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).
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 ‘decreței’ (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.
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.
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.
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.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint is the kind of book which has been buzzing away on the horizon of my consciousness, with many excited tweets, some excellent reviews and then longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. I finally read it last week but have been waiting to gather my thoughts about it, because it left me feeling rather spent.
It makes for a powerful reading experience, there is no doubt about that. I went into it not knowing much about the Alice Crimmins case upon which it is based. When I googled it afterwards, I was surprised just how many of the real-life details the author had incorporated into her fictionalised version. Another surprise is that the author has never been to that working-class neighbourhood in Queens in New York (and certainly not in the 1960s). She is in fact British and did most of her research of the setting on YouTube and Google Maps. Kudos to her for such an authentic recreation of time and place.
Ruth Malone is a glamorous red-head, separated from her husband, raising two children whom she loves but often finds hard going, working as a cocktail waitress and being overtly unrestrained in her sexual behaviour, too much so for the tastes of that 1960s neighbourhood (regardless of what people might have got up to behind closed doors). She is also in an acrimonious dispute over custody with her estranged husband Frankie. One morning in July she unlatches her children’s bedroom door to find her young children missing. Within days their bodies are found in a dump and a nearby woods, strangled, decomposed, and she becomes the prime suspect in their deaths.
It soon becomes clear that the police are far more interested in Ruth’s sex life than in proper detective work. They do not seriously search for any other suspects, fail to investigate all the clues and possible avenues, focus only on certain aspects of the evidence (the love letters Ruth has received from her admirers) while ignoring all others. Instead, they interrogate Ruth over and over again, in an attempt to ‘break’ her, which only makes her more angry. In her descriptions of the painfully lonely, eternally disappointed and perpetually defiant Ruth, the author brilliantly encapsulates the attitude of the original Alice Crimmins, who said: ‘They wanted me to grieve—not for the sake of my children, but for them—the police. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. They were my kids. Nobody was out looking to see who killed my kids. They were interested in making me break.’
The trial was already prejudged by the time they went to court. While Ruth is hardly an angel, she is not too far removed from the frazzled working single mum of today. The gossipy atmosphere, neighbourly resentments, as well as judgemental attitudes towards what makes a good mother are perfectly captured. How dare she take considerable time to put on makeup before talking to detectives or go out to buy a new dress? Never mind that makeup is Ruth’s suit of armour, a defence against acne and possibly some psychological scars. Interestingly enough, many readers’ reviews on Goodreads claim that they cannot feel any grief from Ruth, that she is too emotionally detached, too blank. So she is being judged all over again.
There are some repetitive moments, especially regarding Ruth’s bodily self-loathing and her ‘yellow smell’ – and that lengthy opening scene of putting on her make-up before and after the event which changed her life. [I thought agents and editors warn us to never start with someone looking at themselves in a mirror.] But overall, those poignant moments of enforced gaiety, going out and picking almost any man to combat her loneliness, successfully convey the despair, temporary madness, strange passivity and feeling of futility which do come with immense grief. Every one of us grieves differently.
Of course, we are encouraged to view Ruth in a more positive light because of Pete Wonicke’s growing sympathy towards her. Pete is a rookie journalist who initially contributes to the anti-Ruth rhetoric in an attempt to sensationalise the story and sell newspapers, but increasingly tries to find out the real person behind the mask. Or so he tells himself, in an attempt to justify his obsessive, almost stalkerish fascination with the case. Marking a clever counterpoint to the story, he is a compromised narrator himself.
In this book, Emma Flint offers an alternative explanation for what happened that night, but the real case has never been solved. What made for more disturbing reading is knowing that this type of ‘trial by media and public opinion’ is still so common today. See for example Karen Matthews, often dubbed ‘Britain’s most despised Mum’, or Casey Anthony in the States. a.k.a. ‘America’s most hated’, who declared ‘People found me guilty long before I had my day in court.’ In an age of internet trolling, public reactions are even more frightening and extreme even in relatively mild cases, as in this example of a mother who took an innocent picture of her Down’s syndrome toddler hiding in a washing-machine.
Less of a suspense novel, more of a depiction of a particular era, so perhaps not one for readers who are looking for a true thriller. What it offers instead is both social commentary and an in-depth character study of two lonely misfits: one of whom tries to fit in by making compromises, the other furiously refusing to make any.
After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.
Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems
Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.
Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.
If only death could be
like going to the movies.
You get up afterward
and go out
saying, how was it?
Tell me, tell me, how was it?
Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:
Luck of the alphabet,
since 1961 we’ve leaned
against each other, spine
on spine, positioned thus.
Upright or slant, long may we stand
on shelves dusted or not
to be taken up by hands
that cherish us.
Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.
Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia
I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.
Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.
Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?…
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?
Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring
I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.
It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.
Some critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.
In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.
Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…
Never throw out old notebooks, even with the looming threat of an overseas move. I just came across these lines of poetry. I transcribe them as they are, unpolished, but there is room for development at some later point in time.
I come from a long line of peasant women
plodding uphill on the hottest of days
tilling the soil
lifting full metal buckets of water
dropping babies in the cornfields then back to work.
Men gone to war on fronts left and right
cattle rounded up for troops
making do with bone soup and cornmeal pap
nettle soup and pumpkin plump.
I come from a long line of stoics
who expect no respite from labour
no love everlasting
work is their curse and due and praise
and rest comes too seldom
no one owes anyone happiness.
They crawl up the mountain like a murder of crows
in their black widows’ garb
laugh with gaps in their teeth
grey plaits swung firmly under kerchiefs.
They have never dieted in their lives
food fuels their bending and plucking
running after sheep.
They can drink men under the table.
and bred in me a fibre
smacks of backbone
yet fluid like a reed
when the breeze turns into storm.
I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.
But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.
The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’. After the next few chapters, I paused: ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.
Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other. Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.
She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.
One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:
…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.
Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:
Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
I’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.
At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.