Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, editors.
I have nursed this blog post for so long. Why? There is some considerable embarrassment on my part about having been a member of a feminist press for six years—and feeling like I really don’t know what feminism is. What it is for me, in the place where my body (disabled), my heritage and class (working, Hispanic/Italian-American) and my way of negotiating gender (more on that later) meets. And there is further discomfort for me around the fact that, as a somatic writing teacher (working with others to teach myself a new somatic), I am steadily becoming utterly disinterested in making any kind of syntax that will sound like discourse. I get all crunchy when I start to try to make theory—and by “crunchy” I don’t mean Rainbow Grocery. I mean calcified, like stones in the kidneys.
So I’ve retained this post for so long because I felt like I should be able to say something terribly smart about A Megaphone. A book that started off as a collection of articles about the disparities that still exist for women in experimental publishing, a book that Spahr and Young started to compile as part of “how we might claim the feminist tradition of body art and durational performance as abstracted avant gardists”. I felt like I should be able to say something terribly “abstracted” and smart about this book, in spite of everything.
But what I most admire about A Megaphone is its earnest rushing-forth, beyond discursvity. The book opened out to include writings from women in dozens of countries about what it is like to be a woman, a poet, a feminist in the places where they live. Needless to say, many of their answers were built on anger, on lack of opportunity, on fear and oppression. While not without hope, without fire. And I dare say, if woman with disabilities, of certain races, in poor neighborhoods in the U.S. were asked these questions, the registry of replies would be similar. I am grateful for the language that Spahr and Young used to call out for these “listening enactments”. In their introduction, they write
“So we began with willful naiveness. We said to ourselves that we will put out some words saying that we have some ears. and we are wiling to listen and then see what comes to our ears. We are not saying educate us, give us a reading list, do some labor that we should be doing ourselves. We are not saying that all feminisms are the same. ”
This open, exuberant language pervades A Megaphone, yet still, I have hesitated to post anything about the book.
Recently, Spahr and Young were interviewed by Amanda Montei on the Ms.Blog. They said, about their own listening enactments. “We’re not sure listening is a crucial tool. But we did it anyway. Maybe a better way to phrase this would be to say that listening might be one tool among many. And, like all tools, it might have its moments. And it might have its limitations. Or what we mean is that if feminism ended with listening, or was mainly about listening, it would be–as many feminists have pointed out–somewhat limited to stories of women’s personal experience. And perhaps might lack a more structural analysis.”
I like these limits. I like pushing up against these limits without changing modes to see what gets pressed through the mesh. In the end, at the beginning, what I hold, what I have to give, what I want to be better and better at receiving is personal stories. In the weeks it took me to read A Megaphone, I started listening differently to the stories inside me and the stories I was hearing on the news and the stories coming to me from women I work with as a disability peer counselor.
These stories included:
The sound of my great-grandmother’s voice, Mercedes Diaz, a daughter of Asturian peasants, a nurse and primary breadwinner, wife to my Welo—a man who wept a lot, drove a taxi cab and drank. She’d beat him over the head when he came home drunk. I can see her shoving her two fingers upward, scissorlike. The words “balls’ and “cut”. They were married for decades. She was alone a lot. He was soft, peeled my grapes, called me his “little pigeon”. She was steel. The women in my family, always in control. Always needing to be hard. It is no wonder I get confused.
My client was a crack whore in the Fillmore in the 80’s. Getting multiple sclerosis saved her because her rich parents stepped in. She lives better than any of my clients because she doesn’t have to worry about rent, health care, etc. And because she can’t go sell her body for drugs, she hasn’t ODed. She is more alone than any of my clients because she has no particular goals. And there is no particular advice she seeks from me. She was swept from one kind of induced body trauma to another, stronger more incidental illness. She is alive, but there has been nothing to replace crack. We bond over having names that sound like pasta sauce. Her cat is named Gia, after the 80’s model who died of heroin and HIV. The one Angelina Jolie played in that HBO biopic. When I watched Gia, my body twitched in symmetry. Recalling how some drugs have made me feel better than any medicine or poetry or somatic classes. That old itch, how it’s a little bit OK if you are careful and beautiful. And I wan to tell her to go and think about maybe wanting something. But not really. We talk about Tu Pac and we like that together too. Our next tattoos. Want to say, Ok, time to leave my office because I need to be putting more energy into the client who can’t afford his wheelchair. When I talk to Gia, I feel rage. And envy.
Spanish woman being interviewed on the BBC. She is trying to get her mentally ill mother out of prison. Much work to do, petitions and publicity. Her mother is in prison for killing the daughter’s rapist. She lit him on fire at a local bar more than ten years after the fact. The daughter doesn’t talk about herself—or rather she does, in the most practical manner. About the facts of her rape, but that yes. her mother was wrong, but how she deserves to be free. I catch myself agreeing entirely, hearing Wela Meche in my mind. “Cut his balls off.” The dead, burned up man. Then I think about the daughter, how the trauma is forever fractalized for her, into her efforts to free her mother. Who has the right to fall apart, to act out in rage, when, if ever?
Here’s my red megaphone tee-shirt, smudged in white paint. When I was a grad student, getting an MFA in poetry, I was mostly focused on “dating” via Craigslist. Mainly, I was interested in what the body-as-a-sexual tool could do. Because I had been stigmatized out of that utility. I was taking a class with a bunch of art-happening-hipster types. They made a huge float and we paraded around the Mission, wearing our megaphone shirts, ushering people on to our flaot and cheering for them. One was a middle-aged Mexican woman with a developmental disability. It happened to be her birthday. This was the best moment. She had fun, surprised us with the songs she introduced to the float. A later project involved us trying to make a $100 as fast as possible with our art. I put an ad on CL. An aging hippe with a braid came and picked me up and drove me far far out of SF, to his home in Santa Rosa. He spent 30 minutes taking nude photos of me. It was not hard to get naked in bright lights, like a surgical suite. And he, I knew, after a while, was not at all dangerous. Though he did force on me an analogy I didn’t need. He told me, while I was naked, and the flash bulb was going off, about a Dear Abby column he had recently read. About a man with CP. His brother procured a sex worker for him, “so that he could have that experience”. The experience I had, with the hippie photographer, was the easiest $100 I ever made, and the photos still intrigue me. When I reported to the art-happening-hipsters in my class, they were shocked. They looked scared for me. I was kind of scared I had done something disgusting. Only M. understood. She was an albino, transgender, ex-child-game-show-prodigy from the Philippines. I wish I still knew her.
This other photo is of my best/man/friend. He is wearing my $1 DKNY cardigan I got at Out-of-the-Closet, a thrift store that supports AIDS research. I promptly shrank it into a grey fuzzball after throwing it in the dryer. He took the clothes shaver to it and kept it on all night to stretch it out. With us, it is a constant struggle between interdependence and codependence. To me, he smells like my mother and this is a truth I will never parse out.
And this last narrative, a class I am considering auditing this summer:
Women and Disability in Film and Stories, Professor Marsha Saxton
Marsha Saxton, Ph.D. teaches Disability Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a principal investigator at the World Institute on Disability, in Oakland, CA, with special interests in women’s issues, genetic technologies and Personal Assistance Services.
This course will explore through documentary, foreign and Hollywood film, readings and discussion, the intersections of women’s experience and disability issues, as well as with a range of other issues such as race and class in the global context. We will investigate the social, political and personal impact of disability and chronic illness on relationships, identity, employment, health, body image, sexuality, reproduction, motherhood, aging and other issues.
Through stories of real women’s and girls lives which reached the media in the last decade through the last century, students will move toward a dynamic understanding of the impact of physical, emotional and mental disabilities in the context of current social forces and public policy, primarily in the U.S, but with some comparison with other countries. Using lectures, discussion, films, readings and assignments, we will explore feminist analyses of disability issues, historic perspectives and current trends in medicine, independent living, care-giving, insurance, public benefits, law, and community activism. We will look at how they affect and are affected by disabled women and girls and their families. Discussion will focus on controversial ethical issues such as prenatal screening, wrongful birth law suits, and physician-assisted suicide. Course readings will utilize the rich film and written literature of disabled women’s anthologies, biography and autobiography, scholarly and popular literature, feminist analyses, creative writing, women’s art and theatre.
This course will be offered during Session D, July 5-August 12, Tu W Th9-11:30am. For more information and to register go to
http://sis.berkeley.edu/OSOC/osoc?p_term=SU&p_dept=gws and look for GWS111.
I’ll end with a quote by Milli Graffi, an Italian poet from Italy who offered her words as one ofA Megaphone’s listening enactments
“Feminism is a different way of writing the present.”
Posted by Amber DiPietra