When I look back on the past year and the company I’ve kept, it’s so very clear who the women are who’ve held my hand through my journey. The friends that pushed me forward when I tripped a little. And the feisty bitches that helped me up when I hurt.
The women who bleed with me, bodies agape, arms longing for love, minds reeling with truth are: Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus, Michelle Tea and Lidia Yuknavitch. Strange, weird, wonderful, intense women who speak like I think and say what I repress. Their stories have become mine just as much as their writings have flowed through my fingers.
Without them I wouldn’t have reached this point. This point of letting go of myself; ripping off the label of ‘chick–lit author’ and quieting the voices that used to edit my process, whether voices from family, friends or publishers. And so it is because of them that I now see art in my writing. I see words together and apart. I see stories in flashes and not with beginnings, middles and ends (thank you, Lidia). I feel woman and not ashamed.
Zambreno is an interesting one. With her dark cropped hair and seeing eyes, she’s a heroine to my restless self. The photo of her on the back of her book Heroines is where I saw her first. And fell for her. The love was confirmed at the end of this tremendous book about the fallen women who were never written as authors in their own right, but always as the muse, the crazy, the outcast. “If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience. The absolute necessity for you to write yourself in order to understand yourself, in order to become yourself.” (pp. 296, Heroines, Semiotext(e), 2012). Zambreno writes Heroines like a reflective journal with research, intelligence and musings underpinning her words. She has a relationship with the women on the page and gives them a voice they’ve never had the chance to scream into the world.
In Green Girl Zambreno continues this journey with her anti–heroine heroine Ruth, who is a shopgirl, a green girl who is seen by others, by her self, watched and observed all the time. “I see Ruth, my heroine, as a girl – Gregor Samsa whose consciousness is still dimmed and often dismissed, in life, in literature,” she says in an interview with Jessa Crispin about her novel. “Woolf writes of this too – that feminine experience is often rejected as not universal, hence not literary. There is, however, a literature of the shopgirl whose anti–heroines are the true ancestors of Green Girl – the Jean Rhys jeune fille in her between–the–war novels, Zelda Fitzgerald’s girl portraits, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I remember too what it was like to have no real sense of self, to be dull with flashes of brilliance, trying on jobs like hats.”
Then there is Chris Kraus. Of her I read I Love Dick and Torpor, both impacting on me for different reasons. Dick was my first experimental novel I ever read. In a way Kraus broke my experimental virginity and it hurt, but it also set me free. Her strange relationship made my life seem pretty easy-going, but her feelings were so real, so true, so out–there. By the time I read Torpor I was virgin no more, and eager to get into it with Kraus. Torpor precedes the story of Dick, where we follow the journey of Sylvie and Jerome on a mission to adopt a baby; a mission Jerome is not really taking part in for the reasons that Sylvie does. It’s a mix bag of road trip fights, resentment, anger and avoidance. They take wrong turns along roads that curl like question marks. On page 191 Kraus writes as Sylvie, “I’m 35 years old. Everything I do now has to matter.” (Torpor, Semiotext(e), 2006).
I also turned 35 in 2015 and feel that everything I do has to matter. Somehow. To mean something. To feel part of a bigger thing. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m happy to have found a Kraus in me. She has the ability to build a story slowly, sliding from one moment to the next, taking the reader through the journey of a women’s mind.
Michelle Tea is without a doubt an edgy crazy fantastic sexy sexual being of cleverness and sweetness. I follow her on Twitter and she even tweeted me back when I sent her a tweet about her memoir, How to Grow Up. I love this chick. But before she grew up, she wrote novels about her fucked–up self in stories such as Valencia. The title reminded me of the Instagram filter called ‘Valencia’, one of my favourite filters. It’s pretty and sweet and makes things seem more colourful and interesting. Kind of like Michelle on the cover of How to Grow Up. She is all tattooed up and sex–face and natural. And yes, I think sweet. But Valencia isn’t that sweet at all. The story takes the reader through the character Michelle’s ups and downs, highs and lows, loves and hates. Tea has a way with words that I’ve seen in both novels I’ve read. She confides in you, the reader. It’s like she knows you’re there and she’s saying, “Come on in, sit down, let me pour you a vodka (in Valencia) or a cup of tea (in How to Grow Up), and I’ll tell you all about my life. Are you comfortable? Okay, cool. Let’s go.”
For Lidia Yuknavitch I have massive respect, fear and groupie–like admiration. I first encountered her writing through the Wreckage of Reason Anthology with her short story “Daguerreotype of a Girl” – the first story in the anthology. And the one who stayed with me the longest. I’ve reflected on that story a lot; I’ve dissected it, I’ve read it and put it away to read it again. And still, I don’t tire of it. Yuknavitch has a very special and very sneaky way of luring you in with disturbing images and then keeping you there, pinned to the page. As she takes you through her non–linear way of storytelling she lets you see bit by bit what she is seeing. She plays games with your mind. She places an image in front of your eyes, and then snatches it away. In that short story I stretched my hand out to her to try and see, but she wouldn’t let me. So, I got a copy of her memoir, The Chronology of Water.
“I thought about starting this book with my childhood, the beginning of my life. But that’s not how I remember it. I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.” (The Chronology of Water, Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2011.) Yuknavitch has taught me many things, from holding rocks to seeing words, but most importantly she has taught me about non–linear writing and imagery. I tentatively dabbled in the use of imagery in my piece called Instagrammed (recently published in itch magazine) and rewrote it while reading her memoir. It flowed differently while reading her, it worked itself out in unexpected ways and manifested in a form I didn’t know I had in me.
I wouldn’t say my stories start where these women’s stories end. But I wouldn’t say they don’t, either. I read them while I write, while I sleep, while I eat. Like lifelong friends who don’t judge me when I look like shit and really can’t be bothered to wear a bra, and wasting away time on the couch pining over a better career, a better love, a better self; these women have become my companions through my working and studying life.
List of References:
I Love Dick, Kraus. Semiotext(e), 1997.
Torpor, Kraus. Semiotext(e), 2006.
Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, ed. Renek. Spuyten Duyvil, 2008.
How to Grow Up, Tea. Plume, 2015.
Valencia, Tea. Seal Press, 2000.
The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch. Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2011.
Green Girls, Zambreno. Harper Perennial, 2014.
Heroines, Zambreno. Semiotext(e), 2012.
Jana du Plessis is a copywriter, lecturer and author living in Cape Town, South Africa. She has co-written, directed and produced a stage play and is the author of two popular fiction novels, Vat ’n gap (2011) and Mieke rock uit (2012) (both NB Publishers). Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various publications, and she is currently obsessed with her spirit-sisters, Lidia Yuknavitch, Kate Zambreno, Michelle Tea and Chris Kraus.