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Negotiated Truths

Chapter 1 Blog

Chapter 1. “The Negotiated Truth”

In 2006, I read an essay by the novelist JG Ballard in the Guardian newspaper (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/mar/04/fiction.film)

In it, Ballard describes the process of writing Empire of the Sun, a work of fiction that draws heavily on his harrowing childhood experiences as a prisoner in the Lunghua Japanese war camp. He begins the essay by reflecting on the “huge staying power” of memories, noting that “like dreams, they thrive in the dark” and survive “for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.” If those memories are painful, he observes, bringing them into the light “can be risky”. Indeed, in Ballard’s case, that risk was so great that he avoided writing about his childhood for forty years:  “[t]wenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember”. He was, he confesses, entirely unable to bear witness to that time in his life until “it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story” just as “they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room” .

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By removing his parents from the story, in other words, Ballard was free to recount what he felt to be the truth of his “real existence,” his sense of surviving the war on his own. “Once I separated Jim from his parents,” he reveals, “the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet” .

 

So, despite the significant change he made in representing the circumstances of his past (ie by portraying young Jim as in essence an orphan in the camp) Ballard believed that  “enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth”.  The art of Ballard’s novel, in other words, its narrative negotiation with the “risky,” “dark” and “shipwrecked” memories of its author’s traumatic past, and it is precisely this strategy of negotiation with the truth, rather than its documentation, that I find in all the posttraumatic autobiographical projects I examine in The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths.

From legal and rights testimony to traditional and graphic memoirs, from prison poetry to autobiographical fiction, from virtual to material monuments to traumatic histories, I see Ballard’s “negotiated truth” as the key rhetorical figure of the posttraumatic autobiographical. Indeed, as I shall explain in a future blog, it is an approach to recounting traumatic past experiences that I have used myself.

Writing Women in the 20th and 21st Century

Personalities FJ 32

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

Starting on Monday, 28th January, I will be running a course on Writing Women at Kingston University.  My students will be reading a variety of works, both literary and critical by and about women writers in the 20th and 21st century, and will be commenting on those works here.

 

The first week we will be looking at the following works:

 

  1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1899) http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html
  2. Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own (1928) http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/

 

  1. Dale Spender, “Women and Literary History”

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Some of the key questions we will be asking this semester are:

—  Do men and women respond and read differently ?

—  Is there anything essentially feminine or female about what we are reading?

—  How would this story in particular be different if it was told from John’s point of view?

—  How does the form of the story (the symbolism, the narrative voice, the point of view) relate to its content?

—  What does the story tell us about how men and women feel, think, respond and read?

I do hope you will join us in our reading and discussions!

What’s in a Name? Women, Work and the suburbs

 

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There was a girl at my suburban New York Catholic high school who really seemed to have it all.  She was a cheerleader (natch) – she may in fact have been captain of the cheerleaders, but this was a very long time ago and I could easily be exaggerating her status in retrospect. But she was definitely on the team.  Her boyfriend was a Senior when we were Juniors, and he was the darling both of the basketball coach and the math teacher who were known to hate pretty much everyone. She was blonde and quiet in a snotty sort of way, known to be quite clever, and besides all these god-given riches, she had two more attributes that represented  her unattainably, even unthinkably superior lifestyle: firstly her name was the unspeakably elegant, sophisticated and un-Long Island-sounding Cecelia,  and secondly, it was rumoured that Cecelia’s mother employed a housekeeper.

Looking back from where I am now, I realise that the two extraordinary traits for which we envied Cecelia the cheerleader are linked in an interesting way that has to do with women, work and immigration.  Like many suburbs of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which I grew up in the 1970s and 80s was peopled for the most part by the descendents of the European diaspora that arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century via Ellis Island, and you could generally tell how far removed you were from the shackles of the “old country” of your ancestors by your first name.  So for instance a middle of the road to Americanisation name like Mary, Margaret, Robert, Maria, John, Walter or Anne would tend to signify that your parents had been born in America, but their parents were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc.  while a name like Angelo, Siobhan, Helmut (that poor kid) or Analisa meant that the parents of those kids were what was to us then the most embarrassing of all creatures: relatives with an accent. The way such parents spoke was anxiety- provoking enough, but worse still to our cruel, tribal teenage eyes  were their old-fashioned ways of dressing, of decorating their homes and of course of cooking.  Shame befell the teen whose mother cooked authentic goulash instead of the hamburger helper kind the more Americanised moms were making, and horror belonged to the kid who brought a friend home after school only to have their mom feed them pirogues instead of twinkies for a snack.(Exceptions to this rule were allowed in the case of Italian families for everyone loves lasagne no matter who makes it or what their accent might be).

But generally speaking in my white working and middle class 1970s suburb, being  100% American (that is, just like the people we saw on television) was where it was at and everything else was cringe-worthy. And while most of our names reflected our links to some distant past in a country we never knew, we Margarets and Marys and Helmuts and Angelos longed for a name that represented our true allegiance to the one country we cared about: The United States of Television.  Names like Jennifer and Chad and Marilyn and Greg spoke to an idealised (and non-specific) heritage we wished to be ours, and Cecelia’s name seemed to represent the apotheosis of that form of white-bread Americana for which we had been prepared by the Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction and the Partridge Family (Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Billie Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo, Keith and Laurie Partridge were not eating cabbage soup or latkes at home, that’s for sure).(And BTW, Blonde haired, blue eyed Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie was meant to be Persian).

What’s funny is how the second of Cecelia’s unattainable attributes (the cleaning lady) haunted us just as much as her television-perfect name.  A housekeeper was something we saw on Hazel, on Nanny and the Professor, and of course, on the Brady Bunch (by the way, wtf was Carol Brady doing all day while Alice slaved in her pinafore and longed for a night out with Sam the Butcher? ) Like every kid  I knew (except the cheerleader whose name still arouses my ire) in our family we had just as many kids as the Bradys and Partridges but the idea of a housekeeper or cleaner was as distant and unlikely to us as being renamed Pippa .  And as a result some kid’s houses (like mine) were a continual source of anxiety, dread, remorse and sticky feet (the kitchen floor was rarely clean). And other kids who tended to be deeply afraid of their mothers had very clean houses, of which they (I figured then) must have been very proud, but which (I now believe) they actually couldn’t wait to get the hell out of.  And why is that?  I mean why is it that middle-class parents, many of whom were both working and had two or more cars and sometimes swimming pools and paid the fees for private Catholic education would never have dreamed of paying someone to clean their houses for them? I figure it has something to do with the proximity of many of our parents to the poverty of the previous generation, and in particular, to the poverty of many of their mothers, who, having arrived in the New World as children or young adults had to struggle with their accented English often in menial jobs that offered very little pay for seriously hard work, all so that they could the next generation of their families could have the American dream.  So while our parents enjoyed the relative luxury of only having to clean their own homes, their children, my generation, longed for the part of the American dream that meant we could make as much mess as we wanted and never, ever have to clean it up.  We wanted to be Marcia Brady goddamnit, or at least her cheerleader equivalent in the legendary Cecelia of Long Island. Back when the legal drinking age was eighteen (so half of high school seniors were old enough to go to bars) my boyfriend (who was eighteen) invited me to a party at a bar.  I was still seventeen.  I waited outside while he went in to borrow someone’s ID to bring back out to me.  He came back a few minutes later with – you guessed it – Cecelia’s driver’s license. We were of similar height and coloring, and anyway, in those days the license didn’t have a picture. I was both thrilled at sickened at the chance of pretending to be her and it took several minutes for my boyfriend to convince me to give it a try. I gathered up my nerve and walked brazenly into the bar with my fake id, for a moment inhabiting the Olympic heights of being a housekeeper-employing and television-name-bearing-goddess. But when I handed the id back to the real Cecelia with a thank you and she gave me one of her snotty smiles and I suddenly noticed that she had really bad teeth and her nose was crooked and her hair was actually kind of weird. In other words, Cecelia was really rather a lot like me (apart from my house being dirty and my name being Margaret.) And looking back now the idea that my vision of an ideal life came from Friday nights on ABC is both frightening and kind of funny, particularly as I seem to have spent much of my adult life researching the origins of words, images, and ideas, stripping away the false, the processed, the pre-digested in a variety of forms.  Like many women of my generation, I buy organic (sometimes) search out “authentic” ethnic recipes and ingredients that my own mother would not have recognised (but her mother might) and scoured the baby name books for “original” sounding names that reflect the childrens’ cultural heritage. Hell, I don’t even watch television anymore.  But lest I try to pretend that the Long Island girl has been entirely left behind, I confess that long ago I changed my name from Margaret to Meg.  And recently, I hired a cleaner.

 

Poetry and Hope: Liane Strauss

I had dinner on Sunday night with London-based New York born poet Liane Strauss, author of Leaving Eden, (Salt 2010) and Frankie, Alfredo (Donut Press, 2009). Liane has published widely in the US and UK including  The Hudson Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner and Magma. She teaches literature and creative writing at Birkbeck College, The Poetry School and The City Literary Institute.

http://www.lianestrauss.com/www.lianestrauss.com/News/News.html

See here the late Michael Donaghy’s take on Strauss’s poetry:

http://www.clivejames.com/liane-strauss/donaghy

So what did we two misplaced New York women writers discuss on a rainy so-called summer’s evening in London: poetry and hope.  Where does it come from and do we need more of it?  Is false hope better than no hope?  Isn’t the act of writing itself an inscription of hope, hope writ large or small (depending on the form) that grows out of a belief both in one’s own voice and ability to craft that voice into art, and in the possibilty that your the invitation to the reader will be accepted. 

The process of submission for publication of one’s writing, of course, is another act of faith.  As Liane reminded me “it is out of your control.  Your job is to concentrate on the work. That is what matters,” and the ability to continue to do so in the face of criticism, or worse yet, indifference, is perhaps the central tenet of the artist’s creed: self-belief, hope in one’s power to create something original, something that matters, something that says something that needs to be said in a new and perhaps shocking or shockingly beautiful way.

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when the chips are down and the cupboards are bare and all seems lost and empty and hopeless, Marmee tells her girls to “Hope and keep busy,” and it is nice to know that writing women are still there to offer the same solace to one another.

I offer you this poem of Liane’s, and its shockingly beautiful evocation of hope.

It’s Never Too Early for a Clean Slate

I’m blinking in the blank white light off the blinding sheets.
The voice beside my head has seen more of the world already
and it’s not even 7. She reassures me like a baby,
but I’m 42 if I’m a day, and I need to hear the forecast,
which I still haven’t learned has nothing to do with the weather.

The next 12 hours are playing like a film on the bathroom mirror.
I’m the atheist at the baptism, looking forward to lamb chops:
I merely survey the experience; my heart’s not in it.
When I release my grip the living end reverses into the tube.

And here is my first tall cup. It scalds
my gums, the parapets and vaults of my mouth,
and you’re talking to me in the native tongue
which was my own once, set like type,
or handprints in cement, as near second nature as Mother Nature,
but today I can’t make heads nor tails of anything you’re saying,
although I remain convinced if only I would try a little harder,
apply myself with more stick-to-itiveness,
I’ll be able to save you, or be myself saved,
from what, from the look in your eyes, is
some not-so-new or even unforeseeable disaster.
But then I realize I can’t even hear myself think,
that I’d need earplugs and a pneumatic drill
just to get through the words. And even your eyes
don’t hear me when, out of time, ideas and desperation,
I semaphore in my own dead language, remembering my father
telling me never to fall in love with a foreigner
or in the middle of the night he’d curse me.

But it’s only first thing in the morning,
and not the first time, by my troth,
I’ve failed to seize (let alone shuck) a pearl of wisdom
cast like an aspersion before me and time to go,
so I wave goodbye, which I see is an ambiguous
as well as an ambidextrous gesture. But at the same time
I also can’t see. And what choice do I have?
I don’t have two right hands, and we’re at the crossroads
of the breakfast table – the coast being clear, the toast being cold –
and I unbolt the chain, let slip the wards of God,
(or Whoever it is Whose gates these are) and,
tossing precaution and my only set of keys into the hedge,
I notice that it really isn’t too early yet,
and I’m brimming with hope, which has its disadvantages.

Liane Strauss, 2010, copyright Salt Publishing

I Got All My Sisters with Me: Why BFFs Matter

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‘To yield readily— easily— to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.’
‘To yield without conviction is no compliment
to the understanding of either.’
‘You appear to me, Mr. Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection.’  ≈ Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

‘Nobody sees a flower reallyit is so small it takes timewe haven’t timeand to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’  Georgia O’Keeffe

‘It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.’  Marlene Dietrich

Women are hard-wired to be social in ways that not only reduce stress but help them stay healthier as they age.  In fact, not having strong bonds with family and friends is the equivalent of poison–as detrimental to physical well-being as smoking or being overweight, according to U.C.L.A. researchers.  ‘Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have,’ writes psychologist Shelley E.  Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships. Men typically rely on women for that protective shield of intimacy, often in marriage. But studies have shown that, for women, it doesn’t matter whether they are married or not, as long as they have close relationships. From Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to Sex and the City, where would we be without our girlfriends?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

 

 

To try and shake me out of my sorrow I am reading the book the cures the blues: Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938). This beautiful little novel, given to me by a dear friend (by way of saving my life) on a rainy, dark day when every thing that could go wrong had gone wrong begins with its heroine in much the same circumstances: ‘Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine.  She had, as usual, very little hope…’ Winifred Watson’s enchanting tale was rediscovered and republished by Persephone in 2001 and since reprinted several times with its delicious original line illustrations. The story unfolds over twenty-four hours in the life of unemployed governess and neglected spinster Guinevere Pettigrew – but this is not just any day, and Miss Pettigrew is not just any spinster.  Sent to the wrong address by her employment agency, Miss Pettigrew is mistaken for the new housekeeper by the glamorous and rather amoral night-club singer Miss La Fosse, and this slip brings Miss Pettigrew smack into a world of cocktails before noon, cocaine that must be disposed of, punch-ups between dangerously handsome suitors, and, perhaps most shocking of all to Miss Pettigrew – the wicked thrill of make-up. As first time readers, we worry for the frightened and sheltered Guinevere – will she be found out? how will she cope?  But those who are returning to re-read this joyous story (and you will, you will) know that there is more to Guinevere than meets the eye. ‘This,’ she thinks, ‘is Life.  I have not lived it before.’ Though some reviewers have seen Miss Pettigrew as a Cinderella story – Watson does something much more subtle than simply finding a “beau” for her lonely lady.  Instead, over the course of the day, in a series of deft interventions, witty misunderstandings, brilliant repartee and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her new-found friends, but more importantly to herself, as a life-saver, in more ways than one. (And sadly it was this subtlety that was missing in the recent film version which stuck strictly to the Cinderella theme, largely missing the self-love and sisterly friendship that makes this book so damn good). A delightful, intelligent and naughty novel, which reminds us that it is never too late to have a second chance; it is never too late to live. An important reminder in dark times.

 

Grief

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I have been away from the blog for a number of reasons, some having to do with work (busy time of year for lecturers) but also for a very personal reason: grief. 

 My lovely father passed away in February of this year at the age of 86. I wasn’t there when it happened as I live so far away. I flew back to New York for the funeral and then rushed home to London and my “real life” a few days later. And because I live an ocean away from where I grew up, it has been tempting to kind of “pretend” that he wasn’t really gone.  After all, I often went months without seeing him and in recent years it even became difficult to speak to him on the phone.  So I saved up all my hugs and I love you’s for when I would visit him. Among his many accomplishments, my father’s true talent was simply being there.  At every game, every play, every parents’ evening, at the end of every teenage party to pick up one of his six children, at the breakfast table in the morning and the dinner table at night. And at his home in New York whenever I came to visit. So while I have cried about my dad in the past few months I don’t think I really believed in the loss of him, believed in the possibility of his not being there until last week when suddenly everywhere I looked were signs and posters and television advertisements for Father’s Day.  “For the man who has always been there for me”; “To my hero”; “For the best dad ever,” etc, much of it schmaltzy and sentimentalized and all of it stabbing me directly in the heart as I began to finally realize that he was really, really not there anymore.  That there would be no more saved up hugs and I love you’s. And no more Happy Father’s Day phone calls.

 On Father’s Day itself, strangely, another constant in my life began to slip away: my lovely twenty year old cat Miss Audrey collapsed, and yesterday she had to be put down.  I’d had her since she was a kitten.  And while I am not about to compare these two losses, it is interesting and sad to note how differently I have reacted to these two kinds of grief: one so far away that I could pretend it didn’t happen, and one so close and so unavoidable that there is no escaping it.  We had to make the decision and say goodbye, pack up her kitty litter and cat food bowls, her cat basket and her packets of food: all useless now.  I return this morning to my “real life”, work, meetings, emails.  And when I get home tonight I will cry for the empty spaces in my house, and for the hugs and I love you’s I was too far away to give or receive and for the constants in my life that are no longer simply “there”.