While no one needs a designated month to celebrate women, we’ll take the spotlight where we can get it and use the time to talk about how women still represent only a small fraction of what’s getting published today. Women’s History Month is a time to change the face of the literary world with more diversity and to bring awareness to the changes that need to happen for this literary world to be a more rounded, representative place for women writers around the globe. In celebration of Women’s History Month and the call for more diverse books, Alternating Current staffers share the literary influences that changed and shaped them.
ALICE ELLIOTT DARK
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
Getting my MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University, Newark, I was lucky to have been taught by three extremely talented, generous, smart, and influential authors: Alice Elliott Dark, Tayari Jones, and Jayne Anne Phillips. Any aspiring writer would benefit tremendously from one of these fantastic women, as each had her own specialized angle on writing: Alice is a sage when it comes to the writing process, both internal and external; Tayari is a genius at helping find and shape the plot; and Jayne Anne is a magician with line-editing.
But one doesn’t need to attend RU-N’s MFA program to be influenced by these writers, as long as you read and sit with their fiction. When I read Ms. Dark’s incredibly moving short story collection, In the Gloaming, my understanding of the emotion and mystery of people and prose grew tremendously. (John Updike named her eponymous story, “In the Gloaming,” one of the best stories of the Twentieth Century.)
To read Ms. Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, her heartbreaking debut novel about the Atlanta Child Murders, is a lesson in both point of view and structure, as the narrative is expertly told in three sections, from the perspectives of three children.
Finally, Ms. Phillips: it’s no coincidence that most of my favorite modern writers were influenced by Black Tickets, her miraculous collection of flash and short fiction. In fact, before I had the pleasure of working with Jayne Anne, I read one of the collection’s stories, “Country,” which, no exaggeration, transformed my writing. I still return to this strange story with its haunting lyricism when I need to get back to my literary center.
A friend sent me his copy of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttonsin 2011. I’d heard of Gertrude Stein prior to 2011, of course, but I’d never read her books. I cannot remember being that excited by a book before or since. I have returned to Tender Buttons numerous times since that initial reading and have attempted to put my own spin on it. Here is my most recent tribute poem to Gertrude Stein, a response to Tender Buttons:
GOD HER BRAIN SO SKY
Leave the numbers in the remembering and stir and sudden and when the pine stills. The cake in the shadow unless forgotten always radiant with trembled purple. It is a convenience across the butter in table with assembled faces indulging studied nonchalance. You have the spoon in the glance and the stir says deeper. Nothing horrible congeals nothing awful freezes nothing happy burns nothing wise boils into meadows dappling floored borrow. Blurring is the vanilla. Capture the spice in accidental. The synchronous surge out the window but cooling greener in angled garden. Otherwise grape jelly absolutely carpet no tongue cleared. The door knocks with garlic and shuts with sleeping soup. Or did the onion or could the tomato no never the okra not possible the radish. The sky is pooling in the lettuce. All the boats so present.
At the beginning of my advanced poetry workshop at UTSA this semester, I attempted and failed to articulate to my peers why Tender Buttons is so revelatory and why it is still, in 2016, ahead of its time. There is no sense to Stein’s lines, but they lull and soothe, and in the end, they make perfect sense, the kind of sense that defies logic and allows the mind to soar. It is challenging to choose just one excerpt from Tender Buttons to represent the entire text, but I love these lines:
Lovely snipe and tender turn, excellent vapor and slender butter, all the splinter and the trunk, all the poisonous darkening drunk, all the joy in weak success, all the joyful tenderness, all the section and the tea, all the stouter symmetry.
That is poetry! It sings. It delivers. Stein isn’t saying anything, but she’s saying everything. The syntax is euphonious. She has complete command of the English language. She’s playing with the language and inviting the reader to her spacious playground. That is my kind of fun. I challenge writers to write responses to Tender Buttons. I’m going to challenge myself to write more responses until I have a Tender Buttons of my own because I am audacious like that. I know nothing I can come up with will surpass Stein’s text, but I will have fun trying, and that truly is the point.
— Misti Rainwater-Lites
Some of my earliest reading memories are of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but I remember a strong young girl protagonist. I remember having my first reading aha moments from the idea not only that reading was fun and magical, but that writing a story like these must be even more so.
My personal experience with the reading and writing world has always been one filled with strong female voices. My Grandmother, like my mother did, shared with me a love of reading and writing. She had a neighbor who wrote a children’s novel, and she gave me a signed copy for my birthday. I looked at the scrawling signature and the words addressed directly to me. A real person wrote this book. Someone my Grandmother knows. Someone who wanted me to read it.
From time to time, I had let my reading and writing life stay in the background. I worked in the Computer Programming field, and I played poker with most of my free time. Those can be very male-oriented worlds. But from my grandmother, my mother, my teachers, my friends who I discussed reading with, from the writing classes I’d gone to where it was ten women for every man, I had always associated the literary world as one grounded by a strong female perspective. It was an eye opener for me to hear from writers and publishers at a panel at the AWP conference in Seattle the level of sexism that still occurs in publishing, even though their strongest reading base is female. It was an eye opener for me to hear about the VIDA Counts and gender bias in book review counts. It was an eye opener for me to hear the criticism Patricia Arquette received for standing up for equal pay for women. From this discussion, I read and learned about the theory of intersectional feminism. I saw things aren’t as simple as I thought, and I’ve pledged to keep my eyes open and not to forget that just because a problem isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Several years ago now, I stopped playing poker. I moved reading and writing back to the foreground. I rediscovered the same magic I had found with Madeleine L’Engle in the works of these wonderful women writers: Joan Didion, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley, Stacey Richter, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Cari Luna, Ramona Ausubel, Marie-Helene Bertino, Karen Russell, Rachel Kushner, Amelia Gray, Leesa Cross-Smith, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O’Connor, Chloe Caldwell, Emily St. John Mandel, Pamela Erens, Laura van den Berg, and all the others I hope to still be able to read.
— Al Kratz
My writing wouldn’t be what it is today without Marya Hornbacher’s memoir, Wasted, and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
I had picked up Hornbacher’s memoir at the suggestion of a friend who, while battling her own eating disorder, thought that it would help me with my own. I was searching for understanding, of what I was feeling and that I wasn’t alone in having these thoughts, but what I found was so much more than that. I remember reading Wasted, sitting in a laundromat in Niagara Falls, underlining half the book, and crying. I’ve read so many things that felt true to me, but I hadn’t read anything that helped me understand truths about me. I was inspired not only by Hornbacher’s style, and her voice, but also her bravery — not just in Wasted, but in Madness, as well. I often return to these books whenever I need inspiration, or if I’m looking for comfort on a hard night.
Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, came to me, as Wasted had, at a time when I needed it most. While I’m actively pursing a commercial writing career, I’m also an MFA candidate. I like order, routine, and knowing what’s coming next. Because of this, I had found myself caught up in the familiar, despite having moved 2,500 miles away from home. I was in Arizona, miserable, and not using the experience to “get lost.” Reading Field Guide helped me not only to find the bravery to shelve some projects and start new ones, but to leave everything that I was comfortable with: my apartment, writing style, the roads too well-traveled. If nothing else, Field Guide helped me to find my voice again — a voice that had been lost after worrying too much about a commercial market that I may not be destined to belong in.
Some writers look the part, and some writers are the part. When you see the fashion ads for Céline featuring Didion wearing all black and sporting her signature oversized dark sunglasses, it’s easy to see why the aging writer intrigues people. When you actually sit down and read her work, both her fiction and non-fiction, it’s oppressively clear Didion isn’t playing any part. Her work, at first, seems unobtrusive. A simple formula laid out for the reader to consume or to pass over. But once you begin reading Didion, you never stop. In her fiction, she creates characters that, while you might not relate to, such as Maria in Play It As It Lays, you certainly feel for. It’s always difficult, for various reasons, to find sympathy for the poor little rich girl, but Didion makes you wish things would work out for the frustrating and clearly mentally ill Maria.
Her non-fiction moves you in quiet ways that are hard to describe, but no less felt. When reading The Year of Magical Thinking, a novel that chronicles the year immediately following her husband of forty years, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne’s, death, I found myself brought to silent tears for the honesty in her storytelling. How she described the grief she experienced and the irrational way her mind began to function after his death. How “you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” I admire her ability to write a book so personal as her own form of therapy. She later does the same again in Blue Nights, the subject matter this time being her daughter’s early and sudden death. Novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and playwright: Didion’s skills cross genres. As always, it’s encouraging, particularly to other female writers, to see a successful writer who was also a mother and wife, but didn’t have to sacrifice her career for either role. But ultimately, what I admire most about Didion is she’s still at it. She’s spent the last six-plus decades writing, and she’s not finished yet.
— Cetoria Tomberlin
First-person is powerful. To speak from the “I,” to be embedded in one’s own story and to have the confidence that such stories need to be told: it was one of the most important lessons I was taught as a young writer, and Amy Hempel taught it to me. Like many young female writers, it took me a long time to embrace the way gender affected and altered my perception of the world and my work in fiction. It was Hempel’s work that changed that for me. Women take center stage in her stories. First-person perspective is used to perfection; her characters are defined by the strength and cadence of their voices, and nobody writes voice-driven prose better than Hempel. These characters really do speak for themselves and showcase what is perhaps my favorite thing about the way Hempel writes women: her women are weird. Strange of habit and sometimes seemingly unsound of mind, and best of all, never quirky. A sense of real danger and illness run in the undercurrents of these stories; death, suicide, addiction, and loss of mental faculties are all subjects in turn, but — in the same way her characters are more than cardboard stand-ins for the female experience — these events are only ever used to open up wider, deeper, vaster parts of the story. Pieces like “Tom-Rock Through the Eels” or “The Most Girl Part of You” show just how sophisticated and knowing Hempel’s sense of gender is. When it comes to using voice and character as a driver for story, Hempel is instructive in all the best ways.
— Laura Citino