Who Is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins
Faber & Faber, December 2018
112 pages / Amazon
“Creation isn’t imagination, it’s taking the great risk of grasping reality” quotes Sophie Collins from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (Collins, 91). A famously inscrutable “sphinx,” Lispector herself continues to fascinate commentators. Earl Fitz described Lispector as an “incorrigible liar” who “wore a lot of masks … when she would take one off you’d think she was revealing something, but all she was revealing was another mask.” This echoes slant the words of artist Claude Cahun, which provide the epigraph to Collins’s fascinating, inventive debut poetry collection, Who Is Mary Sue?: “I’ll never finish lifting up these faces.” Collins deftly interrogates these tensions between creation and identity, writer and reader, language and truth.
A shifting combination of essays, poems and reportage works to destabilising effect: resisting categorisation requires an active awareness of readership, a productive uncertainty. Collins nods to convention while wryly undercutting it, opening with a photograph of a statue of Euterpe, muse of lyric poetry, recalling both classical invocation and the conventional role of women in art, objectified in voiceless image.
If language is loaded and literature a stacked game, Collins shines a light on misogynistic assumptions. The title piece, an essayistic collage, plots a course from the “Mary Sue” (a fanfiction criticism of protagonists deemed idealised versions of the female author’s self) to the dismissal of women’s creation by tying it to autobiography. Drawing on How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ, and interview excerpts with writers from Jamaica Kincaid to Sharon Olds, Collins concludes that “a woman who tries to invent in literature will fail, whereas a woman who succeeds in writing is believed to have done so to the extent that she has been able to accurately portray the details of her own life” (29). It’s a trope that once noticed seems to occur everywhere.
Collins carves nuance through such flattening. Dynamics can be internalised—many fanfiction readers are women, “Mary Sue” is often targeted at women by women; each of the unidentified interviewers asking “the usual prurient question” were women—and the literary “I” has an inherently complex relation with self (Collins, 33). Contemplating Dominique Aury’s pseudonymous Story of O, in “a whistle in the gloom” Collins considers O as an alternate pronoun “signifying a tacit acknowledgement of the paradoxes of self-expression; a room to live and breathe in, with some honesty” (Collins, 90).
In “As bread is the body of Christ so is glass the very flesh of the Devil” the speaker reads “the most important words yet” and is transformed:
my movements were studied. I know someone watches me (I watch myself). Perhaps this is the difference the words made.
I recalled my first encounter with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a lurching self-recognition in his woman who “must continually watch herself” (Berger, 46) This watching suggests Sandra Lee Bartky’s Foucauldian self-policing subject but
shortly, of course, surely, it all went away, like the promise of a life, an embryo and its bedding.
this promise, a glimpse of a welcomed self-surveillance; a visibility that isn’t always a trap.
By citing Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea as a forebear Collins contextualises fanfiction as appropriative reshaping; a reframing nodded to in her own reference to canon (101). “Dear No. 24601” opens, “The future is an eye that I don’t dare look into”; “Anna Karenina” closes:
Auntie says do not worry so
much over your future
but my future
– there is only one –
my future has heard this
and is become loud
Both speakers face a foreboding sense of the future to which they are exposed.
Rachel Cusk’s orbit of her Outline trilogy’s protagonist is “a frayed hole, a conspicuous lack of identity in the very place that has most often been tasked with generating readerly incentive” (Collins, 7) and the possibility of abstracting identity permeates. Where context or speaker are actively absent these spaces carry the weight of what isn’t offered aloud. In “Eight Phrases” coded menace builds under apparently neutral phrasebook sentences “- Your breath smells like peaches. / – Can you give me something for the pain?” (Collins, 16) To identify means both to feel kinship with and to pin down.
In “The Engine”, a striking dreamlike journey, the speaker meets strangenesses and mundanities with equanimity; a perceptive dissociation where trauma is visible from the corner of the eye:
I tell the chorus that I have information to ruin a man. The Meister distributes a set of photocopies.
As the chorus study the handout, I glimpse a figure escape through the door, and next to the door a heap of snakes with snake eggs.
Intense imagery of sensation “my armpits like hot squeaking oil” and moments of dark humour pivot, “I tread up to the steel pulpit like the sphinx that I am (bottom heavy)” building to a climactic refusal to be either silenced or swallowed by the performance of telling.
With the suggestive brevity of containment that feels like expansiveness folded inward, shorter pieces call to mind the more fabular of Lydia Davis’s stories (Paris Review, 2013. “INTERVIEWER: So the narrator is you? Is that often the case? DAVIS: Just because a story uses material from the writer’s life, I don’t think you can say that it’s her life, or that the narrator is her.”) A fabulist is both a liar and a storyteller.
Where denials of “craft” act as ciphers for identity, interrogating the politics of readership is a necessary unbalancing act; per Joanna Russ via Collins: “She wrote it but it’s unintelligible/badly constructed/thin/spasmodic/uninteresting etc., [is] a statement by no means identical with She wrote it, but I can’t understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader)” (Collins, 26).
To revisit Euterpe, endnotes reveal a further layered significance; in a picture taken by and sent between women poets, is this repudiation, appropriation, suggestion of woman as muse to herself, or some unfixed combination of all these. Who, then, is Mary Sue? An interrogative unknowability, nobody, anybody, a mask, a lens, a multitude. Collins offers a refractive kaleidoscope where perhaps identifying an answer means less than the asking.
Patricia Ferguson is a writer, illustrator and parent, based in Messina, Italy. After several years as a finance lawyer in London she relocated with her family to Sicily in 2016 where she works as a freelance illustrator, contributing to projects for clients including Al Jazeera and BBC World.