Jane Eaton Hamilton

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. We must always take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." — Elie Wiesel

Samantha Dunn, folks

Samantha Dunn Rotating Header Image

Samantha Dunn is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoirs Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt & Co.), a BookSense 76 pick, and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation.

But right now she is also the author of this wise FB post, which I want to share with you:

“So a certain woman just published a memoir, have you heard? Some woman who ran for president?

Anyway. The news about it made me remember a time, recently, when a guy came up to me and was like,

“So it’s mostly women in your classes, right? Don’t they all want to write memoir?”

Evidently he was trying to make small talk. We were at the closing reception of The Writers’ Studio, an intensive four-day program through the UCLA Writers Program where I’ve taught memoir and personal essay since before there were smart phones.

It was, I believe, precisely the 400 bazillionth time anyone—man, woman, writer, non writer–had ever asked me that question, or some version of that question. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, underneath this query lies a nest of dismissive, condescending, sometimes overtly contemptuous, assumptions: Memoir classes are just a bunch of hens writing about their “feelings” and what happened to them. Oh, isn’t that sweet. I’m sure it’s all very therapeutic. [Snicker, snicker] But really, how *literary* can that be? How elevated an artistic endeavor can that be?

That question had pissed me off for years. Years. I’d find myself getting defensive, saying, “No, not only women, a lot of men too.” And then I’d instantly feel shameful about the wrongness of that reply, on so many levels–as if by holding up the fact that men also take my courses I validated the courses’ gravitas and rigor. My defensiveness itself has been a symptom that somewhere deep down, even I too doubted that a genre where the majority of practitioners—which is not to say that the majority of those publishing—are women could matter as much as other forms. Even I, me, moi, author of two memoirs and one highly autobiographical novel, battled an inferiority complex.

But earlier during that UCLA four-day intensive, a profound shift had happened for me while I was going through a lecture I have given many times, about the history of memoir as a literary form.

As I was talking about how St. Augustine’s Confessions, written around 400 A.D., are thought to be the root of modern memoir, establishing an inherently redemptive arc through the telling of personal experience, I was looking into the face of 20 women. White and black, some great grandmothers, some young women just out of grad school. One had never held a job outside the home. One had been the first female prison guard at San Quentin. One had been molested by a father. One was grieving the death of her mother. One had gotten lost in South America 20 years earlier and was still trying to understand the ripples that experience had sent out over her life. One had been on a plane hijacked by terrorists and had tried to keep it a secret because she didn’t want to revisit the trauma. All of them were complicated, soulful beings whose lives were unique expressions, singular combinations of personality and history and class and politics and race and art and whatever else forms us as humans.

All at once I had that bolt-of-lightening feeling as I spoke to them, realizing that no woman could ever have written what St. Augustine had. Even if a woman had been educated enough to write at that point in history (which was rare enough for men, even more so for women), she would have been burned alive for admitting to the transgressions St. Augustine details.

And as strange as it sounds, I had this, I don’t know what—this hallucination, this psychedelic moment, where it was as if the lost histories of millions of women through the ages, all the lives lived silently, all the agonies and the hopes and the dreams dared, were now shining through the faces of those 20 women in my class.

Acid flashback? Possible. Moment of satori talked about in Zen, instant of enlightenment? I dunno. But suddenly I knew, I felt, how incredibly subversive, how riotous, it is to be at a point in history where women are publishing the stories of their lives in significant numbers, the likes of which has never been seen in the record of human achievement.

By committing their experience to our collective literature they are changing not only their world but yours, ours. All these voices add up to an uncharted narrative about what it means to be human. Only the most radical of all potential endeavors: They are witnessing their story and we human things are therefore understanding more of THE story, and in that understanding we are thereby changing THE story for all of us.

This is the way the world gets reborn: One story at a time.

So I told random dude-at-writerly-reception-thingy-making–lame-small-talk,no, it is not “mostly women” who are writing memoir. It’s mostly A BUNCH OF FUCKING RADICALS WHO ARE ACTIVELY CHANGING THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY.

Any questions?”

The Female Hat-Wearing Dog

Oh yeah. Raquel D’Apice over at the Ugly Volvo.

The Female Hat-Wearing Dog

 

Maggie May Ethridge: Atmospheric Disturbances

 

The atmospheric disturbances that are part of a coupled union … most of us know them.  In Atmospheric Disturbances, Maggie May Ethridge, a talented US essayist and memoirist, takes our hand and walks us into the abyss of her long, abiding relationship to a man with bipolar illness. Because of Ethridge’s soaring talent, this portrait of a disorder becomes a searing, raw chronicle at the closing shutters of marriage, and their re-opening and re-opening and re-opening.

 

Dionne Brand: Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation

Dionne Brand

In this talk and reading at Barnard College, the Canadian poet, speaks to our questing, wanting hearts.

“I don’t believe in the notion of justice, since it presumes a state of affairs that is somehow formerly good but for certain anomalies is legitimate. In our case, I think that we live in a state of tyranny and to ask a tyranny to dismantle itself, to claim, to ask for, to invoke justice is to present our bodies, already consigned in that tyranny to the status of non-being, to ask that tyranny to bring us into being and that is impossible and it won’t.” -Dionne Brand

This talk is an excerpt from “Poetics of Justice: A Conversation Between Claudia Rankine and Dionne Brand,” part of the series Caribbean Feminisms.

Dionne Brand: Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation

 

Two Men and a Library

 

Natasha Frost tells us the bizarre (and entertaining) story of playwright Joe Orton, and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, during the time in the 1960s when they stole, altered and returned books to a London library. The story did not end well, but rather with heartbreak and murder.

The Strange, Sad Story of Joe Orton, His Lover, and 72 Stolen Library Books

Skinning the Rabbit: the essay at The Sun

My second piece (after a piece of fiction called “Hearts”) with The Sun appeared in July, but there was only a preview online. Now they’ve put the entire essay up, but the best news, the absolutely best news, is that they’ve opened their archives. How wonderful for all of us. I can see what we’ll be reading for the unforeseeable future. If you are a subscriber, you can see it all; if you’re not, you can read two pieces a month. Huzzah!

Skinning the Rabbit

The Blodwyn Prize

I didn’t win this new prize for emerging writers–I am far from an emerging writer–but I am glad thinking so caused someone to read and enjoy my latest poetry book Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes and All Lit Up to report on it.

Must-Follow-Canadian-Book-Instagrams-for-World-Photo-Day

Love Letters–of a sort

Will You Ossuary Me?

 Jane Eaton Hamilton

She wanted to kiss me in bones. Death, much? Spiraling down 19 meters. She pulled the ends of my scarf and I moved closer because hers were Parisian lips, the top lip thin, the bottom lip full, and I felt her deeply inside where my nerves snapped and I was decomposible. There were tibias all around us in the damp light, and scapulas from the plague, phalanges and fibulas and metatarsals. Infant bones. People dead of polio. People collapsed of childbirth and famine. Of war. Cries and tears and screams. The bones of six million Parisians dug up from cemeteries to make room, shovels of bones, wagon-loads of bones pulled by sway-backed nags for a full two years—carted down into these old mine tunnels, then arranged. We stood in puddles. The air was heavy with the motes of people’s lives—more broken dreams, I guessed, than dreams come true. It was quiet, but the past echoed. Ghost-din. Someone had written, Pour moi, mort est un gain. Pour moi, pour moi, pour moi, she whispered, rumbling her voice. Exhumations and exhalations all around us, the breath of death, bone-stacks, bone-crosses, bone-chips in heaps, my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, maybe, resting in pieces. My lips were swollen and sore, cut and scabbed over from all that had already happened. Skulls placed in the shape of a heart, eye sockets staring, and behind those eye sockets more eye sockets. Shadows moved across us; her nipples hardened. She pressed me up against a white cross against a black tombstone. I will leave you, she said as she bit my throat, but not yet.

Caroline Leavitt, folks, on the discouragement of writing and how to overcome it

This terrific essay by Caroline Leavitt on Susan Henderson’s LitPark: The Sticky Subject of Success

“I wasn’t successful. I knew it. My friends were getting prizes and important reviews and bookstores so filled that people had to wait outside. When people asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer?” with a questioning lilt to my voice because I wasn’t so sure, since success seemed so scarce.

I roamed the bookstores and looked at books and I couldn’t figure out, why was this bestseller better than my book? Why did friends of mine get the things I yearned for—and get them so easily? Was I doing something wrong?” -Caroline Leavitt

Sweet criminy, Warsan.

Just read it.

The House, by Warsan Shire

Writing and Disability: She used to be a writer, but then she got sick

At the wonderful Lit Hub, Emma Smith-Stevens writes about the shock of illness, and how losing physical capacity threw everything else in her life into question.

I Used To Be a Writer

Literary spaces for just women? Or not?

Should we publish at women-only presses? “…female literary magazines and collectives are organizations and communities that have been born out of a need, they are voices that deserve to be heard, a necessary force in an ongoing resistance, but also a symbol of how much more work has yet to be done for the literary world to ever solve its gender problem. These women are not only challenging the literary canon with all-female spaces; they’re rewriting it.”–Thea Hawlin

The Rise of Women-Only Literary Spaces, UK Edition

Post-publication blues

photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton

I always look at publishing a book as throwing it down a well. Maybe you will hear echoes, and maybe they will be strong enough to hurt your eardrums, or perhaps as faint as whispers. Maybe, eventually, you will hear a splash when that book hits hard (bellyflops?). But mostly you will just peer down a very dark hole and watch your book careening through the air before drowning. You will see this even with reasonably successful books; even those have their season, and attention moves on. The pages become waterlogged, and sink, and tear. The glue loosens. Things sinking can be very beautiful. Things disintegrating can be magical. Think of fabric waving in water, of seaweed, of things barely glimpsed under surfaces. Of underwater dance. Of the grace and flow that you’ve been given back now the project is done. All that beauty of the finished book–sinking out of sight. This is exactly what leaves you alive and full and tarnished and battered and happy and excited for what’s coming next: the pause, the making.

Here is a piece I once wrote about failing to write a novel and giving it another try:

Congrats-Its-a-6-Pound by Jane Eaton Hamilton

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Survival Guide for Writers

A while back, the electrifying Lidia Yuknavitch talked to Anna March at Bustle. Two more recent of her books (The Small Backs of Children, The Book of Joan) weren’t published when this interview took place, but the article remains a wonderful piece to guide the working writer back to sanity, and I recommend it.

Bustle

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 11.51.12 AM

Here’s an excerpt, too: Anna Maxymiw And also,

“Matthew Klam’s New Book Is Only 17 Years Overdue” and other tales of failure

 

the new book

Over at Vulture, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a terrific feature about Matthew Klam’s career and his new book. Every writer should read this. We all deal with self doubt and castigation, I think. The article is a really a good look at Klam’s early fortune; about how just as he was deciding he’d quit writing, he got a yes from Dan Menaker, editor at the New Yorker, for one of his stories. (My stories got lots of comments from Menaker in my time, and once we even moved into editorial, but I never quite got the yes. The story that came closest was published in the Alaska Review.)

The world opened for Matthew Klam, and his list of early awards and honours was daunting. He had it all except for a second book. As the years passed, he still didn’t have a second book. He wrote continually, he tossed continually, he taught instead for its anonymity.

For me, the world never opened, and my talent, which was substantial but wanting, withered from lack of support. I didn’t have an MFA program to weed out weaknesses. I learned slowly. Sometimes folks went mad for one story or essay, but when they wanted more, the more was always so different they didn’t like it. This is a problem with range and writing across genres (and letting my heart have its way).

I needed an imprimatur I didn’t have. A Menaker imprimatur, maybe. Once Ellen Seligman at M+S spent six months telling me yes, telling me no, telling me I don’t know, I go one way, I flop the other way, and I wonder what would have happened if she had said yes eventually, whether that profound novel about child rape in the world of wild mustangs I was then working on would have come to fruition. All these years later, I’m still curious about what would have broken out of me if by chance I had just been valued and nurtured, and really had to work to an editor’s expectations. I would have risen, I know, because I am like that, but in what way, to what end?

What literature did I not produce because I:

a) wasn’t quite good enough?

b) wasn’t repetitive enough?

c) there was discrimination (even inborne and unacknowledged) against certain categories of writers (disabled/queer/feminist)?

d)  wasn’t from the US?

What would those stories and books have been?

I was low-income and a sole-support parent a lot of those years. And of course I asked the same questions Matthew Klam asked himself: What does this matter? Who needs another story? Another novel? To what purpose? To win a prize and still be unable to pay the bills? I certainly never cared about a postmortem reputation–that and $5 I’d get a plastic glass of latte at Starbucks to set on my gravestone.

I won the CBC contest a couple times. I published in the NY Times, the Sun and other strong periodicals (back then and again this year). But no successes ever built, no one ever tucked me under her mentor wing. I still write in my self-propelled bubble without much response. I certainly write now without any hopes at all for the marketplace–really, only to please myself.

I had my perfect form and lost it. I quit writing stories and nobody noticed. I quit writing stories and only a friable piece of my heart noticed. I struggle to write novels, but I am no novelist. I am no novelist.

Maybe Matthew Klam is. I look forward to reading Who Is Rich?

The Vulture

 

 

Hunger–my story collection (not Roxane Gay’s memoir I’m reading now)

When I was sorting through my archives, I discovered two reviews of my 2003 short story collection Hunger, one from Event Magazine and one from The Fiddlehead. I thought folks might like to read them. I’d forgotten they existed, and I so loathed the cover the publisher gave that book that I immediately orphaned it. Don’t get me wrong. I am a sizable fan of the artist Egon Shiele, but I didn’t think the chosen image evinced hunger, and the book design was, frankly, pug ugly. I was stunned by the back cover, or lack of back cover, which wasn’t even designed. I know I could have checked the typical stylistic quirks out when the press asked me to publish with them, but I didn’t. At the time, I was on a Gulf Island, and there were none of that press’s books I could find in the library, and it was before the internet was really going. I didn’t see the mess of that book until the press had gone to print (probably on purpose … some presses respect their writers and some don’t) and when I got my author copies, a signature fell out of the first one I picked up, proving that the production values sucked. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. After that, I just–refused it. I always knew it contained great stories, since most of them had won pretty major awards, and it went on to be shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley, earning it a lovely quote from Emma Donoghue, but I hated its look, so I orphaned it.

Anyway, what a difference 14 years makes–and doesn’t make. I still loathe that cover and the production values (you’ll note the cover is not included in this blog post, and it doesn’t appear on Amazon either) but I now imagine I might like the book if I read it again, because in tearing apart litmags and anthologies to make tear sheets for the archives, I found these:

Event review of Hunger

Painting the Babys Room Green review of Hunger

The Summer Book

Jane Eaton Hamilton, photo: Martin Krzywinski

Here is a lovely review for Mother Tongue Press’s new anthology The Summer Book, from BC Bookworld (Howard Stewart):

“Fertig’s stable of remarkably talented B.C. writers has wrought many exquisite portraits of this complex subject.

Otters on Savary Island dock. Linocut by Gary Sim.

Together, they comprise a delightfully diverse drawer full of explanations about why these long bright days and short warm nights affect us like no others.” -Howard Stewart

 

Poignant Ruminations of Summer

Mandy Len Catron recommends “Weekend” for love

If Mandy Len Catron recommended my novel “Weekend” and Khloé Kardashian recommended Mandy’s “How To Fall In Love With Anyone,” does that mean I should figure out who Kholé Kardashian is? Or does that just mean you should read Mandy’s book?

This week How To Fall In Love With Anyone” has been released. Mandy is the author who set the NY Times’ Modern Love column on fire with her essay about “36 Questions” to make a couple fall in love with each other, a column viewed millions of times. And now there’s a whole book of her writing!

CBC wanted to know what revs Mandy’s romance engine, and “Weekend” made the cut, with a nod to its dealing with disability issues.

Hopefully Mandy will be here on the blog with a Q+A soon!

Mandy Len Catron on offbeat love stories, and the one secret to relationships that last

Skinning the Rabbit, The Sun Magazine

I got home from a trip, picked up my mail and found my contributor copies of the July 2017 issue of The Sun Magazine (along with the welcome cheque). A couple of weeks ago, I went to add The Sun to my list of places I’ve published, and it was already there. I was puzzled; I didn’t remember having already added it. But then I explored a little further, realized I’d published there a long time ago, and sought out the issue, the cover of which is above. I was bemused to find that the subject matter was quite similar to the recent essay since I haven’t written about my childhood in ages.

Here’s that original and second-person story, which was still on my desktop: Hearts

My piece this time around is called Skinning the Rabbit. I explored my relationship with my father through our collision about animal welfare, and through the bullying I experienced when I got alopecia totalis at six. I hope you like it. Tell me if you do, k? It’s not online, but you can find The Sun almost anywhere that carries literate magazines, even in Canada.

I am proud to have had essays in the NY Times and The Sun this year.

The Sun November 1993

 

 

 

 

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