Two German-Language Books About Womens’ Rage

Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt (The Lasting Rage)

Anke Stelling: Sch√§fchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)

Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?

Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.

The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.

Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.

Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:

‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’

‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.

‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’

The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.

When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.

German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.

Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.

Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.

I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…

The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.

It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.

It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.

It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.

Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.

Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!

Louise Bourgeois: More than Spiderwoman

The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is widely known for her gigantic spider sculptures, like the one at the Tate Modern in London, but she is so much more than that. I had never seen much of her art in person before, and since the exhibition of her late work The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery will be closing on the 15th May, I made it a point to go there last week to see it.

Of course, spiders were involved. This work combines her use of cages/enclosed spaces in her later work and her love of spiders. She associated spiders with her mother: hard-working, patient, creative, resilient. Her family had a tapestry restoration business, and you can see fragments of tapestry scattered around the edges of the cage.

I am not necessarily a huge fan of installation art, but there is something so visceral and moving about Bourgeois’ work that you feel you want to immerse yourself in it. Certainly step into her cages or cells, touch those floating bits of gauze, lace and other silk, which feel so vulnerable.

Another spider/mother sitting on an embroidered chair, in a cell. To me it represents hard-working women and mothers everywhere, being constrained in the domestic sphere, whether they choose it or not.
Many of the nightdresses and underwear were either the artist’s own (like shedding her skin, she described it) or her mother’s.

The contrast between the formal little black dress and the disarmingly innocent and fragile underclothes.

It is impossible not to be struck by the symbolism of the work. Some of it was too disturbing, too powerful for me to want to take a picture to share with others: couples embracing where the woman had a maimed limb, bodies hanging in various stages of distress… I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. But others were more benign and profoundly moving.

The Good Mother. The imagery of unspooling (which appears quite frequently in her work), lactating and being tied down would have made me cry when my children were very young.
The woman toppled over. The curvaceous woman reminded me of Niki de Sainte Phalle’s Nanas. Niki was another French-American woman artist, only a little younger than Bourgeois. Unlike the smooth, colourful papier-mache Nanas, Bourgeois has created Frankenstein women, by sewing together pieces of sometimes rough, sometimes smooth fabric

Then there were the fabric heads with gaping mouths and flattened features – like a zombie army. So many ways to interpret this!

Pretty but vacuous?
Not just two-faced – this one had four faces – dark and light, demonic and innocent.

There were ‘prettier’, less visceral works on display too, full of literary allusions or nostalgia for long-gone places.

Bourgeois repurposed old teatowels or handkerchiefs to create this mood board for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a novel about the few choices open to women at the time, and a journey from innocence to bitterness, illusion to disenchantment.
Ode a la Bievre, a series of fabric drawings in memory of the river Bievre. The family moved next to the river when she was a child, and she reminisces about the family’s beautiful garden and exploring the river (which contained tannin, an important ingredient for dyeing fabric). The last panel says that when she returned with her children to show them the river, it had disappeared (been filled in) and ‘only the trees planted by my father along its edge remained as witness.’

LATE ADDITION: I’ve just been made aware that there is a video of someone much more eloquent than me who can talk you through this wonderful exhibition, namely Deborah Levy.

Autumn-Spring Friendships, or In Praise of Women Aged 60+

I have always enjoyed befriending and talking to older ladies (older gentlemen too, although the relationship was occasionally tinged by complicated dynamics and disappointments). I suppose this comes from the excellent (although in one case far too brief) relationship I had with my grandmothers and my father’s eldest sister (from a big family, with my father being the youngest child, so she was more like a second mother to him). It’s easy to say that I had a better relationship with them than with my own mother (perhaps because I only saw them once or twice a year) as I was growing up, but they always felt much less conventional, with a more modern outlook than my mother.

I could not get enough of hearing the stories of women of their generation – their lives spanned most of the 20th century, so they experienced so many political, social, economic and technological changes. I felt I wanted to preserve and honour their memories, but they were also funny, wise and reassuring, providing me with so much food for thought and guidance on my own life. Perhaps this is what drove me towards studying social anthropology!

I like to think that the ladies in question also got something out of their friendship with me, that they occasionally caught a glimpse of the genuine love, interest and desire to amuse them lurking beyond my gauche manners and ignorant remarks. Of course, the downside of such friendships is that they are sadly all too brief, and that they leave you with a sense of regret that you didn’t listen more, meet more frequently, appreciate them more at the time.

Here is a small tribute to the very special ladies that lit up my life:

  1. In November/December 1983 I was in hospital with a very nearly ruptured appendix. I was underweight for my height and was given too much anaesthetic when they operated on me, so that complicated matters a little and I ended up having to spend roughly a week in hospital. During that time there were two other ladies on my ward, and we became a fun-loving trio, getting so rowdy with laughter at times, that the nurses would come in and shush us, for fear we might tear our stitches.

Margareta Steriade – poet and painter, born in 1897, she studied in Paris, as was fashionable at the time, and had her first public exhibitions in 1929. She was ver much involved in the artistic circles of the 1930s and, being of Jewish origin like Mihail Sebastian, became a great friend of his and designed the cover of his hugely controversial novel For Two Thousand Years (made even more controversial because he chose to publish it with the virulent anti-semitic preface signed by his hitherto mentor Nae Ionescu – an early example of naming and shaming with their own words). She was the one who told me about Lilith being Adam’s first wife, thereby introducing me both to feminism and to questioning of myths and traditions. I was very unhappy with my looks at the time, felt my nose was too ‘fat’, that I was too tall and gangly, but she made me feel beautiful, said I had the perfect oval face and asked me to model for her.

Mrs Angheliade – I don’t think I ever knew her first name, I just felt it was disrespectful to call her anything less than ‘Doamna’ (Mrs). She was a couple of years older than Mrs Steriade. Her husband was descended from a Greek family and was a highly regarded lawyer or judge in the 1930-40s. After the Communists came to power following the 1947 elections in Romania, her husband was perceived as a hated remnant of the old regime and was sent to a labour camp. She had been a lawyer herself, but was not allowed to practice in her profession after her husband’s arrest. Their home was nationalised, and for a while she had to do manual work on the factory assembly line, and was severely criticised at every weekly workers’ meeting because of her background. She was quite open in telling us about all this, as if she was past caring about what any Securitate might do to her.

2. Betty – this was my landlady when I moved to London and lived in Golders Green for the first year of my Ph.D. I’ve written about her before, how full of life, film knowledge and romantic notions she was. A big child with a booming laugh. I still miss her so much!

3. I met several inspiring ladies at the Geneva Writers Group in 2012 (by which point, I could no longer be described as Spring, by any stretch of the imagination, but these ladies were still way ahead of me in terms of lived experience and wisdom). Many of them were outstanding writers, and I always enjoyed listening to them share their work. Ginny, Sally, Kathy, Susan and Karen in particular stand out. Ginny was funny, lively, always one of the ringleaders when it came to organising Christmas parties, and her little dog was almost as much loved as she was. Sally was what I imagined Barbara Pym to have been: quiet, with a very English reserve at first glance, but a wicked sense of humour and a very observant eye. Kathy was such a true international that for a long time I thought she was from an entirely different country – she was so warm and caring that I’d have liked her to have been my mother. Susan Tiberghien I have talked about before (and reviewed): she was the founder of the Geneva Writers’ Group, a woman with formidable energy and generosity of spirit. And Karen was my wonderful mentor, artist, poet, in whose house in Provence I found so much creativity even at a very low point in my life.

Incidentally, I am only using the past tense because, sadly, my stay in Geneva ended five years ago. The ladies themselves are still delightful and active, and wonderful friends (even if I haven’t been great at keeping in touch).

4. Nordic walking group – As I get older, so the age gap between me and my older friends gets smaller. Nevertheless, I am the youngest of my Nordic walking group, even if some of them are only 10 years older than me. They have grown-up children, have been through all the worries engulfing me now, and have an endless reserve of anecdotes and good humour. They are also much fitter than me on the whole, it has to be said – so excellent role models on how to keep active and social in the years ahead.

Not a picture of my walking group, photo courtesy of another local group Pipsticks Nordic Walking.

Plays in March: Linda by Penelope Skinner

Roughly two years ago, I saw a play at RADA which made for unforgettable viewing. I was so impressed by the young actors, but also by the script itself, that I bought it in book format. For my Plays in March personal reading goal, I read it and was once more bowled over, even though it was still so fresh in my mind.

The play was Linda by Penelope Skinner, who has been described as one of the leading young feminist playwrights in the UK, and has also been reviewed as feisty, gutsy, rageful. Interestingly, Penelope has a sister, Ginny Skinner, who writes mainly graphic novels. Together, they have been commissioned to write a thriller series for the BBC ‘The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies’, which I for one can’t wait to see.

Linda of the title is the main protagonist of the play, of the generation of dual-shift women (career and home), the women who supposedly had it all. She is, as she never ceases to remind us, an award-winning professional, a middle-aged career woman, wife and mother who sees everything she fought for all her life slipping through her fingers. Yet the play is full of women and girls of different ages – late twenties, early twenties, teens… who are even more confused about their place in the world. They see the cracks in Linda’s life all too clearly and are sure they don’t want that – but they are not sure what they want instead, or indeed what is possible for them.

Linda is being sidelined by her boss for a project on marketing cosmetics to middle-aged women in favour of a younger work rival who has caught the eye of her boss, just like she did when she was a young single mother. She’s not going to go quietly, but life on the home front is not helping either: her husband is having a very predictable midlife crisis and affair, her older daughter has abandoned her studies and not come out of the house and her onesie in years, her younger daughter feels neglected and resentful. Yet everybody leans on her, the quintessential strong woman. She is not allowed to have a moment’s weakness or failure, to acknowledge any vulnerability. And Linda at the outset of the play has certainly bought into the myth of her own strength and infallibility and sounds a bit like the Lean In Sheryl Sandberg woman:

An award-winning businesswoman and I didn’t even go to university. Mother of two. Gorgeous husband. I can change a tyre, I own my own home, dinner-party guests marvel at my home-made croquembouche and I still fit into the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago. I’ve washed brushed groomed plucked shaved painted injected dyed dieted oh God I’ve dieted. My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat and watching what I say and watching how I walk how I talk what I wear. Because that’s what you have to do when you’re a woman, girls… I’ve made it to the top and believe me if I can do it you can do it. If you’re prepared to do the work? You really can have it all.

Her daughter Alice remonstrates that maybe systemic racism or sexism might get in your way, but Linda at first just says you have to think positive. What follows is of course the dismantling of Linda’s optimism, proving that Alice was right all along, although the daughter is a passive observer rather than a fighter. The characters seem far less annoying in reading than in watching them onstage, which just goes to show how much life a director and an actor can bring to words on a page.

More than two years have passed since I saw the play and this time I’ve come to it with a very different attitude and experience, and it resonated with me differently. When I saw it performed, I was still going through the never-ending divorce, so of course the exchanges with Linda’s husband resonated most:

Every year I send you an email reminder that my birthday’s coming up. And the reason I do that is because I know deep down if I don’t do it you won’t remember and your not remembering will be so painful that I won’t be able to bear it… I do everything in this house and the reason I do everything is because I thought at the very least you were loyal. And reliable. And as it turns out you’re not. So now I look at you and I see you for what you are: you’re an ornament.

Reading it this time, in the week between International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, when there was so much vitriol being flung about women’s safety and bodies, the whole lack of progress made me very, very angry. Particularly that moving epilogue, showing a younger Linda holding a hopeful speech about the wider culture moving on in ten years and becoming a better place for women of all ages. A hopeful speech that we know ends in tragedy. A soap bubble of a dream that we seem to chase every generation or so, which bursts just as we are about to tighten our grasp on it.

The Nurturing Power of Inspiring Women

I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.

With thanks to L’Atelier Writers for the image.

I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.

The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.

I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.

Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.

Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…

Play Review: ‘Linda’ by Penelope Skinner at RADA

Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play¬†Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.

Rehearsal picture of Linda from the RADA website, with Bea Svistunenko as Linda and Jamie Bogyo as her husband Neil.

It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):

‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’

‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’

‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’

‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’

The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…

Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.

This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.

Finding My Roar

We won’t be seduced by the mildness of your listening.

 

Too ferocious to be constrained by borders in light and shade

we shimmer in the mirror,

palest by far reflection of light on the threshold.

We know impossible spaces and how to tame them –

those feet of bronze and ivory ashen after all;

when the fog lifts, it takes the mountain with it;

when no one understands, all you can do is speak to yourself.

 

Once your purple heart was surrounded by green rays

and swayed on its supple stalk.

Watch us now! It’s more painful than it looks to be so

dignified. November fast-freezes

our roots, leaves us taut and tense like a ballerina mid-stretch.

Prickly leaves dry up in our hands

gathered in prayer.

Happy Martisor Day, ladies – hope of spring springs eternal! Photo courtesy of Travel Away.

Why It’s Painful to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the TV adaptation of¬†Margaret Atwood’s¬†The Handmaid’s Tale¬†is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.

It’s not surprising that when the book¬†was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and ¬†showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).

Scene from the recent TV adaptation on Hulu.

It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.

I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decre»õei’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:

  • if you were over the age of 45
  • if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
  • if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
  • if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)

Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.

Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.

Stadium celebrations for national day under Ceausescu.

It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.

From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.

Head down, blinkers on, pretend not to see a thing…

So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.

So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.

Pioneers and Falcons, the glorious future of the Socialist Republic of Romania, archive image from latrecut.ro

I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.

So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’

The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.

It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.

But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series¬†The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.

I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan.¬†

http://abortionfilms.org/en/show/3487/das-experiment-770-gebaren-auf-befehl/

 

 

Time for a little poetry: Playing Tiddlywinks

I see two girls, now women, who smile at others

Never at me

Who sour with life’s quick cherry passing

Go off like milk in my refrigerator door

One drip in my tea, no guests to pour out for.

 

They reverberate like echoes in the stillness of my parlour.

This is a neighbourhood of cats, no barking

No worries about leaving us alone all day

Often all night too

In hungry expectation.

 

They bring up corpses and track invitations

In the name of reciprocity

Accountancy, curation, careful recitation of moments and pictures

Togetherness invited

Competition launched, jaws that bite

 

Claws that snatch

Rewrite my story, meekness a grievous flaw,

Passivity, worse ‚Äď stupidity,

Made to pay,

Trampled to shame

With a flick of a finger.

Free picture courtesy of Pixabay.