French Feminist Pulp That Spares No Pain: On Virginie Despentes

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 2016

“I AM WRITING as an ugly one for the ugly ones.” So begins “King Kong Theory,” the French writer and filmmaker ­Virginie Despentes’s agreeably dyspeptic feminist manifesto published in France in 2006 and America four years later, in a translation by Stéphanie Benson. Despentes offers the book as a love letter to her kin: the “too fat,” “too hairy,” “too masculine,” “women who don’t turn men on.” This is no ploy for pity, mind you. “I would never swap ­places,” she declares. “Being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.”

Who would disagree? A onetime enfant terrible of the French literary establishment, who went on to win the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2010, Despentes is perhaps best known for her notorious 2000 film “Baise-Moi,” based on her novel of the same name — “ ‘Thelma and Louise’ as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt,” in the words of one reviewer. But her real legacy lies in harrowing a genre all her own: the feminist pulp novel, gory and romantic screwball stories frequently featuring two well-armed, pissed-off women. One such novel, BYE BYE BLONDIE (The Feminist Press, paper, $17.95), will be released this month in a translation by Sian Reynolds, both singly and in a box set with “King Kong Theory” and the ­Renaudot-winning novel “Apocalypse Baby,” which was also translated by Reynolds and was published in America last year.

Despentes has become a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women: the monstrous and marginalized, the sodden, weary and wildly unemployable, the kind of woman who can scarcely be propped up let alone persuaded to lean in. “I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that — as a girl who doesn’t attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around,” she writes in “King Kong Theory.” “We have always existed, and never spoken. Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.” These are the very women she creates: Manu and Nadine, who cheerfully carve up rapists and bad tricks in “Baise-Moi”; Gloria in “Bye Bye Blondie,” whose terrifying tantrums frighten away her lovers; Lucie and the Hyena in “Apocalypse Baby,” private investigators who spy on the wayward daughters of the rich. Her heroines are plain and very powerful; they are Roman candles, agents of chaos.

Despentes’s work is frequently situated within a ­tradition of French extremist art that examines sex — particularly violent sex — with a kind of Flaubertian detachment. Think of the Marquis de Sade; “Story of O”; Georges Bataille’s novels; Catherine Millet’s memoir, “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”; the films of Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis. The sex in the film version of “Baise-Moi” is unsimulated and, to most people’s tastes, not very pretty (gun, anus). Yet “the point is not to be shocking,” Despentes has insisted in interviews, “but to change the shape of things.” This is the idealism that is so often overlooked in her work — she makes the hidden violence explicit, and almost always leaves open the possibility of a happy ending, however unhinged. It’s a commitment to redemption that reminds you that the novels directly channel the life; there’s nothing arid, nothing emptily philosophical in her considerations. Continue reading

The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’


Illustration by Javier Jaen

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

FOR MOST OF her life, Virginia Woolf suffered from what she called “looking-glass shame,” an aversion to seeing herself in mirrors. She wrote about it late in her career, not long before her suicide, recalling that the trouble began with one particular mirror. It hung in the hall of her family home, and when she was about 6, her half brother Gerald Duckworth lifted her onto a nearby table and put his hands under her clothes.

Woolf’s other half brother, George Duckworth, also began molesting her a few years later, paying her almost nightly visits for a time. She would go on to speak and write publicly about the abuse, which continued into her 20s — even confronting George — but mirrors continued to distress her. “It is so difficult,” she wrote, with uncharacteristic and moving awkwardness, “to give any account of the person to whom things happen.”

The question of what posture to take toward our own pain is unexpectedly complicated. How do we understand our own suffering — with what words and to what ends? Does great suffering always diminish us? These are the kinds of currents swirling around the word “survivor,” the increasingly popular term for people who have experienced sexual violence. Commonly used to describe those who had endured the Holocaust, the word was picked up by feminist groups organizing against the sexual abuse of children in the 1980s and has since broadened in scope and gone mainstream. At the Academy Awards in February, Lady Gaga performed her Oscar-nominated song for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape, accompanied by 50 men and women who had been assaulted, their arms painted with words like “survivor.” A day later, she spoke out about being raped as a teenager. “51, surviving and thriving,” she captioned a group photograph on Instagram. On social media, people post messages of support to themselves or others with the hashtag #survivorloveletter. “You are not what they took from you,” one woman writes to her younger self. “You are the monument of survival and recovery you erected in its place … you are a queen.”

The word has caught on with law enforcement, the Department of Justice and the White House Task Force on campus safety: “We are here to tell sexual-assault survivors that they are not alone,” its first report announced in 2014. A “survivors’ rights act” intended to “empower survivors to make more informed decisions throughout the criminal justice process” and demanding longer preservation of rape kits, among other things, was recently introduced in the Senate.

The evolving legal definition of rape has always been a bellwether of changing attitudes to race and gender, and the legitimacy of “survivor” signals a subtle but important shift in thinking about sexual violence. The historian Estelle B. Freedman has argued that the story of rape in America “consists in large part in tracking the changing narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime of forceful, unwanted sex and whose accounts will be believed.” But, with a few exceptions, there have been few historical records of how victims of violence have named and understood their own experiences.

After all, for much of history, the “good” rape victim, the “credible” rape victim has always been a dead one, a serviceable symbol of defiled innocence around whom a group can rally — a suicide like Lucretia, whose rape catalyzed the founding of the Roman Republic, or any of the Catholic Church’s patron saints of rape victims (none of whom, incidentally, were raped; they martyred themselves instead). In literature, women have been ingeniously silenced: In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” they’re turned into birds and trees. One has her tongue cut out to keep her from testifying — a grisly and beloved trope that reappears everywhere from “Titus Andronicus” to “The World According to Garp.”

But beginning in the 1970s, books like “Kiss Daddy Goodnight,” “I Never Told Anyone” and “The Courage to Heal,” which collected first-person narratives of women who had experienced incest and child sexual abuse, brought the issue to the fore of public consciousness. Continue reading

On the Literature of Terrorism


Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3

THE WOMAN IN the photograph doesn’t look frightened, even though she has reason to be; on the other side of the crumbling wall behind her, a small boy is pointing a big gun at someone just outside the frame. Something in her posture, however, the way she cranes her head to look at the boy, suggests impatience more than anything else. She’s on her way home from shopping, it seems, and carrying a large purse and a pale, heavy object — a ­cauliflower? She’s standing on rubble, but her clean white sandals and beautiful bare legs gleam.

This is a favorite image of mine, a snapshot of unknown provenance, supposedly taken during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, 15 years of fighting, that pulverized much of the capital, leaving 150,000 people dead and more than 17,000 missing. It was a war that unleashed sustained and inventive terror, a war fought with child soldiers, and car bombs — 3,641 of them killed some 4,000 people. It is the preoccupation of the alarmingly prolific Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, whose novels are finally being translated into English, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The latest, the dreamlike and unhinged CONFESSIONS (New Directions, paper, $14.95), was published this spring.

What the sea was to Melville, terror is to Rabee Jaber. He knows its smell, its subtlest moods, its allure and tedium — how the sight of a child soldier, say, can provoke more annoyance than fear. In 18 novels written in about as many years, he’s traced how terror has remade his country by way of displacement and forced migration through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the present day. “The Mehlis Report,” his first novel to appear in English, was published in Lebanon in 2005, the very year it covers, and follows the aftershocks of the assassination of the prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing, which prompted an investigation by the United Nations led by a German judge, Detlev Mehlis. “Confessions,” a slender book with a high body count, is set in the middle of the civil war, in the thick of kidnappings and ambushes on refugee camps, when a child’s bag of marbles turns out to be, horrifyingly, a cache of human eyes.

Of course, the figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful? But with a few notable exceptions like “Secret Son,” by Laila Lalami, and the richly researched “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams, there was a series of ­belly flops from our major writers. The fictional terrorist remained a creation of both condescension and envy, a tissue of projection, anxiety and stereotype informed by little curiosity or context. John Updike infamously relied on “The Koran for Dummies” while writing his 2006 ­novel “Terrorist,” which imagined an American high school student of Irish and Egyptian descent who becomes a suicide bomber.

What makes Jaber so unusual is his indifference to terrorists. He’s not curious about what impels them — he rarely bothers to even name them; they’re figures of vague dread rather than glamour. Continue reading

Ways of Being: New Immigrant Fiction

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2016

THE MIGRANT IS the “defining figure of the 20th century,” Salman Rushdie wrote 20 years ago in the literary magazine Granta. In “this century of wandering,” of refugees and writers in exile carrying “cities in their bedrolls,” migrants taught us what it was to be human, he said, because they’d lost those very things that gave shape to their humanity — roots, culture, social knowledge — and were forced to devise new ways of being. And the migrant writer hatched a new language along the way. “To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free,” Rushdie wrote in his 1991 essay collection, “Imaginary Homelands.” Shoals of people still move across the world today, but the idea of a literature of migration seems to have fallen out of fashion — not with readers but with writers, some of whom chafe at being narrowly categorized, consigned to an ethnic beat, their work treated as sociology instead of art.

 “I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction,’ ” Jhumpa Lahiri said in a 2013 interview in the Book Review. “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” There’s a feeling that the designation edges writers to the margins — they are forever hyphenated and their work sapped of its universality. “I’m not an immigrant writer,” the poet Richard Blanco told The Los Angeles Review of Books. “I am the son of immigrants, and I’m an immigrant myself who is a writer. You always worry if you’re writing in the context of your story, it’s not ­mainstream.”

This is all very reasonable. Aren’t the themes of immigrant literature — estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities — the stuff of all modern literature, if not life? “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” Roberto Bolaño asked. “Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” Alienation is alienation, after all. Kafka spoke to everyone when he wrote in a (possibly apocryphal) diary entry: “Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country; . . . I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension; . . . though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals.”

 The trouble is that the migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. Two novels published this month make this plain, rendering the trauma of migration with harsh clarity. A LIFE APART (Norton, paper, $16.95), by Neel Mukherjee, and THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS (Knopf, $27.95),by Sunjeev Sahota, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, recount the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England — from the costs of the journey (much dignity, one kidney) to the caste politics at either end to the first beating, the first sight of snow. Bolaño may be right, we may all be strangers in strange lands — but for some of us, these authors point out, this terrain is not merely internal, and it must be navigated without language or aid (to say nothing about that kidney).

Both books are elegies of sorts for the many characters who don’t survive the journey, who are broken or just turn sour or strange. But they couldn’t be more different. Sahota writes about the lowest castes and the tribes of the unlucky — lonely men lacking even nourishing fantasies, who suffer at home, angle to enter England by any means necessary only to be greeted by violence and dangerous, low-paying work. His sentences are crowded with incident, but he’s fundamentally an aloof, emotionally reticent writer. Mukherjee, who has inveighed against this very kind of prose in his criticism (“the dominant and unquestioned orthodoxy of contemporary Anglophone fiction”), is fussier.He is partial to elaborately upholstered sentences, sometimes unhappily so, and a contrapuntal structure — there’s a novel within this novel. He follows just one character: a young Bengali writer studying at Oxford on scholarship. But in both books, the favored and unfavored quickly lose their footing. They run out of money and overstay their visas. They’re forced into the twilight life of sex work and hard labor.

“A Life Apart” and “The Year of the Runaways” are part of a wave of recent books that cast a more critical eye on migration than usual. The immigrant novel has tended to be optimistic by nature — stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community. Continue reading

Fighting ‘Erasure’


Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2016

EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.

In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

The casualties of ‘‘erasure’’ constitute familiar castes: women, minorities, the queer and the poor. In some cases, the process is so routine that it has a name; the suppression of women’s contributions to science, for example, is known as ‘‘the Matilda effect,’’ named for the 19th-century women’s-rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage. It refers to how female scientists have been left out of textbooks, and seen their research appropriated and their deserved Nobel Prizes given to male colleagues and supervisors.

But there has been resistance from these overlooked quarters, too. As with the Holtzclaw case, black female journalists and activists have been spotlighting how crimes against black women are met by silence and seeming unconcern — like the 19 transgender women of color murdered in 2015. The #SayHerName movement draws attention to black women believed to be victims of police brutality, like Alexia Christian and Meagan Hockaday, whose deaths received a small fraction of the attention given to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. In December, a group of activists organized a die-in at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State to protest that only five out of 107 participating artists in an exhibition called ‘‘Art AIDS America’’ were black. They publicized the event online with the hashtag #StopErasingBlackPeople and released a statement saying the exhibition ‘‘paints H.I.V. as an issue faced predominantly by white gay men, when in fact the most at-risk group are currently black trans women.’’

With the recent ubiquity of ‘‘erasure’’ has come a flurry of correction and confusion. There are attempts to create hierarchies of erasure among various minority groups as they try to square their particular histories — who has silenced whom? Who is now hoarding attention? Is asexual erasure more profound than bisexual erasure? Why was Daniel Holtzclaw described as white instead of half Asian-American during the trial? And what does it have to do with the race of the women he raped?

These internecine skirmishes can turn petty, but they also reveal that we’re part of ever-shifting power relationships. Our identities and our privileges are not static but deeply contextual. We who are silenced may yet silence others. This awareness is central to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘‘Hamilton.’’ In a play that’s so self-consciously an act of historical restoration, with its cast of mostly black and Hispanic actors playing America’s founding fathers, there is a twist. While burning letters from Alexander Hamilton, his wife, about whom little is known, sings, ‘‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative/Let future historians wonder/How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.’’ It’s an acknowledgment of the stories this play cannot fully restore, and of a group — women — who are still left out of history.

Wherever it is found, erasure, as a practice, can be detected by its preference for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the single story — for easily legible narratives that reinforce the existing order. Take the furor around the film ‘‘Stonewall,’’ released last year. Continue reading

Invisible Designs: On Bohumil Hrabal


Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Jan. 12, 2016

BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.

In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.

In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.

Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.

It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”

Today Hrabal is revered, if rarely read outside his homeland. But a book of his has recently been translated into English for the first time, a violent and merry collection of stories from the 1950s called MR. KAFKA AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TIME OF THE CULT (New Directions, paper, $14.95). It’s a slender book, perhaps his bleakest, and a reminder that we ignore Hrabal to our detriment. The “political novel,” so frequently an anemic assemblage of thesis statements, is, in Hrabal’s hands, antic and unpredictable, full of eccentric strategies for imaginative resistance. “One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests,” Milan Kundera wrote.

But this approach, which I put forth so ponderously, is gauzy in Hrabal, lightly, artfully deployed. He is a spider of a writer: subtle and sly, patient, with invisible designs. He never proclaims — he never needs to. He envelops. His muse was his Uncle Pepin, who once arrived for a two-week visit and didn’t leave for 40 years. Lazy, loquacious Pepin had the comic melancholy of Chaplin, Hrabal recalled, and a meandering storytelling style. From him, Hrabal must have learned how to snare the reader with charm and plain language and logic slightly, sweetly askew. Many of his books take the form of digressive monologues — the novel “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” famously unfurls in one 90-page sentence — by stouthearted, ­simple-minded narrators. Ditie, from “‘I Served the King of England,” is representative: He’s whiling away his time as an apprentice waiter in a series of crumbling hotels, scooping ice cream into his boots to cool his aching feet, when he bumbles into history by marrying a Nazi.

Hrabal’s own date with destiny came earlier in life. Born in 1914 in Moravia, he was first a poet, in thrall to the French surrealists. Sediments of this fascination can be detected in his prose: a taste for the unexpected detail, for cockeyed metaphor — in “Mr. Kafka,” a man vomits and “the liquid runs out of his mouth as though he’d dropped a pocket watch on a chain.” Continue reading

The Profound Emptiness of “Resilience”


Illustration by Javier Jaen. Umbrella: Resavskyi/iStock/Getty Images

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 1, 2015

THERE ARE MANY versions of the bird’s death, but in each, it rises the same way — out of its own ashes and into the sun. The myth of the phoenix, that symbol of endurance, began in Arabian and Egyptian folklore and was brought to the West by Herodotus 2,500 years ago.

We have an ancient attraction to stories of resilience, but recently, the word itself has achieved a more prosaic popularity. Deriving from the Latin for ‘‘to jump again,’’ ‘‘resilience’’ has sprung into new life as a catchword in international development and Silicon Valley and among parenting pundits and TED-heads. Hundreds of books have been published on the topic this year, mostly with a focus on toughening up your investment portfolio or your toddler. We’ve seen encomiums to the resilience of Paris and Beirut after terrorist attacks — but also to Justin Bieber, after his weepy comeback performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.

Almost any organization you can think of has squeezed ‘‘resilience’’ into its mission statement: The United States Agency for International Development has an explicit ‘‘Resilience Agenda’’; the Department of Homeland Security lists two of its core goals as enhancing ‘‘the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure.’’ The word has started swallowing up creakier competitors in jargon’s version of the survival of the fittest, supplanting ‘‘security’’ and ‘‘sustainability.’’ At an event in March called ‘‘Uniting Nations, People and Action for Resilience,’’ Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, explained that ‘‘we cannot stop disasters, but we can anticipate the risks and reduce them.’’

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting. Best-­selling books like ‘‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,’’ by Paul Tough, and ‘‘The Triple Package,’’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, argue that children need to encounter difficulties, to learn how to push past their own frustration.

But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character. ‘‘It’s pretty much the same message that’s drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-­century chant invented to make children do their homework: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ ’’ the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’

Continue reading