The Romance and Heartbreak of Writing in a Language Not Your Own: On Leonora Carrington

leonoracarrington3By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 2017

 As a child, Leonora Carrington — painter, fabulist, incorrigible eccentric — developed the disconcerting ability to write backward with her left hand while writing forward with her right. This trick did not go over well with English convent school nuns. Between the world wars, Carrington was thrown out of one school after another for persistently odd behavior. When she came of age, she fled England — and her family’s fortune — for France and the Surrealists, for a life crammed with incident and adventure, occasional poverty and steady productivity. She died in Mexico City in 2011, at the age of 94, leaving behind paintings and stories full of strange, spectral charm, in which women undress down to their skeletons and a sociable hyena might venture out to a debutante ball, wearing the face of a murdered maid.

Read more

Click Bait: On Diane Arbus

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, June 1, 2017

 

There is a tradition in queer women’s writing in which creative work, politics, and desire are comfortably intertwined. Consider Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Audre Lorde, who wrote, in an essay on the political potential of the erotic: “There is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” But Arbus was not looking for love. “Once she became an adventurer she went places no one else had ever gone to,” Arbus’s lover Marvin Israel said. “Those places were scary.” She wanted to cross all kinds of thresholds, emotional as well as physical. Some lovers chafed at what she wanted them to do to her—one told Patricia Bosworth, almost apologetically, that he just didn’t want to punch Arbus in the mouth. But there was nothing it seemed she wouldn’t do or couldn’t look at. For years a rumor circulated that she’d set up a camera to record her suicide, to shoot her as she lay, “crunched up” in her bathtub, in the medical examiner’s words, wrists sliced to the tendons. Fear was part of what Arbus was seeking, even if she didn’t understand entirely why. In therapy she discussed her habit of picking up odd-looking men on the street. For “experience,” her psychiatrist recalled, years later. “That’s all she could name it.”

Read more

 

A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores: On ‘Ghachar Ghochar’

41kF1CiXTnL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2017

This spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages. The Great Indian Novel has almost always referred to a particular kind of book: big, baggy, polyphonic and, crucially, written in English — “Midnight’s Children,” say, or “The God of Small Things.” Admirers of this austere little tale, who include Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo, have compared Shanbhag to Chekhov. Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself.

Read more here

French Feminist Pulp That Spares No Pain: On Virginie Despentes

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

Despentes’s understanding of rape shapes the feminism in her work. Her books aren’t much concerned with the material conditions of women’s lives — there’s only glancing acknowledgment in “King Kong Theory”: “Why didn’t anyone invent the equivalent of Ikea for child care or Mac for housework?” Her true subject is women’s physical vulnerability, the way the threat of rape is central in how the sexes are oriented toward each other and how women collude with men in shrinking themselves, bargaining away their power in order to be desired. She has punk politics — a sustained commitment to rage, which she believes is leached out of women too early and too easily. They’re schooled in docility (a favorite word of hers): “Hiding our feelings . . . and not listening to yourself. Not listening to what is wrong for you and smiling when you’re just destroyed inside.”

Read more here

The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’

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.

Read more

On the Literature of Terrorism

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 2016

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?

Read more

 

Ways of Being: New Immigrant Fiction

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

Rushdie wrote that the migrant had to discover new ways to be human. These books recognize what a task that is; they recognize that migration can be, for some, an almost posthumous existence, that it awakens not only the desire to succeed but also, sometimes, the drive to extinguish what little remains of the self. One wants to praise these novels as immigrant fiction not in order to marginalize them but to pinpoint how deeply and clearly they see across borders and into character and history (“vision” and “visitor” share a Latin root; the visitor is she who has come to see, she who notices). This is the bitter paradox regarding the grousing about immigrant fiction: that a genre with such a wide sweep, with such a vantage point on the contingencies of human and cultural behavior, can be derided for, of all things, narrowness.

Read more

Fighting ‘Erasure’

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.’’

Read more

The Profound Emptiness of “Resilience”

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

In 2015, the Department of Education reported 146 cases of racial harassment on campuses, although studies suggest that only 13 percent of racial incidents are reported. By playing down the racism that the students have faced, it’s easier to frame the protests as tantrums, products of brittle spirits, on a continuum with grade grubbing. Somehow, demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.

Read more

What Muriel Spark Saw

 

Parul Sehgal, New Yorker.com, April 8, 2014

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.

To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.

Read more