Friday, July 27, 2007

Thursday Night at Bluestockings: Min Jin Lee and Rebecca Wolff for WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Friday, July 27, 2007:

Bluestockings, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite bookstores in New York City. In the past year, I've gone to over two dozen events there. Most are free but I usually try to give a small contribution when they pass around the bucket; even for the events that have an admission fee, nobody's ever turned away because they can't pay. It's that kind of place: proudly radical and feminist, it always seems comfortable to someone like me, who came of age in what seemed like a more radical time. Mr. Peabody, get the Wayback Machine:

Gail Collins, now a New York Times op-ed columnist, ends her magisterial 2003 epic history, America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, on August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which established women's suffrage. Ten thousand women and a number of male supporters -- including one very callow 19-year-old boy from Brooklyn -- gathered in Manhattan to celebrate and support the second-wave feminist agenda.

Mayor John Lindsay -- whose re-election I'd worked for the year before, in both the June Republican primary (lost) and the November general election (won, as the Liberal Party candidate) -- denied the group a permit to parade on Fifth Avenue, asking that they march only on the sidewalk. Parade organizer Betty Friedan surveyed the unexpectly huge crowd swelling around her, and issued the command I was to hear a number of times during the next few years:

"Take the street!"

Here are some photos I took early that morning 37 years ago as we gathered at City Hall Park.

That's Betty Friedan in the top row, and below are Congresswoman Bella Abzug in her trademark hat and NYC Consumer Affairs Commissioner Elinor Guggenheimer (who'd finished fourth in the previous year's Democratic primary for City Council President, beating only writer Jimmy Breslin, running on Norman Mailer's mayoral ticket). I can't find the photo I took of Gloria Steinem, who would found Ms. Magazine the next year when it first appeared as an insert in New York Magazine.

Around that time, as a Poli Sci major at Brooklyn College, I'd take my required seminar in Sex and Politics and do my undergraduate writing requirement on feminist health issues, particularly in regard to gynecological care. We students successfully petitioned and demonstrated until the college hired its first staff gynecologist.

Twenty years later, in Gainesville, I'd be one of three guys in the first Women and the Law class (our text: Feminist Jurisprudence: Taking Women Seriously) offered at UF Law School and volunteer as an escort at a women's health center at a time when North Florida abortion providers were being killed.

The only national or state political action committees that endorsed me when I ran for Congress from Florida in 1994 and 2004 were those of the National Organization for Women.

On my 19th birthday I rather idiotically wrote in my diary: "I commit myself to radical social change." Um, yeah, Richie, right. I guess I was a pretty pretentious kid, but 1970 was a pretty heady time.

That year, a collective of feminists started The Feminist Press to publish work of notable women writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, that had gone out of print. People like me sent in small contributions to get them started. Two years later, they began publishing a stapled newsletter in the new field of women's studies; by 1981, that newsletter had become the academic journal Women's Studies Quarterly. The press and the journal eventually came under the aegis of the City University of New York.

Tonight's event, organized by Lauren Cerand, in my opinion New York's best literary publicist (and compiler of the weekly event listing The Smart Set at Maud Newton), celebrates the latest issue of WSQ, the current incarnation of the now-venerable and very important publication in feminist studies. It now includes creative work -- poetry, fiction, drama, creative nonfiction and visual art as well as scholarly articles. This issue's cover art by Renee Cox, "Olympia's Boys," is of course Manet revisioned. (Cox is one of the artists who royally pissed off Rudy Giuliani during his mayoralty -- in her case, with what he felt was her blasphemous photograph, "Yo Mama's Last Supper.")

Nancy K. Miller, one of the general editors of WSQ and a CUNY Graduate Center professor, follows Lauren to the podium and discusses this issue's theme, The Sexual Body, and introduces the evening's readers -- first Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the editor of the literary magazine Fence.

Rebecca lives upstate now and says she doesn't get to Bluestockings very often but feels at home here. She reads for about twenty minutes, poems on the evening's theme, though she says she's interested in the literary sexualized body. Poems like "The Trick of My Life," "Don't Know What to Call Him But He's Mighty Like a Rose," and "Chinatown, Oh" ("Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?". . . "My brother. My lover. My brother. My Mother. Slap slap slap". . ."This can't be heterosexuality / This must be heterosexuality") and her recent "Man Tits" ("Look at that pair / On that man over there") were all provocative, as were the poems she read in opposition to the work of the monstrous but inevitable Sharon Olds.

I hope she'll forgive me for probably misquoting her. My favorite poem she read was "The Bawdy Mothers," but I can't find any of last night's poems online (you'll have to buy Manderlay or her other books); the best I can do is this link to Ron Hogan's Beatrice for her poem "Dana Plato Fatality."

Min Jin Lee, if you've been living on Saturn, is the celebrated author of the debut novel, Free Food For Millionaires, number one BookSense pick, heralded in The New York Times and just about everywhere else. Prior to moving to Korea with her husband next month (her next novel will about Koreans living in Japan, and she said she finds the prospect of the new environment frightening and exhilirating), she's been on a hectic book tour around the country -- but she said she would not have missed coming to Bluestockings (she didn't say it, but it I will: for an event that was not specifically to sell her own book).

Part of being a feminist, Lee said, and others later agreed, is to give back to the women and the community who helped and shaped you. Free Food was actually the fourth novel she'd written and that Nancy K. Miller had been instrumental in helping her with it. Lee also talked about the importance of Rebecca Wolff's work helping other poets with Fence.

She read a passage from the book that's excerpted in WSQ, one in which the narrator, Casey Han, having broken up with her Korean boyfriend and unable to reach him due to a disconnected phone, connects instead with the rake Hugh Underhill, who after sex "does the gentlemanly thing" and goes out for Haagen-Dazs.

In his absence, looking for something to wear, Casey finds a porn video called "Pearl Necklace," featuring an older Asian woman who wears one with two younger unattractive white men. Casey tries to be liberal but is kind of nauseated by what she sees -- and even more so, what she hears, because Hugh had used the same exact phrase to her during sex that one of the men did in the porn video.

Anyway, it was enough to make me decide I'm going to beg the book's publicist -- the best literary publicist in New York, did I say that already? -- to get a review copy. Ahem.

A question-and-answer period followed the readings, and audience members asked questions regarding the pitfalls of writing abaout sex (Rebecca Wolff said she never thought of writing about sex differently than any other subject matter; Min Jin Lee discussed her struggles and initial discomfort in writing sexually explicit scenes); about what one woman perceived as the current pro-pornography attitude of most New York feminists; and about threesomes: why men fantasize about them and why men are actually threatened by them. Both authors and the editor had interesting responses to all the questions.

After the reading, I hung around Bluestockings, where I can find titles that for some reason the book department at the Apache Junction Wal-Mart SuperCenter doesn't carry: Pat Califia's Public Sex, Philip S. Foner's The Black Panthers Speak, Edith Thomas's The Women Incendiaries, Sheldon Rampon and John Staur's Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, Julia Serano's A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Craig Steven Wilder's A Covenant With Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, Dreena Burton's Vive Le Vegan!, Megan Seely's Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist, H.G. Carrillo's Loosing My Espanish, Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schawer's Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing -- and there, on the fiction shelf, three of the legendary Ann Bannon's masterpieces: Odd Girl Out, Journey to a Woman, Beebo Brinker...

Four years ago I got to shake hands with Ann Bannon in the women's bathroom of the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Community Center. The men's bathroom was closed for repairs, and when I came out of the stall, I saw a woman of a certain age so classy I knew had to be Ann Bannon. If you haven't read her books, go out and find one. Even if you're not a lesbian. Especially if you're not a lesbian.

There's only one little bathroom here at Bluestockings, and I needed it before I returned to Brooklyn. As I waited for cooperation from my prostate, I stared at the poster in front of me: a drawing of a woman in a headscarf, holding a baby and looking scared by the large tank menacing her. INVADING ARMIES HAVE NEVER LIBERATED THIRD WORLD WOMEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR, it says.

As I made my way out of the store, I took one last look above and below the counter. There were T-shirts: SALUD. DIGNIDAD. JUSTICIA. A Native American warrior on a horse (MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS). BIKE: PUT THE FUN BETWEEN YOUR LEGS.

And buttons: PRO-CHILD, PRO-CHOICE. Swastikas with slashes through them. I (HEART) MY CUNT.

And postcards for WBAI, Code Pink New York and the documentary Soma: An Anarchist Therapy.

Although tonight's Bluestockings event features Domenic Priore, who I just saw in Brooklyn last week, I'm sure I'll be back there sooner rather than later. If you're a book-lover who lives in New York or are just visiting, Bluestockings is always worth the trip.

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