Archive for the 'sexuality' Category

Bastard babies are born with broken hearts: an interview with Leslie Worthington

Interview by Jessica Powers

Last week, we published Leslie Worthington’s short story, “The Beach House,” a story about a young woman, pregnant and  unwed, and trying to deal with her emotions as the father of her baby arranges an adoption. This week, I spoke with her about the spark for her story; about the realities of young women and pregnancy both today and back in the 1960s, when the story is set; and about why writing about these issues is important.

1. What was the spark for your story?

 The spark for the story came from a single sentence: “Bastard babies are born with broken hearts.”  That popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration and the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “bastard babies.”  We don’t use the word “bastard” in its original sense much anymore, so it added a shock to the statement.  At first, I thought the sentence was a line of poetry, but it eventually became the story “The Beach House.”  I wrote the story around it.

 2. Setting (time and place) is critical for this story. Can you give us a little bit of historical background for women who found themselves in your protagonist’s situation (unwed, pregnant) in the 1960s, when this story is set? The 1960s are an interesting bridge between cultural mores since the so-called “sexual revolution” was happening yet it was before Roe v. Wade.

Women find themselves in this situation even today.  Their options may be different, but sometimes when they are young and poor as Cecelia is, things aren’t all that different.  I set the story in the 60’s partly because I wanted the reader to think about that.  At first glance, you can say “oh, thank goodness it isn’t like that anymore.”  But is that really true?  Yes, as you say the sexual revolution had begun, but yet women didn’t have access to reliable birth control, there was no planned parenthood, and the options were, keep the child or put it up for adoption.  I think most women got married whether they wanted to or not.  Those who put their babies up for adoption were often hidden away as Cecelia is.  These girls were kicked out of school and sometimes sent off to homes for unwed mothers or to live with family far away so they could come back and pretend nothing had ever happened.  No one spoke of the child, and the girl could never speak of what had happened to her.  Another option was sometimes to give the child to a family member as Cecelia’s mother had left her to be raised by her grandmother.  Most of the time, these women never had a voice or avenue for release, a way to deal with their loss and pain over the huge thing that had happened to them.  They just had to shove it down inside themselves.

 
 
 

Dr. Leslie Worthington

Despite easy access to birth control, despite additional options, despite the lessened stigma on pregrancy without marriage, women, not just girls, still find themselves in this situation.  As a college English professor, I meet them all the time.  They are in my classes, they miss exams to have babies, and they write essays about babies they’ve lost and given up.  And society now, in the twenty-first century, isn’t as forgiving as we might like to think; these women aren’t always as forgiving of themselves. 

For Cecelia, she isn’t going to get married.  The baby’s father doesn’t have that in mind.  Her family thinks she is, so she can’t even go home without humiliation.  Can she go home to her grandparents with a baby, as her mother did?  It’s obvious she doesn’t have the means to keep the baby and care for it by herself.  It’s also obvious that she doesn’t want to give that baby up.  She’s decided on the baby’s gender, given him a name, and a future.  She’s imagined his future without her.  She’s fallen in love with her child before he’s even born, as mothers do.  Cecelia faces a horrible dilemma.

3. I love the ending, where we don’t know if Cecilia dies or just imagines her death and, later, makes it to shore. Metaphorically, however, she felt as though her life was essentially over. Can you talk about how you crafted the ambiguity and the metaphor into that ending?

I guess I haven’t thought much about intentionally crafting the ambiguity of the ending.  I’ve displeased some readers who couldn’t believe I’d create a woman who would kill her child.  I think the ambiguity comes from the fact that even Cecelia doesn’t know what she’s going to do.  She doesn’t set out intending to commit suicide.  She doesn’t go into the water intending it.  Maybe she thinks she’s letting fate take over, and the universe will decide.  She’s been in denial, not thinking about what’s going to happen.  She’s a very adaptable person, as we can see from her memories of her life before the baby.  She’s alone, and her future is uncertain, but she’s making the best of where she’s found herself.  She’s enjoying the leisure, her reading, the beach.  Being able to adapt to change and stick it out through hard times is a desirable and even admirable quality, but sometimes it hurts us.  Sometimes we need to be able to say, “No, stop this” “or I want out of this.  I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Wes’s remark about this being over soon sets her thinking more deeply about her situation.  So when she sets out for her walk that day, reality is flooding over her.  She does not want to give up her baby, and maybe killing herself and taking the baby with her is the only control she’s ever going to have over her own life.

One thing I did want the story to have was metaphor.  I wanted the things she sees on her walk along the beach to have meaning to her, as our surroundings take on life and meaning when significant things are happening to us internally.  Yellow houses become symbols of a happy life.  Birds protecting their nests become young mothers who have to give up their babies.  The world around Cecelia becomes infused with meaning as she becomes more emotionally aware.

4.  Why do you think it’s important to probe these issues surrounding sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood in literature?

These issues are part of our common experience, and art is a cultural experience as well as an individual one.  I don’t believe literature has to be didactic, but it does need to be about something, something important.  Sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood are all important to who we are as women, and the sharing of these experiences and feelings joins us.  Sharing can sometimes lead to healing.
 

5.  What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished an academic book about intertextual connections between Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy entitled Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn.  It was released a couple of weeks ago.  I’m currently working with a colleague on an anthology of essays about images and definitions of home in the work of Appalachian artists.

With my own fiction, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for some time now.  It will probably be called Odes of Solitude. Each piece has a female character who imagines, remembers, or hallucinates the story, yet she’s the only character who is actually present.  “The Beach House” is part of the collection.  And I continue to write poetry, usually about the experiences of women: career, love, children, grandchildren, and balancing all our many, many roles.

Male Miscarriage, Reptilian vs. Human Mating Rituals, and Inappropriate Lactation: An Interview with Poet Laura Thompson

Poet Laura ThompsonMy Boyfriend’s Miscarriage,” right off with that title, takes us into unmapped emotional territory. Not only for its secondary implied point of view, but for the serious subjects it juxtaposes (miscarriage and a cancer in a child). Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem and how you arrived at that stellar title?

People often say that men can’t understand pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, etc., because they have never physically experienced it, which becomes particularly problematic when men attempt to control or legislate what goes on inside women’s bodies. This poem came about because I wanted to envision a scenario through which a man might gain a better perspective on miscarriage. Because the boyfriend in the poem has experienced a situation where his body (in this case, his bone marrow) was unable to sustain a child’s life, he begins to understand why a woman who has had a miscarriage might be unwilling to try again.

“Heat” continues this push into unmapped fertility/sexuality territory, with that feral metaphor of the over-heated, hatched female “sterile, chunky / aggressive” fending off the fertile females, landing beautifully with the closing image of the pull to female to female passion. Again, can you talk to us about your process and choice of metaphors, if there are other images you are further working with in your poetry along these lines?

I’m fascinated by the animal kingdom, especially when it comes to mating rituals, and I often find that describing a literal phenomenon that occurs in nature allows me to then explore metaphorical issues that impact my own species. The sex and breeding behavior of a gecko is directly determined by environmental factors, whereas the environment of human society dictates what behaviors and expressions of sexuality will be regarded as deviant or defective. The speaker’s anger issues may be a result of her prenatal environment, but what provokes her anger is social constraints and a one-size-fits-all mentality; when given free expression, her condition becomes celebratory. Another metaphor I’ve used is the feeling of wanting out of one’s own skin, which I compare to reptiles who literally shed their skin.

I found “’Inappropriate’ Lactation after a Miscarriage” incredibly moving—thank you for writing this poem. Have you encountered other poems in your reading history along this topic (I know I haven’t yet) that you would point our readers toward?

Thank you. I haven’t actually come across any poems that portray this particular aspect of a miscarriage, which is one reason why I wanted to write about it.

Any poetry mentors or other inspirations you’d like to share with us?

All of these poems were written while I was a student at Vermont College, where I worked with Betsy Sholl, Leslie Ullman, Natasha Saje, and Roger Weingarten. I enjoy the work of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Lucille Clifton, among other feminist poets. I also admire Sharon Olds’ use of the body as subject matter and Pattiann Rogers’ use of animals as metaphors.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati, where I’ve been working on a series of poems that explore my experience with chronic illness.

And just for fun, (if we assume the pet shop source is personal and not projected), will  you be sharing the poems with that owner?

That poem was inspired by several pet store owners I’ve encountered over the years, none of whom would appreciate being immortalized. My pets, however, are fans of my work.

Laura Thompson earned her MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in English and Comparative Literature, with a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Tributary, The Rectangle, and Tiger’s Eye. She is also a part-time English and Creative Writing instructor and serves on the editorial staff at the Cincinnati Review.

4 Poems by Laura Thompson

Outgrown

The pet store owner hates me.
The bags of skittering crickets
I buy can’t make up for the sales
he’s lost. Releasing swarms of doubt
among his customers, I tell them
how big those babies behind glass will get.
The sulcata tortoise that fits
in your child’s mouth will be 200 pounds.
The frog sitting on your thumb eats fruit flies
now, rats later. In a year, that iguana will need
his own room. Caiman is just another
word for Crocodile. Is it animal welfare
that makes me speak up, or my own
fear of a life that will outgrow
the space I leave for it? When my eight-months
pregnant friend says how much she wants
this baby out, I don’t tell her
about my embryo, just another word
for a baby so small I didn’t know I’d brought
it home, how my deformed
uterus ran out of room at eight weeks,
and the tissue meant to cushion crushed.

My Boyfriend’s Miscarriage

On a Harley Davidson notepad, I draw
a normal uterus: pear-shaped, adorned on either side

with ovaries, and then mine, upside down, toppled
by a mass of eggs on one side, nothing

on the other, fallopian tubes
a gnarled ball of yarn.

The perspective father of my children
still isn’t convinced: Wouldn’t a child

 from your own body mean
more? Wouldn’t that be worth

the risk? I find him sobbing, face down
on our mattress, clutching

a Christmas photo—his niece’s bald head
covered by a Santa hat, smiling despite

chemo and swollen cheeks—he flinches
when I brush against his hip where a drill

pierced his femur, drawing rich red marrow
from the hollows of his pelvis to patch holes

in a child’s blood, the only relative whose genes
matched. Nine months later, the cells he donated

have died inside her. I was wrong
he says. That’s the last part of us
I want to lose.

“Inappropriate” Lactation After a Miscarriage

To not “take possession of.”
To not “set apart for a particular use.”
Not “fitting, suitable, apt.”
Not milk, but milky,
meant for a baby never
truly possessed.
Not white, but bluish gray,
insinuating itself into a bra’s
lace when someone else’s baby cries.

Set apart but not useful,
twin tumors the heart beats against–
ignore the pressure, refuse to release it,
and it will go away.
“Express” it and it will never
stop. Soothe with frozen
cabbage leaves, brittle green reminders
that babies are not found
where they were thought to be.
The only cure: to become
fertile again. What is natural
can also be wrong.

Heat

Inside a freshly laid egg, a gecko
begins female, but temperature
changes everything. Incubators
set at 75 guard oviducts, but
crank to 80 and androgen pools
in hemipenal pores. A simple formula, unless
a thermostat malfunctions and temps
reach 90, for an egg just shy of omelet
hatches “hot female.” Sterile, chunky,
aggressive, they savage males who try
to mount them, dance a slithering samba
when “normal” females approach.

Off her meds because of me, my mother
hid in closets and crawl spaces
in June, heat stroke less threatening
than life. Were those prenatal summer
months the reason the dress shop calls
my waist a “size other?” Did it make
me throw a desk at the teacher who said
I’d never find a husband peering
through a microscope? Is that
why I sizzle in a woman’s
arms like butter
beneath scrambled egg?

Laura Thompson earned her MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in English and Comparative Literature, with a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Tributary, The Rectangle, and Tiger’s Eye. She is also a part-time English and Creative Writing instructor and serves on the editorial staff at the Cincinnati Review.

Read our interview with Laura Thompson conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Male Miscarriage, Reptilian vs. Human Mating Rituals and Inappropriate Lactation.

Gone

Fiction by Ethel Rohan

         My fingers traced the diagonal scars that ran from my armpits and across the memory of my breasts, the stitches long dissolved and the red, angry skin faded to pink. My other hand moved to my stomach and traveled up and down its long vertical scar, this one more purplish than pink. All the scars dry and flaky. Fish spines.

          I listened to the birdsong outside my bedroom window and decided to put off going to the hospital until the afternoon. I was no longer a patient, but sometimes returned to volunteer. I liked to hold the babies that didn’t have visitors, to breathe in their freshness and sing them to smiles. I had my first Friday off in months from the diner and felt glad to be free of the customers’ small-talk, of their complaints and ogles. One thing I was never free of was the diner’s deep-fried air. It hung all around me and wouldn’t wash away. Still, I liked my job well enough and could do it robot-like while I day-dreamed. Jason, a handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed regular who wasn’t coy about his wish to have me on the menu, would be disappointed by my absence. I smiled into my pillow. Sometimes, while I carried the trays and wiped down the tables, I fantasized about Jason and me going out together, to a movie or a nice restaurant. I wouldn’t let myself think beyond that. I couldn’t imagine the two of us alone together.

My neighbor’s colicky baby wailed. Their back door smacked closed. I moved from my warm bed to the window. My neighbor stood in her dark pajamas and bare feet in the grass, her hands on her hips and dark head turned up to the sky. I tried to remember her name. The baby’s cries climbed and my neighbor’s hands covered her ears. Months back, her husband had deployed to Iraq. He had yet to meet his son. She was always polite, but distant, and seemed to want to keep to herself. That suited me. In addition to the fussy newborn, she had two little girls. Her name came to me, Nancy. I dressed quickly, tried not to look at my too-big bed.

Just as I reached my front door, the kitchen phone shrilled. It was likely my dad, and if I didn’t answer, he’d worry. It turned out to be Jason. His voice sent me bobbing in warm, shiny water. He had bribed the new busboy for my number, said he never again wanted to have breakfast without me. He’d never had breakfast with me, I corrected, just delivered by me. The sneaky, small-eyed busboy had also given him my address. Jason asked to come over. I warned him not to dare. He chuckled. I pictured his thick, shiny-with-maple-syrup lips and again felt a rush of pleasure.

“I want to show you my latest drawing,” he said.

The next door baby continued to cry. “I have to go, seriously.”

“I drew you.”

My insides recoiled, and I rushed the receiver down.

Jason sometimes brought his sketches to the diner, mostly of hawks, trees, the ocean, and everyday people. Gifted, he managed to bring out in his subjects something I’d never have noticed: the hawks’ intelligent eyes and the blue in their black talons; green leaves so smooth, shiny, and thick I wanted to pet them; and emotions in people’s faces that lifted right off the page. He was gifted, yes, but he’d no right to draw me without my permission, to take from me like that.

I walked along the side of Nancy’s house and called out over her wooden fence. The baby wailed. Moments later, Nancy pulled open her front door. She stood tall and thin and appeared ill. Her face was pale, and she had greenish circles under her eyes. Her long gray-black hair was messed and unwashed. I tried not to react to her body odor, and followed the baby’s cries upstairs. The unclean smell pervaded the house and yet everything, the carpet, wallpaper, and furnishings, looked washed-out. There was also the smell of burnt toast.

The baby lay on his side in his crib, his face a dangerous red. His eyes were scrunched shut and his mouth was open wide. His colorless fingers gripped the bars on his crib, and I had to peel the spongy digits free. I lifted him, and he roared. I hugged him to my shoulder and shushed at his damp ear. Nancy apologized, explained. She had tried everything. I urged her to take a shower and to nap. I would stay. Nancy protested. She couldn’t, she shouldn’t. I insisted. His mother gone, the baby kicked his legs inside his yellow pajamas and jerked his fists. He cried harder. His large bald head pushed and rooted at my prosthetic bra and his greedy grunts turned frantic. I had only my baby finger to offer. The force of his suck hurt and frightened me, could rip my finger right off.

I carried him outside to the garden, the sky boy-blue and the sun hidden behind clouds. The cool breeze startled him into silence. I bounced him in my arms and praised and cooed. He started-up again. I sang to him, soft and low. Overhead, the plovers circled and seemed to listen, to sing back. The baby quieted and closed his eyes. We returned inside. I cradled him in his rocking chair and breathed-in his sweet-and-sour milky smell. My thoughts returned to Jason. I wondered how he’d drawn me.

For sure, at thirty-two, he would never have depicted me as scarred, breastless, and barren. I had chosen to hedge my bets and allowed the surgeons to get ahead of the white spots in my breasts and lymph nodes, to cut away at me.

On the street, a car slowed and stopped. Its door closed. I held the baby and my breath and strained to hear.

Jason waited on my front porch for over an hour. Twice, I’d signaled from the baby’s window and indicated he should go. He waved away my gestures and leaned back against my front door, his black artist’s case by his hip. I left Nancy recharged and her baby still asleep. At the end of her front path, I almost turned left instead of right, but pressed on to my house and Jason. His easy smile almost made me bolt. He wore faded, ripped jeans and a tight red t-shirt. Red, despite everything, was still my favorite color. We sat on the barstools at my messy kitchen island, there junk mail and other bits of me scattered about. I wished everything was more in order.

I followed his gaze to the reproduction Frida Kahlo on the opposite wall. He scrutinized Kahlo’s naked breasts, open torso, shattered spine, body harness, and the nails that punctured her flesh. He turned back to me with an uncertain smile. I offered coffee, but he refused. His attention turned to the single pine chair at my tiny kitchen table. I’d put its mate in the garage. He reached for his artist’s case. I jumped at the coffeemaker.

I put a mug of steaming coffee in front of him, and told him about the baby next door, the babies in the hospital. In the end, I was the one who reached for his portfolio. He’d captured me in profile, as I scribbled a customer’s order, the obligatory smile on my face. My dark hair was tied up and its loose strands caught behind my ear, curling toward my throat. My prosthetic breasts pushed against my pink uniform, smaller than my real breasts. He’d shaded my face, trapped me in shadow.

I pushed the drawing aside. “It’s not me.”

He looked from me to the drawing and back again, perplexed.

I reappeared in the kitchen, my shirt and bra removed and the black camisole clinging to my small boy chest. I dropped my hands to my sides. He searched my face, swallowing. I told him how much was gone. He held my gaze.

“You want to try again?” I asked, my face hot.

He nodded. I tried to slow my breath, to stop shaking. He moved the pine chair to the window. Seated, the sun warmed my head and shoulder. I peeled off the camisole and dropped it to the floor. I looked straight at him. His pencil danced over the paper.

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in The Good Men Project, The Chattahoochee Review, Los Angeles Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan is now a resident of San Francisco, California. Visit her at ethelrohan.com  and read her most recent work here.

Rohan’s “Gone” was featured in this post and lively discussion (replete with additional story and poem suggestions for further reading) here at The Lit Pub.

Read our interview with Ethel Rohan conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz: The Power of Domestic Realism, Male Protagonists and the Dual Degree: Mills and Motherhood.

 

HIV-AIDS in Africa, rape and sexual violence in South Africa, and Becoming a Mother Writer: an interview with J.L. Powers

Tania Pryputniewicz, poetry editor of The Fertile Source, talks with J.L. Powers about HIV-AIDS in Africa, South Africa’s problems with sexual violence, and what it’s like to be a new mama and a writer.

 Set in modern-day South Africa, This Thing Called the Future (forthcoming from Cinco Puntos Press  in May) follows Khosi, a 14-year-old girl faced with a slew of extraordinary circumstances: from a supernatural stalking to losing a loved one to AIDS. “A great achievement by J.L. Powers.”—Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner.  Read the first five chapters here.  

Pre-order This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers

 

 This Thing Called the Future strikes me as a love story on many levels, love between family members, the community, love burgeoning in a harsh set of circumstances, a coming of age story, which requires the main character, young Khosi, to grapple firsthand with the realities of the AIDS crisis as she faces her coming of age in the lull between her elders’ optimism (the wave of those fighting for rights, freedom from white control) and the devastating wake of poverty and illness still wracking her people. What was your trajectory to this project, and can you talk about how you arrived at your characters?

 It’s funny you say that. On an invisible level, this is also a love story between me and South Africa!

 I fell in love with South Africa—or at least, the idea of it—over a decade ago, when I first took an African history class and wrote a research paper on the history of missionaries to Africa. I was in my early twenties and I had literally no knowledge about that country. I became intrigued by the missionaries’ good deeds tainted with racism, and from there, I started to learn about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, and from there, I went on to write a master’s thesis on the liberation war in Zimbabwe, which blacks waged against white minority rule in that country. I was fascinated, but it wasn’t until I visited and met South Africans of all kinds—white folks descended from the Dutch and the British, Zulus and Xhosas and Penda, and “Coloured” (mixed race)—that I realized how they were the “salt of the earth.” And they are salty and earthy and lovely, all of them, and the good people are mixed in with the bad people, like you find anywhere, and I fell in love big time. I’ve probably never stayed long enough to get over the honeymoon aspect, though I have experienced loneliness and fear there.

 When I went first in 2006, and stayed with a Zulu family for a time while studying the Zulu language, I knew I wanted to write something. I started to wonder what it would be like to be young, to fall in love, and to be surrounded by a fatal sexually transmitted disease like HIV-AIDS. That was the seed for this novel.

Khosi, my main character, came to me in stages. I first constructed a young woman who was hard-working, respectful to her mother and grandmother, invested in her identity as a “good Zulu girl.” She reminded me of the young women I met while I was there. But as I dug deeper, I knew I was making her too passive, and she needed to be a more active agent of her own destiny and also of the solution to her family’s problems. So Khosi evolved in layers to become more complicated—a little rebellious, a good girl yet willing to stir the waters if need be, smart and courageous and fearful—just like any person is in real life.

The way you’ve positioned your main character in This Thing Called the Future is lovely. Khosi is on the boundary of two ways of life—a child of two generations, like all children I suppose—the one behind her and the one looming before her: the Sangoma tradition and the medical model. She’s pulled one way by her grandmother who takes her often to the Sangoma and recognizes an early gift and propensity for that healing tradition, and pulled another way by her mother, who places more value on the medical model. Can you talk about the Sangoma tradition and the medical model clash as they apply to the AIDS epidemic?

Western medicine is usually not a fan of older, traditional forms of medicine. In most places, when westerners are in power, western medicine seeks to stamp out and destroy the other forms of medicine. Sometimes this happens like it did on the American frontier, by outlawing itinerant, un-credentialed doctors and requiring official degrees from medical schools. Eventually, western medicine trumped all others until recently, when there’s been a revival of so-called “alternative medicine”—e.g., acupuncture.

In colonized countries like South Africa, there was sometimes a varied approach to how this worked. On the one hand, missionaries forbade converts from visiting traditional healers; sometimes laws made these practices illegal; contrarily other laws, and even cultural practices, encouraged it; at the same time, sometimes western medicine was coercive. For example, there were some black women in South Africa in the 1970s that had IUDs inserted against their will and without their knowledge.

Throughout much of the 20th century, practicing as a sangoma (a healer who speaks with her ancestors) was illegal. But practicing as an herbalist (inyanga) was sometimes encouraged in some places, and an Afrikaner once told me that it was partly to be able to point out all the weird practices of Africans to help confirm that they were “inferior.” But at the same time, Afrikaners (white Africans, the descendents of Dutch settlers) who had spent several generations on the frontier away from medical doctors had developed their own herbal & alcoholic remedies to illnesses.

So South Africa is a huge mish-mash of different ideas related to medicine. And you see that everywhere you go. There are all kinds of healers (and charlatans, too, by the way) proliferating in both urban and rural areas. The fascinating thing is that you meet many people in South Africa willing to try non-western medical cures for various ailments. They seem more open to the idea that there is value in different kinds of medical practices.

As far as the clash between medicine and traditional healing: There are doctors absolutely opposed to traditional healing and there are doctors who are working with sangomas and inyangas to treat HIV-AIDS patients. Also, there are academic researchers looking at the medicinal properties of herbal remedies offered by traditional healers, such as the study of sutherlandia by the University of Missouri. Sangomas use this herb to treat wasting in both cancer and AIDS patients, and apparently it has some value.

 Though western medicine at times recognizes value in herbal remedies, there is also anger from traditional healers when their remedies are “stolen”—in effect, when pharmaceutical companies make chemical varieties and reap enormous profits, while the traditional healers don’t benefit at all. It’s a complicated problem because often times, the herbal remedies developed over hundreds of years so no one healer can legitimately patent it. 

To be honest, it’s all a huge mess. But an interesting one.

What was your process of accessing an insider understanding of the reality of South Africa’s dilemmas from the culture’s dreams to terrifying details such as necklacing?

I’ve been reading about and doing research on South Africa for over a decade, from my first African history class with Charles Ambler at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1998, then on to two master’s degrees in African History, first studying under Iris Berger at the University of Albany and then Richard Roberts at Stanford. So I have a strong background in South African history.

 Then I took 3 years of intensive Zulu language study, which included a Fulbright-Hayes to study Zulu in South Africa. During that time, I spent some time with a family in Imbali township, where my story is set. The family I stayed with had two teenage daughters, age 13 & 14, who spent their evenings sitting on my bed and telling me their secrets. That’s how the sugar daddy problem became real to me—when I realized my 13-year-old Zulu sister was dating a man in his thirties, I became very very worried about her.

I returned again in 2008 and in 2009 to do additional research. I spent time with ordinary people and sangomas and aid workers and medical doctors and HIV-AIDS activists. Whoever would talk to me, I’d talk to them. And I tried to understand how things might look for a young girl, 14 years old, growing up in that world.

But I will say that some of those details aren’t insider information—they’re widely known. For example, necklacing (tying a tire around a person’s neck, dousing it in gasoline, then setting it on fire) was a notorious technique used by blacks on all sides during the struggle against apartheid. It was used to punish those who were suspected of being “sell-outs,” that is, blacks who sided with the apartheid government.

Where is the AIDS epidemic heading? How effective do you think attempts to help have been? What is your hope for this book and its reach?

It’s easy to feel hopeless when you consider the enormity of the epidemic and how much money it takes just to give people the anti-retroviral medicines they need. But I have hope. Let’s put it this way. In 2006, my 13 and 14 year old Zulu sisters didn’t want to discuss HIV. When I returned in 2008, I saw that Zilu, the 7-year-old, was marking up her grammar in the backyard and part of the grammar lesson involved facts related to HIV-AIDS. In just 2 years, there was a huge difference in just one family’s apparent willingness to discuss it. I want my book to be part of that.

I’m struck by the way you manage to portray the particulars of sexual violence, pointing to the binding forces of poverty specifically—the impact of dowry costs…families living in separate cities. Are those statistics current, that 1 in 4 men admit to raping a woman? Is there hope for a shift on the horizon with these issues? Where do you see the key to women’s empowerment resting (and for the family as a whole)?

Whoo, hit me with some hard ones. The history of South Africa  has some complicated threads that have led directly to the current situation and I’m not sure it’s possible to explain all those threads in one novel, let alone in one interview. But let’s give it a whirl.

Okay. Deep breath.

First of all, the statistic of 1 in 4 men admitting to raping a woman came out in 2009 . So that is current. Why are so many men choosing to force themselves on women? I’m not sure but I suspect it’s because they feel disempowered and rape gives them the opportunity to have some control over somebody who is even more powerless than they are. And so the cycle of violence goes on.

Disempowerment of black men and women has been systematic for the past 300 plus years in South Africa. And under apartheid, which began in 1948, the government attempted to wrest complete and total control out of the hands of blacks. The educational system, the police system, and governmental systems were all geared towards creating a black underclass that served the white minority in power.

As far as the issues of migrant labor (family members living apart from each other), that is an unfortunate legacy of colonialism (migrant labor, where tax laws were enacted to force black men to leave their families to work in the gold & diamond mines) and then of apartheid (where black families that tried to live together were impoverished and/or harshly penalized, imprisoned, and forced into hard labor). These systems created over the course of 300 years don’t magically disappear when a new government comes into power.

 Nevertheless, things have changed dramatically under democracy—it is now possible for blacks to go to university, to become part of the wealthy elite, to go into politics, etc. But for the vast majority of black South Africans, those goals are still out of their reach.

I think empowerment for black women is still a long time coming, and may only be reached when black men as a general rule feel like they have control of their own lives. But at the same time, I think there are lots of promising signs. For example, last week (March 15, 2011), Women’s Net reported that women in South Africa represented almost 57% of voters, while men represented just over 43%. That suggests women’s voices will be heard in future elections. Women’s Net also reported this month that there’s been an increase of almost 30% in the police force—maybe now they can turn their attention towards sexual violence.

Is there anything you see as part of our web of responsibility, as westerners, to the Khosis of the world?

You know, it turns out, that is a complicated question and a complicated response that I’m not at all sure I can do justice here. Briefly, without getting too much into particulars, I think anybody with power and wealth has enormous responsibility to be kind and generous to people who lack power and wealth. But having said that, I’m concerned about the number of charities who simply perpetuate their own existence long after need has been met, a fact aptly described by Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. I believe in independence, not dependency. Westerners have a long and sordid history of blundering in somewhere to “help,” only to make problems worse. I think we have to be very very careful. But at the same time, yes, it’s important that we extend a hand to help those in need. How to balance all of that is where it gets really complicated. 

You’ll find in many African communities that people there naturally do what they can to help their neighbors in need. What I’d like to see is more support for African-driven charities that mushroom organically from the places in need, and which operate in a sustainable and culturally relevant fashion.

Have you had a response from your South African readers?

The book’s not out until May. But I asked four friends from South Africa to read it and they all loved it. I’m hoping to get a South African publisher for a South African edition.

 Will you return to South Africa?

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!!!!!! I heart heart heart South Africa. If I could tear my husband away from his job and life here in the U.S., I would move there. For years. Maybe for the rest of our lives. For now, I’ll be satisfied with longish research trips of several weeks to several months.

 For now, I’m hoping to go back in 2012 with my husband and child for at least a month or two.

 How long from start did it take you to finish the draft the novel?

 I started this novel in the summer of 2007 and I was finishing final edits in January 2011 right before Cinco Puntos Press, my publishers, went to print! It’s true that I had other projects during that time—for example, I finished a workable draft of another novel during that same time frame, and I worked on lots of shorter pieces—but I was constantly gnawing on This Thing Called the Future throughout the past 3 ½ years.

Any inspirational writers or mentors you encountered along the way to completing this project?

I met some incredibly fascinating people in South Africa that kept me going. Sometimes it seems that everybody I meet in South Africa is invested in making their community a better place. Now I know that’s partly because of the types of people I’m trying to meet—I’m interviewing people who are involved in non-profit work, sangomas, medical doctors, etc. Nevertheless, it struck me how many people there really, truly, deeply care, just ordinary people who start doing something because they see a need.

For example, S’the Ndlovu. She lives in Imbali township. By any western standards, she is poor. A few years ago, she noticed all the child-headed households in her neighborhood. These children were now taking care of their younger brothers and sisters because their parents had died, often because of AIDS. They were hungry, so on S’the’s limited salary as an HIV-AIDS counselor, she started giving them two meals a day—breakfast and dinner. She did this for years until the number of orphans she was feeding was probably forty or fifty kids. A Harvard-based non-profit helped her secure some funding, so now she isn’t paying for it out of her own very limited salary. When I met S’the, I asked her to tell me the story. She is a Christian and she said she had always prayed that her house could be a house of healing. When she saw this need, the hunger of the children in her community, she knew what she had to do. And she did it. I think S’the is a heroine. If you’re interested, the name of her organization is Izimbali Zesizwe (Flowers of the Nation) and if you’re interested in giving, you can do so through an organization in Boston known as Sibusiso.

How far along were you in the writing process when your firstborn came along?

Actually, I had long since finished all the major revisions by the time I was a couple months pregnant. But I did do some longish copyedits after my son was born last September.

Can you talk about book promotion with a nursing infant?

OhmyGod, it is both so hard and so much fun! Nesta (born Sept 30, 2010) has been coming with me on book promotion events. Fortunately, he’s an easy-going baby, and even more fortunately, my publishers are willing accomplices to the entire situation. Librarians, teachers, and other writers all seem to love or at least tolerate babies, so it’s been a win-win situation so far. I hope it continues. But at some point, I may have to mark down all the places I’ve nursed him—certainly some weird ones.

At the ALA’s mid-winter conference, I was nursing him in a bathroom stall when a woman came into the stall next to mine and started crying. She sobbed, heart-broken, for probably twenty minutes, while I wondered whether I should speak up or just leave her alone. I left her alone. I thought somebody had died or maybe her husband was divorcing her or something. But we came out at the same time, and while we were washing our hands, she cooed at my baby, and I smiled sympathetically and said, “Hard day?” And she gazed at my baby and kept playing with his fingers and didn’t look at me once while she told me that her cat had died and her teenage daughter was struggling at home because she’d known that cat all her life and all she wanted was to go home, now, and be with her daughter and sob her heart out but instead she had to be in a booth and smile at strangers and pretend that she wasn’t heartbroken while she tried to convince librarians to buy her books. “Seeing the baby helps,” she said.

 I have pets and I know how they’re family members—but I was still relieved that it wasn’t something like her husband cheating on her!

 So there you go! People love babies! He’s an open door wherever I go.

 How do you balance writing and motherhood?

 Ask me in ten years.

 Seriously, though, I’ve been thinking about writing a book about balancing the professional life with full-time motherhood. I am at home with my son full-time, but I’m also a full-time writer and I teach 3 college classes (online) and I do freelance work and I run a small literary press (Catalyst Book Press). It’s hard. I don’t have many models for doing what I’m trying to do. Actually, I have none. I know there are women out there doing what I’m doing, or trying to do, but I haven’t met them. If you’re out there and reading this, please contact me!

When my mother was visiting me, I asked her, “Do you think I’m balancing everything okay and giving my son everything I need?” She told me that we could never be perfect as mothers. When she was a young mother, she used to come into our bedrooms and pray what she called the “gap prayer.” “There is a huge gap between the patience that I have and the patience that Erik (my brother) needs,” she would pray. “And there is a huge gap between the wisdom that I need and the wisdom that Jessica needs. God, please fill in the gaps.”

That is simply beautiful to me. So now I need to start praying the gap prayer. I frankly can’t balance it all. I am not perfect. I am not Superwoman, Supermama, Superwriter. But God can help fill in the gaps.

I’ve become attached to Khosi–I’m so curious to see what she does next and how she’ll navigate the rest of her future. Any plans to write a sequel?

Actually, I do want to write a sequel. But let’s see how this book does first…..

  J.L. Powers is the author of This Thing Called the Future, forthcoming in May from Cinco Puntos Press. She has a master’s degree in African history from Stanford University and won a Fulbright-Hayes to study Zulu in South Africa. She lives in the Bay Area, California.

In Public

Flash Fiction by Candice Baxter

I board the city bus for a ride to my job interview, since that sorry son of bitch wrecked my car and my credit and my master plan.  He ran off with a Russian stripper, said she made him feel alive.  Across from me a wiry, black woman in a red tank top sits breastfeeding her child-with no cover.  I want to declare she needs to put that thing away in public.  Though I know the baby is quiet and nursing and if interrupted from its meal, it will scream out in ear wrenching cries for more until its stop or my stop, whichever comes first.  The mother’s skin will stretch tout with hundreds of pea shaped milk deposits, unless she can release the pressure of the pure intention of breasts in the first place.  Before they were plastered as sexual attachments of women’s bodies, bared on movies and late night infomercials covered with CENSORED, for men like the creep hanging onto the rail above me to watch, to ogle, to lust after plump ones and perky ones and round ones-when breasts were not even created for the man but for the child.  If used for what they were created for, prolonging creation, they are no longer plump or perky or round. 

Babies draw life from their mothers.  They suck from raw nipples, cracking like chapped lips under perpetual friction, leaking and dripping at the cry of any baby, soaking a mother’s front with milk.  Milk streams down into the under-fold, beading along with the other dripping beads of milk as it gathers in the reservoir of the mother’s belly button, the hole marking her own creation, until the baby can relieve the stretching pressure and suckle once again.  The mother cannot give any more of herself, for the child to suck the nutrients out of her.  I try not to watch.  Where her other nipple falls, a wet spot grows.  Her loose apron flap of midriff skin jiggles when we hit a bump. She switches. 

I keep quiet, turn my head.  I am riding the city bus.  I cannot yell for the woman to put that thing away in public.  The baby cannot cry the hungry cry.  After that sorry son of a bitch wrecked my life, I bought a newspaper and some pantyhose and left my baby at home with my sister.  I borrowed her powder blue suit so I would look innocent like the white pearls around my neck.  Even with a thin bra and sheer button down, the jacket barely closes.  

The baby whimpers.  I try not to feel the tiny eggs breaking inside my shirt. 

Candice Baxter is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Memphis, currently writing a memoir of her teenage pregnancy in a small Southern town deep in the heart of the Bible belt. She has published work in The Missouri Review, South Carolina Review, and Photosynthesis.

Please read Editor Jessica Powers’s interview with Candice Baxter, Breasts, Sexual Objects, Flash Fiction, and Teen Pregnancy: an interview with Candice Baxter November 17, 2010 by Jessica Powers

Missing an Umbilical and Cancer Sex

Poems by Timothy Black

Missing an Umbilical

I am under water, and my son
is underwater. His hair floats like snakes,
like a tombed medusa’s. The plunge in
erased air from every inch of him.
He tilts back, under the water, and he floats
with his belly to the bright sky. I think,
This is amazing. He looks just like an embryo.
I want to reach out and touch him,
feel his skin wrapped in water
to make sure he’s real and still mine.
His father could come at any time.
Could plunge his hand
beneath the surface and grab
for his hair, grab a handful of snakes.
My son pushes off the bottom
and breaks the surface before me.
I stay submerged,
imagining a world without him.

Cancer Sex

 On most nights we lay there
swaddled in doubt,
but not delusions.
The dark
would press in at us,
or float at the end of day
like a question mark.
On most
nights, need would still be counted
as need, met only with the clasp
of sweaty hands. I
with my penis
and she with vagina and clit
we would lie, trying to ignore
marriage’s only real mandate.
On other nights
we would cover up with quilts
and ignore the fueling
locomotive with its black,
thick smoke and iron
wanting to be released
from its sooty black birth.
I would kiss her then,
and she would kiss back-
becoming more than cancer,
at long last mindless and carnal.
At the end I would always
withdraw. Terrified
of pumping
sickness into
my barren wife.

 

 

Timothy Black’s first poetic novella, Connecticut Shade, is in its second printing through WSC Press. He teaches poetry at Wayne State College, and is a Cave Canem Fellow. He lives in Wakefield, Nebraska with his wife and two sons.

Timothy’s work has appeared in the anthologies The Logan House Anthology of 21st Century American Poetry, The Great American Roadshow, and Words Like Rain. He has been published in The Platte Valley Review and at bringtheink.com, has poems forthcoming in Breadcrumb Scabs, Clean Sheets and Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and has won an Academy of American Poets prize for his poem “Heavy Freight.”

Please check out what poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz calls a “freakin’ awesome” interview with Timothy Black on She Writes.

Masters of Sex

Book Review by Jessica Powers

 

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love

By Thomas Maier, Basic Books, 2009

 

When Virginia Johnson retired to a nursing home in relative obscurity in 2002, some people wondered about her fate. How was it she had dropped off the face of the earth? Why hadn’t she received the recognition she deserved? “Where were the 1970s feminists and the sexually confident professional woman of Generation X….[who] owed a debt to her more than they knew” (371)? The “sexually confident professional woman of Generation X” describes me but I’ll admit, until I read the book, I had no idea who Virginia Johnson was—or how much influence she and her partner William Masters had had on the world in which I grew up. Though the sexual revolution of the 1960s might have occurred without Masters and Johnson, it was their research into the physiology of sex—far more than any studies conducted by Alfred Kinsey—that gave Americans the ability to talk about sex knowledgably and scientifically and openly.

 

In Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, Thomas Maier has provided us with a comprehensive biography of the couple who spent several decades together researching and writing about sex. The book encompasses both their personal and professional lives, exploring a central key question: How was it that William Masters and Virginia Johnson—whose research spawned a radically new, successful approach to sex therapy, and which did more to change America’s public perception of sex—could fail so miserably in their personal love lives, both with others and, ultimately, with each other?

 

In the early days, much of Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters’s research was conducted privately. Because they were using machines and video cameras to literally observe hundreds and thousands of men and women having sex and masturbating, they knew that their project would be shut down if the truth emerged. Carefully, systematically, and dogmatically, they recorded what they discovered. The result was one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Human Sexual Response, which catalogued everything they had discovered about human sexuality. “Masters and Johnson’s mechanical approach, rooted in the American reverence for science, made their book palatable to a tongue-tied nation,” argues Maier, suggesting that their work was a seminal influence in the sexual revolution. “Specific sexual information suddenly became part of the standard fare for newspapers, magazines, and television talk shows, which recognized the audience appeal for this sex talk involving Masters and Johnson” (174).

 

The book launched their careers as sex therapists. If Bill Masters was the scientific steamroller behind the sex studies, Virginia Johnson pioneered their therapeutical approach to sexual dysfunction. By pairing a team of therapists—a man and a woman—to help married couples reach sexual satisfaction, she created a “totally innovative” and highly successful method for curing problems from erectile dysfunction to premature ejaculation to lack of female orgasm (178). In addition to providing standard sexual therapy, the pair experimented with sexual surrogates—a highly controversial method that, at some point, they publicly disavowed, even while continuing to secretly use it.

 

For many years, Masters and Johnson rode at the height of success. But their 1978 book on homosexuality—in which they claimed they had successfully cured several homosexuals and transformed their gay orientation into a heterosexual one—and then their book on AIDS in the 1980s, which went against conventional wisdom, changed public perception of the pair. Their personal relationship—for many years, a professional one with “benefits,” as the saying goes, which ultimately morphed into marriage when Masters worried that Johnson was planning to get married and leave their partnership—foundered as their professional reputations publicly soured. Masters reconnected with the first woman he had loved, divorced Johnson, and married for the third time, this time happily. Masters and Johnson kept a happy public face in terms of their professional relationship, but secretly, Johnson grew bitter over the way she had been treated throughout the partnership but especially after their divorce. Furthermore, though they should have made millions, they had never achieved the financial success that their fame could have led to.

 

Though detailed and lengthy (375 pages), Masters of Sex remains interesting from start to finish. Maier has written a book that not only explores the psychological and professional lives of America’s most famous sex duo, but also reveals the changing American landscape in its response to human sexuality.

 

Jessica Powers is the editor of The Fertile Source. Her first novel, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), explored racial tension and violence on the U.S. Mexico Border, while her second novel, This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, forthcoming April 2011) explores South Africa and AIDS. She is also the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent.

Puberty’s Monologue

a poem by Lauren Schmidt

At some point in my sleep last night,
three scabbed avatars approached me with a filet
of skin, holding it like a coat, coaxed my slither into it.
My sock-inside-out body-bones and blood,

muscles, tendons, organs, guts-were comfortable
like extreme freezing: so cold the mind’s
confused, misfires burning instead. I thought best
to listen to the witches, slipped into this rag

of skin, my ragdoll next-of-kin. They zipped me in,
sprinkled me with rosemary, fireflies, and thyme,
blew my eyes shut until twilight. I woke swatting
at the batwings of bad dreams gasping What do you mean

this is not the last I’ll do this?  Which brings me to now.
Slouched on my bed, my hands like frenzied fish, slither
down my legs, my knee pumps in a race with the wings of bees.
For now, this is my posture: head, neck, shoulders bent

intro a bow whose looks sling with arrows. My face
flagged with the only thing I hold in myself: the time
my neighbor caught my legs in a handstand,
without intention, pulled my pants down as I crashed,

flat-backed to the ground. He looked at the tight bud
between my legs the way we inspected that wasp nest
before we ran screaming. The swarm inside me is all I hear

in my head, the arias of just-with-blood mothers,
laden with woman’s honey. Babies bunched tightly
in their wombs wait for breath, the first jab of light
that stings them to existence. There’s a girl coiled inside me,

I know. Trapped in the dark thatch between my legs,
pinned like a butterfly in the wingspan of hips.
She doesn’t remember who she is. But I feel her
throb: an open bone, a leaky, bloody breast.

Lauren Schmidt’s work may be found or is forthcoming in The Progressive, New York Quarterly, Rattle, Nimrod, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Ruminate, Ekphrasis Journal, Wicked Alice and others. Her poems have been selected as finalists for the 2008 and 2009 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, the 2009 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and her poem “Once Upon an Emergency Exit Row” was awarded first place in the 2009 So to Speak Poetry Prize named for a journal out of George Mason University. In December 2009, Lauren’s poetry was nominated for the AWP Intro to Journals Project as well.

Tania, our poetry editor, has published an interview with Lauren on her She Writes blog.




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