And Still I Write*

In the early spring of 2013, my husband and I left our careers in Seattle to move to a remote peninsula in the northwest reaches of the state. It’s the place where we’d intended to retire someday, but we had another twenty years of work ahead of us. After crisscrossing the country and oceans to the east and west, we’d at last found jobs we felt we could live out our salaried lives growing into. We worked for the same company, one that seemed to espouse our personal and political ideals. We were earning a comfortable combined wage with excellent benefits.

 

And I was writing. By the winter of 2012, I had published several short stories and I was deep into the first draft of my first novel. I’d been admitted into an MFA program starting in the fall at a local university, and thanks to a flexible schedule, I knew I could make it all work.

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

There’s a story churning in my gut, a contemporary drama about a corporate culture that allowed a stream of employees to be bullied into impossible corners and intimidated into silence, a cautionary tale of a mentally unstable, power-sick company executive who targeted a worthy rising star, and bullied him with impunity. It’s a story with ripple effects both beautiful and grave, circumstances that opened doors and burned down buildings. In it, a couple refused to remain silent or back down; they worked in solidarity to shine light in the darkest of those tight, unforgiving corners.

 

Seattle is now a place where I once lived. All that happened is a memory in a shared life story.

 

 

That ending to our tidy lives, the cleaving of our employment, became the beginning of my full-time writing career. Leaving the city life for a village by the sea meant simplifying and we created a budget that allowed for one income. It also meant sacrifices and a resetting of expectations, but my husband declared his willingness to support us for as long as it took me to build a sustainable writing career. He became my sponsor, a gesture of grace and generosity.

 

I worked hard, writing hours a day, seven days a week, rarely a day off. I landed an agent and sold two novels and completed a third in the first two years as a fulltime writer. I published short stories and essays, my first poem. I began leading writing workshops and started a freelance editing business. I was awarded a writing residency in Ireland and saved up enough to send myself on a writing retreat in France. I was living a writer’s dream, at least one in its early stages. My income was modest: moderate advances and whatever I netted from teaching and editing gigs. Not enough to sustain myself, but enough to give me confidence that I was on the right track.

 

My first novel launched in February 2016, an event concurrent to the collapse of my marriage. That spring, as I publicly celebrated the most fulfilling, rewarding thing that could happen to a writer, a twenty-five year marriage was very privately coming to an end. How a couple slides from unity to dissolution is a tapestry of mistakes and sadness I will be unraveling for years. But the ending became delayed by something that still shames me to admit: I knew if my husband and I separated, my life as a fulltime writer would end. My security would vanish. I would be forced to return to a day job, giving up my dream almost as soon as it began. Yet to continue in a marriage that was less than either of us deserved would be to continue in a lie.

 

Ten months to the day after my first novel released, I punched a time card. I was fortunate to have found a job in the wine industry, a world I’d left three and half years before. I worked first for a resort, where the hours were long, the nights were late, the work physically demanding, commuting white-knuckled on dark roads all through the fall and winter. The summer I spent at a winery close to home with better pay, but no benefits and an uncertain future.  Then a few weeks ago, a phone call from a new, local, non-profit arts school asking if I would join their staff. A return to my long-ago, rewarding career in education administration, creating systems and processes to advance a mission I could wrap my head and heart around.

 

And still, when people ask what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Somehow, in the midst of life’s chaos, the grief of a marriage ending, the bewilderment of another broken relationship blundered into from fear of loneliness and excitement of freedom, I scribble away still, determined to hold on to that which defines me: my words.

 

My second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA (Ashland Creek Press) released in September. I had neither the time nor the funds to mount an in-person book tour. I released myself from the expectation of a sprint after launch and the novel is serenely flying alone. I settle into my new job, reclaim my routines, and set my sights on making bookstore rounds in the spring, knowing now from experience that promotion is a marathon, a slow and steady race without a finish line. A third novel is recently on submission. I have made tentative steps into a fourth project, having promised my agent I would have a draft of something solid by summer. Late summer.

 

I know of few writers who write fulltime, sustaining themselves on advances and royalties. Most of us, even those with bestseller in their bios, teach and freelance to supplement an uncertain and meager income, or we work full or part-time at jobs unrelated to our writing, jobs that provide health insurance, that pay the mortgage, the college tuition, the credit card debt, the medical bills. Those who have partners able to provide financial stability are the fortunate ones, as I was once. And fortunate I am still, for I have found stability on my own, with a vocation that sustains me financially and intellectually. My avocation, that as a writer, sustains my soul.

Julie Christine Johnson’s short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; and River Poets Journal. Her work has also appeared in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and psychology and a master’s in international affairs.

Named a “standout debut” by Library Journal, “very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review, and “delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life (Sourcebooks) went into a second printing three days after its February 2016 release. A hiker, yogi, and swimmer, Julie makes her home in northwest Washington state.

Visit www.juliechristinejohnson.com for more information on Julie’s writing.

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

*This essay originally appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books, November 8, 2017.

The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

 

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

 

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

 

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

 

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

 

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

 

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

“… the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”

 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption chronicles the founding, growth, and work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is “a private, nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.” (EJI website).

 

Its Executive Director since the founding of EJI in the late 1980s, Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy to bring readers close to the issues of mass incarceration and the injustices of a broken criminal justice system that condemns children, the mentally ill, non-violent offenders, and wrongly accused to death from life imprisonment or capital punishment.

 

Just Mercy centers around the case of Walter McMillan, a black man sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison. Walter was sent to Alabama’s death row before the trial even took place. He would spend six years on death row, before Bryan Stevenson and his team at EJI was able to convince the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals that McMillan had been wrongly convicted. That he was innocent was not in doubt—dozens had tried to testify his whereabouts at the time of the murder; the man who claimed he and McMillan had murdered the young woman recanted his testimony several times; the law enforcement and legal system was blatantly corrupt and racist. But Walter McMillan’s story serves as a representative tale of how the American criminal justice system is still mired in Jim Crow, a massive complex rooted in policies of mass incarceration and structural poverty and racial injustice.

 

Intertwined with the chapters of Walter McMillan’s story are the cases of men, women, and children around the country that EJI took on, seeking to save lives and reform laws by advocating for the marginalized and broken.

 

Stevenson posits that there are “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice, but remain poorly understood”: slavery; the reign of terror which followed Reconstruction through WWII, during which African-Americans were re-enslaved, lynched, and brutalized; the evolution of Jim Crow, which legalized racial discrimination; and mass incarceration—a deliberate American legal, political, and law enforcement policy, chronicled in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

Just Mercy is devastating, but as the title suggests, it is not without hope, grace, mercy and compassion, for these are the very qualities that compelled a group of young people, with inadequate funding, staff, and experience, to fight for the most hopeless and forgotten of our society. It is a coming-of-age memoir of a social justice champion.

 

EJI grew from a staff of two at its founding to more than forty today; Bryan Stevenson is the recipient of multiple honors, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and has tried several cases before the United States Supreme Court; EJI has saved dozens of lives and continues to call for the abolition of the death penalty and draw attention to the ills of a criminal justice system that punishes the poor, people of color, children, and the mentally ill and disabled at rates vastly disproportionate to that of the wealthy and white.

 

…the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

 

I implore you to read this inspiring, powerful story. It belongs to us all.

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Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I’d wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn’t care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens’ Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.

 

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner’s class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I’d find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I’ll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot’s silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve “success”, or his revolting remark,“Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare “Real Deals”, as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? …  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here’s the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don’t. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can’t see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I’m a “real writer”)? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner’s World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one’s otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven’t put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don’t want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It’s the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The “Real Deals” are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The “Real Deals” make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.
 

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
― Ken Kesey

This has nothing to do with my blog post. I just love it. Chartres Cathedral © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

A Voice for the Stolen: Speaking Up For Nigeria

Reports surfaced early last week that hundreds of people, perhaps as many as 2000, were massacred by Boko Haram forces in northern Nigeria, near the Chadian border. Boko Haram, a militant, extremist Islamic separatist movement that is classified as a terrorist organization, is responsible for thousands of deaths since its emergence in 2009. In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, reportedly to make them wife-slaves; those girls remain unaccounted for and hundreds more women and children have been imprisoned and enslaved since.

 

Recent reports out of northern Nigeria indicate Boko Haram is using kidnapped girls as suicide bombers.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because so few are talking about it.

 

Last week, I raged, I posted on Facebook, I tweeted, I trolled the internet for information. NPR, through the indomitable reporting of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as well as syndicated shows Here and Now and On the Media, has done an admirable job of keeping the Baga Massacre in the news; British media, including the BBC and print media The Guardian and The Independent, are producing the most audible, visible, and compelling reports and narratives. Yes, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign raised awareness during the initial days of the schoolgirl hostage crisis last year, but interest waned as time wore on and both captors and victims remained faceless, hopeless headlines. Headlines that grew smaller and have all but disappeared.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because little girls are being forced to blow themselves up.

 

Because little girls are being forced.

 

Because little girls.

 

I believe that lifting up women and girls—ensuring access to education and health care, providing freedom from oppression, delaying the age of first childbirth, promoting engagement in their country’s economic system—is the single most important way to end poverty, improve a country’s economic and political stability, and yes, even combat religious extremism and terrorism. Ample evidence of this—across cultures, nations, ages—is borne out by statistical research, surveys, white papers, dissertations, and by those who work tirelessly in shelters, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, non-profits and NGOs around the world. We know what to do. Corruption, misogyny, greed, extremism, and lack of political and popular will stand in the way.

 

But now it not the time for my opinion. Now is not the time for me to tell you why stability in Nigeria is critical to American political and economic security. You can read about that for yourself. I posted a few links below that I hope you find useful.

 

I don’t know what can be done to help those women and children in Nigeria; nothing can be done to bring back the lives of those slaughtered. But I do know that we can all contribute to projects which work for women’s and girl’s empowerment. I’ve included links to few of those below, too.

 

On a day when we honor one of the world’s greatest human rights activists, can I ask that you read something about what’s happening in Nigeria? Can I ask that you stand up for the right of women and girls to be free from violence, no matter where they live? It doesn’t have to be Nigeria. It can be the women’s shelter across town. You are needed.

 

Understanding the history of Boko Haram & Northern Nigeria

Northern Nigerian Conflict, James Verini, National Geographic, November 2013.

The Ongoing Horrors of Boko Haram with journalist Alexis Okeowo, On the Media NPR/WNYC, January

The Kidnapped and Enslaved

Missing Nigeria Schoolgirls: A Chronological Storyline NBC News

Baga Massacre

New Reports Show Unprecedented Horror in Nigeria’s Baga Massacre, Lizabeth Paulat, Care2

Satellite Images Only Source Showing Extent of Baga Massacre, Victoria Richards, The Independent, January 15, 2015

Media Reaction to Baga

Is The World Ignoring Nigeria? Here and Now, Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, NPR/WBUR January 16, 2015

Why Journalists Don’t Seem to Care About the Massacre in Nigeria Mark Hay, GOOD Magazine January 13, 2015

What the United States is Doing to Improve Security and Stability in Nigeria

U.S. Efforts to Assist the Nigerian in its Fight Against Boko Haram

What Can I Do?

Mercy Corps: Be The Change

Mercy Corps: Why Women Are Key to Building Resilience: Projects in Mali, Niger, Nigeria

Half the Sky Movement

There are dozens of organizations that support women’s empowerment around the world. Here’s a great list compiled by Half the Sky Movement: Organizations Devoted to Women’s Empowerment Projects

Light through the clouds  © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Light through the clouds © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Solstice Stillness

It’s in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer ‘How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?’ Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

2014-12-12 15.41.54
the space between words Copyright 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and … trying to change it.” Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she’s adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don’t read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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The Ray Rice Effect

I’d planned to tell you about the writerly “Eureka” moments I’ve experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can’t. Not this week. This week, I’ve had different sorts of moments. If I don’t speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.

 

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL’s recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I’ll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn’t the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks’ Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice’s behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I’m not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don’t think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann’s impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don’t have television and I don’t watch the news online. I wouldn’t have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don’t care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann’s video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a “whatever” matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I’m a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I’ve realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who’ve experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss–an essay I’ve read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn’t get much rawer than describing what it’s like to eliminate your baby’s fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It’s not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven’t finished speaking. In fact, I’ve hardly begun.

 

 

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle–adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early ’80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld’s extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this. You simply must.” It’s been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops–another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison’s most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy’s wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York’s attorneys, she is delving into the condemned’s life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York’s execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it’s caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society’s nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics’ best of lists. It damn well better be.

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