Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction

    

I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.


Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.

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Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER

  


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at http://www.barbararidley.com.

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

Behind the Book: Siobhan Fallon’s THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES

The Guard

By Siobhan Fallon

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02 a.m.

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the U.S. embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protesters in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another U.S. invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the U.S. embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended that our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver, and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards — well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise, we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastics competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blonde hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic, we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said, “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?

***

They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a 300-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and it could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.

***

For more of Siobhan Fallon’s essays and fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website: www.siobhanfallon.com

Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Emilia Bassano Lanyer: Was she the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets?

     

 

By Charlene Ball

 

Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, and why does she matter?

Emilia Lanyer lived during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and two other monarchs. She published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in which the title poem makes a strong argument for women’s equality. The book also contains the first country-house poem in English, and it is prefaced by dedications to nine prominent women, thus making Emilia the first woman in England to seek patronage and identify herself publicly as a writer. And on top of all this, she may have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I was thrilled when I learned about Emilia. I was in graduate school, and I heard historian A.L. Rowse give a talk about his theory that she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. He “discovered” her when he was researching the casebooks and journals of the astrologer Simon Forman, and he decided that she must have been the woman Shakespeare describes. Copies of her book had been languishing for four centuries in several British and American libraries, but Rowse’s 1979 edition of her poems and his claim about her relationship with Shakespeare brought her into the public eye.

However, Rowse’s view of Emilia was basically misogynistic, even though he allows that she was the best woman poet of her age. He called her “a bad lot,” “no better than she should be,” and assumed that she was promiscuous, based on no evidence other than that she had been the mistress of one man, possibly the lover of another, married to a third, and obsessed about by a fourth. Most scholars followed Rowse’s view until the 1990s, when feminist historians and literary scholars began writing about her.

The facts we know about Emilia are these. She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of the Bassano family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England. The Bassanos may have been secret Jews, converts who outwardly conformed to the Church of England but practiced their religion in secret.

We know from one of the dedications in her book that Emilia was educated in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. From the astrologer-physician Forman’s casebooks, we learn that she was mistress for several years to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen. She married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician. She was mother to two children, Henry and Odillya. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy. From Forman, we also know that Emilia visited him in 1598 and again in the early 1600’s for an astrology reading. Forman developed an erotic fascination with her and she seems to have had some sort of relationship with him that stopped short of sexual involvement.

Other things we know from Emilia’s book: she spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter, Lady Anne Clifford. Emilia probably served as a waiting gentlewoman or a music tutor. Her poem about the place called “The Description of Cooke-ham” describes her time spent there as idyllic. This poem happens to be the first country-house poem published in English. A country-house poem is a sort of bread-and-butter letter in verse, thanking one’s host for an enjoyable visit and praising their home. Until recently, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson has received credit for the first such poem, although Emilia’s predates his by five years.

Emilia published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611, becoming one of the first women to publish a book in England. It contains the title poem (which means “Hail, God, King of the Jews”), “The Description of Cooke-ham,” and dedications to nine noblewomen, plus two more dedications: “To the Vertuous Reader” and “To All vertuous Ladies in generall.” She adds an afterword, “To the doubtfull Reader,” explaining how the title came to her in a dream. As far as we know, Salve Deus is her only book.

What makes Emilia unique as a writer is that, in dedicating her book to nine prominent women, she was seeking patronage the way a male writer would. Patrons would pay an author for a dedication if they liked the work (10 pounds was the going rate). It was rather like applying for a grant from a foundation today. Seeking patronage shows that she saw herself as a professional writer.

Being a professional writer didn’t mean what it does today, by the way; it was not necessarily a path to fame and fortune. Emilia asks the astrologer whether she will become a lady, not whether she will publish a book. Nobility circulated their writings in manuscript, not bothering to publish. Commoners who wrote sought patronage, often with an eye to employment. Shakespeare put considerable effort into acquiring a coat of arms and in buying up land and houses, and not so much into publishing his works. He seems to have wanted to become a gentleman of property, not a poor player and scribbler of public entertainments.

My novel, Dark Lady (She Writes Press, 2017), depicts Emilia and Shakespeare as having an affair. However, no proof exists that Emilia knew Shakespeare. But what if she did? But what if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with the most famous poet of all?

I wanted to write about Emilia from a perspective sympathetic to her as a woman of her time. So my novel shows her not only as mistress and lover to two important men—one the most famous writer in the world—but also as a thinker and writer concerned with serious issues who published a book when few women did so.

I portray her as a woman, a mother, concerned with economic survival, struggling against misogynistic attitudes and laws that restrict women’s lives. I show how the great events of the time affect her—the Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Gunpowder Plot. I show how her relationship with the poet from Stratford inspired her to write. And I show how her friendships with other women are central to her life, helping and sustaining her, giving her acceptance and the courage to write her truths.

***

Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.

Photo credit: Libby Ware 

Janet Benton: How keeping a diary changed my life, as a daughter and a writer

  

There are a lifetime’s worth of influences underlying any novel, including my own debut, Lilli de Jong. But one fundamental influence was this: My mother kept a diary. And thus began my understanding of the power of writing to oneself.

I grew up in an old Connecticut town, a semi-rural place with a few remaining farmsteads and a growing population of commuters to job hubs in Connecticut and New York. Our house bordered a swamp, and I met my best friend there most afternoons to explore plants and snails, worms, and a modest creek—a wending, narrow, rock-filled place that we found fascinating.

I loved my mother dearly. In my early years, I loved watching her in action: seated before an easel, silently spreading oil paint across a canvas; standing in the kitchen, cooking from recipes she followed with care; engaging in animated conversation with friends. I watched her freckled, pretty face when she was yelling, crying, laughing, reading. When she read, her face was open and soft.

When I wasn’t watching, she kept a diary.

People may have viewed a housewife’s diary-keeping then as a cute past-time—a way of elevating the purported trivia of her life or, at best, a way of finding company. But diaries are powerful. They offer a place where muffled voices can tell their truths. Diaries are tools for digging up what we know and for laying claim to what we find.

My parents divorced when I was nine. Even before my father moved out, mothering and keeping house were no longer central to my mother’s life. She’d already blasted free of the confinement of being a housewife in suburbia, married to an often silent man. Yet I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted to think that, at least in private, she considered me central. And somehow I figured out that she was keeping a diary. She kept the book in her bedroom; perhaps I came in once when she was writing.

After the divorce, she sometimes stayed out till late at night, doing exciting and important things I didn’t understand. More than once I went into her bedroom, pulled open the door of her night-table cabinet, took out the cloth-covered three-ring binder she wrote in, and scanned its pages. My mother’s scrawl was nearly incomprehensible to me, as she’d been a left-handed person in a school system that made her hold a pen in a bizarre manner to conform. But I managed to find out some of what she thought and felt about her art, her lovers, her nighttime dreams.

These matters were not what I was hungering to find. I was searching for my own name. Now and then I found it in a note about me doing some out-of-the-ordinary activity. “Janet left for camp today.” “Went tonight to Janet’s play.” I don’t remember finding more than a few sentences.

I stopped looking. Because when I read her diaries, there was no denying that she was the central character of her life. This was not what I wanted to believe. Inevitably, such a realization occurs in every relatively healthy mother-child relationship; it is important to understand—for those who were lucky enough to have had the opportunity, to some extent, not to understand—that one’s mother doesn’t exist as the sun to one’s earth. She is her own planet. In some circumstances, at some ages—or perhaps in some secret part of ourselves, always—it hurts to know this.

Still, I must have appreciated the candid way my mother wrote of what concerned her. I must have seen that a diary was a place for truth-telling. Because I decided that a diary was a place I needed to have. At ten, I created my first one, folding blank paper in half, stapling it in the middle, gluing fabric to its front and back. My parents were divorced by then, and divorce was uncommon in our little town. My dad was just about to marry the second love of his life, which shocked me; I didn’t like to know that our family was truly never going to cohere again. I needed a private friend. I wrote my first entry on the evening of that wedding.

My relationship to the page wasn’t immediately confessional. Like someone in the early stages of a courtship, I was coy. Within a year or two, however, I needed the pages of my diaries more than anything. I needed somewhere to be real.

Diaries are subversive by nature; they contain points of view that can’t be expressed publicly. If we want them to, they can hold anything we feel. As such, they are a particularly meaningful tool for anyone who’s not ideally situated in life.

Until I was a mother, I kept a diary for myself, gradually filling two old trunks with notebook after notebook. I carted these trunks from one coast to another, from apartment to apartment to house. They sit in my home office now, growing more fragile by the year. They say, “Open us! Claim us!” But I’m afraid. Do I dare to feel again what I felt back then? One day, I’ve often thought. I’ll see what I can make from all that.

When I became pregnant, I stopped filling notebooks with stories from the life of me. I began writing to my baby-in-progress. After my daughter’s birth, I continued writing to her future self in notebooks. But my own truths about adjusting to my roles as mother and wife became awkward, difficult. They seemed traitorous. I did write them in my own diary, a little, but time was scarce, and I wanted to write the novel that was coming to me. For the next dozen years, I wrote that novel instead.

I’ve long loved well-wrought novels that convince me the narrator is writing to a diary. Their immediacy creates tension, and by nature they allow readers close access to the diarist’s mind—an intimacy that satisfies. The diary novels I’ve counted as favorites include Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and two by Geraldine Brooks: Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders.

So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the first novel I’ve finished of the four I’ve begun—the first one I was willing to put eight or nine thousand hours into—is a diary. Lilli de Jong keeps it during a transformative four months of her life: from the last weeks of her pregnancy through her first months of learning to be a mother.

Women have long kept diaries. The published American women’s diaries I’ve seen from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are telegraphic in nature, describing visitors, work accomplished, the weather, and financial transactions; they rarely contain feelings. In some cases, more intimate sections may have been deleted by grandchildren or other editors who compiled the published versions. But no doubt many diarists didn’t feel that such things should be entrusted to a page.

An artist, though, may be more likely to know that such honesty is transformative. Beginning with her diary, poems, and paintings, my mother, Suzanne Benton, became powerful. She turned 81 last January on the stage of the Women’s March in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a huge crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was introducing the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, because it was she who had conceived of that city’s march, had drawn people together to make it happen, had worked long days and nights to co-create the largest march ever assembled in St. Petersburg, with an estimated twenty-five thousand people.

“We know what we have to do,” she called out. “We know the path ahead is ours. Did the Berlin Wall fall because the government thought it was a good idea?” (The crowd shouted, “No!”) “Did the civil rights movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (“No!” again.) “Did the second-wave women’s movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (A large and rumbling “No.”) “We were a lot smaller than you, and look at what we did . . . Rights are not given—they’re won. So be brave, have courage, look out for your friends, for your neighbors, for each other . . . We’re going to stand together. We’re going to email, we’re going to call, we’re going to sit in on those legislators who have no moral compass, who go with the wind. Well, we’re a hurricane. Watch out, and hear us roar!”

Amid applause, Mayor Kriseman took the microphone and read a proclamation naming that day, January 21st, as Women’s Rights Day in St. Petersburg.

This large life my mother has claimed was not what others expected of her. She, too, had to win her rights. But that’s another story.

I saw my mother’s genius and her courage up close. By example, she taught me that making art is a process of healing, of inventing oneself, of telling one’s stories. She taught me that we create ourselves continually, and that being true to yourself can connect you with others in meaningful ways. As for those who are uncomfortable with this, one should stay too well occupied to notice. My mother showed me that making art offers a way to face and transform whatever life offers. She taught me that making art is a form of perpetually rescuing oneself.

Rescuing herself is precisely what Lilli de Jong does by keeping a diary in 1883 Philadelphia. She matters in those pages, and this helps her believe that her concerns should matter in the world. Her notebook-writing helps her stay honest with herself—and strengthens her voice. Keeping a diary sustains the dear and courageous unwed mother I invented, a young Quaker named Lilli de Jong.

I hope her story will move its readers, bringing them close to her mind and heart, as diary novels can do this like no others.

bio: Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor through her business, The Word Studio. Her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to keep her baby amid fierce prejudice. Visit http://www.janetbentonauthor.com to learn more.

Feminist Fiction: Turning the Tide

  

By Susan DeFreitas

***

December 28, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since my debut novel was published, and I’ve gotten some lovely reviews. Read It Forward noted the authenticity of my details, the economy of my storytelling (“as if Donna Tartt had been edited by Gordon Lish”). Rain Taxi wrote that my novel brings “contemporary environmental activism into the literary vernacular.” Powell’s Books—the largest independent book store in the world, which happens to be my local shop—made it a staff pick, going so far as to call it “a must-read.”

But it’s only today that a reviewer has finally said what has seemed obvious to me from the start, and that reviewer is Megan Burbank, the arts editor of the Portland Mercury.

“Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans . . . DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success.”

If you are a writer—someone who has labored long over words that no one else will ever read—this is the moment when your hand flies to your heart.

“DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe…to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women.”

Holy shit, I could not help but think, somebody actually got it.

It’s true, as Burbank goes on to note, that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by “swaggering white-guy hypocrisy.” True too that in activist narratives, as in activist circles, the voices of women have often been drowned out by those of men.

For me, the case in point is Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey is the grand old man of American eco-fiction, an author who has inspired generations of environmental activists, and a larger-than-life character in the Southwest.

He’s also misogynistic as hell.  

The heroes of The Monkey Wrench Gang are Doc Sarvis, George Heyduke, and Seldom Seen Smith—a retired doctor, ex-Green Beret, and Mormon wilderness guide, respectively. The sole female character is Bonnie Abzug, a New York liberal with an exceptional bust line. Throughout the whole thrilling adventure, which (spoiler alert!) involves blowing things up and running from the cops, she complains incessantly.

As a writer who cares deeply about the West, I could not help but admire Abbey’s style, his gleeful subversion of the status quo (“Dr. Sarvis, with his bald mottled pate, was out on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway…”). Abbey held that the moral duty of a writer was to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture”—a stance I, a child of the 1970s counterculture, embraced. I loved his humor too: “Everything in this book is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

And yet I knew that if I was going to tackle similar themes in my fiction, I’d have to flip the script on gender. Moreover, Abbey’s fantasy of ecological retaliation—setting fire to billboards, blowing up bridges, and destroying construction equipment—while fun, struck me as fundamentally flawed. Real change, in my experience (as my protagonist Rell notes) is “nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”

But therein lay a challenge that I believe goes to the heart of the way that the novel, a male-dominated art form for most of its history, has been defined. Because if you don’t have the “money shot” of a dam blowing up, the climax in which your renegade heroes have a showdown with the bad guys—well, where’s the story?

Long, slow, pissy work may be the true work of civilization, but it’s also damn hard to write about.

I also knew that if I was going to push back against Ed Abbey, I couldn’t just make my female characters smart and capable at every turn (the foil of annoying Ms. Abzug). That would be falling into the trap of the “strong female protagonist”—which, to my mind, is no more than the sort of male hero we’ve grown sick of, but with boobs.

My approach was to write a novel with a multiplicity of female points of view. A novel in which, as Burbank pointed out, the male characters were “refreshingly peripheral.”

All of the main characters in Hot Season are female, and all of them are involved in the fight to save a local river—but their stances, ideologically speaking, range from timid to militant, starry-eyed to pragmatic, representing a whole range of personality types and developmental stages.

This was a college novel, after all. It was important to me that the young women in it were free to be both serious and silly, engaged with philosophy and politics but also preoccupied by romantic dramas (not to mention whether or not they would be able to find a job after graduation).

My overall goal with the novel, in terms of both the characters and their politics, was complexity—and here, at last, someone got it.

It does not surprise me that the reviewer who did is a graduate of Smith College, whose alumnae include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A place, Burbank has noted elsewhere, “where women don’t have to apologize for being smart, where feminist ideals move from theory into practice.”

In fiction, as far as I’m concerned, moving from theory into practice means more than replacing male heroes with female ones. It means rethinking the way such narratives are structured.

Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps my favorite living author, noted in an interview with David Naimon that not only must a female author overcome a literary establishment that seeks to silence her at the time of publication, she must gain champions in order to cement her legacy, in order to keep it from being silenced in the years to come.

Though Hot Season is a work of realist fiction, I claim Le Guin’s fantasy novel Voices as a blueprint. Voices is marketed to YA readers, with a cover suggesting no more than fan fiction set in Middle-Earth. But what lies within those covers is one of the most subversive works of feminist fiction ever written—one in which the “money shot” of conventional confrontation, when a subjugated society rises up against its colonial masters, and its attendant bloodshed is, somehow…averted.

The tension between societies, between moral positions, between cultures, which drives the story like a steam engine, is never, in fact, consummated. The war, however righteous, never reaches a flash point, preserving the lives of all concerned. It is speech—both rhetoric and poetry—that turns the tide, at the moment of highest tension.

That, to me, is revolutionary.

The climax of both Voices and Hot Season is the opposite of a “money shot.” It reverberates, again and again, through the lives of many characters, through many perspectives (call it a series of multiple orgasms).

In Voices, as in Hot Season, there’s a nod toward the classical (male-defined) structure of the novel, which mandates direct confrontation at the point of climax, and yet the text subverts it, in favor of the truth: civilization, our greatest achievement as a species, is not defined by violent confrontations.

It is defined by the less showy stuff, which is ultimately more real—the long, slow, pissy work that, ultimately, turns the tide.

***

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in the Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). In 2014, her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award.

A graduate of Prescott College, DeFreitas has a background in marketing and publicity for green businesses, and from 2009 to 2012, she covered green technology for Earthtechling. Her creative work reflects on and incorporates themes related to the environment, sustainability, and the natural world. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.