Posts tagged longreads
“Her broken heart had something to do with the collapse of culture.”
Freud, existentialism and Empathy
by Caty Simon
“Most gay people find out about gay things from the mainstream media.”
-from “What I Learned About Empathy” by Sarah Schulman, in the Arsenal Pulp edition of Empathy
I was one of the last generation of queer teen girls doomed to library lesbianism. I searched yellowed index cards (index cards!) for any mention of homosexuality, looked desperately for all that stuff that dares not speak its name in the subtext of modernist novel after modernist novel. Here’s what I found out about being queer from these Freud-inflected texts: being a lesbian was juvenile. Being a lesbian was penis envy. Being a lesbian was narcissistic. Being a lesbian was the inability to have a vaginal orgasm and be a Real Woman.
I found scant consolation in scandalous footnotes about Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf. When I discovered The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing at the age of 12, I thought I’d found a feminist and socialist bible I could really identify with, but even Lessing wrote about Lesbianism (with a capital L) as a last resort that desperate women were reduced to.
Reading Sarah Schulman’s Empathy almost twenty years later, I felt that I had finally found a book that takes on feminism, lesbianism, radicalism and psychoanalysis and allows the queer woman to emerge triumphant, simply by deconstructing these old tropes and exposing them to the light of scrutiny.
What I’ve Learned from Empathy
by Sarah Schulman
The MacDowell Colony, August 15, 2005
I’m trying to remember when I first got interested in juxtaposition, which is the experience at the core of this novel: relations between ideas, word fragments, genres, lovers, and relational existence as a fallback position for people whose reality is not acknowledged. Homosexually, it probably began in my 1962 nursery school class. Our young teacher was getting married, and she organized us into a mass mock wedding. The four-year-olds had to couple up boy/girl, boy/ girl and march down the aisle. I refused. I said I would be the photographer, and ran around with an invisible camera, snapping nonexistent pictures. I existed, in that moment as a lesbian and an artist, relationally. There was no girlfriend and no apparatus, yet I survived as myself, a not-bride.
by Kate Axelrod
I’d known Tom* peripherally for years. We’d run into each other at birthday parties, at unbearably crowded bars in the city, once outside of the train station in Greenpoint. But something shifted between us when we saw each other at a barbeque one balmy June night. I liked the slightly goofy lilt in his voice, his glasses – these thick round frames –and the way he seemed to be warmly attentive and making fun of me at the same time. But I didn’t know him, not really, and by the time I emailed him, two days later, (something friendly and benign) he had already left the city, was working on a movie set down south until September.
And it was in that way, through emails and texts and more emails, that Tom and I grew to know each other. Our flirtation grew and transformed and morphed into companionship, to romance. I got into the habit of narrating my life to him, and as my day unfolded I imagined the way I’d describe it to him later. I took the ferry to work this morning, the East River was gleaming and beautiful. My mind was abuzz with all the things I wanted to tell him about. In Meghan Daum’s essay “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” collected in My Misspent Youth, she explains precisely that feeling, after she develops a relationship with a fan who contacts her through AOL (yes, AOL –the essay was written in1997).
I could physically feel my brain. My body did not exist. I had no skin, no hair, no bones; all desire had converted itself into a cerebral current that reached nothing but my frontal lobe. Lust was something not felt but thought.
A State of Fiction
by Zan McQuade
Barbara Browning came to life before me on a chilly gray Sunday, as I lay under the bedsheets, dressed in wool for warmth. I’d just finished Sheila Heti’s How Should A Be?, a book that left me feeling a little bit empty and angry. I was in the mood to read more, it was a day made for reading, and so I followed it with Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, a book about artists and writers performing their art on the pages, through video and film.
And then I remembered a book sitting idle on the shelves of my iPad waiting to be read: Browning’s book, I’m Trying To Reach You, about an ex-dancer who, following the breadcrumb trail of related videos on YouTube following the deaths of Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, and Merce Cunningham, finds himself engulfed in a mystery of internet connections, leading him to become an unwitting spy into a secret and seemingly dangerous world of code and semaphore, messages tapped like Morse code with the rubber soles of a dancer’s sneakers. Browning is a dancer in life, and a character in her own book: the mysterious dancing woman discovered by narrator Gray Adams. Browning herself appears in images throughout the book, stills from videos that live on YouTube as well.
Wait, I thought. So she’s real?
“The Internet works like the subconscious”: An interview with Barbara Browning
Caty Simon is an activist and multi-platform blogger who we assigned to interview Barbara Browning via email about I’m Trying To Reach You. This interview contains spoilers, but you should read it anyway. It also contains a footnote.
CS: First question—Maybe it’s too tedious or too politically correct to mention it, but the racebending in this book is more convoluted than the genderbending in a performance of “As You Like It” during the Elizabethan era. What does it mean to be a white person writing a mixed race man who deals with intrusive Stupid White People questions about his life and art? What does it mean for you to write a mixed race character who notices a paucity of other people of color in the spaces that he’s in, or gets tired of children asking what exactly he is?
BB: This may be a long answer, sorry. It’s a big question. I’m kind of surprised somebody hasn’t asked it before. Well. There are some ways in which my narrator shares certain parts of my personal history, and also my present, and other ways in which he’s obviously very different from me. He identifies as a gay black man. But he’s also roughly my age, was raised by a single white mom in Wisconsin (as was I), is a “former dancer” who transitioned into dance scholarship (like me), he’s what we might politely call a member of the “overeducated” class (um, me too), and at the time of the story, he’s living in my apartment, eating my food, watering my plants, and staring across the garden of my building at the balconies of my neighbors. We also share a few neuroses, and a couple of traumatic experiences. There are ways in which we’re quite different. He’s more uptight about sex, and a little more personally discreet, but we find a lot of the same things moving, or funny, or sad. I feel a lot of love for him, in a protective way. He is, in the words of a performance theory dictum that he quotes, “not me, but also not not me.”
The Author of Her Destiny
How Muriel Spark revised her own history in Loitering With Intent, and why
There was a certain period in my life during which the only thing I could write about was my divorce. Unfortunately, it coincided with a fruitful period in my book-reviewing career. After a decade of begging, I’d finally hit a sweet spot and editors were coming to me, instead of vice versa, to write about books. But because of my seething muted trauma, I essentially bombed every opportunity that came my way. I could easily become obsessive about whatever minute detail in the book seemed to relate to divorce, regret, pain and/or loss. And if I couldn’t find something that related with even the slenderest tangential connection to divorce, I was lost for words. Dana Spiotta’s National Book Award nominated 2006 novel Eat the Document was “awesome.” That was the substance of the five-word review I delivered. The editor wrote back begging for “details.” I drew a blank and the piece was killed.
There were several similar disasters before at last an astute editor said to me—after I’d turned in a 3500 word essay on emotional realism and divorce in the recent work of Hanif Kureshi—“Minna, you’ve obviously got something that you need to get out and write about that’s interfering with everything else. Come back when you’ve worked it out.”
I alternated between divorce and writer’s block for almost two years, at which point the boredom was suffocating. And so I bribed my way into an assignment to interview Gary Shteyngart, which (like most interviews with Gary Shteyngart) took place in a downtown Irish bar over sliders and tangy boutique beer, and I completely forgot and didn’t record or write down most of what was said (except for his recommendation to read War and Peace but to skip the Peace). Something about the warm beer and having to retrieve and invent the interview the next day, catapulted me back into form. I wrote about Sontag soon after and Gerard Manley Hopkins and somewhere in there, I started to feel a little bit more like me again.
Then I recklessly volunteered to deliver a talk on my “favorite, formative” book, Loitering With Intent. At six hours before the talk was scheduled to begin, I was staring down an empty page and reckoning. Muriel Spark. Muriel Spark seduced me with sherry-laced tea and stinky cheese and walked me to the precipice and then hurled me back down into the divorce sinkhole.
Just Do It
When I was 24, I took mushrooms at a party in a seedy part of Hollywood and got it on with a bunch of strangers in a hot tub. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mushrooms + strangers + hot tub + heeeey, but the situation was wrong for me, because I wasn’t really enjoying myself. My focus was on putting on a show and making other people happy, not myself. And these were spectacularly gross people—anyone else could have seen that, tripping or not. But the craziest/saddest/worst part of the whole evening wasn’t that I was faking moans for people who couldn’t have cared less about whether I was enjoying their drunk fumblings, it was that I ran into someone from high school in the hot tub. Do you understand? I was naked and tripping and groping and being groped and through the fog I heard someone say, “Hey! It’s John from CHS.”
The hot tub incident came towards the end of a time in my life, between ages 12 and 24 approximately, when I was really into being performatively crazy. The thing people say about young women who flaunt their sexuality the way I did is that they’re like that because their dads were dicks. I know that isn’t the case for everyone, but it was for me. My father, as I’ve chronicled here, here, and here, was a dick. Though he was successful, erudite, and often quite charming, he also taught me to hate myself, mostly by calling “stupid” and then calling me “crybaby” after I started crying because he called me stupid.