predominantly white school system. One way that I internalized white supremacy in my honors classes, which were 95 percent white and in which the kids were overwhelmingly Christian, was to associate the success I sought with the kind of whiteness and morality that shaped my classmates’ lives. White privilege works by making the advantages white people have invisible while making the supposedly “poor” choices of people of color hypervisible. For instance, on the surface, it simply looks like white people have better access to education, jobs, and housing because they make better choices or because they work harder. And, conversely, it looks like Black people have less access to these same things because they are lazy. In fact, in most opinion polls, white people believe that Black people don’t work as hard as they do. And what is perhaps most interesting is that white people believe this myth as much today as they believed it in the racially volatile 1960s.
Held up as an exceptional Black student, I was conditioned to believe in the myth of my own exceptionalism, to see other Black students’ struggles to succeed as a result of their own terrible choices. But white children in my school district weren’t inherently smarter. They were reared in homes where their parents had been college educated and where they had access to enrichment programs and private tutors. My close proximity to middle-class white youth put me in a position to culturally eavesdrop on my white friends, even though I didn’t have the experiences they had. I knew the possibilities of those experiences existed. What I learned from watching white kids who were set up to succeed while Black kids were set up to fail, even in matters of intimacy, was that sexual self-regulation was critical to my success. It took me being a grown woman to recognize all the ways that systems of white supremacy regulate our intimate lives, too.
Black girls and Black women, particularly those who have had any sustained encounter with Christianity, are often immobilized by the hyperregulation of their sexuality from both the church and the state. These messages about excessive and unregulated Black flesh that converge from both the nation-state and the church, form a double helix of sexual ideas that form the core of cultural ideas about Black sexuality. These messages constitute a critical strand in a sticky social web that immobilizes Black women caught at the intersections of race, class, gender, and lack of access to normative modes of sexual behavior. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins refers to this sticky web as a matrix of domination, a sociological term for the way social systems of power converge to impede Black women’s agency and structural well-being. Far too often the result of trying to extract ourselves from these webs, which immobilize us until all of the life is drained from us, is that we leave critical pieces of ourselves behind. Black women are often robbed of our agency to build healthy intimate lives. These systems don’t crush every Black woman, but they do retain pieces of flesh, bone, and spirit.
When you are free enough to run away, you run. It makes no earthly sense to go back and do battle with the system for the fragments of yourself that remain. We are taught to be grateful that we “made it,” no matter what we had to leave behind.
This is why Black women’s self-help literature is obsessed with the question of “how to be whole again.”
For my grandmother, my very successful regulation of my sexual desires read like a wholly unhealthy inhabitation of my own Black woman body. I was a fully grown woman, but my theology and thought process around sex was adolescent and retrograde. Grandmama pushed me to articulate a version of my selfhood that would force me to bring my whole self to the table and prioritize my pleasure.
“Girl,” Grandmother said while gesturing mischievously toward her nether regions, “I had good stuff.” (I repeat: No one ever wants to know this about their grandmother.) She wanted me to own the fact that my “stuff” was “good stuff,” too. Grandmother’s indecent proposal constituted a critical and intimate dissent from the wholesale American demonization of Black women’s sexuality. To justify enslaving, raping, and breeding Black women and girls, white Americans created a mythos around Black women’s sexuality. They cast us as sexually insatiable, unrapeable, licentious, and dirty. Today, Black women still experience much handwringing around owning our sexuality. Calling her sexuality and her sexual body parts good in the face of these unrelenting social messages suggests that my grandmother had wrested her own sexual subjectivity from the fearsome clutches of Christianity and white supremacy. Or maybe she simply didn’t buy in all the way.
The problem is that I still inherently saw my “stuff” as bad, as the source of a temptation so mighty that it could derail my relationship with God and my life goals all at the same time. This is no way to teach sex education to teens, and it is a completely absurd way for grown-ass women to think about sex.
The politics of fear and endless rules that we use to (try to) control teenagers is unhealthy but understandable. For teens, advocating that they delay sex is ultimately about maximizing their life chances by helping them make choices that will benefit them and the future families they hope to build. We could, of course, do a better job of telling teens to do something other than wait. It turns out that my “simple equation” that abstinence would solve teen pregnancy was totally wrong. In places where abstinence is the only form of sex education, teen pregnancy rates are alarming. In places where access to contraception and proper information about birth control is available, teen pregnancy rates have decreased astronomically. What the poor Black girls in my school needed was not the True Love Waits campaign, but rather good information about sex, emotional maturity, and birth control.
Telling grown-ass women that all sex outside of marriage is an affront to God is absolutely ludicrous. Healthy consensual touch is nothing short of holy. But the indoctrination is real, especially if you are invested in being a “good girl,” especially if your goal in life is to not “repeat the cycle,” to not “become a statistic.” These are the kinds of social messages that Black women and girls get about their bodies and the potentially enormous public and personal costs of their sexuality. My mother once mentioned that when she found herself pregnant with me at age 18, at her grandmother’s insistence she had to go up in front of the church and ask for the congregation’s forgiveness for getting pregnant out of wedlock.
My grandmother had wrested her own sexual subjectivity from the fearsome clutches of Christianity and white supremacy.
Widowed at the age of 42, my grandmother chose to never remarry. She told me that same day, “I would never want to marry again, because I don’t ever want some man telling me what groceries I can and can’t buy.” That was all she said about marriage — that she understood it as men being able to dictate to women how to spend money and how to run a household. Living her own life and being able to raise at least some of her children independent of my grandfather’s influence had shown my grandmother that having a male head of household was not, in fact, desirable. In her forthright rejection of conservative evangelicalism on the matter of sex, she modeled for me that Black women had the right to dissent from theologies that didn’t serve them well. Black women had the right to a say about their finances, their bodies, the number of children they bore, and the kind of sex they wanted to have. What she offered to me that day was permission to choose for myself.
I wish I could say that I stepped off my grandmother’s porch a new woman, ready to own and explore her sexuality. But all her fussing about what I needed to be doing proved no match for the years of shaming and moral panic about sex that I experienced both inside and outside of my community. Four years after that conversation, I came home from church after a particularly guilt-compelling sermon, bagged up all my romance novels, astrology books and manuals, and my vibrator, and threw them in the dumpster. The presence of these items in my apartment were tacit licenses for me to engage and indulge in sinful living, and surely God was not pleased with that. These days, I’m sure that between peels of laughter, God is sitting somewhere, saying, “Girl, bye. I didn’t tell you to throw away all those books and that perfectly good vibrator.” Live. Learn.
What does it mean when our spiritual and theological systems impede healthy living? This is a question that Black women should begin to ask forthrightly. They should insist fervently on answers among themselves and from their spiritual leaders. We do a kind of violence to ourselves when we shut down our sexuality. It’s not so much that I should have had more sex, although I wish I had in my twenties. It’s that there are things we come to know about our bodies, our impulses, our likes, our dislikes and desires, when we fully engage the sexual part of ourselves. We go around missing critical knowledge about who we are, or might be, when we act as though sex isn’t foundational to who we are.
Also, what does it mean when our theological systems impede our access to a healthy and robust set of spiritual and political practices — practices that should give us life?
My grandmother tried to empower me to fight for my happiness by helping me to not be limited by script and convention. She modeled the ways that Black women can build a life for themselves. And sometimes that comes with a willingness to cast aside fear and say no to what others think is best for you so you can find the courage to say yes to yourself.
There are so many ways that Black women need to free themselves from the strictures of conservative Christian theology. Notice that I didn’t say to abandon Jesus and the Church if it’s important to you. I haven’t. But I’m no longer checking my thinking cap at the door.
Many Black Christian girls are seduced by white evangelicalism, because, hell, it seems to be working out so well for white people. I mean, white Jesus helps white people to win a lot. But when my grandmother showed me that I could take a different approach to my theology, that it could be a push and pull, a debate, and even an ongoing set of arguments with God, she freed me up from my investment in being a Christian Goody Two-shoes. I don’t even believe God wants that. The God of Christianity seems to love people who are engaged in all manner of scandals, affairs, and murders. But I digress. We also have an absurd theology of discrimination against LGBTQ people. And far too many churches still believe that women can’t be preachers or pastors. The thing we would all do well to remember is that conservative Christian theology was used to enslave Black people. We can use our theology to oppress people or to liberate them. That’s our choice.
We can use our theology to oppress people or to liberate them. That’s our choice.
Sometimes this means that we have to reject the kind of Christian teaching that sets up a false binary between flesh and spirit, mind and body, and sacred and secular. To be Black in the United States is to be taught our flesh is dirty and evil. A liberatory theology for us cannot set us at war with our very bodies. A liberatory theology for women cannot set us at war with the desires for touch, companionship, and connection that well up like deep springs in our spirits. When we hear about how the “heart is deceitful above all things,” which is an actual verse, it teaches us to suppress our deepest longings, to not trust our own thoughts and our own counsel. For people who have been enslaved and oppressed because of their race, or gender, or sexuality, such interpretations are dangerous.
The Bible isn’t any old regular text. It is a text endued with thousands of years of political, social, and cultural power. That means that to wrest a theology for my grown Black woman life from it, I had to bring my fully embodied, unapologetic self to it. My grandmother didn’t teach me anything about how to understand the biblical text more critically. She offered to me a fully embodied theology of grown Black womanhood that day, one with its compass set toward freedom. One in which I should embrace the fundamental goodness of all my stuff, both sexual and otherwise. I had to become a fully grown Black woman to receive it though. In my holy hubris, I had dismissed her as provincial and out-of-pocket. How did she know, in her sanctified country-ness, that sexual pleasure and the freedom to pursue it would be critical to a healthy sense of self? She modeled for me one of the core things Black church girls would do well to remember about Jesus: He fully embodies both the divine and the human. If we spent as much time thinking about how he lived as we do worshipping how he died, our faith would demand that we prioritize a better integration of flesh and spirit, of humanity and divinity, than we do.
The second thing we need to remember is this: The primarily white male theologians who created the systematic theology of evangelical Christianity were trying to make sense of a theology that fit their own lives and their own worldview. This is why so many white Christians can read the Bible and still vote Republican. Because for them, nothing about the Bible challenges the fundamental principles of white supremacy or male domination.
Interpreting the biblical text conservatively has a political function. This political function differs depending on if you’re white or Black. Conservative biblical interpretation became the hallmark of the rise of the religious right, a political force that rose in response to desegregation in the South, and Lyndon Johnson’s perceived betrayal of Southern Democrats. Conservative biblical interpretation in Black churches has conversely risen in response to the political evils engineered by the white religious right. White male Christian conservatives used conservative biblical interpretation to pioneer a religious right wing to shore up the machinations of white supremacy in government policy. Black religious conservatives adopted conservative biblical interpretation to inoculate themselves against the massive devastation of these same social policies. Although the social desires (or political goals) of these religious communities are wholly oppositional, the biblical interpretation methods are the same. Obviously, that can’t work. If Black women are honest, it hasn’t been working for us for a long time.
Perhaps it’s time for us to read some other sacred texts alongside the Bible. My grandmother’s words are a sacred text to me — a sacred text of country Black girlhood. My mother’s words are a sacred text to me — a sacred text of grown Black womanhood. The words of Sojourner Truth, and Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins, and Anna Julia Cooper, and Beyoncé and my homegirls are all sacred texts to me. Black feminism has been a liberatory theology for me in its own right. It has made space for me to bring my spiritual self into the academy and my academic, intellectual self into the spiritual parts of my life. What Black feminism and my Grandmother have taught me is that Black women are experts on their own lives and their own well-being. Grandmama taught me that all the sacrifices I was making for middle-class aspirations weren’t entirely worth it. That if I made it but I was lonely and miserable, then that was a failure, not a win.
What I call Black feminist theology is something that can help sisters who are damn near ready to leave the church just so they can act like grown women with full sex lives in peace. My Black feminist theology is not just focused on what happens in the church, but rather is a call to those of us who are Black feminists to remember that lots of Black women are still quite religious. We need a way to reconcile our feminist politics and our spiritual lives, not only at church or mosque, but at the office, too. Even when Black people were enslaved and it was illegal for them to “read the word for themselves,” (as Black Christians love to say), they knew that God was nothing if not freedom. I believe that because of all the oppressions that we’ve experienced, Black girls have unique visions of freedom. I believe those visions are God-given, however you understand God, even if you simply worship, to paraphrase Alice Walker, the “God you found in yourself.” Freedom is my theological compass, and it never steers me wrong.
* * *
From Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. Copyright 2018 by the author. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.
Sari Botton | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4300 words)
I’ve been working on a few different book projects for years — okay, decades — without yet publishing. There are many, many reasons it’s been taking me so long, but one of them is that I keep vacillating between memoir and fiction.
In the early 90s I dabbled in MFA programs, focusing on fiction. What I began writing in those days was somewhat based on my own experiences, yet also very made-up.
Then in the mid-90s, after I dropped out of two different programs in succession, books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club appeared and sparked a memoir boom. As a reader I became a nonfiction junkie. As a writer, I switched gears, started publishing personal essays…and then spent a lot of time freaking out about upsetting people by writing the truth — or my version of it, anyway.
These days I go back and forth, working on both memoir and somewhat autobiographical fiction, and spend a lot of time debating the merits of each with other writers.
On Sunday, February 11th, I turned to two of my favorite authors, Elisa Albert and Emily Gould, for their take on this. I sat down with them at Rough Draft Bar and Books in Kingston, New York, for a conversation ranging from the choices around writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings, to the differences — mechanically-speaking and otherwise — between memoir and “autofiction.”
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Below you can listen to the audio — including Albert reading a passage from After Birth, and Gould reading a passage from Friendship, plus a Q&A with the audience.
* * *
Sari Botton: Elsewhere, both of you have talked a lot about, and written about, writing fiction from your life. I’ve been intrigued, and I thought that other people would want to hear about this too. So, is there a difference in your mind, either one of you, between straight up fiction and fiction that does have autobiographical elements, and what would be the difference?
Elisa Albert: We could do like a one word answer on the count of three, yes, or no. I don’t think there’s a difference. I think it’s like a spectrum, you know? Like a continuum, if you will. We are all bound by the limits of consciousness such as it is. Unless we alter our consciousness, but even altered consciousness is consciousness. It exists, you know? I mean, I can’t get into the physics too deeply, but even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. Or the one you, the eternal you, the shared collective you.
Emily Gould: Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. No aliens are going to show up at the temp agency where Bev [a character in Friendship] is going to have her interview. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. This book is actually so made up. And it’s actually really frustrating sometimes when people are like, “Oh, so what was it like for you when …” [name of my best friend] “decided to have a baby after getting pregnant after a one night stand?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because that didn’t happen in my actual life.”
At the same time I want credit for being such an imaginative person, but then I look at any individual page of this book, and I’m like, well, yes, I did eat at that restaurant, and have basically that exact same interaction. But you know, then it became fictionalized. And we both have also written a lot of nonfiction, and think there is a shining line in my mind between the two forms.
Botton: You’ve both also written a fair amount of essay and memoir, and so people recognize certain things from your lives, which they can project on to your books, saying it’s totally just your life. But now you’re calling it a novel.
Albert: Change the names and there you go.
Botton: Right, exactly. But a lot of other novelists choose to completely invent worlds and that’s not what you’re doing, so it’s an interesting choice. Emily, I read something that you wrote about where the choice started. That you were having a hard time after writing a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever. That after that you were having a hard time writing in the first person. Do you want to talk a little bit about that shift?
Gould: Oh sure. Yeah. In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. It just started as a sort of thought exercise, and now this is something that I tell my students.
I’m teaching fiction now, and students come to me all the time and say things like, “I’m just so sick of myself. I’m sick of my perspective. I’m sick of all of my thoughts about everything. I’m sick of my themes. All of my fellow people in this workshop have heard the same story from me a thousand times already, and they’re sick of my shtick too. What can I do to break out of the aspects of me that I’m so bored with?” And I just tell them, “You’re stuck with you. I’m sorry.” They haven’t perfected head transplants yet, so we’re all stuck with ourselves.
But what you can do is just shift your lens. Try a new form even if it’s something that you’re really bad at. Draw a comic book even if you can’t draw at all. Switch point of view, like I did. Write a song or a poem about the stuff that you usually write about instead of just doing whatever it is that you usually do. It sounds so goofy, and 101, but it really works. You can pull the wool over your own eyes. You really can lie to yourself and trick your brain.
Even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. — Elisa Albert
Botton: So once you start writing about yourself, or write your story in the third person … although, Elisa, After Birth is in the first person, right?
Albert: Yeah. Because my first novel was in the third person, and I found it was the same thing anyway. Everybody still was kind of like, Oh, well, it’s just you, obviously.
Gould: Which is so weird because you didn’t die of brain cancer.
Albert: Right, I know. The narrator of my first book dies of a brain tumor at the end of the book, so I don’t know how that could be autobiographical. I mean, I think ultimately it’s a compliment. It has to be a compliment, you know? Because what people are saying when they’re sort of assuming those things or projecting, or whatever, is that you have created a world that is so visceral and immediate and convincing that oh, of course it’s you. You know? So you’ve done what you set out to do then. I mean, I wouldn’t want to write a book where people reading it would think, like, geez, this shit’s totally invented. You know?
And the other thing is a novel, anything you write, but a novel especially, just the scope of it, it has to be an obsession. So even if you’re obsessed with 17th century Germany, that’s your obsession, and there are deep-rooted ways in which that’s very autobiographical even though obviously you weren’t there in your current form. So whatever it is, it has to be an obsession. You can’t spend years working on something if you’re not obsessed. So even if it’s not about you, it is encompassing your deep need to think about, look at, explore something.
Botton: So then once you’ve started writing, either in the third or first person — but deciding that it’s fiction — how do you then take the elements of your life and make them into something that isn’t your life? That becomes another story, more than just your life? How do you make that leap? Or does it start with, like, I have this particular story I want to tell?
Albert: Lorrie Moore said in her amazing story, “How to Become a Writer,” which is in the second person, and is very autobiographical, that “it’s like recombinant DNA.” You change one little strand of something, and then watch how that ripples out. Then it’s a very different story suddenly. I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. That’s now where my obsession lies, so I’m going to use that. I don’t give a shit.
So that’s autobiographical. I mean, this person is not like me in many, many other ways, but I know that origin story, so I can make use of it. It would be wasteful otherwise. I would be wasting my energy. I’d be reinventing the wheel. I have a pretty deep identification as somebody who was raised in a really religious household. I’m not interested in reinventing that at this point. That’s not what I’m looking at. So that’s a given. I’m going to use that. That’s there. I’m fluent in that, you know?
Botton: That frees you, then, to create the other aspects of the story.
Albert: The things I’m kind of obsessed with looking at or turning over or flipping around or inverting or whatever, that’s what I’m going to spend these years doing. And I don’t have to then waste my energy on the other elements because, you know, maybe in a different book those elements might need tweaking, but yeah. It’s like butterfly wings, right? Like, tsunami on the other side of the globe because, like, one little movement here.
The narrator of After Birth — her mother is dead. My mother’s not dead. She has an unnecessary surgical birth that was like super inhumane and traumatic. That didn’t happen to me. She’s an academic. I’m not an academic. Whatever. But, see, then we get into this weird thing where I’m like, see! Whatever.
Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. ‘Friendship’ is actually so made up. — Emily Gould
Gould: I’m sure this is something that you guys definitely all already thought about before, but I find myself thinking about writing fiction sometimes in terms of almost like method acting a little bit. Like, you can take an emotional experience that you’ve had and transmute it into another form. I’ve never experienced a shattering romantic betrayal, which is one of the things that I write about in Friendship. Yet. But I have experienced betrayal on a deep level in a relationship, but just not, like fucking someone else. You know?
So I was able to use that emotional experience and turn it into something else, the same way that I imagine actors do. I don’t know. I’m a terrible actress, so I actually don’t know how that works. But that’s what people talk about in “The Actor Prepares,” which I totally read in drama class.
Botton: That’s so funny. An article came up in my world today, in my social media world, with a title like “Apply acting techniques to your writing.”
Albert: People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay?
Botton: That’s a good way of putting it. When I emailed you guys and was asking like, “Are we talking about autofiction?” Emily, you were like, “Well, I don’t write autofiction.” And then Chloe Caldwell [who had to bow out of the event] was like, “I write autofiction.” It’s a really hard thing to get a handle on. What exactly is autofiction? Emily, I know that you’re a big fan of Chris Kraus, and her stuff kind of falls into that category, maybe? So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about what it is and why it isn’t what you’re doing.
Gould: Well, I mean, the most straightforward, I think, contemporary example of autofiction that probably the most people in this room have read, just based on the bestseller list is Knausgård. Has anyone read any of those My Struggles? All of the struggles? Yeah, there were a lot of them. But what he does, I think, is — it’s just this amazingly super detailed tracking the movements of his own consciousness thing, but filling in the gaps in his memory with imaginative detail, I assume, and that’s what makes it a novel rather than a diary. So, for example, there’s a famous scene at the end of the first My Struggle volume that’s just this virtuosic scene where he is cleaning out his disaster alcoholic, hoarder, dead father’s house for days on end. Just like, you’re there. You are in the house, smelling the smells, moving the specific objects from room to room with him, like almost in real time, for as long as it takes. That, to me, is autofiction. That form. And that’s just so, so different from what either of us have done, even though we have written about characters who are our same ages who have our same hair colors.
Botton: I was also thinking about Lisa Halliday’s new book, Asymmetry.
Gould: Ooh, yeah, that one’s good.
Botton: It’s about a relationship with a Philip Roth-like character. That’s part of it. And the author did have a relationship with Philip Roth, and she was interviewed in the Times and she talks about how she uses the basic details from her life to just kind of set up the universe, and then she makes a story and works from there.
Albert: Well, then there’s the idea that, is there such a thing as nonfiction? You know, its arguable. Even if you’re trying to write a memoir, somebody else who was there might have a very different memoir.
Gould: I think there are formal distinctions that we just have to make. It’s like the difference between painting oils or painting watercolors or something? And for some reason that’s really important to me to draw those distinctions. And I also have incredibly strong feelings about “nonfiction” that is written without faith, you know? Like A Million Little Pieces-style stuff. That bugs me.
I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. — Elisa Albert
Albert: Well that was written as a novel.
Gould: Oh, but published as a memoir.
Gould: So then we’re also talking about market forces and marketing categories informing what gets called fiction and what gets nonfiction. But we don’t have to bring commerce into this room tonight.
Albert: Let’s not bring the market into this.
Gould: We can just keep this in the lofty realm of art for now.
Albert: But you know that old line about how if you say it’s a memoir, they’ll say you made it all up, and if you say it’s fiction, they’ll say every word is true.
Botton: I was just going to say that. Yeah, so then why does somebody write autofiction as opposed to a memoir? It’s so close.
Gould: It’s not. It’s totally different!
Botton: It is? Okay.
Gould: Yeah, like a memoir has all these imaginative story elements and structures, and autofiction is really about living inside someone else’s mind, no matter how boring it gets there. It’s really trying to just transport you into someone else’s consciousness, which to me is like a super fascinating, trippy experience.
Albert: Done well, it’s, like, the best.
Gould: It’s transcendent when it’s done well. When it’s done badly, of course, it’s as boring as being someone boring is. And that’s just a world away from what we do as memoirists. Which is so much to do with eliding the boring part of the story and getting into the propulsive part of the narrative. That’s the craft of memoir. Sorry that I’m like, Duh, Sari.
Botton: That’s okay. I’m here to learn. But I have writers in my studio who talk to me all the time about what to do with what their writing. They are writing stuff that feels like memoir, but they want to explore different outcomes. I’ve been sharing Michelle Tea’s The Black Wave with people. There’s magical realism in there. I just love the way she goes from stuff that is so recognizable to, like, she’s just out there in another world. And so, I can never specifically know what is the best way for anybody to go, and this is kind of what this conversation came out of. I’m really trying to always get a handle on what are the differences. And I guess for different writers, it’s different things.
In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. — Emily Gould
Once upon a time, everything was called a novel. There wasn’t the memoir category, and people wrote stories from their lives and called them novels, and so it got more confusing actually when the memoir genre got added. But I think for you, you’re very clearly writing fiction.
Albert: Well, I think I’d be out of material pretty quick. I mean, stories from our lives can be really interesting, and many of us have lived intense lives, but there’s only so much of it. Whereas, if you’re willing to sort of go off on little digressions and make up little details and see how that spins out, and bring your perspective to bear on things that are not your experience. Or try to inhabit somebody else’s perspective on something that maybe you have experienced, you have endless material. Then there’s just no end to it.
I think I would get bored. I mean, I write nonfiction sometimes, but it’s not as fun for me. It’s like a good muscle to exercise, but it’s like that playfulness, that kind of mischievous kind like, what can happen? What could I get away with? What if I push it this way?
Gould: Whereas, I feel like actually for me, nonfiction is where I started, and it’s my comfort zone, and fiction is a lot harder, and it comes a lot less easily. It is this arduous process whereas, it just is easier to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something memoiristic for me, at least. Whereas to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something fictional is just … My shitty first drafts of fiction are like so shitty. I think also there’s the hard, cold, horrible reality that just because something comes more easily to you doesn’t meant it’s good. God, that’s sad.
Botton: I mostly write nonfiction, memoir, essay. But I dabble in fiction. I started graduate school to write fiction. I published one short story on a website, which had autobiographical underpinnings, but also a lot of made up shit. But I started writing something like a year ago, and I was having so much fun doing it, but when I went back to it, I had to keep reminding myself — and it was also based on a character similar to me — but I had to keep reminding myself of the rules of this universe that this person lives in. That this person’s boyfriend is 18 years older and Italian. Having to orient myself again and again in this fictional world, I find hard. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t something worth putting more time and effort toward and trying harder at, but for me it’s like a harder exercise to remember the rules of the universe I’ve created. Do you ever run into that?
Albert: Sometimes. I mean, like, plot mostly. Just to be like, okay, this happened, this happened. I can sort of hang out in a voice for a long time, but then to just keep the facts straight. But that’s administrative stuff, you know? A couple index cards.
Gould: Yeah. Those aren’t structural things, so if you’re thinking of it like a physical project? Like if you’re building something, that’s more like — the rules of the universe stuff you can always straighten out at the end in the same way that if you’re renovating a house, you can fix up the door frames and the windows. I don’t know anything about this metaphor.
Albert: It’s like curtains.
Gould: I’m going to stop. Yeah, it’s like you’re going to put in furniture and decorate and the wall paper and stuff, and that’s like the fun stuff that you do at the end. Also, copy editors will do some of it for you. And good line editors. Friendship was written a long time ago in my life, and I had never been pregnant. And now I’ve been pregnant a bunch, and I think the character who gets pregnant in Friendship was pregnant in the first draft, like the draft that sold, for like 11 months. Like an elephant. And no one caught it. A copy editor caught it. It was like, oops. And all I had to do was change some details about the weather, and it was fine, you know?
But that’s the kind of thing that — if you get bogged down in that stuff in the first draft, you’re going to prevent yourself from ever moving forward.
People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay? — Elisa Albert
Botton: One of my obsessions that I’ve written a lot about, and interviewed people a lot about, and I’ve interviewed both of you about, is people getting pissed off at you for what you’ve written that has to do with them. And sometimes, when I’m working on memoir and afraid of people being mad at me, I think, All right, I’m just going to change my name. That’s one solution. The other is, All right, I’m totally going to fictionalize, and it will be more fun. But they’re still going to recognize themselves. Is this something that you run into or care about, or does fiction solve that?
Albert: I don’t think fiction solves it. People just tend to then pick out people who are not remotely related to them and be offended by stuff that they’re imagining might have something to do with them. I don’t tend to have a lot of people in my life who I need to protect that way. That’s been a long process, but I find it useful to have pretty honest relationships so that anyone I actually have in my life is a) not somebody I’m going to feel the need to fucking burn in literature, and b) not somebody who’s going to come at what I’m doing with a narcissistic vengeance. But that takes time, and not everybody has the luxury of narrowing down their intimate circle in such a way. But it’s served me pretty well so far.
Botton: I think, Emily, you’ve had a different experience, at least with memoir, yeah.
Gould: Well, yeah, there are definitely sacrifices involved in being honest always, for anyone. Not just writers, I think. And like Elisa, I think the list of people whose opinions I give a fuck about at all has been winnowed down over the course of my life from like, you know when I was in my 20s, it was like everyone. And now it’s just people I care about. So yeah, I think this has always been really hard for me, and it continues to be hard for me. I definitely don’t have all the answers about it at all, but like the tattoo on Sari’s arm says, there comes a point when it becomes harder for the flower to stay in the bud than it is to bloom. I’m paraphrasing her tattoo badly, sorry.
So, it’s like you choose between two different kinds of pain, right? It’s like the pain of keeping whatever it is inside versus the pain that you’re going contend with when you have to deal with the consequences of having written your story. And it’s a personal choice.
Botton: Incidentally, Emily was my tattoula. You know, like a doula. She went with me. She brought me gluten-free cookies so I wouldn’t faint.
Gould: It’s really important to eat before and after you get a tattoo.
Botton: And for those of you who can’t see, my tattoo, I recently learned, does not quote who I thought it did. So, yes. It’s that quote that you see on mugs and candles. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Usually it says it’s by Anaïs Nin, and it is very much not, which is fine.
Albert: Are you going to edit it on the tattoo?
Botton: I didn’t attribute.
Botton: It’s actually a woman [a playwright now] who was a publicist in California for an adult ed college in the 70s. She’d put that on a press release to encourage adults to go back to school. So, go back to school. That’s what we’re doing here. Yeah, so. I still like it.
Gould: Me too. It’s great!
Botton: It’s a good one, right?
Botton: And then I got cherry blossoms on my other arm, so we’re all blossomed out here. I actually interviewed that woman. One of these days I’ll write about it…
* * *
Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different, and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot. She has taught at Columbia’s School of the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, and is currently Visiting Writer at Bennington College. She lives in upstate New York with her family.
Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, Friendship, and the forthcoming Perfect Tunes. With Ruth Curry, she runs Emily Books, which sells and publishes books by women as an imprint of Coffee House Press. She is a contributor to Bookforum and The Cut. She teaches writing in New York City, where she lives with her family.
Sari Botton is the Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.