At some point during my last writing class when all seemed lost, I had looked up books written by someone with my last name for inspiration. I stumbled upon When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography by Jill Ker Conway. An Australian so no genetic relation but the connections were more than blood inspired. And, sometimes book ends are actually books. I peered at the pages turned my way by someone else's book club, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales written by Kate Bernheimer. I noted the copyright when I recorded the title in my journal. 1998.
I graduated high school in 1998. Today, I stare at the quilt square with my hand stitched in green embroidery floss. My aunt created one such quilt with every family member's hand for her parents and each sibling. The quilt that hangs on my father's living room wall in between family photos is from that year, 1998. I might not remember the year so well except for the images colored inside the hand. I chose them. We always had to choose. Inside the small, knuckled figure is a graduation cap and diploma. What else? A view of the farm where I grew up, and returned back to, atop a horizon I once painted with my grandmother. A yellow rose, for friendship. A red rose, for love. An idea stolen from a television show.
What do those things mean now? Are they past or are they future? I once wrote that I am living my life backwards. It’s not my life. It’s the writing. Too often in the form of cover letters and resumes. My entire life has become an interview committee's eternal question series. How would you describe yourself? Where do you see yourself in five years? Why do you want to work, but what they mean is why do you want, to be here?
The responses come in the form of story, a wide genre gap and a much too narrow narrative gender arc. How do I know this? I finally asked the most horrible of questions to an interview committee. Why not me?
"You did not show the same level of passion exhibited by the other candidates."
"That's unfortunate," I typed, "That did not come through, because my resume speaks to my dedication to literacy and families and access to education."
But, in my head, I seethe. My teeth could grind the word away. "Passion." That isn't what it takes. It is what makes you begin, but it isn't what makes you succeed. That is left to commitment and skill and strategy. Passion is like love. It burns away. Determination is what remains. Of course when I described myself I chose words like "problem solver", "analytical", "connector". But, I'm a girl so those words were wrong. I should have been kind and supportive and in love.
“Erin, breathe. You know from literature written by diverse voices that the mold is hard to break.” It is Ker Conway’s voice as I rewrite it in my heart. She already echoes in my head.
“Given that Western language and narrative forms have been developed to record and explicate the male life, how can a woman write an autobiography when to do so requires using a language which denigrates the feminine and using a genre which celebrates the experience of the atomistic Western male hero? Can such literary and linguistic conventions possibly convey the bonding of maternity, or grant integrity to an experience marked by the traditions of Western misogyny? (3-4).
I don’t know. If the voices in my head aren’t mine, I don’t know. I don’t know what I feel, just that I feel an irritation. The Odyssey as set out for men. First, in a physical sense. Then, in an interior one. Always, with the force of self-determination.
Vivian Gornick's essay "The Princess and the Pea" voices my eternal question, “But how was I to get from here to there?” (161). She continues, “We narrowed our eyes and spotted the flaw: pursed our lips and announced imperfection: folded our arms and passed judgment. Judgment always encourages the critical intelligence to dwell on that which is missing, but passing judgment makes that which is missing a permanent irritation. Soon enough, through the painful logic of inborn grievance, the irritation becomes a wound, an infliction: a devotion and a destiny.” (167)
Conway describes “New World” “Imperial encounters”, exploration and cultural encounters as the means with which women who had limited options “sought an alternative society where her obvious talents would be recognized, and where she could establish herself as a person of substance” (72).
And agency was and is an unladylike characteristic. God leads me until fate leads me until the man or the cause identifies me as his/its own. The man or the mission. I wrote about Ker Conway’s “philanthropic romance,” before when I had no words to do so. I do not share the same level of glass ceiling. However, I absolutely benefited from the distance in retelling similar to Conway's illustration of the Memoir of Sarah Hall Boardman Judson of the American Mission to Burmah 1848 and accounts like hers of “extraordinary courage, linguistic talent and administrative ability, a heroine who could safely be admired abroad while being represented at home as the quintessential redemptive female, suffering joyfully to rescue the heathen and inspire her flock.” Such experiences easily disappeared because once home women had no access to institutions that would protect or market their exploits.
Exploits, the perfect word for my story, a narrative that plays well with strangers at parties but never hiring committees. I grew into words easily attributed to my professional male counterparts in Guatemala, far away from the institutions that had documented my initial training while attempting to market myself as a girl to the local culture so as to never appear as a rival. My goal remained under a savioristic sheep skin. And that skin suffers like mattresses and blankets bent over the pinprick of the pea. How can I not be the girls as Vivian Gornick described, “who constantly daydreamed herself” (167).
I traveled far and yet there is more chain on my handcuffs. I can walk but, I’m still caught in Grim tales/fairy tales' “quintessential Victorian female victim”. My final lesson was read out to me like Lucy Grealy herself in her essay "Girl". “As I understood life, you rarely got what you deserved, and if you did, you’d better start looking over your shoulder.” (171)
Joyce Carol Oates “In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having, generally describes “fairy tale atmosphere of fateful resignation and what might be defined as causeless consequence; your fate is deserved because it happens to you, it doesn’t happen to you because it’s deserved. All ‘good’ heroines accept their fate passively, unquestioningly.” (251).
In contrast to the interview committees, my friends and family take another side of the same trail into the deep, dark wood. It'll happen when it's supposed to. You'll find the job that's meant to be. Listen to the universe. But, I should not wish to be ‘good’ as I once did. Nor should I strive to be a ‘heroine’. At some point along the way I lost belief in both. And, it is long past due that I stop letting others decide what I deserve. Even my brother's seemingly less romantic version clad in the idea of a lottery. "It's a numbers game. Eventually your number comes up."
I don't tell him that I spent the entire holiday season denying myself and making positive lifestyle choices to fill up my bingo card. Extra water. Extra stairs. More servings of vegetables. Less dressing. In fact, I had over 50 bingos compared to other members' 7, 8 and ten. When the gym drew for the prize, my number did not come up, despite the work I had done to stack the deck in my favor. Something that women, it should be mentioned, have a history of not mentioning so as not to destroy the idea of fairies and glittery dust and accepting what they receive because if they receive it, it must be what they deserve. According to Conway, Jane Addam's magic is the fairy godmother above all others.
First, “Through her extensive use of conditional tenses and the passive voice, Addams is able to conceal her own role in making the events of her life happen and to conform herself to the romantic image of the female, seeming to be all emotion and spontaneity, and to be shaped by circumstances beyond her control. Once we grasp her skill in doing this we have learned an important point about later nineteenth- and early-twentieth century women’s autobiography. We can be sure that whenever women autobiographers are hiding behind the passive voice and the conditional tense, they are depicting events in which they acted forthrightly upon a preconceived, rational plan.” (49-50)
Second, she “chose to narrate her life as though she were a romantic heroine to whom things happen” (107)
Third, Success of her book is due to her persona mirroring stereotype “No one could react negatively to feminine power unsought but simply conveyed by destiny or divine providence.” (107) and
“In doing so it helped solidify the stereotype of the romantic social reformer, the woman all feminine heart and intuition, without the faintest hint of executive talent. . . But her silence on her willpower, her motives and her management ability made it all the harder for later generations of American feminists to break the mold she had so artfully assisted in setting.” (108)
So. . .
It is not just the content of the story, the images sewn into my hand and reflected in my mirror. It is the frame, both wooden and cloth. It is the corrupted narrative. It is not just the act of writing, but the words themselves. Ker Conway’s “feminist memoir as conscious acts of rebellion”. Regardless of words, wrong or otherwise, silence is worse. If I am silent, I will never be “my own heroine.” If I wasn’t girl, I would already be the hero, like my father, at least in my own mind.
Also, Joyce Carol Oates “In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having," writes “It is instructive to note that the contemporary fairy tale in its revised, reimagined form has evolved into an art form that subverts original models; from the woman’s (victim’s) perspective, the romance of fairy tales is an illusion, to be countered by wit, audacity, skepticism, cynicism, an eloquently rendered rage.” (269)
And I am angry. If I wasn't girl, I would not have to be so careful. You would not ask me about passion nor love. You would want to know what made me a good partner, what made things stay together, what made the relationship work.
"Yes, Erin," Ker Conway might begin with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The contradiction at the heart of Stanton’s life, as we see it from the perspective of her eighties, was that she still dreamed of idealistic Rousseauistic blending of two individuals in marriage, even as her tough, legalistic intellect told her what was wrong with the institution she herself had found such a prison.” (98)
“Mind games?” I could ask. “I am not above scheming.”
“No, strategy,” If I wasn’t a girl.
Burnheimer confirms, “This collection emerges from an impulse to explore the desire for stories—and for telling stories—as a way to think about that awful, awfully-alluring Princess-within. Yet the question of how fairy tales impact women’s ways of thinking about femininity, emotion and the self is not to herald nostalgically the myth that little girls like dolls and fairies (nor to reject categorically that possibility), but more to wonder about wonder. It is to look at the act of looking at ourselves through stories, to regard the tradition (and stereotype) of female reflection on “self”. (xx)
"But my life isn’t over, so I’ve written, but I’m writing the memoir and the fairy tale. Please, go on. I’m enjoying our conversation,” I offer.
“Of course, since postmodern literary theory has deconstructed narrative by pointing out the ways narrative structure expresses power relationships within a society, a postmodern author can begin and end a story wherever she or he likes. And since one does not have to have climbed to some position of power or eminence in society to claim that one’s experience is exemplary, anyone’s story is as good as the telling.” (152)
"Thank you. That reinforces what I already know. The desire for stories, for collecting stories is not to be defined by library of other authors. If I wasn't a girl, you would already know. The stories to tell and explore are my own."
For Further Reading:
Bernheimer, Kate, ed. (1998). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their
Favorite Fairy Tales. Anchor Books: New York.
Conway, Jill Ker. (1998). When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Alfred A.
Knopf: New York.
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