Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Is it strange that I want to f
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Is it strange that I want to fist bump Virginia Woolf whenever I read this iconic line from A Room of One's Own?
Woolf wrote this essay in October 1928 for an Oxbridge lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction. It was published a year later, as the Jazz Age came to a skidding halt and the Great Depression fell like a heavy curtain across the world's stage. But on this glorious mid-autumn day, suspended in thought, she wanders the grounds of an Oxford college that has curious rules about where women can walk and sit. Woolf contemplates what it means to be addressing women's intellectual and creative pursuits in a place that won't let her walk through gardens or enter a chapel because of her sex. She contrasts the opulent luncheon of sole "spread with a counterpane of the whitest cream" and partridge and an ethereal "pudding" she enjoys in the men's hall with the meagre dinner at a women's college later that evening.
Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.
and later, a far more modest affair at the women’s college:
What force is behind that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?
The difference in the meals serves as a starting metaphor for the opportunities afforded a female scholar of the literary arts. With belly sated and senses enlivened by the romance of this beautiful October day, wandering the hallowed, golden grounds of Oxford, Woolf lays out the central premise of her essay:
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
She imagines Shakespeare's twin sister Judith, a woman possessing curiosity, ambition and talent at least equal to that of her celebrated brother but because of cultural and political oppression of women, her voice and eventually her life are wasted. And then Woolf goes on to show us how all women are related to Shakespeare's sister.
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
The central tenet of Virginia Woolf’s essay is to counter the notion that women’s writing is inferior to men’s. She offers up, in language at once accessible and divine, proof of history’s disavowal of women’s promise. What seems obvious today was radical feminist thinking at the time.
The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
And what is to be done to right history’s wrongs?
Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.
Woolf examines the women writers who did break through, despite the walls and ceilings holding them in. I’m new enough to Woolf’s writings that I did not know she held such affection for Jane Austen. This fills me with shivery delight and makes me want to hug the world.
Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote.
Here we are, ninety-five years after Virginia Woolf wrote her essay. How things have changed. How they have not.
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
I am sure, were Virginia alive today, she would be involved with VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, which does an annual count to tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. Woolf imagined that in a hundred years’ time, women’s writing would be on par with men’s in terms of acceptance, publication, readership, and critical review and respect. Alas, although things have improved immensely, there is still work to be done.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.
Judith Shakespeare is present among us. She may have found her way from middle-class America and Europe into universities and be earning an income and enjoying a room of her own, but she is still waiting to be lifted from poverty elsewhere, into education and independence, to use the full-throated power of her own voice.
But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
A call to action, if ever there was one. An astonishing work of literary criticism, of feminist thought, that is as vital, powerful, and important today as it was on that golden October afternoon in 1928. I am moved beyond words.
What holds me as a reader of poetry is the same thing that terrifies me about composing my own poems: truth-telling. A writer of prose has more wordsWhat holds me as a reader of poetry is the same thing that terrifies me about composing my own poems: truth-telling. A writer of prose has more words to hide in, more time to conjure and reshape reality. A poet confronts the truth with every single word.
For twenty-seven years I held my tongue denied my truth heard no love echoed in the sounds of people's voices and I am aware now that all those years spent waiting for someone to come and rescue me almost cost me my life
Kira Lynne Allen writes her heart-breaking, soaring truth in raw and tender language. Her searing poetry tells the story of her life, a life which took strength to survive, heal, and rise above. Allen's poems chronicle a childhood blown apart by trauma and a young adulthood by addiction, until she finds redemption in the recovery process and healing in her art. She tells her stories as Maya Angelou did: with anger and benevolence intertwined, in a clear, unwavering voice.
I recognize my right to celebrate I relish my right to write to rage to dance to cry to crave I reclaim my right to tenderness to elevate to educate I delight in my right to love I am accused of writing too much about racism and incest and rape and domestic violence As if I dug through the archives of extinct words to discuss unknown phenomena I don't friggin' think so
In finding this voice, Allen has created a present that celebrates not only her journey and triumph of spirit, but the community she embraces and serves as a teacher and advocate. She is the embodiment of the power of truth-telling, of poetry, of using our words to heal, comfort, empower, and build.
because I write to heal n I write to live because life's stories are not simple or undaunting because today courage is fear that has said its prayers
It is the early-mid 1960s and Naples is experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance: the post-war boom has created a new consumer class, with faIt is the early-mid 1960s and Naples is experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance: the post-war boom has created a new consumer class, with fancy shoe boutiques staffed by pretty girls dressed up like Jackie O. In university halls, students speak of the two Germanys, Indochina, nuclear arms, and Communism.
But not everything has changed. In the darker neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, where violence is an accepted means of communication and a woman’s worth is tallied by first her father, then her husband, tradition vies with progress.
It is here we left Lila on her wedding day, at the end of Book One of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend. Elena watched from the sidelines as her best friend sashayed into a life of comfort, buoyed by her husband Stefano’s economic success.
But how quickly fortunes shift. Book Two, The Story of a New Name, is still Lina and Elena’s story. The new name belongs to the girl who exchanged her father’s name for her husband’s yet remains confined to the old way of life, while a new life is granted to the plump, shy, awkward, girl who is able to continue her education. Womanhood awaits them both, but we see how conflicted Elena has become, feeling ever in the shadow of Lila’s magnetic beauty. The day of her marriage, Elena helps Lila prepare:
I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up: I still have in my ears the sound of the dripping water, and the impression that the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness.
But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night. I imagined her naked as she was at that moment, entwined with her husband, in the bed in the new house, while the train clattered under their windows and his violent flesh entered her with a sharp blow, like the cork pushed by the palm into the neck of a wine bottle. And it suddenly seemed to me that the only remedy against the pain I was feeling, that I would feel, was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing.
I posited that My Brilliant Friend is a novel of power; The Story of a New Name is about trust. In the opening scene, set some fifty years after Lila’s wedding, Elena betrays her friend’s trust, saying “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples.” She dumps the journals Lila had given her for safekeeping into the Arno River, but then she turns back and tells Lila’s story to us, her readers, so that we’ll remember Lila, and the old neighborhood, forever.
Lila and Stefano’s marriage is built on sand, but it is a castle they manage to rebuild over and over again in the early years. Lila trusts her cleverness and beauty will protect what she most wants: control; Stefano trusts his position as husband and provider will allow him the same. Elena knows better than to put her faith in Lila, but she does, time and again, until her best friend shatters her heart. The young man whose affections she has been pining for since childhood turns his brooding eye to Lila, the young bride. The affair becomes Lila’s undoing, while at the same time Elena begins her slow rise, far from Naples and whirlpool of tradition and family. She escapes Lila’s fate:
I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?
But Elena cannot escape the dream that is Lila, the girl whom she knows to be more intelligent, quicker, more articulate—the real scholar. Elena handwrites a draft of a novel and offers it as a university graduation gift to a boyfriend, who passes it along to his mother, a book editor. And suddenly she is swept up in success. But it is Lila’s spirit that wrote Elena's book, even though it came from Elena’s hands. Elena discovers The Blue Fairy, a short novel Lila had written as a child, and realizes Lila’s words and voice are
the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, . . . the brightly colored cover, the title and not even a signature.
And in a gesture of trust and love for her friend, Elena returns the story to Lila, admitting, “I read it again and discovered that, without realizing it, I’ve always had it in my mind. That’s where my book comes from.” It is the story of a new name.
Yet would seem too late for redemption from Elena. Lila is lost, a fallen woman, the transformation Elena observed and dreaded a few years earlier in the wives of the old neighborhood has overcome her friend. Lila tosses her story into the flames and Elena leave Naples.
But Elena and Lila are still young, only in their mid-twenties, and there is still so much of their stories yet to tell. ...more
I couldn't help but wonder if Roxana Robinson named her protagonist Conrad Farrell after Conrad Jarrett, from Judith Guest's Ordinary People: two sensI couldn't help but wonder if Roxana Robinson named her protagonist Conrad Farrell after Conrad Jarrett, from Judith Guest's Ordinary People: two sensitive, smart, accomplished young men brought down by emotional trauma, wracked by guilt and anger; two quiet, thoughtful novels that take us to characters' edges of sanity, while families look on, wringing their hands. Yet while Guest's narrative played out intimately, contained within a private family disaster, Robinson's stage is much larger, set against the backdrop of war.
Conrad Farrell has returned to his family's home in upstate New York after four years in Iraq. It is 2006 and while war continues to fester and rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lt. Farrell's mission is over. He is set adrift among people, whether in the bucolic idyll of Katonah or the self-important bustle of Manhattan, who cannot comprehend the things he has seen and done in uniform. Unspeakable acts of violence that play out in Conrad's mind over and over, robbing him of sleep and the ability to reason.
Robinson's portrayal of a soldier's experience with post-traumatic stress disorder is nuanced, wrenching, and authentic. The author offers a character who would seem able to manage a return to civilian life with relative ease. Conrad is highly-educated, with a degree in classics. He has a supportive, loving family, financial resources, he escaped Iraq without physical injury. On the outside he is fit and fortunate. Yet, instead of abating in the months following his return home, Conrad's PTSD worsens. The honeymoon period ends, everyone returns to their normal lives, but Conrad flails emotionally in a world that no longer makes sense. Loud noises and crowded rooms push him to panic attacks, he cannot stop himself from assessing the risk potential when he walks down the street or enters a restaurant, or sees cars on the freeway that resembles those found in Iraqi streets, set to detonate. Conrad has so completely become one with his experience in Iraq that even as he marvels at the wonder of hot showers, hot food, the beauty of his girlfriend's body, he longs for the sense of purpose that leading men into and out of danger gave him. Despite the grinding sand, heat, and ever-present fear of attack by IEDs and suicide bombers, the physical deprivations, and the maddening evidence that the war in Iraq was bungled from the start, Conrad misses being a Marine in Iraq.
Fascinated by the art of war, he signed up as an intellectual exercise, not a patriotic one, shocking his aging hippie parents by joining the military in the months prior to 9/11. Yet, Robinson focuses on describing the realities of a soldier's life, rather than reflecting on the irony of Conrad's decision. Inserted early and somewhat awkwardly in the novel are descriptions of the soldiers of the Greek city-state Sparta, whose training was so similar to Conrad's own, as well as a chilling play-by-play of the battle in the Iraqi city of Fallujah—documentary moments that stall the narrative, as if Robinson sat you down in a chair and made you read a series of articles before you could go on with the rest of the story. These sections are fascinating and serve to provide context, but feel a little forced.
It would be easy to say this is an anti-war novel, but I think Sparta is far more complicated, reflecting the realities of political culture. Where she leaves no doubt is the scathing portrayal of the Veteran's Administration. Conrad is treated abominably; after months on a waiting list, he is allotted just minutes with a doctor who spends more time on the phone than with his patient, then shoves a few prescriptions for anti-depressants at Conrad and tells him to check back in three months. For a suicidal soldier, three days may be too late.
Conrad's struggle is gripping and real. There are a few areas where I struggle to connect, namely with his family. Everyone is so worried about Conrad, but no one does much to reach out, other than his sister, who offers him a place to stay. His mother, a therapist of all things, doesn't seem to recognize PTSD in her son. She just wants to hug and feed him. And the author's tic of describing the clothing of every single character who appears, even for a moment, is very distracting. Why it's necessary to detail the earrings Conrad's sister wears, not just once, but every time he sees her, baffles me. But these are small complaints compared to the larger accomplishment of showing the emotional and intellectual inside of a soldier returning to civilian life.
In writing a powerful, accessible, engaging novel, Roxana Robinson does a tremendous service to the men and women who have offered their lives for this country. Many do not return home; the ones who do deserve our empathy, respect, and vehement insistence that the government which put them in harm's way fully support its soldiers once they are back home. ...more