Several weeks ago, editions had its inaugural book club meeting to discuss Lise Haller Baggesen’s Mothernism. Lise had been in the store in September to do a reading from the book and chose a particularly moving (and funny!) letter to her mother that meandered from breast feeding to celebrities to cancer and art installations. This selection was made as a way of linking her reading to Mickalene Thomas’ exhibition “I was born to do great things,” an homage to the artist’s mother that was on display down the hall from the bookstore. Lise’s entire book is written as a series of letters to different women in her life—her mother, sister and young daughter. While I’ve read epistolary novels before, this book does something different. These are not fictitious letters, and there isn’t a cogent “story” constructed through them, exactly. Yet, while they may be nonfiction, they aren’t exactly real letters, either, or at least letters delivered through traditional means. For these were written with the express purpose of being published in a book, simultaneously made available to family members and strangers alike.
Each letter, taking on both a loose theme (breasts or rape or disco come to mind) as well as a recipient, drifts seamlessly between autobiographical reflection, french theory and song lyrics, ultimately staking out a cohesive and deeply personal position; Lise is an artist, thinker, woman, mother. Throughout the book, I found myself learning things I had previously not known, being challenged in my presumptions about unexamined arenas of the culture that I live in, and occasionally disagreeing with the positions taken in the text. And I feel like that, the disagreement, is OK. Because the book does nothing if not stake out a personal position, a feminist countering to the objective know-it-all-ism so frequently encountered in academia. One gets the distinct sense that Lise is reading selectively, deciding to and giving herself permission to read Foucault or Julia Kristeva or Russell Brand or listen to David Bowie and take what she will from it, to take these works and turn them in to tools, carving out a space in the world for herself and others like her.
There are so many passages in the book that I found moving and memorable, but here is one in particular that was brought up in the book club. It directly addresses what could be seen as contradictory characteristics of notable feminists, reminding us that ambivalence, that disagreement, does not, in fact, make us bad feminists, that ambivalence is already worked into the fabric of feminism.
“Oftentimes, when I feel like a disqualified feminist, it helps to recall my relief upon learning that Virginia Woolf was so solidly upper middle class that she and her husband—with whom she spent a lifelong and poly-platonic relationship—could practically pay for their publishing business out of pocket, while being persistently attacked by her contemporaries (suffragettes and critics alike), as well as literary historians later on, for not knowing the first thing about “real” (read: working class) women’s lives.
Or, how disillusioned divorcees were disappointed to discover that Anais Nin was still married and supported by her husband, while taking several lovers and writing her five volume coast to coast American odyssey and fictional erotic bildungsroman about her sexual and artistic coming of age.
Or, that Suzanne Brogger married and settled down in the Danish countryside, where she brought up her daughter Luzia, whom she loved to bits and wrote a children’s book; becoming, as they say, altogether boring, instead of practicing and preaching free sex and to hell with the bourgeoisie and their cannibal monogamy.
Or, that Simone de Beauvoir—rebel, provocateur and one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century—moved from her parents’ house into a hotel (with a chamber maid) and directly from there she moved in with Sartre. He is often described as a big baby, whom she spent her adult life mothering—despite her fierce attacks on motherhood and the destiny of women. She would also share many of her female partners with him—in fact bringing home one budding butt after the other—while condemning housewives for prostituting themselves.
Don’t ho’ me, if you don’t know me, Simone, but seriously:
With every Goddess a letdown
Every Idol a bring down
It gets you down
But the search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on and on and on and on
—Roxy Music, “Mother of Pearl”
These four women, like all the other who inhabit these letters, whose lifetimes span the same century as my foremothers, also divulge a lineage of sorts, their literary DNA entwined with my own as I write. They are my idols not in spite of their obvious flaws, but because of them—including being accused of whoring—or conversely, accusing others.”