Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rumpus Women, Volume I edited by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist

Rumpus Women, Volume I
edited by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist

I started reading The Rumpus around a year ago, after my friend-and-fellow-Cannonballer Jon-Paul recommended it. Founded by Stephen Elliott, managed by Isaac Fitzgerald, and featuring guest spots from great writers like Steve Almond, Jami Attenburg, Roxane Gay, and Rick Moody, I quickly became a fan. With all the literary site hoopla regarding gender parity in writing, The Rumpus offers plenty of great content from women without making a giant deal about it — these women write for the site because they are talented, and they also have something to say.

With their book club — members pay $25 a month to receive a book a month before its publication — they attempt to keep things fairly even, gender-wise. For November 2010, they encountered some trouble in finding a new book that met their requirements, and so an idea was born: “We’d been searching for an edgy, honest, and literary book — the kind of writing that women contribute to week after week. What we sought was what we published daily. We could publish our own book, a compilation of women’s writing.” In six weeks, they had their material. The result is indeed an honest and literary collection of personal essays, and while some are more affecting than others, it’s a wonderful book.

Already the most well known portion is the correspondence between Elissa Bassist and the advice columnist Sugar. Sugar, for those of you not already familiar, is magic. She has a way of getting to the heart of serious matters in way that’s neither patronizing nor dismissive. Normally the questions come from people who wish to remain anonymous, but Elissa wanted her personal struggles with writing and depression to be broadcast:

How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and be the writer she wishes she’d be?

Sugar’s answer, in part, became a rallying theme for the entire site: Write like a motherfucker.

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

I’m fairly certain there is a large chunk of the Rumpus-reading population who ask themselves on a regular basis, “What would Sugar say?” I know I have.

Elsewhere in Rumpus Women, we hear from Antonia Crane and her perspective on sex work. Her essay on moving from an unsatisfying Los Angeles strip club to a locals joint in New Orleans is upstanding:

I’m relieved to see the range of body types and the signature dead gaze girls toss my direction while floating on plastic heels. They’re not all Vegased out. They’re real girls with stretch marks and round hips and crooked smiles, and their garters hold stacks of green. They’re making money. Maybe I can too.

I don’t have any strong opinions on stripping and other sex work, except to say that it works out fine for some people, and for others, it’s a poor means of escape. I can’t judge in a widespread way, just like I can’t assume all accountants are boring nerds. Everyone has their reasons, and Crane illuminates hers well.

On the flipside of Crane’s perspective, Cheryl Strayed’s essay deals with considering a job as an escort in Portland. She ultimately decides that it is not for her, and that her other jobs “essentially left me the person that I was and wanted to be:” she says, “the sort who neither allowed her body to be a commodity, nor believed that any woman should.” It is just as easy to understand Strayed’s reasons as it is Crane’s.

Several of the essays deal with religion, like Gabrielle Calvovoressi discussing the Sabbath and Junior Middleweight Miguel Cotto, or Diane Spechler’s “Conversions,” in which she cheats on her boyfriend with an aspiring Judiasm-convert, a man who also gets her addicted to cocaine. That essay flows straight into Michelle Myung-Ok Lee’s “Losing My Relgion.” In it, she describes the erosion of her Christian faith after having a severely disabled child. To call it “moving” does not do it justice:

I am confident I can know my own truth without someone else approving it. Because of my son, my writing, and the divine spirit of the universe, I am no longer sitting at a distance to my own life — scared, angry, wondering why I am being punished. I can live into life. That is grace and that is God, once lost and now found.

Rumpus Women has stories of cancer, of sex, of pregnancy and of familial loss. Writers like Michelle Tea are honest about their drug use and bad relationship decisions. All people are flawed in their own way, and these writers are no different. To judge as though we are above judgement would only feed into the perpetual build-up/tear-down cycle in which we often indulge.

Near the end of the book, Michelle Orange touches on that cycle in her essay, “How to Have a Beautiful Corpse: Death and Dying in the Famous Age.” She talks about her childhood obsessions with James Dean, John Lennon and Michael Jackson, and the way the modern media reacts to a celebrity death. There are many great points she makes, too numerous to quote here, but perhaps it all comes down to this:

We have now reached the culmination of this quandary, a destruction accelerated by the celebrity pileup that is the information superhighway. There are no controls on the culture as there are on the individual, and unregulated the primary impulse to adore and emulate can corrupt a society with a programming as vaguely but voraciously attuned to the concept of “success” as ours.

Exhibit A, circa early-to-mid-2000s: “That’s hot.”
Exhibit B, circa, oh, now: “Winning.”

Overall, Rumpus Women covers a wide selection of women, while still managing to flow from topic to topic. Seeing as the women did not have any subject or length requirements when asked to write for the book, it makes the end result seem all the more fortuitous. I look forward to reading Volume 2, whenever it shall exist, and would certainly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of gender.

The book can be purchased directly from The Rumpus, along with ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’ mugs and t-shirts.


(Full disclosure: Two of my reviews have appeared on the site, one for Jess Walter’s The Zero, the other for Nick Antosca’s Midnight Picnic.)

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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