I’m happy to say I have an essay coming out in this fall collection on disability. You can pre-order now. Here is the link to the book at Amazon.ca. Here is the link for Amazon.com. Here is the Publisher’s Weekly review:
“In this exquisite collection drawn from the Times essays series started in 2016, disability is, refreshingly, seen as a part of daily life, even as the contributors discuss facing a “world that does not expect us and is often not made for us.” Ona Gritz, who has right hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, recalls asking a literary agent who suggested she write a memoir, “Would I have to be disabled on every page?” Coeditor Garland-Thomson, having learning her asymmetrical hands and forearms are caused by complex syndactyly, an exceptionally rare genetic condition, no longer feels like an “orphan” but part of a “world of disability pride and advocacy.” Similarly, the late Oliver Sacks finds value in his disability, an increasing loss of hearing, enjoying how “in the realm of mishearing… a biography of cancer can become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians)… and mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to ‘Kiss my feet!’ ” The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act comes up often throughout, making fully clear the turning point it represented. Demonstrating, above all, the value of persistence, Catapano and Garland-Thomson’s anthology merits a spot on everyone’s reading list for its brilliant assemblage of voices and stories. (Sept.)” Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Review calls it “A rich, moving collection.”
I’m moving some of my essays onto Medium for your reading pleasure! Here’s what’s there so far:
The Pleasure Scale, Gay Magazine, about how, as a near shut-in, I find pleasure
The Preludes to Assault, about a short encounter with Jian Ghomeshi, and sexual violence
The Nothing Between Your Legs, about my non-binary life as a girl in the 1950s; first published in Autostraddle
A Night of Art and Anti-Art, about a walk on beach one evening with Liz
“The Pleasure Scale,” my contemplation on disability, pleasure and pain, is up today at Gay Magazine. Be forewarned that it is sexually explicit.
I realize there’s so much more to be said about pleasure, mine, and, of course, that found by others.
“I want to feel my body opening in the way it can open, like it is split, and is yawning in two pieces like a knifed watermelon, when it can take not only a fist but a globe, it can take every war, every famine, every mining disaster, every broken child behind bars, every river of tainted water into itself and it can turn water clear and take the broken children onto its lap and cause weapons to be laid down and corpses to rise and people to laugh again.”
republication: first published here in 2014
I was at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta with my friend M-E in October as it rounded towards November. Delicious place to spot wild birds, from Bohemian waxwings to Harlequin ducks. I had decanted seed into baggies, some kind of major success to even have remembered to bring it. The leaves were changing in spectacular, eastern ways because of our dry sunshiny October. We had yellows, we had oranges, we had reds. Since photosynthesis had shut down, the anthocyanins in each leaf stirred to protect the trees from sunshine.
M-E and I stood watching 3 Lesser Sandhill Cranes do very little, their orange eyes reptilian and attentive, on the lookout for bugs. One would move forward on Pick-Up Stick legs and knobby dinosaur-skinned knees to peck in the dirt. Its tutu tail feathers would shake. Its knees, I noticed, were knobby; the skin thick and scaly, dinosaur-ish.
How to tear myself away even when M-E was showing signs of boredom?
I thought of how long Sandhill Cranes had been on Earth—according to fossil evidence, at least 10 million years. They had red topknots and white cheeks, but who knows why. They only weighed about ten pounds, but were still among the biggest, and most beautiful, of uncommon birds.
Uncommon, I mean, relative to Chickadees and Bushtits, ducks and coots. Uncommon relative to starlings or crows.
I considered the woodpecker’s long tongue which curved around its entire head, wrapping even its brain; I thought of how birds had hollow bones, and many air pockets for flight. I had held two dead Yellow Finches in my hands just months earlier, victims of my cat, their bodies still warm, their heads lolling; I knew how deceptively light a bird was. (How big a cat bell really needed to be.) How my cat really needed to say indoors.
M-E and I moved along to watch catfish circle through slurry water, fins brown and slick. It was them or the ducks for the birdseed we threw.
We strolled along a pathway in dappled light, birdhouses and feeders nailed to the trees, Red-winged Blackbirds winging down and zipping gone. I admired the light, the leaves, the red fields, the sunshine and shadows on the lumps of the tilled farmers’ rows. Geese with black-tipped wings looked like hundreds of unmelting snowballs as they squabbled in the muck..
When I thought of birds dying, I always thought of the National Geographic article by Jonathan Franzen about the plight of songbirds in Europe and across northern Africa (Franzen article). I thought of the extraordinary video by photographer David Guttenfelder of Warblers caught on sticky lime sticks. Hunters trap Ortolan Buntings, a delicacy in France, and Quail and Turtledoves, and Cranes and Golden Orioles. In Cypress, a dish called Ambelopoulia calls for European Robins and Blackcaps; each songbird nets two bites.
All these birds have long migrations. Exhausted and depleted, perhaps after crossing the Mediterranean, they require rest and food, but hunters lie in wait with trap sticks, nets or guns. Capturing songbirds has a long history, Franzen tells us, and is even referenced in the bible, but today the practice (with the help of population surges and technology) has grown epic and is decimating populations.
Happily, here, in the reserve, we revered songbirds. Instead of eating them, we fed them.
When I thought of birds living, my heart filled. Now a couple passed us sunflower seeds.
M-E and I stood with our arms extended, our hands now buckets for black seeds. The birds, small and frenzied, flitted through the shrubbery, chattering to each other, considering the lures. They did well to be suspicious.
A little girl, perhaps four, perhaps five, watched us. I thought she was going to say something about birds, but instead she just elbowed her friend. “I’ve spent all day with you,” she told her, her face drawn and worn.
The friend had curly hair which frizzed around her head with the sun shining through it. She ran her hand up and down the front of her brown jacket. From her cuffs dangled blue mittens she didn’t need. “I don’t know,” she answered, perplexed.
In the bushes, three Chickadees hopped from branch to branch, assessing the sudden windfall.
M-E’s hand shook a little from the effort of keeping it still.
The original girl said, “You have to give me that … I’ve spent all day with you, since morning.”
The friend slowly nodded. “All right,” she said.
The first Chickadee landed on the side of my palm, grabbed a seed and winged away.
“That bird,” said the friend, pointing. “I like that bird.”
I said to her, in wonder, “It felt like a whisper.” I talked gently for a minute about how they wore black caps—did she think they only wore them in the winter, like people might?
The first girl looked up at me, her face knitted into a grown-up expression of irritation.
A Chickadee landed on M-E. Rotund, it hopped down her arm. She giggled like someone very young, and I photographed it.
The second girl extended her hand to me and into it, I tipped out some of my seed. She held out her arm; I saw that her eyes were wet, a tear trembling just in the center of her bottom left lid.
“Just wait,” a woman said. “Just stay very still, Margo.”
The first girl frowned. Her hair switched like a horse’s tail. Finally she hit the second girl’s arm, scattering the bird seed. She put her diminutive hands on her hips and said, “Margo, listen to me. I’m trying to say that it’s time I saw other friends.”
The tear fell to Margo’s cheek and slid down her young skin while her mouth shaped an “O.” For a second, that tear was everything, and I watched it while Chickadees landed in my hand, their claws like the tiniest tap shoes. Margo crouched down, wounded, something caught in a trap, and clamped her hands over her ears.
We all noticed the hush. The dees suddenly made themselves scarce; Margo looked up. Above the farmer’s field, a Cooper’s Hawk circled; from where we stood, it looked speckish and dull and no threat. But a din broke out as the field of migratory geese lifted. The sky turned white above us, as if we’d been caught in a snow globe. All the alarm honks, all the 54-inch black-tipped wingspans flapping at once, was overwhelming, and sounded first like an accident, a multi-vehicle pile-up, and then exactly like a train barreling towards us and about to run us down.
Run! came the primeval urge. But only small Margo actually did and what she was running from was anyone’s guess.
“It’s just birds!” I yelled, but she couldn’t have heard me.
Over in Europe, maybe right then, robins, orioles, warblers were stuck on sap traps, every movement towards freedom ensnaring them.
The sound of their wings as they struggled.
The snow geese above us.
Fat-bellied Chickadees. Long-necked Cranes. Slick-finned catfish. A little girl’s friendship ending.
A sunshine-doused day in the bird sanctuary.
This interview was first published in 2015. Today, on Feb 15, 2019, Ellis Avery died. We will miss her and her contributions to literature, so much.
The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village. She is also the author of the 9/11 memoir The Smoke Week and the recently arrived memoir-zine The Family Tooth.
I want to thank Ellis Avery for her generous contribution to the interviews on this blog. It’s been my pleasure to receive such thoughtful, informative answers to my questions.
Ellis Avery’s scintillating, gorgeously woven The Last Nude (Penguin, 2011) was written about art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, a bisexual painter in Paris during the Jazz Age, from the point of view of her American muse, Rafaela. It is a nuanced, complex book about Parisian politics in the Jazz Age, about painting, about love and queer power dynamics. Her writing style is sumptuous and supple. People have compared Avery’s sentences to brush strokes and as a painter (and a once-teenaged painter’s model), I felt this acutely.
JEH: Ellis, I think you know what a big fan I am of your novel The Last Nude. Both as a book that goes deeply inside the life of a painter, and in literary terms, but also, and in particular, as a lesbian writer and painter. Can you please tell us about its inception, and then how you managed to bring it to fruition?
Ellis Avery: I’m honored by your words, and grateful for them.
If The Last Nude is a Jazz Age Girl with a Pearl Earring, then my Vermeer is the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, who was particularly active in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s.
Tamara De Lempicka’s most critically acclaimed painting, above, which the New York Times called “One of the most important nudes of the 20th century,” was a 1927 oil on canvas called Beautiful Rafaela. When I saw this painting at the Royal Academy in London show in 2004 it literally made me weak in the knees, it’s such a sexually forceful image.
And just as startling for me was the fact that on the wall, in prim curatorial presstype, was the information that in 1927, while in the throes of a bitter divorce, de Lempicka met Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne and took her home. Rafaela became her model and her lover, and their relationship lasted for six months to a year. I wasn’t so much shocked to learn that lesbian cruising existed before 1990 (okay, maybe a little) as I was to see the story right there in black and white in a major art museum. Suffice to say, I found this story hair-raisingly sexy. What I found moving was to discover that fifty-some years later, in 1980, the painting Tamara was working on when she died was a copy of Beautiful Rafaela.
My novel, The Last Nude, tells the story of Tamara and Rafaela’s affair in 1927, from the model’s point of view, and the story of the last day of Tamara’s life, spent working on the copy of Beautiful Rafaela, from the painter’s own point of view.
JEH: When I was staying in Paris in 2014, you helped situate me with a link to an essay you wrote when you got back. I lived a couple of blocks from one of Tamara de Lempicka’s homes. Can you link here so readers can enjoy it, too?
Ellis Avery: Postcards
JEH: How much of the novel is factual? Did you, for instance, know that Rafaela was American and in the Bois looking for men when Tamara cruised her? Is it documented that they had an affair, or just known or assumed de Lempicka got involved with all/many of her models?
Ellis Avery: After seeing Beautiful Rafaela at the Royal Academy show in London, I wanted to write about her, but I had to set the idea aside for a couple of years, and it wasn’t until 2008 that I could really get going. In the intervening time, I read as much as I could about inter-war Paris and Tamara de Lempicka, including the Catalogue Raisonée of her entire oeuvre, which had assembled by Alain Blondel of Galerie Luxembourg, the curator responsible for launching the revival of interest in de Lempicka’s work in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the very last painting Tamara was working on when she died was a copy of the painting that had inspired my book, a painting inspired the girl she met in the Bois du Boulogne half a century beforehand! I get goosebumps just thinking about it even now.
Between 2004 and 2008, I also wrote about fourteen miserable pages of the book that would become The Last Nude, all the while wondering if I’d ever be able to write a book again. But I was reading, thinking and taking notes, and on a May afternoon in 2008, half under the spell of one of those epic writer naps that seize me when I’m working best, I wrote the scene that becomes the climax of my book, the scene in which Rafaela lands in the Seine. That scene was so exciting to write and gave me so much hope for the book.
From June to December of 2008, I had summer break followed by leave from my teaching job. That period began and ended with artists’ residencies, one at Yaddo and one at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. For three months in the middle, I was able to stay in Paris, accompanying my partner on a sabbatical semester. During those seven months, I wrote a thousand words a day, five days a week, and at the end of that time, I had the first draft of my novel. The craft surprises that occurred during that blessed first-draft period were the discovery that I could borrow formally from Henry James’s Washington Square to write my ending and the realization, after I thought I had finished my draft, that I needed to write the book “again,” as it were, from Tamara’s point of view. Eighty-two-year-old Tamara’s voice came to me all in a rush, and it scared me. She is based on the real Tamara de Lempicka, as described by those who knew her in Laura Claridge’s excellent biography. She is also based on my grandmother, who died at the beginning of that year.
The Last Nude is dedicated to my partner, Sharon Marcus, but it is also dedicated to the memories of Elaine Solari Kobbe, the grandmother I mentioned, and Austen scholar Katrin Burlin. a beloved professor from my undergraduate years, who died in 1998. She is the professor who shaped my thinking most radically by asking the deceptively simple question, what if we posit that the fruit of female creativity is “art”? That is, why are paintings “art,” but quilts “not art?” Why is sculpture “art,” but cooking “not art?” I was surprised to discover, as I worked, that I was trying to write the kind of novel I would have first encountered in one of Katrin’s classes, one that not introduces the reader to the dazzling work of a half-forgotten woman genius, it also takes to task the notion of genius itself.
JEH: Does The Last Nude resonate with today’s issues?
Ellis Avery: One important plot point is that Rafaela falls in love with Tamara, and when Tamara accuses her of wanting to get married, Rafaela realizes that was, in fact, what she’d most wanted. “Was it so impossible, to want what I’d wanted?”
JEH: Talk to us about the myths of the artist, particularly as they played out in Paris and in The Last Nude.
Ellis Avery: One of my working titles for The Last Nude was The Artist and Its Discontents. My novel both expresses a debt of gratitude to modernist giants Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stein, and introduces readers to de Lempicka’s brilliant paintings. At the same time, it also explores my distrust in the Romantic myths of the artist—as genius, as holy innocent, as solitary, inspired creator of art for art’s sake—which continue to underlie so many novels about artists and writers published today. Instead, the painter in my novel is not only a woman who has not been canonized by the art establishment, she is a woman who was neither independently wealthy nor pretended to be above material needs: in fact, she only foundered as an artist when she no longer needed money. The author in my novel never becomes an author. The artist who finds happiness and fulfillment in her work is instead Rafaela, the model who leaves the painter to open her own dress shop. The art she makes is not permanent, but ephemeral. She does not work alone, but with colleagues. Her imagined critics are not men, but women. Her work does not project the illusion of existing for its own sake autonomously from its viewer, but is created in conversation with its wearer. The day of Katrin Burlin’s untimely death—at her desk, of an aneurysm, while translating her mother’s memoirs—before I got the news, I was thinking about something she’d said in class: “the female bildungsroman tends to get stuck in the bedroom.” That’s like complaining that coming-of-age novels by people of color get hung up on racism, I was arguing with her in my head when I got the news. I still miss her so much. I still want to show her my work. I still want to argue with her. But at the same time, her contention turned out to be the reason it was important for me to end the Rafaela section where I did, not with the end of her love story with Tamara, but with the beginning of the story of Rafaela coming into her own as an artist. I use the demoted and trivialized art of clothing design to juxtapose Rafaela’s story of talent, ambition, and fulfillment with that of frustration and depletion that characterizes the stories of the fine artists she loves. In doing so I hope to valorize a more egalitarian perspective on art, art-making, and art appreciation.
JEH: Tell us about your relationship with research and your subject while in Paris.
Ellis Avery: Although I love Paris—who doesn’t? –it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of one’s favorite things, so I dealt with that during my three-month Paris sojourn in 2008 by giving myself a conceptual art task. After writing my thousand words, not only did I have to write my daily haiku, as I’ve done for the past eleven years, I also had to 1) Drink a cup of coffee in a different Parisian plaza every day, and 2) Eat a different French pastry every day. On the one hand, I was living my Paris fantasy adventure; on the other, I found I didn’t like the experience of constant restlessness. Never settling into a favorite café or pastry shop, never developing a routine and the relationships that build out of it— never being “a regular” anywhere—turned out to be a fast-track to expatriate melancholy, even if over very superficial things.
One surprise from my time in Paris came from getting to see Tamara de Lempicka’s homes. For reasons of plot I moved her first apartment from a posh arriviste neighborhood on the Right Bank to an older, more aristocratic neighborhood on the Left, but I got to see those apartments with my own eyes, both the real place and the fictional one. Better, I got to find the studio she designed in the Fourteenth Arrondissement. Although I didn’t get to go into the building, even seeing it from the outside—shabby and as it has become—was thrilling. They should put up a plaque. Here’s a description of the building, based on what I saw; it’s from a portion of the novel that I cut:
Tamara crossed into the Fourteenth. The ubiquitous five-story apartment buildings of Paris lined Arago, but I noticed that while some of them were clad in golden limestone pierre de taille, some were faced in stone only up to the first story, and then faced in cheaper brick the rest of the way up. Some were faced entirely in brick. I saw a long bank of newish artists’ studios, built to look like a series of Swiss chalets. I saw the high sinister wall of the old prison. What a neighborhood! I breathed a sigh of relief as we turned down a smaller street, approaching the gentler, more abbey-like wall of the Cochin hospital, the garden and graceful dome of the Observatoire.
If that was the Observatoire, then we weren’t actually that far from the Luxembourg Gardens, but the quarter still had a lost look, its smaller streets squeezed between noisy boulevards and the walled complexes of hospital and prison. Mixed into the street of apartments facing the Cochin Hospital, I even saw one or two buildings that could have been warehouses.
At first glace, 7 rue Méchain looked like a respectable but low-rent apartment building, plain-faced and shuttered. The 19th-century doorway, however, had been ripped out and replaced with a Deco one, an aperture limned only in sleek subtle curves. Two stained glass windows, round as eyes, looked out from either side of the door, each patterned with overlapping rectangles of black, white, and gray. The floor of the foyer was carved into a spare Mondrian grid of slate and inset doormatting. “I designed this entrance, and then the house in the cour is all mine,” Tamara explained.
I followed her through the shallow foyer, across a good-sized courtyard, and into a small back building. Inside, I entered a small palace of velvet, zinc, and glass: a wide, shallow room bathed in light from windows facing both the courtyard in front and a garden in back. “Northern light,” I noted grudgingly.
“All I could ever want,” Tamara said. “And set so far back I get no shadow from the building in front.”
A black staircase, glossy as lacquer, swooped up one wall toward a mezzanine that extended over the back half of the house. We stood in the high-ceilinged front half: a cold bright room we shared with only an easel and a couch. The lower-ceilinged half housed a sleek chrome-and-gray living-room set and a long dining table, on which sat two huge vases of calla lilies, lit from beneath by electric bulbs.
While I was in Paris, in addition to on-the-ground research, I kept up my reading and internet research as well. One day, while doing an online search to find out how much a houseboat might have cost in late 1920s/early 1930s Paris, I accidentally discovered my villain, Violette Morris. My description in The Last Nude hews closely to Morris’s real biography: “A professional soccer player, she had also become the French national champion boxer in 1923, after defeating a series of male opponents. Her hobbies included motorcycle racing, auto racing, and airplane racing, and her lovers, it was rumored, included women as well as men.” Morris, who regularly cross-dressed as a man, got a double mastectomy in order to fit into her racecar more easily, which provoked so much revulsion in her boyfriend at the time that he fed the names of her female lovers to the press, which resulted in her having her membership in the French amateur athletic league revoked. This meant she couldn’t participate in the Olympics. Angry, Morris turned on France, and became, as I relate in my novel, a Nazi collaborator. “She went to the ’36 Olympics in Berlin as Hitler’s personal guest. Before the invasion, she gave Germany the plans to the Maginot Line, and she taught them how to destroy French tanks. During the Occupation, she spied on the Resistance, and she turned in Jews…When the war was over, the Resistance shot her in the head.” Learning Violette Morris’s story was one of those magical truth-is-stranger-than-fiction experiences that make all the lonely hours and blind alleys of the research process worthwhile.
One last “research surprise,” one that occurred after I came home from Paris, during the rewriting process, was my experience visiting Jill Anderson’s dressmaking atelier in the East Village. In a longer version of this novel, we get to watch Rafaela open her own dress shop with fellow students from couture school. Getting to spend a few hours in the workshop where all my favorite clothes are made was a profoundly rich experience, both in terms of the wealth of detail it offered for my novel (Jill keeps her patterns locked in a closet! Pushes a rotary cutter through ten layers of fabric at a time! Keeps buttons in jars affixed by their lids to the underside, rather than the top of, their shelves!) and in terms of the quiet, focused way that time passed as Jill and her two assistants worked. It reminded me of the way time passes while I’m writing, or, because I was watching rather than acting, the way time would pass when I modeled for a painter girlfriend many years ago. Tamara is not based on my long-ago girlfriend, but Tamara’s dog is based on her dog.
JEH: How well did the book sell in Europe?
Ellis Avery: It was translated into Polish and Romanian, and seems to have done well.
JEH: How was it to have such a thoughtful and enthusiastic overall response to your novel?
Ellis Avery: Immensely gratifying! And not a given in my experience with publishing, so I’m all the more grateful.
JEH: I read your memoir of 9/11 called The Smoke Week which took me far into the NY tragedy. I used to work in the Towers when I was very young. The book is quiet and nuanced and simple Why did you take the approach that you did?
Ellis Avery: Thank you for the lovely description. I didn’t feel obliged to state the official news or take an ideological position. I was certain that readers of the future would be able to find out anything they wanted about the 9/11 tragedy, both news-wise and in terms of the opinions that circulated after the attacks. What they might not know was how ordinary people lived through the attacks and the weird, suspended, heartbroken days that followed– the millions of us New Yorkers who didn’t lose anyone personally but were nonetheless devastated.
JEH: Tell us a little about your first novel The Teahouse Fire, still on my bedside table of books-to-be-savoured.
Ellis Avery: Think Japanese Tea Ceremony and you probably picture a willowy kimono-clad woman swishing across a tatami floor. This was my image when I began five years of weekly lessons in tea ceremony, an art form that is part ritual dance, part sacramental meal, part opportunity to handle and use priceless antiques.
One question, however, confronted me early in my studies: why were all the historical tea people men, when almost all my fellow tea students were women? Until recently in its four-hundred-plus-year history, I learned, the Way of Tea was in fact the province of warriors and well-off men, with women welcome infrequently, and often expressly forbidden. Doing research, I discovered one of the two heroines of my first novel, The Teahouse Fire: a woman named Yukako.
Based on a real 19th century figure, my fictional Yukako is the daughter of Kyoto’s most prominent tea ceremony family, whose luck plummets as Japan enters a period of intense Westernization. Yukako, like her historical counterpart, changes the fate of tea ceremony in the 1880s by getting it included in the curriculum of the newly formed girls’ schools, breaking down the barriers to a male-centered discipline and shrewdly weathering the sudden devaluation of Japan’s traditional arts.
As much as The Teahouse Fire is Yukako’s story, it is also the story of its narrator, Aurelia, a nine-year-old American girl Yukako takes under her wing. The orphaned child of missionaries, Aurelia is Yukako’s first student, embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.
JEH: What are you current projects?
Ellis Avery: My memoir, The Family Tooth, is coming out as a zine this month and as an e-book in February of next year: The Family Tooth
Six months after my mother’s death, in 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer: I was given a hysterectomy and a 26% chance of five-year survival. Going off my arthritis drugs seems to have kept the cancer from returning, but by the beginning of 2013, I was stuck in a mobility scooter, crippled by an autoimmune condition called Reiter’s Syndrome. The Family Tooth is a cancer story sandwiched inside a grief-and-food memoir, but more than that, it’s a story of hope and, ultimately, triumph: it’s an account of the medical and psychological sleuthing that enabled me, a year later, to walk again.
The thread that pulls this book of essays together is food, both in terms of the dietary changes that helped me out of the scooter and onto my feet, and in the way I came to recognize my mother’s appetite in my own. At the time of her death, I was not sympathetic to my mother’s alcoholism. Over the course of the year that followed, as I learned both that I could control my arthritic pain through diet and that not eating what I wanted (day after day, eleven hundred meals a year) was perhaps the hardest thing I’d ever done, I discovered a deeper compassion for my mother than I had previously imagined.
JEH: What’s next?
Ellis Avery: After writing a memoir about grief and illness, I’m treating myself to a pair of projects for adults who love YA fiction. One is loosely based on the Fukushima disaster, but with a dragon instead of a nuclear reactor. The other is– in part– about how cats came up with their own internet long before we did. Stay tuned!
JEH: Do you, in the meantime, have any shorter work that my readers might puruse to whet their whistles?
I have three essays selected from The Family Tooth available through the Kindle Singles program on Amazon:
The Sapphire and The Tooth
A jeweler with a law degree, for decades Elaine Solari Atwood fought crippling arthritis with hard liquor until she died of a brain aneurysm at sixty-eight, leaving two daughters in their thirties and a lifetime’s worth of unfinished business. Forced as a child to play nanny to five siblings, she grew up to become a mother who loved her girls as tenderly as her stifled pain and anger allowed. By way of telling the story of selling her mother’s jewelry in New York’s Diamond District, The Sapphire and the Tooth offers a searing portrait of alcoholism and difficult love.
After three years on a drug called Humira, prescribed for a crippling autoimmune condition, I was diagnosed in 2012 with leiomyosarcoma, a rare uterine cancer, and given a 26% chance of five-year survival. When I learned that there was no evidence to show that the radiation and chemo I was offered would save my life, I turned down treatment. But even brave decisions can be terrifying: suddenly, I had to learn how to cope with constant fear – that I’d made the wrong choice, that my doctors would call with bad news, that my time was limited. On Fear, the second essay in a series on Kindle Singles, tells the story of how I learned to live one moment at a time, from meditating to singing in the shower to befriending a black cat named Fumiko. While most readers will never face leiomyosarcoma, the essay offers hard-won wisdom, tools, and hope.
Getting one’s first period is a rite of passage, but one’s last period? Most women don’t know it at the time. I mark this unusual milestone in an essay about undergoing a hysterectomy at the age of 39 after being diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer. A wrenching account of my attempt to keep an ovary—and with it the semblance of life before cancer–Goodbye, Ruby offers a fond and funny farewell to a quarter-century of menstruation. Of course it’s also about beauty, fertility, aging, sex, my mother, Hilary Mantel, and Michelle Tea.
Other essays from The Family Tooth can be found on Buzzfeed and The Morning News:
I’m delighted to announce that editors Carmen Maria Machado and Joyelle McSweeney have chosen one of my pieces, Battery, for the 2020 volume of Best American Experimental Writing. Battery was chosen by George Saunders as the winner of Lit Pop 2015. He said, “I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.” —George Saunders
Joyelle McSweeney says this about the compilation on Twitter:
“I agreed to guest ed BAX 2019 only if I could undo every word in that title: our re-imagined antho that is defiantly anti- ‘Best’, de-prizes the category “American”, is not always ‘Experimental’ & or even ‘Writing’! It’s up to the series eds and authors to shape what’s next-“
Indeed. Should make for an exciting anthology!
This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.
Yonder at Autostraddle, where I’m a contributing writer, Casey answered the call. I’m totally smitten with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha’s work, no matter its genre, and I look forward to reading the others here (the antho QDA is already on board). Check out the list here.
South of what is Canada’s southern border, reactionary events are afloat that may, or may not, be brought back from their facist brink by the upcoming mid-term election. Numbers will make or break this day at the polls. There are more progressives than there are retrogressives.
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Dr Martin Luther King made this sentence famous and I have thought of it thousands of times in my life, wondering whether, in fact, he was right. Does it? Does it?
In the meantime, this has been a weak and quivering seven days. A domestic terrorist mailed pipe bombs to prominent Dem targets, while another DT shot up a synagogue in Pennsylvania. Two developmentally delayed brothers were killed, and a generous doctor who worked with the first AIDS patients.
I think often of the Holocaust. I was born only ten years afterwards, when people were still counting their losses. Never again, we said. Never again a Holocaust. Never again will we stand by and allow harm to come to Jews. (We did not talk about the slaughtered disabled. We never knew of the murdered LGBT community.) Never again a Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Never again an Internment.
This was my childhood, ducked under my school desk against the fear of nuclear bomb from Cuba: Never forget. These words were bellowed, sung, whispered. Friend to friend. Parent to child. Principal to assembly. Pastor to congregation. And we didn’t forget. We new children who hadn’t been there, we didn’t forget. Our homes were full of the old tendrils of war, the ways our grandparents and parents had been affected, and we didn’t forget.
People who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, said George Santayana, a Spanish poet, and here we are, here we are, at the yawning cusp, at the mouth of the beast, at the bared yellow teeth.
What are we going to do? How are we going to respond? This beast hates us. He’s never met us, but he hates us on a theory.
Ours is a world yearning toward love, I swear it, I swear it. I watch it each day in the coo of the babies I see weekly. I see it when a hummingbird mother brings her two young to sit with her on my round feeder, teaching them about bird and human interaction. I see it when my parrot tucks himself on the side of my glasses and begins to preen and hum, happy in my warmth. I see it when people kneel down and render apologies. I hear it all the time, for my family, both its Caucasian members and its JC members, is a family engaged in social justice. I’m sorry, we say to each other when we’ve erred. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me? Our striving to do better for each other is utterly human. Human and beast, both, adult and child, both, we long for safety, for shelter, for food, for acceptance, for this restoring power of generosity, compassion, empathy, humility, respect and love.
Once, I stood under the railing in Tennessee where Martin Luther King Jr stood as a sniper shot him dead, and I wept. I touched the bed where he had slept, peered from the window to see the path of the assassin’s bullet, and I broke inside, over and over, as I had broken over and over moving through the rigours of the National Civil Rights Museum.
“The arc of the moral universe,” said King, “is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Is it bending toward justice? It is, when transgender rights are protected in Canada. It isn’t, when transgender rights are threatened in the US. It is when the abled world works to fix accessibility issues for the disabled; it isn’t when US police drag protesting disability warriors out of their wheelchairs to arrest them. It is when we host annual Missing and Murdered Women’s Days; it isn’t when again and again white men go free after murdering BIPOC. It is when we get the right to same-sex marriage; it isn’t when homophobia moves underground like a hot spring, and bubbles up to burn us.
The opposition to social justice is fierce now. The blowback isn’t coming. It’s here.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” – Elie Wiesel
We must interfere.
It was a new thing in TV news in the 60s that we could watch assassinations almost live, so I watched the replay of President Kennedy dying over and over on our scratchy black and white console, and a few years later, I watched Dr King crumple.
All my life, and fiercely for the last 40 years, I’ve fought for social justice through a stretchy and gorgeous feminism. My feminism was never a solid block, but a curious, questing, alive thing. My feminism was always encompassing, and it stretches to encompass even now our foibles, our mistakes, our minor offenses, our sloganeering and academic thought. It fights against violence against womxn and children; it fights racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. No one can be left out of our fight toward love.
In my justice, no one will be left at the bottom of the stairs looking up.
It’s great to get thoughtful and lengthy reviews of one’s work. Thanks to Casey!
“There’s a lot to revel in in Weekend, just purely from a representation angle. When was the last time you read a queer novel about people in middle age, let alone a novel that has extended sex scenes featuring queer people in their 40s and 50s? Older queers getting it on feels revolutionary in and of itself, but Hamilton also features a character who is disabled and black (Ajax has a heart condition and grew up in the Bahamas), a trans masculine character who uses they pronouns (Logan), a masculine-presenting polyamorous character who uses she pronouns (Elliot), and a kinky couple (Logan and Ajax). None of this feels forced or for the sake of diversity itself, but simply a portrayal of some real people with various intersecting identities.
“As you’re probably guessing, this is a highly character and relationship driven novel. You know at the beginning that shit of many kinds is going to hit the fan for both couples. Hamilton takes you there slowly while letting you get to know all the characters, their dynamics, and histories. The only other work I can think of that has so much authentic dyke processing in it is Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Logan, Ajax, Joe, and Elliot talk about their gender and sexual identities (I found Ajax’s ruminations about her lesbian identity in the face of Logan’s in-flux gender identity particularly fascinating), sex, feelings, their exes, illness, and relationship practicalities.” -Casey, the Canadian lesbrarian
Here is the rest of her review:
Here are just a few of the 2018 Notable Essays from Best American Essays, with mine stuck on the end, by people I know. It’s an honour to be listed with them; these essayists are skilled and talented. Have a look at Best American Notable lists … you’ll be in good hands if you seek out any of the work. It’s a trustworthy source of recommended literature.
The Grammar of Untold Stories, Lois Ruskai Melina, Colorado Review
(…), Lia Woodall, Literal Latte
How Deep is Your Love? Alison Kinney, Lapham’s Quarterly
Beyond the Primordial Ooze, Dinty Moore, Issues in Science and Technology
Mates, Kelly Sundberg, Gulf Coast
Swan, Late, Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads
The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy, Melissa Chadburn, Longreads
Things I Never Told Her, Marion Ryan, Granta
Finding El Saez, Alia Voltz, Travel Stories
Rain Like Cotton, Jennifer Kabot, Bomb Magazine
Manifestus, Kerry Neville, Juxtaprose
A Life Story, Ashley P Taylor, Entropy
What We Aren’t, Or the Ongoing Divide, Jennifer N Baker, Kweli Journal
Skinning the Rabbit, Jane Eaton Hamilton, The Sun
I’m thrilled to say that one of my personal essays, “Skinning the Rabbit,” which appeared in The Sun, is a notable in Best American Essays 2018 ed Hilton Als. To see the included essays, and the notables, go to “look inside” here: Best American Essays
This is my third time appearing as a notable in a Best American collection, and second time for an essay.
Thanks to my editor at The Sun, Andrew Snee, and to the team there. Congrats to everyone on the notable list, and of course to the authors of the included essays!
Tonight, my visiting daughter pulls me from my recliner to go explore bio-luminescence. At the first beach, there are some sparkles in the water, but a lot of ambient light too, so we decide to go north. At our second beach we need to use a flashlight to creep down over roots and rocks. We can’t see phosphorescence from shore, but the view is stunning: calm water, humpbacks of rocks, a wild-star sky.
Slowly, we wade out.
We begin to laugh like kids because every step stirs up sparkles. Underwater fireworks, or the fairy dust that falls from Tinkerbell’s wand. It really does look like stars. Unable to stop giggling, we stir, we splash, we kick. “I have superpowers!” Meghann says and tosses phosphorescence in an arc of blue.
“We’ve got to go get your sister and the kids,” I say. It’s way after bedtime in their house, but a holiday weekend—no work tomorrow. I call, Sarah wakes the 2 and 3-year-olds and we pick our way with them half asleep back to the beach, and hold them tight. They can’t figure out what’s going on. They’ve never even seen stars before, and now we want them to dunk their sandals. They’re very impressed, though, with the lighthouse in the distance. Naiya spies a falling star. “With no tail!” The dog swims through the bio luminescence, and it looks like she’s swimming in the Milky Way. “She looks magic,” I say. Sarah says, “She’s always been magic; you can just see how it sparkles tonight.”
Naiya says, “How did the stars fall into the water, Mom?”
How did the stars fall into the water? Do blue butterflies eat parts of the sky?
Finally the kids, chilled and sleepy, think it’s time to go back to bed. They don’t realize that there isn’t year-round phosphorescence.
I hear loud breathing sounds as we negotiate for a minute more. Huffs. Not very far from us at all, and close—perhaps 30 feet out?–I realize I’ve been hearing it a while, and I wonder if it’s a sea lion coming in to heave herself atop the rocks.
Sarah says, “Whales.”
“Shh, shh,” we all say, and even the chatterboxes quieten. The baby is nervous and cuddles her mom close.
We talk about Tahlequah, J35, the orca mom who that night still carries her dead baby on her snout, and wonder if the close whale or whales breathing at the surface might be Tahlequah and her close family, lagging behind, resting their bellies on the rocks a few minutes.
As we listen, at least two of us hope the whales don’t mistake us for seals, but even so we’re reluctant to get out of the magic water connecting us to the whales in the bio-chain of life. I’ve never been in the water with whales before. I think about how many orcas are in the resident population: 75. I think about how many people are in the world who aren’t hearing whales tonight: I wish there were a way to whisper this beauty into every person’s ear. I wish people could wake up restored, a little braver for the tasks at hand, as I will.
As we muddle to leave, off in the distance, in between where we stand and the nearby island, we hear slapping sounds.
“Tail slaps!” I cry.
They’re loud—surely they could be heard on land by the people who live here on the edge of land and water–and Sarah explains to the children that the whales can’t play during the day with all the boats around, but they can at night under the moon. Maybe the orcas are hunting, but whatever they’re doing lasts a long time, and is noisy, and I like imagining they are playing, making a fine night racket, breaching, slapping for joy, loving the perfection of the bay and the beautiful clear sky. Who knows, maybe they’re enjoying stirring up bio-luminescence. Maybe they’re playing just to ignite it, so they can swim in sparkling orca soup. Meantime, the pod, or members of a pod, who are closer to us swim off and return, rising and diving–and breathing.
We stand until the whales, both groups, dive, before making our charmed and stunned ways back up to the car. The experience beats in a chamber of our hearts devoted only to magic.
#orcas # whales #Tahlequah #eatonhamilton #bioluminescence #phosphorescence
 How Does Life Live, Kelly O’Brien, NY Times