Monday, January 28, 2019

Kat Moore, Hysteric: In Defense of Creative Nonfiction

To me, art is that most profound form of expression because it integrates the body, experience, intellect, and the senses. —Melissa Febos

*I want to confess*
Four words, a short sentence, that signifies an admission of guilt or trespass. Confess a crime. Confess a sin. Some sort of mortal wound that only an act of God can reprieve. I want to confess, I’m in love with the act of confession. The bearing of my insides onto the page. My lived experience shooting out from my fingertips as signifiers appear on the screen guided by the flashing cursor. The genre of creative nonfiction is known for confession, but the more confessional an essay, the less it is valued. When a man confesses, like Fitzgerald in “The Crack Up,” other men, like Hemingway, call them a woman. Confession is feminine, and feminine is bad.

We, women,  are trapped in a linguistic system. The words I type are from this phallocentric system. The system of signifiers and signified. Saussure’s tree and arbor. Iriguray claims that women are trapped in this system with no way of expressing themselves. “Woman has no signifier” she says. All the signifiers/signified come from men, as do the myths or symbols it produces. Iriguray says, “The sexes are now defined only as they are determined in and through language. Whose laws it must not be forgotten, have been prescribed by male subjects for centuries” (87)  Anger is anger is anger is a red faced man with thick veins coming out of his neck. Or maybe, it’s  hysteria, or it’s Eve eating the apple because she needed to know things beyond him, beyond what Adam had named. Like confession, the notions of this go back to Genesis with Adam cataloging the whole universe, and Eve having only desire.

*Episode 1*
2013, I am in the doctor’s office. I have recently finished a clinical trial for the Hepatitis C medicine that will come to be known as Harvoni. I had taken the Harvoni plus ribavirin for eight weeks. In that time, my legs were rendered useless except to bring me pain and sink me into the bed. Side effects like a prickling of fire ants on my scalp, a shattering of glass inside my hips, and the slipping of my mind into a grey fog that settled thickly all around me. Now, the medicine is over, and I cannot return to my former self, no matter how much I try. I have gained weight. My body looks different, the way it bulges, the way my face swells. I can’t run anymore. I try, but nausea hits and all my energy drains like I am falling into a coma.
I sit in this office under the fluorescent lights. I’m in a chair and not even on the table with the crinkling paper because the doctor isn’t going to do an exam. He is annoyed with me. I have trouble explaining my symptoms. I only know that I feel off. My body feels off. I am emotional. I am gaining weight. Exercise is impossible. He stands in front of the closed door. His fully covered belly pokes over his belt and out through his white coat. He holds a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. He says I’m gaining weight because I’m not watching what I eat. When I cry and plead with him to listen to me, he writes me a prescription for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds. I yell at him. I am thirty-seven years old and have never needed those type of drugs. I beg him to try harder. I know something is wrong. He tells me that the mind is powerful, and that if I continue to believe something is wrong, then it will be. I don’t have the right signifiers to tell him what is wrong with me. Or maybe I do have the signifiers, but he can’t understand the symbols.
After six months of refusing anti-depressants, he finally draws blood. My thyroid level is 12. It should be between .5 and 2.5. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include exercise intolerance, weight gain, and excessive emotions.

“There is no prediscursive reality. Every reality is based upon and designed by a discourse,” quotes Iriguray of Lacan (88). Every reality. As in a woman’s reality too. All designed by a discourse which was constructed by language which was constructed by men. Women were designed by men. Women are signified as “not-men.” A lack. Lack of penis. Lack of language. Lack of discourse. Lack of authority. So then, if women have no discourse, then are they prediscursive? And how does man explain woman? By sexualizing her of course. Lacan says we are talking about fucking, and that language agitates woman (88).
Irguray responds, “Female sexualization is thus the effect of a logical requirement, of the existence of language that is transcendent with respect of bodies, which would necessitate, in order—nevertheless—to become incarnate…taking women one by one” (89). Language sexualizes women. Meaning in order to acknowledge women, language sexualizes them by describing them based on the presence of male sexual organs or a lack thereof. Iriguray continues, “Take that to mean that woman does not exist, but that language exists. That woman does not exist owing to the fact that language—a language—rules as master, and that she threatens—as a sort of “prediscursive reality”?—to disrupt its order” (89). Woman, of course, exists. But this is restating woman as lack, as not. So language sexualizes a woman to try and explain her. However, language isn’t mastering her. It is trying to figure her out. She is outside of discourse and language, and therefore when she uses language, by her very being, she disrupts the system of language and all its discourses. So what then happens when she uses this language, which is all about her not-body, to write through her body and put her consciousness (internal life) and her experiential self on the page?

*L'Ecriture Feminine*
Helene Cixous exclaims:
She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history (943).
Personal writing/confessional writing for women is liberation.  Cixous believes that a woman writing her history, the ruptures/pain, and the transformations/changes of her position will lead to liberation. Liberation from what?
Cixous answers:
By writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display—the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and locations of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time (943).
Liberation of the body. A return of the body out of captivity. But what held the body hostage? Is it Rubin’s notion of woman as gift and that within capitalism woman will never be free? Or is it Iriguray’s hysteria from being outside of language and Freud’s belief that a woman is all body and no mind? Where are our bodies and who has them?
Cixous continues, “Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the resources of the unconscious spring forth”  (943).  A woman claims sovereignty over her internal life and her body when she writes her story. Sovereignty. Absolute control. While we cannot get outside of the phallocentric language, it’s even in our minds, but, what happens when we put our mind and our experiences on the page? Our internal thoughts on the page reveal a female consciousness. Our experiences on the page are our bodies. All our senses are experienced through the body. Even the brain is a part of the body. Confessional writing by women reveals women through their own words. Yet, how many times have I heard, “This only looks inward. This needs to be more universal.” Or  when I worked at a literary journal, “this is straight memoir.” The essay in question was a well written essay about a woman coming out to her parents as a lesbian, and their rejection of her, and how they “adopted” the pregnant and single waitress at their favorited restaurant to be their replacement daughter. Yet, it was too “memoir.” Too “personal.” The personal is feminine and feminine is “bad.” The essay was extraordinary and should have been published, but my “superiors” wouldn’t allow it. They said it was too inward, not universal, and all I could think was “not male.” 

*On Confession*
Felski states that autobiographical writing of women has been segmented and episodic, “focuses upon the domestic and personal life…fragmented, episodic…lacking the unifying structure imposed upon a life by a pursuit of a public career” (86).  Essays in the genre of creative nonfiction are often fragmented or segmented or braided, and are often personal. The non-linear quality of women’s personal writing is due, according to Felski, to their lack of pursuit of a public career. Women’s lives are often disrupted (or ruptured, Cixous) by their domestic duties or men, and this causes their writing to be like episodes and not a long chronological tracing of their lives for some deeper meaner (87).
I agree that women’s personal writing is often segmented, and this continues through today. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets consists of numbered vignettes. Jill Talbot’s essay collection The Way We Weren’t is filled with fragmented or segmented essays. Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston is short episodes that only last a page or two. My own essays, including this one, are fragmented, or presented in segments. Even Joan Didion writes in episodes, take her essay, “The White Album.” However, I don’t believe it is because of a lack of a pursuit of a public career. Nelson, Talbot, and Livingston are successful writers. Nelson won an NEA grant, and a McArthur Genius Grant. Didion is prolific and needs no explanation, and the rest, including Nelson, are all tenured or tenured track professors at major universities. Women should not be defined by their lack, and neither should their writing.
So why then the segments? A man’s form is linear. It follows the rules of the system. A woman writes in a way true to herself. It isn’t that she is disrupted, it is that she disrupts. The use of segments and fragments subverts the linear system by forcing the reader or critic to learn a new way of reading and thinking. A woman’s writing narrates her internal life and her lived life. A lot of confessional writing is about ruptures. Even Fitzgerald wrote of his own alcoholism. Lacy M. Johnson wrote of her rape. Maggie Nelson wrote about a failed love affair, and the murder of her Aunt. Jill Talbot wrote of alcoholism, love lost, and single motherhood. Sonja Livingston wrote about growing up in poverty. I write about rape, prostitution, heroin addiction, illness, and loss. These disruptions occur, and going back to Cixous, we transcend them by writing them. But it isn’t just solipsistic writing or navel gazing. We are designing discourse, and contributing to a process that affects all within the network. We are using the language system to tell our stories which makes us more than lack, more than not man. These stories shape a discourse about women, controlled by women. We may still be confined to the signifiers/signified, but we control the symbols.
When Maggie Nelson, in Bluets, says “fucking may no way interfere with the actual use of language,”  (8) it doesn’t conjure up Lacan discussing fucking and that language sexualizes woman. Instead, it conjures up the blue tarp outside the window on the roof next to the Chelsea Hotel. It shows that her fucking in no way alters language. It does not change the system, but it does change the symbol produced. Of course, she is writing her way through a break up, and is using the fucking as something that didn’t salvage her relationship. When she writes in the opening of The Argonauts of being fucked in the ass, it isn’t objectification, or wreckage, or a failure, it is love. She has moved out of disruption and into discourse. She is changing her own symbols where the same language she once used to show pain, now shows pleasure and love.

*Episode 2*
My bedroom, the summer of 2013. My body is disrupted. The hepatitis C medicine takes over my body, takes it away from me. My body had been taken before by addiction with its incessant longings for more, which led to the constant poking of flesh and scabs all over the arms, which led to the disease of Hepatitis C. But I also have sold my body for drugs, for crack, which seems so strange. As in, for crack, and not my primary drug of heroin. But heroin gave me a semblance of control, or rather an illusion, or better yet, a delusional belief of control. Crack took me over in a violent way and wouldn’t let me loose until I was depleted.
Back to the room. I am bedridden and alone. My legs are covered in welts like a belt has flogged me over and over, but there was no belt or beating. My hips are a tenuous ache. My scalp itches and burns. I call my mother crying, asking her to come and help me wash my hair, even though it is not dirty. My mind is inside a fog. My viral load had been 9 million. Two weeks in, it dropped to 200,000. Four weeks in, and the virus was gone, but I had to stay the course of treatment to lower the risk of recurrence. It is in this state that I realize that I have lost my body and the self.  I become conscious of the disruption, of the captivity of my body to the medicine and its side effects.
My best friend brings me a copy of Bluets. I read it, only able to take in a percentage of it due to the impairment from the meds. Next I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine. After that is In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler about the women raped in the Congo, about her own body falling apart from chemo. At the end of August, I’m supposed to start an MFA program for fiction, but I have no desire to write fiction. I want to write the body. I need to write the body, my body. My unconscious knows that I am disrupted, and I need a way to transcend this rupture. Perhaps, this is when I experienced Iriguray’s hysteria, the way I felt disrupted, and chained. So I write my first essay, a collage about rape and prostitution during my addicted years. The next one I write is about the medical treatment. All this is true, except for this being my first experience with “hysteria.”

In The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski discusses the interrogative suspicion that is attached to critique. She states, “All too often, we see critics tying themselves into knots in order to prove that a text harbors signs of dissonance and dissent—as if there were no other ways to justifying its merits” (27). She claims that the practice of theory has become like a detective that must interrogate texts to see what it is that the text is concealing, and that what it is concealing is what gives it merit. She mentions the different approaches, such as Marx and Foucault’s picking apart of power structures but offers no solution. How if one uses this approach, then they are working to “demystify” or “defamiliarize” a false consciousness, and this means that texts hold a false consciousness that conceals its true nature and must be deconstructed. Felski argues that there needs to be another way to approach critique that isn’t suspicious or interrogating, but also isn’t surface or based purely on aesthetics.
Felski presents Actor Network Theory as a map for how to approach critique. She explains that texts are nonhuman actors and can only have meaning within relational interpretations. She continues that history is transtemporal and doesn’t exist in its own box, but still affects different time periods and the present. She states:
Let us concede, first of all, that a stress on the transtemporal movement of texts and their lively agency is not entirely alien to the history of interpretation. If actor-network theory is a philosophy of relation, so, in its more modest way, is hermeneutics, which casts texts and readers as cocreators of meaning. (173)
Texts and theories are dependent on their historical correlations, but also on the writers and readers of both. Felski calls readers and the texts cocreators. The reader’s interpretation of the text gives the text meaning, but yet, the text, by itself, also has meaning. She says this is vital to literary studies, and using the analogy of ANT, she claims it will “spawn new networks,” or in this case, discourses.
Earlier in the text, she mentions briefly that with the feminists’ critique of language, that theories were changed and new ones developed. She states that “Feminists were among the first critics to emphasize an affective dimension of interpretation, to talk about reading as embodied practice, to conceive of literature as a means of creative self-fashioning” (29). Feminists looked at language and how language affected women, who were both readers and writers. I want to push this further. This holds true for any of the identities that are labeled as not the default, and all the intersections of other not the default that exist within a person. To be clear, I am speaking of race, class, sex, gender, and even displaced or disenfranchised persons, and how these identities are also left out of the language system, and then described, often through subjugation and violence, by the white male language, and also when speaking and writing, they have to use this same phallocentric linguistic system. When people of these identities, with or without intersections with other identities, write their stories, it is disruptive (remember, disruption is good) as well, and creates discourse by controlling the narrative around these identities. However, I am primarily looking at women because I am a woman, and I do not think it is right of me to describe or prescribe the written stories of other identities. I do not mean to reduce a person down to an identity contingent on the previously mentioned categories, I instead mean that the system does this, and this system is disrupted when a person of color, or a person of non-binary sex, or non-binary gender, or gay, or an immigrant or refugee, speaks or writes their story. While I am focusing on women, and I am a white woman, I do believe that intersectional voices are extremely important and deserve more space than my own.
So what specifically do I mean by adding to a discourse? When a woman speaks or writes her story, she adds to the discourse on women, and does it in a non-Lacanian way. Meaning she isn’t being objectified by the signfiers/signified object she produces. She is defining her own subjectivity by writing her story. She is still using the same signifiers/signified, but the meaning produced is no longer dependent on a phallocentric perspective.
As mentioned, Talbot’s memoir The Way We Weren’t is a collection of personal essays that deal with the absence of her daughter’s father, the writer’s struggle with alcohol, and being a single mother. A quarter of the way through is the essay, “Running Away from Running Away,” which reveals the time that Talbot left academia, and left her daughter with family, and then moved to a small town in Montana. She plans on finding a job, and bringing her daughter with her eventually. She lives at the Traveler’s Inn, and drinks at the Iron Horse Pub. She has two months of this until she runs out of money.  She writes, “I have come to this city to find an apartment and a job so Indie and I can move here. I cannot know this now, but years later, I’ll see this decision to leave academia as some attempt to replay those best days with Kenny when I did this very thing…” (60). This starts with a normal narration of events in the real time of Jill the character/narrator in this essay. She is looking for a job, and once she has it, she will move her daughter there with her. But Jill does not merely confess.  Confession for this essay would be defined as “to tell personal and intimate details of one’s life” and not perform a religious admission of sin. Talbot actually examines and reflects on the intimate moments of her life. This is called meta-memoir. Talbot explains it as:
Simply put, meta-writing is writing that is self-conscious, self-reflective, and aware of itself as an artifice. The writer is aware she’s writing, and she’s aware there’s a reader, which goes all the way back to Montaigne’s often-used address “dear reader,” or his brief introduction to Essais: “To the Reader.” (Talbot, Guernica)
This technique puts the reflection of the writer on the page instead of the writer merely giving a play-by-play of what happened. The reader becomes aware of the writer on the page because the writer allows their presence to enter into the text. This also creates moments where the reader interacts with the text. Talbot’s presence as the writer manifests on the page when she writes that she didn’t know her reasons back then, when the actual event was happening, but she does know them as she is writing the event. She includes her reasons and makes the reader aware of Talbot as the writer, and not just a character. She disrupts the narrative to add insight so that the reader isn’t left with their own assumptions. She incorporates meta moves throughout the essay and through the entire collection.
Aside from the meta move, she allows us into the conscious mind of Jill the character, “With the hooded and shawled and shrouded around me, I know that I could go as far into disappearance as it will take me, as I am close to having nothing, and I, too, am without a home. Here I am not a mother, just a woman driving an Escape” (66). This is while Jill, the character, is sitting on a corner with transient people, drinking beer, and smoking a cigarette. She reveals that she is trying to disappear. While she is not in the same dire circumstances as the people sitting with her, as she can always go back to academia (and she does), she recognizes that they have disappeared. While they are literally wrapped up in sweaters and coats, she describes them as “shrouded” to show that they are not seen, they have also disappeared. She has a desire to be one of them, and in this moment, she is. In that moment, she isn’t a mother. She still has a daughter, but in that moment, her identity as a mother is “shrouded.” She is, like the make of the car she drives, attempting to escape from her identity.
Talbot has already added to Cixous’s l’ecriture feminine by not just writing her story, but also by putting her consciousness on the page. She has disrupted the text with her internal reflections. But she also is not just writing about being a woman, she is also a mother, and in academia, and a writer. She has many intersections and she is adding to the discourse of all these identities. She is definitely disrupting the sexist notions that certain psychoanalysts have about mothers. The whole collection reveals more about Talbot and her daughter, including a scene where Talbot choking from carbon dioxide poisoning drags her semiconscious daughter through the house, and out into the yard away from the walls that are holding in the carbon dioxide silently spewing from a furnace. A whole discourse on mothers could be born out of this collection. How mothers are humans, and have pain, and longing, but are also heroic. Talbot does not mention theory like Nelson does in The Argonauts, which challenges discourse on motherhood too, and also includes intersections of queerness and non-binary sexes. However, Talbot’s method is just as relevant, effective, and emotionally moving. What better way than to create discourse on certain identities than using the actual minds and thoughts and language of the people inhabiting those identities?
            But I don’t wish to stop there. What about Felski and her ideas of ANT? I believe that deconstruction is great, but that it doesn’t end there. If I had only deconstructed Talbot’s essay, then I would have used existing discourse to reveal Lacanian ideas of the mother/child, or maybe even the Freudian cathecting mother/object to reveal that Talbot was Winnicott’s imperfect mother, or that her struggles reveal a Marxist classism and woman as object. But instead, I discussed how she adds to a discourse, how she, like the feminists mentioned by Felski, embodies a discourse and not something that needs to be psychoanalyzed and judged, and is not trying to conceal a false consciousness created by capitalism. While, that could be fun, what purpose would it serve? I am not saying that those types of approaches are not useful. Of course, they are. It is great to deconstruct systems and reveal injustices, and to reveal how the patriarchy has basically defined everything including the delineations of race, class, gender, and sex. So instead, I looked for what the text what telling me about these identities who are prediscursive (remember Lacan and Iriguray, from earlier). Talbot defined for herself what a mother is. What a woman is. What a writer is. As well as how it all intersects. She embodies all of this, and then presents it on the page. But so what? Now what? This isn’t where it ends.
            This is where ANT comes in. Do you see the meta-moves I am making?

*Episode 3*
When I was sixteen, I was angry. I was sad. I was a bubbling froth of emotions that overflowed everywhere and left holes in my bedroom walls. My oldest brother had died two years earlier from AIDS. My father was drunk. Not like sometimes, but all the time. My mother worked two jobs to pay our bills. Enter Bikini Kill. Enter Riot Grrrl zines. I didn’t know anything about third wave feminism, but when Kathleen Hanna screamed “your world, not ours, your world, not mine[1],” I knew what she meant. When she shouted, “Revolution grrrl style now[2],” I clenched my fist. I could not articulate all of my emotions. I could not articulate the oppressive systems of Reagan and homophobia that helped put my brother in an early grave, or explain anything about capitalism, or the phallocentric sexist language system, but I was really pissed off. I was hurt. I was ruptured. I screamed along with Bikini Kill. I read riot grrrl zines. I did not feel alone. I was connected to something larger. I was no longer this one girl in pain. I was part of a network of other girls. This saved my teen life, saved me from completely falling in on myself.
Then that summer of sickness. After the addiction. After the recovery. After rape/trauma/prostitution. I was in bed in pain from pink and blue pills that would free my blood of disease, and my best friend handed me Bluets. From there, I paused on reading fiction, and consumed creative nonfiction. Memoirs and essay collections. From Sarah Manguso to Samantha Irby to Anais Nin to Claudia Rankine to Margo Jefferson to Jenny Boully to Eve Ensler to Chelsea Hodson. All women. I pretty much stopped reading anything by white men. I needed a break. I needed these discourses. I read Kiese Laymon. I read Ta’Nehisi Coates. I read Michelle Tea. I needed to read their identities and how they exist in the world. How they use language to disrupt the way the system has defined them, and even how added theory or speculation or line breaks blur the genre and disrupts the line between fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction, and all of its confessions, saved my life, much like Bikini Kill and the riot grrrls. I was suddenly connected and in relationship with these writers and their stories. They added to my life, to my internal thoughts and feelings. Telling my stories helps me to transcend whatever it is that needs transcending, but connecting with these other stories, these lived stories, these texts that embodied women, men of color, and queerness transformed my life. When I met Maggie Nelson at AWP 2014 in Minneapolis, she asked, “How do I know you?” and I responded, “We’ve never met, but, yes, you know me,” even though it was I who had read her book.

Actor Network Theory is all about how we are all connected. Latour states of ANT, “It does not wish to add social networks to social theory, but to rebuild networks out of social theory” (1459).  My need for connection, for relationships, was there before I ever stepped into a “network” of Riot Grrrls or women writers. Our subjectivity relies on the way we are all connected. The way we see ourselves positioned in society is arbitrary and based on societal constructs, much like how the signs in language work, and how our arbitrary positioning gives us meaning, or status, a signification. However, Latour is stating that these social positions are not the point, and does not drive ANT. Instead, from social theory we need to rebuild these networks. That rebuilding happens when we find that we are all part of the system, influenced by the system, and are interconnected within it. We are all subjects and our identities are interdependent upon each other. So why not focus on our connectedness, and build relationships. Latour states:
…semiotic actors turning them into new ontological hybrids, world making entities; by doing such a counter-copernican revolution it builds a completely empty frame for describing how any entity builds its world; finally, it retains from the descriptive project only very few terms—its infralanguage—which are just enough to sail in between frames of reference, and grants back to actors themselves the ability to build precise accounts of one another by the very way they behave; the goal of building an overarching explanation— that is for ANT, a centre of calculation that would hold or replace or punctuate all the others—is displaced by the search for explications, that is for the deployment of as many elements as possible accounted through as many metalanguages as possible. (1467) 
Language creates stories that tell us about humans, and the way they exist in the world. But yet, we intersect into these different frameworks to see how other humans exist in the world. Crossing into different frameworks connects the frames, a process of connection, a movement inside a larger network and creates an infralanguage, meaning an ability to see within these frames and understand what is being built and how it all it connects. However, I do not wish to do away with all explanations, but like Felski said, not everything has to be an interrogation, and instead we look to understand each other’s metalanguage. This harkens back to meta-memoir and the way that these meta-moves allow us to breach the barrier between page and writer, and glimpse into how the writer is building their experience and revealing who they are, and how they exist, and think and feel in the world. This is what is important, breaching the barriers that societal systems have constructed for us, the false consciousnesses, the hierarchy of identities. Felski says this is how we could approach literary criticism. Look at what the text is revealing to us, and how it connects to us as humans, as intersubjects, and how we all exist in our own ways within the constructed system. She asks, “Why downplay the role of art works in ensuring their own survival? Why overlook the way sin which they weasel into our hearts and minds, their dexterity in generating attachments?” (163) Why do we devalue the way a text affects us, moves us, changes us, and connects us? We elevate fictions that reveal truths, so why not texts that embody a real person, and their own stories. We need to stop devaluing our experiences and relationships. After all, it is the system, its constructed positions, its oppression and language, its economy, that critics love to critique, that gave us this idea that autobiographical writing is feminine and that feminine is self-serving/nazel gazing/gratuitous/hysterical/bad. We need to see our connections and interdependence. And what better genre to do that than one that is autobiographical, and confessional, and meta? I am not trying to create a hierarchy of genres. Poetry and fiction are equally important. I am merely asserting that creative nonfiction is just as valid and important because of what it brings to discourse by revealing these personal frameworks, as well as the way the genre has connected people through the lived experience and internal lives captured on the page. It is its own infralanguage.
I have used the personal to reveal these connections, but perhaps my experience isn’t enough, yet, according to ANT, it should be. I am revealing my framework, my subjectivity using texts, theory, and meta-moves which goes beyond me disrupting the writer/text barrier, because I am also attempting to embody a text by using language, confession, literary criticism, and theory. However, the human race has a long history of the transformations of lives and the building of relationships through stories. My need for connection, led me to Maggie Nelson, which led me to Jill Talbot, which lead me to others, which lead me to writing, which lead to publication, and to others reading my writing. In an interview I did with Profane Journal, I told the editor Jacob Little about Bluets changing my life, and my course in life. And he, a man, responded, “Me too. I had a similar experience” (Little). Because of a text, we became aware of our shared experience which transcended the constructed social structures. After a reading, in which I read about being thirteen and lost, and in love with Sylvia Plath, and in the guidance counselor’s office trying to conceal all my pain, and the fact that I had been changing the grades on my report card, a young black girl, around fourteen, approached me with tears in her eyes. She said that I had told her story. We connected, a white woman and a young black girl. When I was in rehab, a black man was my counselor, and we told each other our stories, and we connected. We had lived through the same addiction. I am not a Pollyanna. I am not asserting that we should all just tell our stories and that racism and all the social constructs of capitalism will fall away. We absolutely need to critique these systems and bring about change. But we do need to change the way we define ourselves as subjects, and how we allow our positioning within these systems to define us. When we hear each other’s stories, see our faces in the other, we connect. Telling our true stories, our ruptures, the way we exist in the world, especially if we are voices that have been deemed outside of language, and identified by our lack, our not white cis-maleness, it is transformative, and creates a network which ripples with transformation.

Before I ever read Talbot, or met Talbot, I had written:
I want to let go and leave it all behind and sleep on the grass with a forty and not have to worry where my next fix is from. Not have to worry about withdrawals or cars in impound lots and mothers who will get cars out of impounds lots, mothers whose hearts get broken every day, mothers who kick you out at times and you worry where you’ll sleep and if it’ll be safe. I once heard a man say that the first time he slept in an abandoned building that he was scared but then eventually he got used to it, he adapted. I want to be there. All the way there where I don’t have to worry anymore about being me because by that point surely the me I am now will be gone. (Moore)
I too had wanted to disappear. I too wanted to not be who I was. I thought it would lead to freedom. I couldn’t obliterate the system or my position in it, so I thought an obliteration of self would lead me outside of what I was trying to escape, which was myself. Years later, when I read Talbot’s essay about wanting to disappear, I felt like she understood me. She and I had this connection. Creative Nonfiction connects readers and writers more obviously than other genres just by its very act of meta-confession. May we stay hysterical. May we keep disrupting. May we find each other in ourselves.
Kat Moore was the winner of Profane's 2016 Nonfiction Prize. Another essay was a finalist in the Best of Net 2017. She has essays in Hippocampus, Blunderbuss, Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Salt Hill, New South, Pithead Chapel, and forthcoming in Split Lip, The Rumpus, and the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. Her poems can be found in Permafrost, Maudlin House, Souvenir, decomP, and forthcoming in the Infinite Eros: Deleuze, Guattari and Feminist Couplings.

Works Cited
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie  
 Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 3rd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 940-954.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Iriguray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.
Latour, Bruno. “On Actor Network Theory.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie  
Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 3rd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 1458-1470
Little, Jacob. “Kat Moore Interview.” Profane Journal, Accessed 9 December 2018.
Moore, Kat. “Where Do You Go From Alston Street?” Hippocampus Magazine, April, 2016.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press, 2015.
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009.
Talbot, Jill. “Lucas Mann and Jill Talbot: In the Fictions of Our Past.” Guernica, September, 
Talbot, Jill. “Running Away from Running Away.” The Way We Weren’t.  Soft Skull Press,

[1] From the album Yeah, Yeah, Yeah on the Kill Rockstars Label, 1992
[2] From their demo album, 1992

Monday, January 21, 2019

Disclosure and the Writing Classroom: Revisiting Jill Christman by Craig N. Owens

In her recent essay “‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter’: Writing Sexual Trauma under Title IX,” Jill Christman, writing for Essay Daily's Advent 2018 calendar raises important questions about how professors of writing, and in particular personal essays, autobiography, and other forms of creative writing, ought to regard student writing about sexual trauma and sexual assault. Because many colleges and universities, following Obama-administration guidance from the Department of Education, designate faculty members as “mandatory reporters”—that is, as employees of the institution required, under law, to report student accounts of sexual assault to their schools’ Title IX officers—Christman asks, “[A]s essayists and teachers of writing in higher education, what’s our part in all this? What’s unique about our position as educators specifically charged with teaching adult students how to shape stories out of the stuff of real life?” If a student is using their writing as a means of working through the pain and trauma of assault, Christman worries that in following policies that require faculty to report these incidents, professors of writing may risk harming students who are not ready—and may never be ready—for their experiences to become subject to institutional and quasi-jurisprudential processes. How, then, can we encourage honest, authentic, emotional and personal risk-taking and vulnerability in student writing in a way that both honors students’ desires to work through their experiences in their own ways and at their own pace and also, at the same time, complies with university and DoE policies regarding mandatory reporting.
     Christman’s excellent essay raises a host of ethical and social-justice related concerns that arise when we treat student writing as a mode of disclosure. Here, I would like to address the question from the point of view of the philosophy of language in the hopes of offering an approach teachers of writing may adopt to address these issues—an approach informed by speech-act theory, particularly J.L. Austin’s notion of the “performative utterance.” For Austin, who laid out his theory of speech-acts in his slim volume How to Do Things with Words (1962), a performative utterance is a special class of utterance, one that does something beyond just saying something. Whereas a constative utterance constates, that is, posits a truth, usually based on observation, perception, or factual knowledge—“The mailman put this letter in our mailbox this morning,” for example, or “It’s raining,” or “World War II ended in 1945”—a performative utterance enacts, validates, or creates a fact. Pronouncements of marriage, the performance of a contract, the making of bets and promises,  and the enactment of a decree are all examples of performative utterances because they don’t just posit a truth: they make it true. Indeed, so different is the performative from the constative utterance that adjectives like true, false, accurate, and errant fail to characterize performative utterances. Instead, Austin opts for such terms as effective, ineffective, valid, invalid, and, most commonly, felicitous and infelicitous to describe performative utterances that either do or do not take effect.
     Key to the concept of performativity is that for a performative utterance to take effect, for it to be a valid, felicitous performance, it must meet a number of conditions to which everyday constative utterances don’t have to adhere, including the sincerity and intention of the speaker, the appropriateness of the context or situation, and adherence to an accepted formula or convention. Thus, the weddings that take place Shakespeare’s As You Like It or The Taming of the Shrew don’t result in the two actors’ having been married because a play is an invalid context for the performance of an actual wedding and the actors who utter the conventional formulas are not really intending to be marry: they are not sincere. Related to the question of sincerity is that of agency: Those who make performative utterances must be doing so freely, without constraint. Finally, the individuals involved in a performative utterance must be authorized to enact it: not just anyone can fire an employee or christen a ship or declare a state of emergency. When one or more of these conditions is not met, the speech-act fails: it’s infelicitous or invalid.
     I propose that we think of “disclosure,” the term often applied to what a student does when they report an assault to a member of a university’s faculty or staff, as a class of performative utterance; for it to be valid—for it to have operated as a disclosure for the purposes of Title IX—it would then need to meet some specific criteria. The three that are most germane for the writing pedagogy are context, convention and intention. Before we treat a student’s written account, produced and submitted in response to a writing prompt, as a performative utterance, a “disclosure,” we must establish that it has take place in a context that supports the effectuation of a performative utterance; that it follows the minimum conventions for disclosure; and that the student intends the utterance to be understood as a disclosure, and not something else. Unless we are certain that each of these conditions is met, we can’t treat the student’s utterance as a disclosure.
     To take these conditions one at a time, then: A writing assignment does not provide a context in which disclosure, as a class of performative utterance, can occur. This is not to say that a disclosure cannot occur in writing: it can. A note, and email, or a signed affidavit can all perform disclosures. But writing carried out in the creative or expressive writing classroom is always provisional, an exercise in something else, like a wedding rehearsal or moot court. It is assigned and completed as a demonstration of a particular mindset, of the mastery of a point of craft, or of a student’s ability to follow instructions. Often, especially for beginning writers, writing is a mode of imitation: A student borrows moves from established narratives and tries them out, practices them, rehearses them in the context of drafts for an assignment. These moves include not just organizational structure, diction, syntax, and the rest of what we sometimes think of as formal or mechanical aspects of a piece; they also include subject matter. Thus, the student enthusiastic about their recent encounters with the works of Tony Kushner, for instance, may well wish to practice writing about sexuality, and may do so very convincingly, as an exercise in craft, without ever “coming out” (another kind of performative). Moreover, because student writing is produced in response to requirements, there is no grounds for believing that what a student has written represents the exercise of their free will. It’s just as likely that they’re giving us what they think we want, in order to get a decent grade—indeed, that is the overwhelmingly more likely scenario. There is nothing in the writing that can prove otherwise.
     Second, the conventions of creative writing, in a creative writing class, take precedence over other conventions that may be enacted in the student writing. Even in a non-fiction writing class, one devoted to autobiography, memoir, or the personal essay, we expect student writers to take creative license with their subject matter. Thus, timelines may be rearranged; several individuals collapsed into one character; several incidents synthesized into one; and the mundane details of reality heightened—dare I say fictionalized—to achieve an aesthetic effect. Sometimes, that aesthetic effect may be authenticity, a strong sense of the truth and accuracy of what the writer has written. But the writer—usually conceived of as a persona in their self-presentation in writing—is already a fiction in the creative writing classroom, or at least only an attenuated version of the actual individual doing the writing. Indeed, so is the reader. So, even when an essay says something as apparently straightforward as “Reader, I want you to hear it from me first, and to believe me: That man assaulted me,” the conventions of creative writing require us to accept this as a performance not of disclosure, but rather of craft for the sake of a literary or aesthetic effect. It is as much a disclosure as a Rembrandt self-portrait: believable without necessarily being true.
     Finally, to the question of intention, perhaps the most fraught of the three conditions under discussion. It is impossible for a student to express his or her intention regarding the status of an utterance as a disclosure within the frame of a written assignment, because the authenticity and accuracy of creative writing with respect to what it says about reality is so attenuated. So, a separate, complementary utterance, taking place outside the frame of the assigned writing, would be necessary. Such an utterance could be a signed statement, an email, or a spoken affirmation. It isn’t enough for a syllabus or assignment sheet to state that the professor will presume that all details reported as fact in the submitted assignment are true: First of all, such a presumption runs contrary to the foundational conventions of creative writing; and, second, the receiver’s presumptions aren’t sufficient to validate an otherwise invalid or infelicitous performative utterance. In the absence of a separate statement of affirmation, that presumption is just that: a presumption. Likewise, if we require, as a condition of fulfilling the assignment or passing the class, such a separate affirmation, we have essentially made a second writing assignment, one that is subject to all the infelicities and ambiguities of the main assignment. Perhaps, then, we might provide a written statement for the student simply to sign: but if their signing it is a requirement, then we have eliminated from the exchange the students’ free will and agency, thus invalidating even the signature as a performative utterance.
     The only way, then, that we can treat a fact or experience reported in an assigned, required work of creative writing, even if it presents itself as non-fiction or memoir, as an authentic disclosure is if the student writer, unprompted, of their own free will, informs us, outside the frame of the assigned writing, that what it recounts are, in their view, the truth. In other words, if the student, of their own accord, discloses that the writing is in fact a disclosure. This condition precisely removes the question from the realm of creative writing altogether: for the performative we are now concerned with is a disclosure outside the context of the writing classroom—precisely the same kind of disclosure a math or chemistry professor would be required to report. In short, there are no conditions under which a piece of assigned writing, whatever the genre, in whatever class, can be treated as a disclosure when we keep in mind that a disclosure is not just any saying, but a particular class of performative utterance. While I would suggest that faculty make that fact clear in their syllabi—a brief statement saying “I will make no presumptions about the truth-value of the claims your writing makes beyond the conventions of the genre in which you are writing and the constraints of the writing classroom” would likely suffice—it might be even better for departments in which writing is a requirement of their courses to put these interpretive practices into policy. After all, as experts in our various fields, including in the modes of discourse authorized by those fields and in the interpretive practices we engage in, only we can make these determinations with respect to writing we require of our students. For required writing always imposes limitations on the writer’s agency; and, as Christman points out, “by taking away the survivor’s agency to tell her own story on her own terms, [we]’ve also taken away her chance to wrest back some of the control she lost in the assault.”

Craig N. Owens teaches writing, critical theory, popular culture, and drama studies in the English department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His work on such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Arthur Miller has appeared as chapters and articles in numerous collections and journals; he also writes and frequently presents on popular music, film and television, including the music of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé; James bond films and novels; and The Big Lebowski. His opinion editorials on issues in teaching, specifically, and higher education generally have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Marsh Report, and The Des Moines Register. His full-length play Open House won Tallgrass Theatre’s 2013 Playwright’s Workshop Award. Currently, he is writing a play about a jumping cow titled Angus. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Paul Zakrzewski: “How Do I Craft a Sophisticated Narrator in a Memoir of Childhood?"

Writing a memoir based in childhood is a tough act to pull off. In my writing workshops, even elderly students tend to lose touch with their adult selves—with the insight or humor I know they otherwise possess—all in the rush to recover sometimes long-neglected memories. And while that lack of a reflective self often occurs in the work of emerging writers, it seems especially marked in stories drawn from childhood.

So not long ago I found myself re-reading a number of favorite books and essays in an attempt to better understand what techniques could help my students. The first stop? Phillip Lopate’s masterful “Reflection & Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story. In this essay, Lopate describes the need for the memoirist to deploy a “double perspective” that allows the reader to “participate in the experience as it was lived, while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”

In previous workshops, I’ve heard this twinned voice described as the “experiencing I” and “the reflective I.” Or, in Sue William Silverman’s excellent formulation, the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience.” What I like most about Lopate’s formulation is just how much emphasis he places on the need for that second, retrospective voice. It’s like the yeast in a memoir, without which the story won’t properly rise:
In any autobiographical narrative…the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight, and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at— these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico.
More than the absence of a psychologically astute narrator, it’s often the limited syntax of my student’s childhood memoirs that feels tedious. Who wants to spend page after page after page with a narrator who’s limited herself to the vocabulary and tedious rhythms of a child? As Lopate himself concludes: “What is important, in writing about childhood, is to convey the psychological outlook you had as a child, not your limited verbal range.”

As wonderful as that advice is, it still begs a question: just how do you pull off the narrator who can convey the child’s narrow psychological range, but is not limited by it? What should that narrator sound like? To understand that, I ended up going to a pair of favorite memoirs whose techniques I’ve now passed along to students.

The first is Sleeping Arrangements, by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a witty and compulsively readable account of the author’s childhood in 1940s Jewish Bronx. Given that Cunningham was herself orphaned by the death of her single mother at age 10, sent to live with a pair of bachelor uncles, this book could’ve easily veered into the same maudlin or sentimental trap that can afflict student work.

Instead, Cunningham’s voice is funny, clear-sighted, gently ironic. Her narrator is a real storyteller—funny, adventurous, and remarkably free of self-pity; notable given some of the darker territory she occasionally veers into. I picked the Cunningham example for students precisely because there’s so clearly an adult intelligence shaping this narrator’s voice.

So, how does the writer of the childhood memoir open the “aperture” of the narrator in a way that permits both the child and adult perspectives into the frame? Cunningham does this by limiting the visual scope of what her narrator conveys. She describes her 10-year-old self’s physical world; we get to see things from her height, so to speak. But—and this is the crucial achievement—it is filtered through her current-day, mature perspective:
AnaMor Towers did not stand alone. The entire neighborhood was a cross section of ersatz bygone cultures. In the park, marble mermaids lounged, with rust running down their navels. Public buildings were supported by semi-nude figures, wearing New Deal chitons. Many of the apartment buildings were modern Towers of Babel, mixing details from Ancient Rome, Syria, Greece.
Here is the child’s limited field of vision, the attention to the kind of object that would interest the child—mermaids, blocky apartment buildings—but described by an amused, historically-minded adult.

A similar technique shows up in another favorite of mine, George Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys.” It’s impossible to forget the litany of humiliations that young George suffers at the hands of school administrators and older boys. But what makes this essay such a masterpiece is the easy, clearly-sighted way that Orwell traces those torments to the larger problem of class consciousness. (It’s easy to picture the petty tyrants of Orwell’s childhood growing into the Big Brother of later years). Orwell accomplishes all of this by focusing on the child’s visual perceptions but not his limited understanding:
…One afternoon, as we were filing out from tea, Mrs Wilkes the Headmaster's wife, was sitting at the head of one of the tables, chatting with a lady of whom I knew nothing, except that she was on an afternoon's visit to the school. She was an intimidating, masculine-looking person wearing a riding-habit, or something that I took to be a riding-habit. I was just leaving the room when Mrs Wilkes called me back, as though to introduce me to the visitor.
The focus on a strange and possibly frightening adult wearing a riding habit is the child’s. But the description (“intimidating, masculine looking”) – not to mention the emphasis on the child’s possibly mistaken perception (“or something I took to be a riding-habit”) is that of the mature author.

In fact, that close attention to the mistaken apprehensions of childhood is a second technique that both Cunningham and Orwell use to create the sophisticated narrator of the childhood memoir. In Cunningham’s case, she injects the adult’s greater sense of consciousness into her narrator in sections of the book that deal with matters far beyond the child’s limited ability to comprehend–an early encounter with a pedophile, for example or her mother’s impending death. Yet she also uses it to great humorous effect in Sleeping Arrangements:
I have heard the family legend that Barb is a worthless “gold digger” who “hooked” Norm when Norm was a lonesome sailor…stationed in her southern city, so far from his own real home. What a gold digger would have seen in this near-retarded mechanic was questionable, but I accept on faith a cousin’s pronouncement that Barb “grabbed the brass ring.” Barb wears large brass hoops through her ears, which lends the legend credence.
Cunningham has carefully selected details that wink to the reader even as the child misunderstands or doesn’t comprehend exactly what she’s saying—as in the repetition of words the eight-year-old knows are probably bad (“gold-digger,” “hooked”) but doesn’t understand. In fact, much of the book’s humor derives not only from the pluckiness of young Laura, but her limited capacity to understand what’s happening and being said.

In my workshops, I’ve taken to distributing these quotations by Lopate, Cunningham, and Orwell, along with a writing assignment I’ll conclude with below.

Writing Assignment

1. Spend a moment centering yourself…and think of moments from when you were a child between, say, the ages of 6 to 10, and were confronted with something clearly beyond your years. It could be your first glimpse of an alcoholic uncle, or the first time you heard your parent’s fighting about something you didn’t quite understand; or maybe the first time you witnessed something violent you couldn’t process. It doesn’t have to be a sad or disturbing memory – maybe something funny, like witnessing an older teen’s first awkward attempts at dressing or acting grown-up. Just make it something outside the scope of an 6 or 8 or 10-year-old’s apprehension.

2. Now, free write for 10 minutes about one of these moments – don’t worry at this moment about the double consciousness or anything; just write.

3. Review what you’ve written. Look for those sentences or paragraphs in your work when your narrator is perceiving something she or he clearly doesn’t understand. Whose perspective have you conveyed them from? If it’s the child’s perspective, think about what it is that the child-character doesn’t understand. Ask: what would I explain to that younger self? If it looks like you’ve attempted to write from a more adult perspective, see if you’ve maintained that distance consistently throughout. Or is the voice a bit wobbly? – i.e. Are there places where you seem to be writing from your current, adult perspective and others where it seems like something a young child would say?

4. Using one of the two voices above – the Cunningham or the Orwell –rewrite your piece.

For the Cunningham voice: remember to focus on what the child-character can actually see or perceive. But I want you to try your best to use your funny, witty adult self to actually describe the moment.

For the Orwell (use if your subject matter or your attitude toward it is more sober, serious, etc): Focus on the incident and describe the child’s feelings or understands, but be sure to use your current day language to do so. Feel free to pull back into a strong reflective voice that might begin: “When I consider this today…” If you can pull off dry British humor, all the better (“Night after night I prayed, with a fervor never previously attained in my prayers, 'Please God, do not let me wet my bed”).


Paul Zakrzewski is the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (Perennial) and his writing has appeared in in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Brevity, and more. A graduate of Cornell University, he received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from VCFA. If you’d like a copy of the “Crafting the Narrator of the Childhood Memoir” assignment, please email him. More info at

Monday, January 7, 2019

Julie Moon: Finding Mothers

When I was a child in the ocean for the first time, I screamed that I was dying, in the third person. 상리 죽는다, I repeated, sobbing to everyone on Busan’s Haeundae beach. My grandfather was carrying me in his arms, we stood barely off the shore where my grandmother was. To my four-year-old self in the water, I was not merely in danger but already dying. What were my beloved adults doing to me, freeing me to this vast and dark liquid? My grandmother, to soothe me, lathered saltwater over my infant arms, my squishy, short legs. When she had encouraged my grandfather to sit me down in the water, I lost control. It was beyond yelling, she relates to me now, over the phone. The water of Haeundae that summer had been neither green nor blue, but a thick, opaque gray. I felt it had gaped at me.

 …I was driving. I had the impression… of being at the sea, in the middle of the day. The beach was empty, the water calm, but on a pole a few meters from shore a red flag was waving. When I was a child, my mother had frightened me, saying, Leda, you must never go swimming if you see a red flag: it means the sea is rough and you might drown. 

A few years later, my grandmother flew across the Pacific to visit my family during what we had thought would be a temporary move to the United States. I had always been close to my maternal grandmother: she seemed to me a second mom, rougher than her meek daughter. But it was during this visit that I started to see her roughness as having to do with a larger force than personality. One afternoon, she was giving my sister and me a bath, the three of crowded the small bathtub of my family’s modest apartment. We had soaked in steaming hot water, and were taking turns getting the dead skin scrubbed off our backs by Gloria. My sister and I, nine and seven years old, were mindless of how this fifty-something year old woman might be sweating from the steam and effort of bending over two children. We exacerbated the chaos by splashing each other in quick succession, I don’t  remember whether we were fighting, or playing. In the chaos, I accidentally pulled the see-through curtain off of its rings, and the plastic sheet crumpled onto Gloria’s brown back. That was when she started screaming. She called us gashina, a word in Korean dialect that can be used as an insult to young girls, couldn’t we see she was tired. Why didn’t we just scrub ourselves. We ought to shut up, did we want to get hit. I had heard her pitch her voice in arguments with my father, but it had never been directed at us. I can still remember my ears ringing. We quieted right away after that, I remember the sudden desire to be obedient, to help flip the switch of the drain when she said that’s enough, get out, I wondered if this bad feeling that had seeped into the air would evaporate along with the steam when we finally opened the bathroom door.

That fear had endured through the years, and even now, although the water was a sheet of translucent paper stretching to the horizon, I didn’t dare go in: I was anxious. I said to myself, go on, swim: they must have forgotten the flag, and meanwhile I stayed on the shore, cautiously testing the water with the tip of my toe. Only at intervals my mother appeared at the top of the dunes and shouted to me as if I were still a child: Leda, what are you doing, don’t you see the red flag? 

Reading Leda, the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, I couldn’t help but hear Gloria alongside her. The novella takes place during Leda’s summer vacation alone on the Ionian coast. There, Leda is overwhelmed by memories of her difficult Neopolitan mother, as well her own experiences as an ambivalent mother of two daughters (they had eventually left her in Italy to live with their father in Canada). Leda’s memories are triggered by a beautiful young woman she meets on the beach. Every day, Leda observes Nina play with her toddler daughter and her beloved doll. To Leda, Nina seems to be a perfect mother: content, serene, and devoted enough to spend hours talking to her daughter and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings.

I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore. I can’t take anymore. Commands, shouts, insults, life stretching into her words, as when a frayed nerve is just touched, and the pain scrapes away all self-control. Once, twice, three times she threatened us, her daughters, that she would leave, you’ll wake up in the morning and won’t find me here. And every morning I woke trembling with fear. 

Growing up with Gloria, I saw her roughness repeatedly. Not long after that bathtub scene, she scratched my sister’s hand hard enough to leave fingernail marks. She cursed feverishly under her breath when one of my friends ate an elaborate pajeon she had made for me and my sister. One weekend in the fifth grade, when she figured out that I had lied to her about which friend I was having a sleepover with, Gloria hit my calves with sticks she’d retrieved from the woods behind our apartment complex. In the year I attended elementary school in Korea, I had been hit like that by my teacher on my open palms, we were warned about our calves, for the severest mistakes. Gloria threatened, as she usually did when she was angry, to pack our bags, to take us back to Korea. By then my family knew I was much more at home in the U.S. Why should I sacrifice myself for you, you don’t know how to be thankful, do you think I am an idiot, just because I am mute here, never are you going to a friend’s house again-- never.

Leda becomes irritated as she watches Nina and her daughter play with the doll. Now they gave her words in turn, now together, superimposing the adult’s fake-child voice and the child’s fake-adult voice. They imagined it was the same, single voice coming from the same throat of a thing in reality mute. But evidently I couldn’t enter into their illusion, I felt a growing repulsion for that double voice. Of course, there I was, at a distance, what did it matter to me, I could follow the game or ignore it, it was only a pastime. But no, I felt an unease as if faced with a thing done badly, as if a part of me were insisting, absurdly, that they should make up their minds, give the doll a stable, constant voice, either that of the mother or that of the daughter, and stop pretending that they were the same.

This past May, when my grandparents picked me up from my parents’ apartment in Busan to bring me to their house in the countryside, I brought a stuffed animal I’d had since I was six years old. Gloria had known my pink lamb as long as I did-- my mother had bought it for me and my sister at Macy’s our first year in the U.S.; Gloria had inserted more cotton to plump up my sister’s threadbare lamb a few years ago. As I sat in the front seat beside my grandfather, Gloria sat in the back, cradling my lamb in her lap. Gloria started speaking in a baby voice to imitate my lamb, a high-pitched, airy voice she used over the years for this play. My sister and I had made baby voices a tradition in our family. But Gloria did it best. She brought my lamb to life, animating her with gestures only she had the imagination to invent. She folded the lamb’s soft body and moved her white cotton hooves to make her dance in mid-air. Soon the car filled with our happiness. As we drove away from my parents’ apartment and towards my grandparents’ house in the countryside, stopping by a beach grandfather, increasingly forgetful, had forgotten he had already taken us to before, I felt free. I was happy, as usual, to hear Gloria’s full-bellied laughter-- it infected me, as it always did.

When, one day, Nina’s daughter loses her doll on the beach, Nina begins a frantic search. Alone in her apartment, Leda realizes she had somehow taken the mangy-looking thing: the doll, half-blond and half bald, is in her bag. The novella circles around Leda’s inability to return the doll. Instead of confessing to Nina and her daughter immediately, Leda pretends not to know where it went. She wades deeper into her memories: how she had once punished one of her daughters by hurling her doll over the railing of their balcony. How during her daughters’ adolescence, she had flirted with their boyfriends out of fear for their possible unhappiness. How, when her daughters were toddlers, Leda abandoned them for three years, leaving them under their father’s care so she could focus on her work as an academic. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them  invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.

I decided to spend one summer in college doing research for a professor at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. I was living with Gloria in her six-story apartment, working on my laptop on the rooftop while she watered the flowers and vegetables she grew there. Before I met with the Women’s Studies professor for the first time, I asked Gloria to join me in exploring Ewha’s campus. Gloria, fashionable as ever, dressed in a silk pink top with her large pearl earrings: I knew she would have studied at Ewha, the country’s first university, had she been born into a more fortunate family in postwar Korea. After exploring the glass maze of the student center, and the lecture halls inside Gothic buildings, we settled at a cafe overlooking the school gates. I started to show Gloria the academic articles I had been reading on my laptop. Seeing her across from me, waiting as I struggled to paraphrase into my limited Korean vocabulary, smiling in her best lipstick, eyes sparkling with an eagerness to learn, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. I didn’t want her to take the bus back alone as she would when it was time for me to meet my professor at Starbucks, I tried to call her a taxi. But when I met the professor, dressed in an all-black outfit that reminded me of my college in New York, and listened to her talk about her research about contemporary feminist discourse in Korea, I felt confused. I tried to push that sadness I felt with Gloria--waiting Gloria, hungry to learn, Gloria who should have gone to high school and college--away.

During my last winter in college, I went to Brisbane, Australia, to visit my aunt and her ten-year-old daughter. I’d been traumatized by the abortion I’d decided to undergo that fall, and was looking forward to swimming in the sea. Gloria would be there with me. She had contributed to my suffering by saying I wasted my life raising you when she learned of my pregnancy, because she didn’t like my boyfriend-- she had been convinced he would hurt me in the end, she was reminded of things I never saw. For a few days, we all went to the Gold Coast. In my aunt’s elegant, sapphire blue swimsuit, I held Ellie’s hand down the utterly soft gray sand of the beach. I remember the squeaking of the sand particles as they sank beneath our soles. I remember feeling, for the first time, like an adult woman.

As Ellie and I sprinted to the aqua currents, Gloria sat on the shore, she wanted to look over our valuables. Eventually we heard the lifeguard announcing through the distance: a certain breed of jellyfish had appeared, and though they resembled the benign kind, they were fatally dangerous, we were to be careful at all costs. Still, Ellie and I wanted to venture a tiny bit further. The water was shallow for a while, and I had become over the years a confident swimmer, swimming almost daily at the college pool.

Watching us wade deeper into the sea--watching Ellie try to kick and make strokes with her small body--Gloria started to scream at us not to go so far, to say closer to shore. Beneath the white sun, her aged body cast a deep shadow on the shore. Her wide-brimmed hat darkened her scrunched up face; from where I stood in the water, she seemed cloaked in darkness. I had never seen Gloria’s face so blackened by emotion (she was so energetic, I rarely thought of her as aged.) I felt the old humiliation at being tied in public with a woman whose fits I had no neat explanation for, but also disturbed in a new way, and thus afraid. I could not recognize the darkness that now shrouding her face-- it was too frantic to be called rage, and too restless to be called fear. I thought Gloria might collapse from so much screaming. Why is Gloria so upset? Ellie asked, looking up at me. I told her I didn’t know. Shortly after Gloria’s screaming began-- she glared at me, until we returned--Ellie and I both got bitten by the benign kind of jellyfish. The lifeguard was cheerful and mellow, I don’t remember what the probability of getting bitten by the dangerous kind had been. I felt relieved when Gloria decided to stay in the hotel room after that. When, while Ellie was playing Marco Polo with other children at the pool, I thought I lost her for a moment, I panicked. A child, yes, is a vortex of anxieties. I willed myself not to unravel as I knew Gloria would have. After I found her I told Ellie in my sternest voice: don’t leave my sight because I am responsible for you. As I waited for understanding to flicker in her eyes I thought to myself: this is who I am.


Julie Moon is a South Korean writer pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Columbia. A former Iowa Arts Fellow, she is the recipient of the Missouri Review Miller Audio Prize in Poetry. She lives in Brooklyn.