I arrive in New York in late August, a day before my first novel We That Are Young is published in America. It is the summer before the midterms—it is burning hot and I am not used to it; this is only my third time in the country. A nine-city, eight-week book tour is ahead of me. It has taken years to get to this moment. I hardly know anyone: my constant, but ephemeral companions are social, print and online media.
It’s easy to forget now, the news cycle moves so fast. But the summer of 2018 begins with weeks of revelations and counter revelations in the #MeToo movement. A hurricane is rising. Mea culpa for violently abusive men are about to be published in leading literary magazines and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the President’s nominee, is going to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the USA.
We That Are Young is the story of an elite hotel-owning family with a tyrant at its head. He believes his own rhetoric and thrives on flattery. He gets away with everything, even the most violent speech and acts of hatred towards women. He shapes the media landscape and his influence on politics runs deep. He’s a contemporary (Indian) King Lear who inspires the rise of religious right-wing fascism among his followers, who subjugate women and minorities, and chant ‘build the wall’ in his name. The book is told from the perspectives of his three daughters and their two male friends, all of whom are affected in different ways by his power. It rages, women tell me. It delicately roars. And it is being published into this moment of ‘strong men,’ furious misogyny, fight-back, heatwaves, hurricanes, storms.
For the first time in my life, I am homesick. I feel cut loose from myself. I reach Washington, D.C., and late one night in my dark hotel room, I lie in bed, and squint into my phone to read a New York Review of Books piece by a man talking about how he has been affected since over 20 women spoke up about his violence during sex. I take in his chatty tone, and I experience a kind of vertigo laced with despair—a loss of faith in the magazine I’ve read for so long. Two cities later, an interview with the editor who published it comes out. His calm justification for running it as he did, and the statement (later said to be untrue) that his staff agreed with him in the end, tells me that no single female body, least of all my brown one, will ever have enough scars to be taken seriously. Time passes. The editor resigns from his post. I’ve been a reader as long as I have been a writer. I think about the trust of that compact. I circle the cities and come back to New York, understanding less about the world than when I began. And Dr Christine Blasey Ford comes forward with her testimony against Kavanaugh.
I spend most of my daylight hours in bookshops as I travel. On the shelves are books about female rage; race and representation; novels and stories by and about women claiming narrative, sometimes winning, sometimes not. Old tales being refreshed. At festivals and readings I have chance meetings with other writers, women working across genres and at different career stages, all of us from different backgrounds and places, but all on a similar travel circuit, all publishing work in a highly concentrated and competitive culture that wants to make monsters of us: and will if we let it. But these snatched conversations—moments of kindness shown to a stranger—alleviate my sense that I am holding my breath, waiting for terror to come. They enhance the message of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings that one person cannot struggle for equality, against bullying, against sexual violence alone.
I spend most of my daylight hours in bookshops as I travel. On the shelves are books about female rage; race and representation; novels and stories by and about women claiming narrative, sometimes winning, sometimes not.
Week five: I reach the West Coast and watch President Trump’s sneering public mockery of Dr Ford on my phone, in an airport; afraid that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would enable so much more damage to women not only in America, but in different parts of the world. It forces me to question the purpose of writing, the value of teaching it, and to think about what we do when we try to make connections via words despite the misogynistic divide and rule of late capitalism. Endorsement of abusers isolates women from each other; it seeks to break the nets of recognition and support that campaigns might make. It makes me think. I want to rage, even as much as I want to disappear.
My own ingrained response to such violence, the desire to make myself invisible and silent, is flaring up against me when I can least allow it to. Am I mistaking my homesickness for something more viral?
From the road, I email the writers I have met. They might be touring like me, but they are all from, or live in America and have historical and cultural knowledge that I do not have. I ask them what is it like, right now for you? Can we share experiences across race, age, genre, nationality, while recognizing the work still to do? How can we continue to write and teach, to respond to the losses that seem so stacked against us?
In the space of minutes, I have replies. And, in the days that follow; as the swing vote is cast by a woman, as Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed as Supreme Court nominee, as Trump apologizes to him at his swearing in ceremony ‘on behalf of the nation’, more replies come.
Following a long Twitter association, Jennifer Croft and I meet for the first time in late August, at the New York Public Library where she is a Cullman Fellow for 2018. She writes this piece just after she has been shortlisted for the National Book Award. It reaches me in northern California, when I have been on the road for five weeks.
One painful thing is to be far from one’s home when something terrible occurs there. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. For instance, I spent the night of November 8, 2016—Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States—reeling in my flat in Buenos Aires, nauseated at having abandoned my people at such a terrible and terrifying time. Selfishly, it was also hard to have no one nearby with whom to commiserate, to sense that no one around me really understood how I felt, or why.
One painful thing is to be far from one’s home when something terrible occurs there. This has happened to me on numerous occasions.
Another painful thing is to experience the agony of an unknown culture up close. This was very recently the case with Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, whose American book tour coincided with the mounting controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to our Supreme Court.
After we won the Man Booker International Prize in May, Olga and I gave talks, readings and interviews in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and despite her nervousness about speaking English, Olga was wonderful, consistently charming everyone in every audience. But her American tour posed a variety of new challenges: not only was it in English, but it was also American English, with which she was less familiar; although I would accompany her for most of the tour, I was unable to be there for all of it, meaning she would be traveling to a number of totally new places on her own; American culture, already alien to Olga’s way of thinking, was about to shatter—again—into a million brittle shards over questions that concern Olga deeply, such as a woman’s right to be heard.
On September 16, Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her allegation against Kavanaugh in an interview with The Washington Post. That day, I flew to Wrocław, Olga’s home base. I spent my week in Poland trying to grapple with what was happening and, like every American woman I know, replaying my own many traumas in my mind: all the times fraternity boys plied me with beer when I was fifteen and sixteen years old, all the times I was harassed and too ashamed and confused to bring it up with anyone, as well as the time I was raped at the age of sixteen, attempting suicide a few days later.
Kavanaugh’s second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, came forward the day Olga and I returned to the U.S. We landed in Washington, D.C., the epicentre of the crisis, and I listened to story after story about Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct in my hotel room and wondered what Olga might be doing in hers. The next day, we gave a reading, and the day after that, we traveled to Boston several more rounds of events.
On September 26, Olga and I rode the train from Boston to New York. The waterfront views were stunning, and after talking a while we each drifted off into our own inner world. I took a picture of Olga as we approached New York, both of us getting excited again about our upcoming interviews and talks:
But just before our train pulled into Penn Station, I received a notification on my phone that Michael Avenatti had just tweeted the details of Kavanaugh’s third accuser, whom he had alluded to a few days before. The fourteen-point declaration by Julie Swetnick felt so familiar to me, and so profoundly horrifying, insofar as it suddenly made glaring all the hideous falsehoods of the entire political establishment of the United States, that as Olga and I disembarked I was less myself than I was a concentrated orb of rage. In that moment, I had no idea how to talk to Olga—where, or how, to begin.
I spent the next day holed up in my office at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. A woman involved in the American publication of Flights had committed suicide. Everyone else at the Center was listening to the testimonies of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh. The day was muggy, heavy; I lay on the floor of my office and breathed.
And yet it was only upon being reunited with Olga that evening that I began to feel better—to feel there might still be some hope. Seeing her at the Brooklyn Public Library shortly before our on-stage conversation was to begin, I realized that this was exactly why I started translating contemporary women writers in the first place: to ensure that diverse voices be empowered and heard. Of all the writers I have translated, Olga is the most committed to heterogeneity of voice, and I realized and proclaimed to our library audience how incredibly proud I am to have been the one to bring Flights over into English. At the Cullman Center, I’m now translating The Books of Jacob, Olga’s thousand-page epic about real historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish sect. A primary focus of this novel is how women’s lives were derailed by Frank, as well as how they healed and worked to change eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society—a favorite topic of Olga’s, as in her account of Chopin’s sister’s political and personal activism in Flights, or of Angel Soliman’s daughter’s campaign on behalf of honour, decency and respect.
I got lucky on my book tour. Even aside from Olga, I was often surrounded by the fiercely intelligent and supportive women of Riverhead Books, who published us in the U.S. It is thanks to all of them, and to the women who are our literary agents, that I have managed to retain some sanity over the course of the past few weeks.
What happens next remains a major question, but for now, I breathe.
I bought a copy of Chika Unigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street in India, in January 2018. It returned to the UK with me, where I read it and re-read it. I bring it with me to the USA because I’m going to be on a panel with her in Boulder, Colorado at the Zee JLF festival at the end of September. She signs my book. We sit together in the breaks, sharing stories of the distances we have traveled to be here, now. When I receive this piece, weeks later, I am awed at her courage, and write to say thank you. It’s OK, she writes back. These are triggering times.
The day of Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, I was at the checkout line of my local grocery store, where two women ahead of me were discussing the case with the cashier, also a woman. All three seemed to be about Professor Ford’s age or older. ‘So what if he did it? He was drunk! He was 17! Show me a 17 year-old boy that’s never been drunk and done dumb stuff!’ one said, handing over her card to the cashier for payment. After she left, the other woman continued. ‘She’s disgusting! If she was assaulted 35 years ago, 35 years ago! Why didn’t she say anything?’ I could no longer keep quiet. I was assaulted at 12 or 13, I told her. ‘I didn’t tell my mother until I was married and raising my first child. There are many reasons women who have been assaulted don’t say anything at the time. It doesn’t invalidate the assault.’ This stranger admitted to being date raped in high school and not telling anyone either (except for her mother because ‘I was ashamed.’ ) ‘But,’ she continued, ‘This woman is a pawn! Why didn’t she tell even her mother? She didn’t tell anyone!’
Later that day, I had to go in to teach. I was distracted. I wanted to sit in front of my computer and watch Ford, to send her the strength and the courage I had lacked as a child. I wondered if any of my students had parents and grandparents who thought like the women at the checkout counter. I wondered if any of my students thought like them, that being male and being drunk gave them the right to assault. I wondered how many of my female students have been victims. How many of them, being victims, spoke up.
The year of my first assault, I was home from boarding school. My breasts were small mounds that didn’t need a bra to hold them, my ‘boyfriend’ was Jesus. I had gone to our family physician, a man I called ‘Uncle’ and whose wife was my mother’s very good friend, for an injection. He had me lie naked on his examination table. He said alongside Jesus, he wanted to be my ‘special friend.’ He told me I was beautiful, all the while touching me in places he had no right touching. I felt dirty and ashamed, as if a failing on my part had caused this to happen.
Years later, as a first year student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a guy I considered a friend attempted to rape me. He threw open his windows and dared me to shout (‘No one will come to help you’), he slapped me, threatened to whip me with a belt and asked me, ‘Do you want me to bring out my gun before you behave yourself?’ I cried, I prayed, I pleaded, I ran around his room until he, apparently out of shape and out of breath, gave up and I could escape. This time, I told people straight away. I told the girl who’d introduced me to him. I told my friends. I told his friends. Someone told me he was just trying to persuade me, ‘Sometimes, when girls say no, they really mean yes.’ Someone asked if I wanted him beaten up, taken care of. Someone told me I should never have gone to his room, didn’t I know his reputation? They’d heard some shouting but didn’t intervene because ‘Any girl who goes to his room gets what they deserve. If I’d known it was you, I’d have come to help.’ I think I told because I was relieved that I had got off relatively unscathed. Had I been raped, I do not know that I would have had the courage to tell that many people. I would have been afraid of the consequences, the stigma attached to being raped, the shame that should belong to the criminal transferred to the victim. I would have folded into myself, tried to walk so no one noticed me.
There are many reasons why assault victims don’t speak up. None of those reasons excuse the assault.
Backstage at the enormous, impressive Brooklyn Book Festival I realize the only person I recognize is a very famous male writer I’ve never met, who is anyway about to go to his panel session. He’s talking to Sarah Weinman author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World and introduces me to her. We sit together and talk: she writes about true crime, I teach in a prison. We go to the next session in the festival together.
Being on book tour in September as the bruising, ugly, nasty, but ultimately successful bid to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court was a multi-layered exercise in cognitive dissonance. Every day I was in a new city to promote a book about the real-life case that inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, to speak of the real-life girl, Sally Horner, who had been kidnapped and raped, her brief and tragic life alchemized into brilliant fiction. What happened to her seventy years ago should have seemed like a relic of the past, and readers I met and audience members I spoke with generally regarded Sally Horner’s kidnapping in that light. But instead, her plight illuminates the present all too starkly.
I also felt, keenly, the sense of nostalgia for this post-World War II time frame, a time that so many would like to equate with America’s so-called greatness, but which papered over repeated horrors.
I also felt, keenly, the sense of nostalgia for this post-World War II time frame, a time that so many would like to equate with America’s so-called greatness, but which papered over repeated horrors. If, as seems to be the case now, we’re headed for newfound retrenchment and backlash against progress, it is all the more incumbent to regard both history and future with the clearest eyes possible. If we are indeed fated to repeat the past, we ought to see that past as it was, not as fantasy or wish fulfillment. It makes me think of future book projects with added clarity and purpose, because we have to be even better at telling the truth, and getting the narratives right, not fitting the narratives to what we might want them to be.
By the time I meet Shobha Rao, author of Girls Burn Brighter at the Asia Society in New York, it is the third week of September, the fourth of my tour, the news was all anyone can talk about. All we can think about. But Shobha is a fiction writer, working under the surface of things. She says she writes in rural isolation from the world. We leave the festival and go for dinner, then I have to go and catch a flight.
I wasn’t thinking about destruction. Not in that moment. In fact, I was so in awe that I wasn’t thinking at all. I was looking. Gazing. Gawping. Actually, none of those words is quite imperial enough; what I was doing was beholding.
It was during my drive from Boise, Idaho, to Missoula, Montana. I was on book tour, and I could’ve easily flown the nearly 400 miles, but I wanted to drive. I took Highways 55 and 95, going north, and then I cut over on Highway 12. I followed the Salmon River. The Payette River. Every now and again, when I curved along the side of a mountain and saw the fir trees hold the sunlight like a lover, or spied along the rivers a patch of grass so lush that it looked like a spill of emeralds, like a shrine to the gods of green, I was overwhelmed. I understood, just for a moment, what it must be to have an awakening. To know grandeur. To see the world as if for the first time.
One particular moment on the drive stands out above the rest, even amidst the constant pummel of beauty. It was along a stretch of the Payette River near Cascade, Idaho. I was driving at sunrise, just when light flirts best with water. With air. The river, in that stretch, was raging. Dangerous. In its rush, I saw a whole tree being carried off as if it was no more than a twig. And it was then that I saw it: the sunlight striking the rapids at just the right angle, just for a split second, and that riotous water turning the softest pink and periwinkle and lavender, the pastels of a little girl’s tea party. I forgot in that instant the furious river, and saw only the calm and quiet colours.
Later that night, in Missoula, after my reading, the question and answer period turned into what can only be described as funereal, anguished, a dirge for a lost country. There was much hand-wringing. Introspection. Cries of, Where did it all go wrong? I had no answers; all I had was an image. An image of early morning light hitting water, turning it tranquil. Seducing the eye into serenity, while underneath was a billowing and wrathful body. I don’t think I said it that night, and maybe not even the next night, but soon, I started saying it. Describing that river, that moment, and saying, ‘That is what we must be. Calm, seemingly, and lavender. But a force. Like that river: to be reckoned with. And with intention to destroy.’
I forgot in that instant the furious river, and saw only the calm and quiet colours.
Don’t misunderstand: I am a pacifist. Always have been. I am a ‘snowflake,’ as they like to say. But here’s what happens to snowflakes, to enough of them, together: they melt, they turn to water, and they rage. They knife through mountains, they flood across plains, they tsunami and they slice and they erode. Water doesn’t stop. Water, if it chooses, destroys.
There is no longer any room for equivocation. For niceties. For hand-wringing. There is only rage. There is only erosion. To meet them where they dwell—in rage. That is what I tell readers, students, myself. Call them out. Name them. And to their face. They are liars, they are tricksters, they are falsifiers. They are white supremacists, they are neo-Nazis, they are racists. They are apologists, entitled, errant. They are misogynists, anti-compassion, and anti-life. Call them out, I say. Use the words. Wield the weapons. Loot the arsenal. Destroy them. Be that river, I say. Where the light hits you, at just the right angle, glisten at sunrise. But the rest of the time, I say: Rage. Battle. Be the river.
Sharmila Sen, author of Not Quite Not White and I were published by chance on the same day. We began a conversation on Twitter, which leads to a salad lunch in her office on my first day in Boston. She lends me an office at Harvard University Press where she is an editor, and I work three doors down from her that afternoon before she takes on the rush hour to drive me to my reading.
Everywhere I go to give book talks this autumn I am told how timely my book Not Quite Not White is. Some people even ask me if I started writing this book as a response to recent political events in the U.S. In fact, the idea for this book has slowly taken shape over more than a decade and the research and experiences on which the book is based covers almost 35 years. One event in particular that prompted me to write it—a conversation in New Haven almost 24 years ago—took place during the Clinton administration. Another event that fuelled the anger which eventually gave shape to my book took place in my own office nearly a decade ago.
While I am relieved that we can talk openly about the ugly side of our American lives in restrained, polite circles once more, I’m also wary of how the iniquitous and the ugly have remained hidden in plain sight.
While I feel a little flattered when I am told my book is timely, because at least I am not being told it is utterly irrelevant, I am also unable to feel completely at ease with the compliment. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia were not invented in November 2016 in the United States. Our complicated relationship to immigration and assimilation is, alas, not of a recent vintage. I suppose I envy the adults who are discovering such things for first time on social media, newspapers, or television. They must have had a very lucky existence in order to believe that we left those messy and ugly things in the past. Those who believe in phrases such as ‘in these times’—always delivered with a rueful, detached knowingness—might subscribe to clear notions of good guys and bad guys, etched in black and white. While I am relieved that we can talk openly about the ugly side of our American lives in restrained, polite circles once more, as well as in raucous public squares, I’m also wary of how the iniquitous and the ugly have remained hidden in plain sight, stitched into polite conversations taking place in literary salons and offices, in lecture halls and board rooms, in bedrooms and restaurants for decades.
In Baltimore I give a reading at Johns Hopkins University and there is a dinner afterwards. Half way through it, Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and I get to sit together. We have the conversation—the one when you both know that the two of you together make two women of colour in the room. Then, we talk about craft.
For years I was a person who said that a major project of fiction was to strengthen our sense of empathy. I said to my graduate students the other day that it feels increasingly clear to me that empathy is a resource that people hoard and restrict access to like they do any other, and I don’t know what that does to our relationship to narrative, to our sense of why we became artists. I think about where our craft truths about narrative—that everyone has their own version of a story and few people inhabit the version where they are the story’s villain—bleed into an unhealthy culture of valuing ‘balance’ above all else, where balance means respect for ‘both’ sides of an argument, even if one is empirically untrue or deliberately dehumanizing, even when the desire to centre moderate-to-conservative straight white Americans in small-to-medium towns as the only true Americans means that things that are actually progress—like the refusal of the rest of us to debate our humanity if we don’t have to do so to save our lives— can be easily reframed as an error that needs to be corrected.
So, Trump wins and there are dozens of mainstream publications trying to depict the interior lives of Trump voters, and downplaying the role of racism and xenophobia even when they are important parts of these voters’ own narratives. Meanwhile conservative media’s position is often that those of us horrified by these developments literally don’t exist and are paid props or conspiracy actors, not people who have their own narrative of the kind of country we want to live in and the ways we suffer in this one. Allegations like those against Kavanaugh are easily spun into a thing the accusers are doing to the accused, and at best, whatever sympathy the survivors get is divided, a portion set aside for the people who have done them harm, ‘balance’ here meaning that empathy always bends in the direction of power.
As a writer, I go to fiction with more questions than answers; I think we build a space for people to enter on their own terms, and so, necessarily, our work has nuance and complication and ambiguity. I am challenging myself to stay in that space but also to be aware of not building fictional worlds that retreat to ‘don’t we all believe that we are right and have cause to do so and isn’t it impossible to judge?’ All of the work I’ve done lately and been satisfied with has a question about where the line is between empathy and enabling, about how much it costs some people, often women and people of colour, to live in a world where other people can take for granted the right to harm them and be forgiven. It feels possible to still work in fiction because my questions about the limitations of empathy are questions and not answers.
I first meet Diana Henderson, Professor of English at MIT, at a 2016 conference where she gives the keynote with two female academics from India and the UK, in which she surveys their twenty years of collaborative work in Shakespeare studies. She invites me to a seminar to speak about We That Are Young, Shakespeare, King Lear, good girls and gratitude. She sends me this after attending anti-Kavanaugh protests in Boston.
On Twitter there’s a game where you subtract your age from the year you were born, and find an event closer in time to your birth than is the present moment: that takes me back to a time when Queen Victoria reigned and women couldn’t vote. So when I take the long view, it goes back past what for many is the only comparison to the Kavanaugh hearings: the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill fiasco. And I know how far we have come in academia, in most professions, and in the general assumptions about equal opportunity shared by the majority of Americans. That said, I’ve never lived through a nastier, coarser, more ill-informed period in terms of acceptable public discourse, from the President on down.
This makes my work as a writer and educator seem both more urgent and difficult, though not in the ways right-wing (and increasingly, mainstream) journalism would have it. I check my personal opinions at the classroom door, as much as possible, believing that the best way to improve our public discourse is to model thoughtful, generous attention to what others say while holding them to account for the specific words they use: I’m trying to get my students to hear what they and others are saying. That is a full-time job. But I have others.
Among them, I write and share what I have learned. Right now I’m suggesting people return to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which in 1949 diagnosed why many women align against their own interests and experience (this is what social media are calling a #whitewomen issue, which makes sense if discussing current voting patterns but doesn’t get at why, and how to change it). I’m also recommending Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a 1938 pacifist, feminist credo written in defiance of the rise of fascism. Woolf didn’t just follow the news; she analyzed and called it out. I recommend everyone spend more time analyzing what politicians are doing right now—which in the US includes unraveling our basic structures and governmental protections—rather than following the soundbites.
And doing: I attended three protests during the week of the hearings, and each helped keep me going. They were also deeply moving: women testifying to their experiences of sexual assault and its traumatic aftereffects, and all sorts of people supporting one another. I was so grateful I had left my television after several wrenching hours watching Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s brave, truthful testimony: it was an honour to stand with these other survivors, rather than remain captive to the screen. It is through our collective actions that we can build on the understandable anger and sadness of this moment.
One of the saddest aspects of the Senate hearings for me was the absence of what my father would have called statesmanship: he worked on the nonpartisan staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back when the legislature did its job, in the 1960s and 1970s. They made huge mistakes, but they did try to represent all Americans, and one crucial way was to have staff who were required to be nonpartisan. Now the Senate appears to have only majority and minority staff members, and that is damaging our democracy. Meanwhile, the press doesn’t explain or cover the structures that undergird our system, only the personalities and events of the day; the public follows their lead. That’s both sad and dangerous.
But I am not going to be silenced by sadness, and in fact I’m deeply hopeful, because I work with incredibly dedicated, impressive people every day—including my students, who are so far beyond what the Republican Party has become. They have an image of America that is inclusive and responsible. My job is to encourage them to take us forward, and not to give up on thinking politically and globally (as well as artistically and historically), not just selfishly—nor do I want them to be misled into thinking that ignorance of the world’s realities actually is good, or even possible, for themselves. I want them to find the happiness and sense of purpose that comes with empathy and knowledge, and the awareness of a bigger, more amazing world of people than they will ever comprehend.
Jeanne McCulloch, editor, publisher and author of All Happy Families, a memoir, chairs one of the first festival panels I am on: two women, two men. The hour passes quickly, and I ask her if she has time for coffee. I want to ask some advice for the tour ahead. I don’t remember what she said, because we talked about writing and politics and other things, mostly to do with the lines between fiction and memoir, most of all about families and what keeps them together.
Flying across the country to begin the West Coast leg of my book tour, the airplane TV showed CNN reporters discussing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court; a clip showed Mitch McConnell—his eyes darting, the multiple folds of skin beneath his chin quivering—vowing the GOP would ‘plow through’ the nomination whatever it took. As I watched from 35,000 feet above, it seemed as if the elephant that symbolizes the Republican party had transmogrified into a giant elephant that sat heavily on the coffee table of the American landscape, stretching from one coast to the other—refusing to budge, crushing the voice of the people, determined to have its way.
As a woman, as a writer, I was speaking a lot on my tour about finding my voice, how for years as a literary editor I had been coaxing stories out of others because I didn’t believe in the power of my own voice, and how I had wrestled blindly for years, as if in the dark, to trust my own words, to believe they had impact and to tell my own personal story in a memoir. As a woman, as a writer, how was I to address the elephant now bearing down on our national psyche?
A clip showed Mitch McConnell—his eyes darting, the multiple folds of skin beneath his chin quivering—vowing the GOP would ‘plow through’ the nomination whatever it took.
Meanwhile across the country, in Massachusetts, my 18-year-old daughter was beginning college, struggling to find her voice in the large, impersonal world of university life. She too was watching women be silenced on the national stage as she negotiated classes, professors, students, as she learned to advocate for herself in a new environment.
By the time I reached Portland, Oregon, the New York Review of Books, New York magazine, and Harper’s all ran pieces on notable men accused of sexual abuse, all three tone deaf stabs at redemption. By the time I reached San Francisco, Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books had resigned over the reaction of outrage, and in the political sphere Dr Christine Blasey Ford was set to testify. It was a full year after the dawn of the #metoo movement, two years after the Access Hollywood tape, and yet in the wake of all this the elephant had grown enormous.
When I reached LA, I watched on a friend’s television as Dr Ford raised her right hand, and raised her eyes upward. Hers was a look I recognized, a woman terrified, yet speaking her truth, aware of the backlash she would inevitably face. She was followed by Judge Kavanaugh, red faced, spitting rage and defensiveness, then spiralling into self-pity and tears. This is a look I recognized too, a man dangerously wrapped up in his own story, his alcoholic denial, his blatant self-interest. By the time I returned to NYC, Dr Ford had been silenced by the giant elephant on the coffee table and Judge Kavanaugh was being sworn in to the highest court in the land.
Why did it take you so long to tell your own story? I was asked again and again on my tour. Why did she take so long to tell her story? conservative pundits said, attempting to cast doubt on Dr Ford’s testimony. In bookstores, in living rooms, on airport lines, I listened as women told me their stories in hushed tones. It was my mistake to stay silent, I tell them. Speak, write, use your words. Similarly, I tell my daughter as we Facetime, she at her desk in her dorm, me at my desk at home, If you don’t speak, you can’t blame them for not listening. Your words have impact. She sighs. And then what, Mom, she asks, because, this all seems so hopeless right now.
The night is falling over the city as my daughter and I look at each other through our computer screens. My daughter, fiery feminist; was losing hope. We have to scale back the elephant one slice at a time, I am thinking, and our words are our power. Use your words, I tell her. We start there. Speak.
Preti Taneja teaches writing in prisons and universities. Her debut novel We That Are Young (UK: Galley Beggar Press) has been listed for awards including the Prix Jan Michalski and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award. It was a 2017 book of the year in the Guardian, Spectator and others, and a Library Journal Book of the Year top 10 literary fiction pick in 2018. It won the 2018 Desmond Elliot Prize for the best UK debut of the year. It is being translated into several languages and is published in the USA by A.A Knopf.
Jennifer Croft is an author and translator and a NYPL Cullman Fellow. She was shortlisted for the National Book Award and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation for her work on Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, for which she also won the Man Booker International Prize 2018. Jennifer’s creative memoir Homesick will be out with Unnamed Press on September 10, 2019.
Chika Unigwe was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria. Her novels include, Night Dancer and On Black Sisters Street, both of which have been translated into several languages, including German, Dutch, Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian, and Spanish. Her works have won several awards. She is a Lecturer in Fiction at Emory University.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World.
Shobha Rao is the author of the short story collection, An Unrestored Woman, and the novel, Girls Burn Brighter. Her work can be found in Best American Short Stories and is forthcoming in the South Carolina Review. She is currently at The New School (New York) as the 2018 Grace Paley Teaching Fellow.
Sharmila Sen is the author of Not Quite Not White (Penguin) and Executive Editor-at-Large at Harvard University Press. She was formerly a faculty member in the Harvard English department. She lives in Cambridge, MA.
Danielle Evans is the author of the short-story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, The Sewanee Review, and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches creative writing in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Diana Henderson’s areas of research and interest include Shakespeare, gender studies, early modern poetry and drama, modernism, media studies, and world drama. Her publications include the books Alternative Shakespeares 3, A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen, Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender and Performance, and articles in (among others) Shakespeare Survey, Renaissance and Reformation, Shakespeare and War, Virginia Woolf: Reading the Renaissance, and numerous volumes in the Cambridge and Blackwell’s Companions series. She has worked as a dramaturg, was a principal participant in MIT’s collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is co-editor of Shakespeare Studies.
Jeanne McCulloch is a former managing editor of The Paris Review, senior editor of Tin House, and the founding Editorial Director of Tin House Books. She is the co-founder of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, O Magazine, Allure, The Northwestern Review, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
George de Castro-Day is a photographer, artist, and author in New York City.