This week, we’re sharing stories from Caity Weaver, Marisa Meltzer, Jiayang Fan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Jeff Maysh.
At Elle, Marisa Meltzer profiles Roxane Gay as the prolific author prepares to go on tour to support Hunger, a book she calls “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” In it, Gay reflects on what it’s like to live in a world that does not accommodate her body and how she “turned to food for numbness and protection” after being gang raped as a child.
“Hunger is not a story of triumph. Rather, it tackles the question of what it’s really like to live in a fat body—”and not Lane Bryant fat,” Gay says. “What is it like to be fat-fat? We don’t see that narrative.”
If there’s a through line to her writing, she says it’s exposing the unreasonable standards to which women are held, both by society and by each other, a reality Gay finds exhausting. “I think that I write about women’s lives in ways that allow people to be seen, and allow people to think about the world they are living in and the politics of this world without feeling like they are being judged or shamed for being imperfect,” she says.
The female body, in all shapes, Gay says, is a “final frontier, along with disability, that people can openly mock and demean and get away with treating with utter disregard.” The only possible solution she sees is “a huge amount of empathy. Kindness,” she says. “And people minding their own goddamn business.” Whether or not most readers relate to the statistics of Gay’s body, few will be able to finish her book without gaining a deeper understanding of her reality. “I don’t have a fantasy of a thin woman waiting to come out,” Gay says. “My fantasy would be to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at by someone. To walk through an airport without having someone point at me.” This is the true shock of Gay’s book—it is not the revelation of her actual weight, though how many of us, of any shape or size, would have the guts to put that on paper? It is the far deeper reveal: that a woman so accomplished, so seemingly fierce—in some circles, so revered—has been forced to “fantasize” about something so fundamental. “I don’t delude myself into thinking that if and when I reach [a certain] size, all my problems will be gone. Many of them would be different. At least I’d feel better in my body, better leaving my house,” she says. “My dreams have really become sad at this point—human dignity dreams.”
At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Renee Montagne, Nina Martin, Alex Tizon, Mary Mann, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Andy Newman.
There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)
This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)
In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.
3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.
4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?
5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)
It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.
6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)
I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.
7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)
Mother’s Day after mother-loss:
It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?
8. This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:
The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”
It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”
You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific Standard. WUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
This week, we’re sharing stories by Sam Knight, Rick Perlstein, Ijeoma Oluo, Keziah Weir, and George Saunders.
For Elle, Keziah Weir profiles prolific feminist and activist Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is expert at crystalizing common experiences in such a way that lays bare deeply ingrained patriarchal influences. You can never un-see them again, and suddenly you realize how entrenched they are. Weir herself had this experience reading Solnit.
The title essay of Men Explain Things is based on an encounter Solnit had with an older man at his Aspen house party in 2003; he expounds at great length to her about a recent biography of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering stop-motion photographer famous for his image series of a horse galloping—talking over her friend’s efforts to tell him that Solnit herself had written the book. “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit writes, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of last year’s best-seller Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, likens the essay’s reception to the feminist “click moments” of the 1970s, when “something you knew deep in your bones that nobody had ever quite articulated zapped into focus.”
I can relate. Raised on the girl-power feminism of the ’90s—Spice Girls, The Vagina Monologues, Hermione Granger, Daria—my friends and I didn’t think we needed feminism. We thought the battle for women’s rights had already been won. Besides, feminism carried uncomfortable anti-man connotations, amplified by “empowered” female pop-culture icons from Katy Perry to Madonna, who denounced the term as exclusionary. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” was a popular refrain. But then, in Men Explain Things, I read about Solnit, six or seven or nine books into her career and still having her own thoughts explained back to her by men. In the same collection, I read her trenchant take on FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who issued pre-9/11 warnings about Al Qaeda and was ignored by her mostly male colleagues. I read about how an unnamed American university responded to campus rapes by telling young women to stay inside after dark. I started to wonder: Why do I gravitate toward books by male authors? Why hasn’t it bothered me that my academic mentors were exclusively men? Why do I feel competitive with my female classmates (and, later, colleagues) but not male? Without being conscious of it, I’d put the men in a different, more exalted category; my definition of “winning” essentially meant taking home the silver, or the bronze. The guys would land three out of four of the top jobs, and they’d dominate the conversation—whether on literature or abortion, whether at parties or in the serious matte pages of the New Yorker. Click.
What makes a strike work? Large crowds, a focused goal, and inclusion. The evolution of the Womxn’s March on January 21, 2017, had a bumpy start, but evolved to have a focused, intersectional mission. Similar questions face the strike; who’s it for, who gets to go, and what’s its purpose?
Women’s strikes have typically succeeded when they have some clear idea of what women’s work is, some obvious problem that will become clear through women’s strategic withdrawal—for example, a French strike in which women left work early (to symbolize the time of day they stopped getting paid, as compared to men with the same job). Without a specific, labor-related point, after all, a “strike” is just a particularly righteous personal day.
In Elle, Sady Doyle looks at the history of women’s strikes and the complexity of who they serve even while finding praise for the current movement.
It’s also worth noting that the Women’s March itself was initially criticized for the fuzziness and non-specificity of its goals, and it still became the most successful protest in U.S. history.
The animals, it seems, will not be contained. A few weeks ago, Ollie the Bobcat, on the loose from the National Zoo, was found a near the bird house a few enclosures over; a toilet in Texas revealed not a single rogue rattlenake, but dozens; and Sunny, a female red panda, escaped from the the Virginia Zoo and is still on the lam after a reported refusal to mate.
“In the wild, pregnancy makes animals even more vulnerable to predators,” writes Katheen Hale at Elle. Hale’s essay about her own pregnancy intersects with a move to Los Angeles from Brooklyn and a deep desire to go where no pregnant woman has gone before: Into Griffith Park to hunt P-22, the city’s celebrity mountain lion. “For the neurotic, celebrations of life can conjure death,” Hale’s psychiatrist tells her. “Pregnancy is a time of regression. It throws the mind into maturational crisis.”
I’d read laboratory studies on the effect of predator exposure on pregnant mice: expectant mothers that were exposed to rat urine refused to give birth to the litters they were gestating. If they could do that, so could I. I’d hold off giving birth for years if necessary, like an elephant, which cooks its kids for two full years. But my obstetrician said I couldn’t refuse to give birth—apparently that’s physically impossible. I wasn’t a mouse or an elephant, I was a human woman, and I was due on June 2.
The solution was simple: I’d hunt down P-22, and hang his head on the wall of my baby girl’s nursery, so that when she became sentient, she would know that her mother was strong, and that she was safe.
Getting from point A (finding P-22) to point B (decapitation) remained a mystery to me, but in my blurry state of hormonal unbliss, I simply didn’t think about it. Instead, the following day, I laced up my hiking boots, parked my car on the winding road leading to Griffith Park, and set off into the dusty wilderness with only a water bottle, potato chips, and my phone, like a crazier Cheryl Strayed. She’d gone off trying to find herself. I’d find the lion and take it from there.
Like me, he had migrated to Los Angeles. But only one of us could stay.