Tagged: women in literature

Dame of the Day: Ana Blandiana

Ana Blandiana

Today’s Dame of the Day is Ana Blandiana (March 25, 1942-). Born in Romania during Soviet rule, Blandiana’s father spent years in Communist prison before his accidental death several weeks after his release. Blandiana wrote poetry and worked as a literary editor and librarian; as the regime grew more restrictive, her work became more protest-oriented.  Blandiana eventually entered politics and campaigned for an open society and an end to communist rule.

Schoolin’ Life: Colter Jackson

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator and writer Colter Jackson.

author photo final

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my 20s I had this agonizing, paralyzing ambition to “become a writer.” Hell or high water, I wanted to publish before 30. Guess what? I failed. But I needed that failure. It taught me a lot. I started having fun in my writing. I started drawing again. Letting myself play and pursue fun side projects – that’s when I started getting published and I think that’s not a coincidence.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

Society shrank my expectations of myself. I grew up in a very small town in Missouri (500 people or so). In that culture, girls were encouraged to be pretty but not interesting, defiant or smart.  Also, art was not valued. It was considered something the weird kids were good at. And I was good at it and worked hard at it, so I guess I was a weird kid. Creative pursuits were unheard of and I’d never met an author or an illustrator so I didn’t understand that these were things you could be. Even though I’ve made a career of it, my family still refers to my artistic inclination as ‘artsy fartsy’.

What was your first job like?

I was a waitress at a diner and I got fired. They said it was for my terrible handwriting. I was devastated. I thought it meant I was destined for a life of failure.

What was your first apartment like?

I was 15 when I moved out of my mother’s house. It was a small one-bedroom subsidized by the government. My English teacher had to write a note for me explaining that I was a responsible kid and would pay the rent. I hated the apartment then – the dingy carpets, the dark rooms, the leaky faucet, but I love it now. The idea of it. I can see myself up late at night at the kitchen table working my ass off on my college applications. Doing everything to get myself out of that little town.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I had a health scare that really transformed my life. I was working in advertising as a writer but I had always dreamed of writing books and pursuing my illustration more seriously. Then I got sick and realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to squander at happy hours and late-nights at the agency. After they let me out of the hospital, I quit my job, went freelance and started making things (novels, comics, illustrations, kids books) furiously and with absolute abandon.

In what ways did your friendships change?

In my 20s, it seemed like I had a million friends. But a lot of those friendships were shallow and based on nothing more than shared space. I have fewer friends now in my 30s but life feels so much richer because the connection to those friends runs very deep. I feel so fortunate to have found a tribe of people who all really love and respect each other and want good things for each other.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I learned life is too short to put up with shenanigans. Find someone awesome and wake up and love them with all you have every day.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Family is so complicated. I’m the baby of five, so I think I had to get far away in order to carve out my own version of myself. Being the youngest child, I had a bit of hero worship for my older siblings. I had to grow up and realize they are just humans and their approval of me doesn’t make or break my life. Their beliefs about the world, don’t have to be my beliefs. That was very freeing. I stopped trying to make everybody happy with my choices. The strange result of that was deeper, more authentic relationships with my family. I enjoy most of them. I’m friends with them.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

In two large ways. I let go of the reins and this constant feeling of wanting to control the direction of my life because there is so much out of our control. And I let go of the crippling desire to make everyone happy. I realized people would still love me if I made choices they didn’t approve of and if they stopped loving me – they weren’t the kind of person I wanted in my life, were they?

How did you change intellectually?

I’ve always been a reader but I think I started to understand the value of reading books that are really challenging and not just entertaining. That books actually get inside of you and make you bigger and better in a lot of ways, opening your eyes and opening your heart.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

The adjectives changed. I went from striving to be pleasant and pretty to striving to be interesting, tenacious, brave, intelligent and kind.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I grew up so insular. Travelling and reading really opened my eyes to how connected we are as human beings. How we should do everything we can to minimize the suffering of others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My high school English teacher had a profound affect on my life. She was always so fiercely intelligent and well-read. I grew up in a cultural desert and she was this magical oasis of knowledge and poetry. She encouraged me in my outlying interests and it’s the only encouragement I can find when I look back.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
The things I regret aren’t really missteps or mistakes – I think those are valuable. I regret time wasted and I regret anytime I’ve ever hurt anyone.

Schoolin’ Life: Ayun Halliday

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator, author, and performer Ayun Halliday.

Ayun Halliday

Photo credit:

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine, a freelance illustrator and the author of seven books, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late and the graphic novel, Peanut. She wrote and performed in over 500 short plays and several full-length solo performances as a member of the Neo-Futurists and has a bottomless appetite for creating theater with teenagers. She will be performing in the world premiere of her play, Fawnbook in New York City this fall. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Greg Kotis and their son, Milo. Her daughter, India Kotis, just headed off to college in Chicago, and will turn 20 in less than 2 years.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my early 20s, I thought I’d be doing a lot of theater, but despite a degree in it from Northwestern University, I wasn’t quite sure how. Shortly my 25th birthday, I was cast in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the NeoFuturist’s long-running, late-night attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Being an ensemble member gave me plenty of opportunities to write and perform, as well as a professional identity that I took with me into my 30s.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

My expectations were forged in opposition to society’s expectations. In my teens, I learned – to my surprise – that I was a bit of a misfit, at least at the preppy school I’d attended since 2nd grade. Generally speaking, it led me to developed a distaste – some would call it a chip on my shoulder – for anything society deemed popular.

What was your first job like?

My very first paycheck job was extraordinarily undefined. I had just turned 16. It was at Ralf’s Deli in Indianapolis. I think I was a hostess – I didn’t get an apron or a paper hat –  but I also had to clean all the gunk out of the sink traps, which created a phobia I have to this day. A meat slicer in his 20s named Yuri thought I was cute and called me at home, which freaked me out. I knew my mom would not be down with that. I didn’t know that a hostess or whatever the hell I was wouldn’t be allowed to take two weeks off to go on a long planned family vacation, three months after she started work. That was the end of that. What a ding dong I was. I have since made it a policy to try to really train people in what they’re helping me do… I was at such loose, loose ends!

Sad to say, my 20s were full of jobs like this – impermanent, poorly conceived, a bit . I wrote about them in my third book, Job Hopper.

I guess the defining job of my 20s was waiting tables at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, just because the place itself had such an identity. I was proud to be considered worthy of slinging spaghetti there. It was definitely the best waitressing job I ever had, and I had a lot of those in my 20s.

What was your first apartment like?

Wonderful! I shared half a house in Evanston, Illinois, with two guys from the theater department. It had a big front porch, a backyard, a big kitchen for all my hippie cooking experiments, and my giant bedroom had a king size bed left behind by the previous tenant.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Yes. I traveled to Europe, Africa, and Asia on a shoestring budget. I went to massage school. I moved to New York City nine months before turning 30. I got engaged to my friend and fellow NeoFuturist, Greg Kotis —married him just a few months into my 30s.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Mostly they deepened. Many of us who’d been together at college remained in Chicago, and joining the NeoFuturists provided me with significant links to several other ragtag theater crews, notably Theater Oobleck, Cardiff Giant, and the Curious Theater Branch. We would go to each other’s’ shows and parties. I kept in touch with many of those who moved by writing letters – I just unearthed 100s of the ones I received in reply in shoeboxes under my bed. It’s a true time capsule. I encourage those of you in your 20s to print out some of your favorite emails and text conversations. Is it possible to print out texts? Clearly, I’m not in my 20s anymore.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I came out of my 20s with the understanding that my pattern of skipping out on relationships that weren’t officially over, to revel in a new love, was not the way to go. From the inside, it was quite easy to view myself as a victim of circumstance, gripped in the jaws of a desire I was powerless to deny… From the outside, it’s pretty tawdry…petty, not sweeping.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I doubt it was much interested in me. I was not a threat, just kind of an oddball. If society stopped to consider me, it probably thought, “She should lose ten pounds, cut her hair, wear makeup, shave her legs…” Actually my boyfriend’s agent told me that when I was 23, kindly adding, “But I don’t think you want to do that just so we can send you out for young mommy roles.”  That was the death knell for my commercial career.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

Gosh, did I? I gained experience, but I think the emotional make up remains the same. Keep reading, maybe it doesn’t. I’ve got no perspective here…

How did you change intellectually?

I had to stay abreast of the news to pull my weight with the NeoFuturists. George H.W. Bush was president, and there was a real sense that women might lose their right to safe, legal abortions. I wrote a lot of plays about that. I listened to NPR and read the Utne Reader, read the newspaper every day.

I was much better informed in my 20s than I am now – then I was only responsible for myself (and the world). Now I have a family and the Internet blowing big holes in my attention span.

I also lived in fear that I might be called upon to do improv, and I would be too ill informed to act intelligently upon an audience member’s suggestion. Actually, that happened to me just last winter. My audience member’s suggestion was “Bernie Madoff” and internally, I was like…hmmm…uh…oh yeah, that guy who screwed people out of their investments…I think he maybe went to prison…hmm…he was in the news a lot but the financial industry is so boring to me. Needless to say, hilarity did not ensue.

I think you meet a lot of people in your 20s, who’ve gone to different colleges, and have this whole other set of references than you do. I began to get a feel for what they were teaching over at Oberlin, the University of Chicago, etc.

I was a voracious reader, then, as now. Lately I’ve taken to rereading some of the books I loved in my 20s to see how they hold up. Grapes of Wrath and Ship of Fools definitely do. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, not so much…

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

My ongoing work with the NeoFuturists let me claim to be a professional, without the need to behave like one. Since we almost always played ourselves,  people who recognized me in the subway, felt comfortable coming up and starting conversations, a recognition I enjoyed for the most part. I liked feeling accessible, and sought after. My 20s definitely gave birth to my voice, even though my first book didn’t appear ’til I was in my 30s.

I also got a lot less guarded. I was shy when I was little, and didn’t know much beyond the conventional expectations. I would rather hold my pee for hours than have someone see me walk into the bathroom, because then they might know that I – gasp!- actually used the bathroom. Menstruation was kind of a horrorshow of embarrassment.

Interestingly, I was pretty uninhibited when it came to romance, but I think that was because I was so down to be loved and cherished. I still didn’t want those guys knowing I peed! Even when we lived together! I think a combination of massage school, the NeoFuturists, and global travel on a shoestring are to thank for that… I realized there’s little profit in being uptight, particularly when the people who gave you these hang ups in the first place aren’t part of your daily life anymore.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

You can’t travel the way I did without expanding your worldview. Obviously, I was very familiar with the Save the Children, Concert for Bangladesh, South Asian, and Southeast Asian countries before leaving home, but traveling, I met many happy, multigenerational families, living in the equivalent of an American garage. Really. They’d roll the door down at night, then roll it up again in the morning, their lives exposed to the street for most of the day. I was impressed by the way the entire family would coalesce around the baby. The baby was always king. The furniture might consist of a couple of plastic stools and a plastic bag of mangoes hanging on a nail, but there would be this giant, blown up photo of the baby hanging in a place of honor. And the baby was invariably so well behaved!

My college sweetheart was the youngest of eleven children – he always said that his feet never touched the floor. Those babies were like that – so adored that their feet never touched the floor.

I saw that people were able to live and be very happy without a lot of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly materialistic in the designer handbag / pristine interior decoration sense, but I do have a lot of things…souvenirs, books, little indicators of personality. Traveling, I saw a model in which personalities could exist free of stuff.

And it’s definitely an experience to travel around a place like Rwanda a year before civil war or some other catastrophe befalls it. It makes you appreciate what you have, and also come to the sobering realization that knowing your complaints are comparatively petty does not necessarily mean you’ll stop making them. I’d be scribbling in my journal about how someone hurt my feelings… meanwhile, back in Rwanda, neighbors are slicing each other to ribbons with machetes.

This is probably how I arrived at my conviction that very few people would have actually stuck their necks out for Anne Frank, the way the heroic Miep Geis did when she was barely out of her 20s. All children get a pass from me, if they say they would save Anne Frank. Most adults do not. I think most adults are like me…horrified when they read the news, quick to express that horror over social media or cocktails, but just as quick to post a photo of our dinner or our vacation. We’re most of us in a position that makes it very unlikely to disrupt our lives, to take the risk that might save someone else. But I think, even if we were to strip away those responsibilities to job and family, we’d still find a reason to steer clear.

It gives me respect for what others go through, and respect for the people who do move mountains to help strangers.  It also makes me a bit impatient with certain American anarchist acquaintances’ knee-jerk “Fuck America” rhetoric. A lot of us, myself included, are guilty of inaction. Send money or give time. I guess I better send some money somewhere tonight.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

So many to choose from! Most of them wound up in my first four books. Fortunately there is a difference between “embarrassing” and “shameful”.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Hmm…there was no one crushing one, more a number of small lumps in the throat, mostly having to do with being passed over for some part or another, prior to the NeoFuturists. That probably contributed to me not pursuing auditions very vigorously…thought it could also be a temperamental thing. Either way, I wound up making a lot of opportunities for myself, a thing I continue to do, though these days I like to include others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

The late performance artist Spalding Gray. Something he said in an interview in Tricycle magazine really resonated with me, that the reason he started performing his autobiographical monologues was because he got “sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. It’s become a personal motto.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

I did have the distinction of answering the phone at an alternative newspaper in Chicago when some random person called to report that Kurt Cobain had died…I ran into Editiorial to break the news to the music editor and the rest of the staff. That was my big scoop. That said, that event defined others’ decades much more than my own.

(Let it also be said that I, a 20-something receptionist, put the great Art Spiegelman on hold for like, 5 minutes, while I finished my salad, or whatever the hell it was I was doing. I fell all over myself when I finally got back on the horn and he told me his name. The arrogance of youth!)

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course! See all of the above! But to quote Don Marquis’ alley cat, Mehitabel, “Wot the hell, Archie, toujours gai!”

Dame of the Day: Claribel Alegria

Clara Isabel Alegría Vides

Today’s Dame of the Day is Claribel Alegría (May 12, 1924-). Alegría moved to the United States for college when she was 19, but she maintained close ties to her native Nicaragua. Her poems, novels, and essays critiqued society while championing justice and freedom. During the country’s uprisings of the 1970s, Alegría redoubled her commitment to non-violent resistance while supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front. In 1985, she returned to Nicaragua to aid with reconstruction following the revolution. Today, she continues to live and write in Managua.

Dame of the Day: Thuraya Al-Baqsami

Thuraya Al-Baqsami

Today’s Dame of the Day is Thuraya Al-Baqsami (1952-). As a student, Al-Baqsami studied art in Egypt and obtained a master’s degree in Graphic Design in Russia before returning home to Kuwait. Her work is part of private and public collections worldwide and received praised from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan; the UN commissioned her for a sculpture project that traveled around the world. She also received awards for her short story collection, Cellar Candles, and her children’s book, The Recollection of small Kuwaiti Fatuma.

Dame of the Day: Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson

Today’s Dame of the Day is Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914 – June 27, 2001). This author, illustrator, and cartoonist started writing stories at the age of 14. After World War II, Jansson developed Moomin, a classic book series celebrated across Sweden and around the world. Jansson received the Hans Christian Anderson Award for the series and her characters have their own museum.

Dame of the Day: Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam

Today’s Dame of the Day is Tahmima Anam (October 8, 1975-). Born into a family of writers, Anam took up the family trade and earned an MA in Creative Writing. Her first book, A Golden Age, is loosely based on her parents’ relationship and takes place during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The sequel, The Good Muslim, made the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist.

Dame of the Day: Zee Edgell

Zee Edgell

Today’s Dame of the Day is Zee Edgell (October 21, 1940-). After college, Edgell worked as a journalist for various publications across Belize. Later on, she began teaching and traveling with development agencies. She has written four books and is actively involved with Belize’s literary scene. In addition she served as the government’s director of women’s affairs.

Dame of the Day: Mariama Ba

Mariama Ba

 

Today’s Dame of the Day is Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981). Growing up in Dakar, Senegal, Bâ struggled to get an education at a time when schooling for girls was considered wasteful. As an adult, she married and later divorced, leaving her a single mother of nine. Bâ channeled her frustration with sexism and oppression into her novel, So Long a Letter. Through her writing and her own personal live, Bâ served as an example of modern womanhood to future generations of Senegalese women.

Schoolin’ Life: Jen Breach

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with writer and business analyst Jen Breach.

jen breach

 

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I‘m a 35 year-old Australian living in Brooklyn.  I’m a writer – picture books and graphic novels – and have a day job as a business analyst for systems implementation projects at Barnard College.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Oof.  So many.  I truly thought that by 30, I would have a PhD in archaeology and my first novel published.  I was raised with very unhealthy ideas about achievement and perfection.  When I did get to 30, I had an abandoned master’s program and I’d not even finished, let alone pitched or published a book.  Although I understood intellectually that it was okay not have met those unrealistic expectations, I still felt like a failure.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I completely internalized the idea that young women should be pretty, quiet and compliant. How destructive is that?  Those were expectations I could meet, though.  For all the world, I seemed at ease but my own skin grated against me like sandpaper. Oh, to cause a ruckus.

What was your first job like?

I’ve always worked.  I can’t even remember what the first one was. Cleaning houses with my brother?  Or ironing business shirts for a neighbor? It was certainly shitty and poorly paid ☺

What was your first apartment like?

Apartments aren’t common in Australia.  Most students and young people will live in a standalone multi-bedroom family home, sharing with other students. The first place I lived out of my parents’ house was a cute-as-a-button pale yellow weatherboard cottage in a Greek-and-Italian neighborhood in Melbourne. The whole bit: rose garden out the front, concrete back yard with a huge old nectarine tree that the nonna next door would precariously climb the fence to steal from.   I shared the house with an alcoholic, a narcissist and a film student bodhran player.  The arrangement fell apart is a spectacular way after two years but when I think back on it, the sun is shining on that house and the yellow looks lovely against a bright blue sky.

The first true apartment I had was in the East Village when I moved to NYC at 30.  It was a third floor walk up, the smallest space I have ever occupied and completely awesome.

How did your relationships with your family change?

At 19, I came out as bisexual to my parents.  Their response was a quoted bible passage and then we didn’t speak for six years.  It was catastrophic. When we did speak again we didn’t have a single conversation about the estrangement. It took me another nine years for me to talk about it with them and to understand that while ideally a parent will love their child, it’s not always true.

The change, in all its big and tiny ways, was understanding and accepting that the fantasy that mine could be a close, loving, nurturing family was impossible.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I grew up in rural Australia in the 80s.  While Australia is a wealthy, educated Western country, attitudes are still very provincial, especially out of the cities.  I did not even entertain the idea that I was attracted to women until I moved to the city for college at 18.  Understanding that I was bi was like wearing a bespoke suit after two decades of ill-fitting hand-me-downs.  When my parents saw my new suit and disowned me, I was really lost. In some ways I am oddly grateful for that catastrophe – it galvanized the way I saw myself. if I’d paid that enormous, painful price to understand and live my sexual identity, it didn’t make sense to be half assed about it.

The other change in identity came much later in my 20s when I shifted perspective from “I want to be a writer” to “I am a writer”.  I went to the Emerging Writer’s Festival in Melbourne one sunny cold early winter day and had my idea of what it means to be a writer turned completely on its head. I had thought that it meant you had to be published, you had to make a living off it, you had to be a bestseller – you had to have soaring achievement that proves your “claim”.  None of that is true.  You’re a writer if you say so.  I can’t remember the first time I actually said it out loud, but in my imagination I am timidly squeaking with a grimace and an apology.   In the States I see people way more comfortable with calling themselves a writer, or illustrator, or designer or game maker – which is right.  There’s a greater acceptance here of creative pursuit and activity, that you’re a professional if you say so regardless of how you pay your bills. In Australia creative pursuit is a hobby, not a career, especially in comics.  It’s not true though – if you write, you’re a writer.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I don’t go in for regret. Aren’t we all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got in front of us?  So how can a choice be wrong?  There are always reasons – good or otherwise – for our choices, actions, or lack there of.  Of course, some choices are bad and we misconstrue some reasons as excuses.  But unless we know we are acting intentionally cruelly or unreasonably or evilly, then we could all stand to be a little kinder to ourselves about our choices and cut ourselves a break.

There’s such a disconnect between what we think a thing is and what it actually turns out to be.  We make decisions based on what we know, what we feel and what we can imagine, not on the actual, real future outcome of a choice.  How can we?  If it turns out to be a bad choice then we have more information to work on to make new choices – either with forward momentum or backwards reflection to make amends for past wrongdoing.
Regret is an inability to see the threads of one’s life and an inability to act without shame or ego in the face of our own less-than-ideal choices.  Conscious action of this kind is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s a better place to put energy than in regret.