Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

Blew Me Away: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Where do I begin? I’d started and deleted so many introductions to this post. Maybe I should just use the words of the Goodreads reviewer who convinced me to pick up the book: “Wow. Just wow.”

I actually learned about Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State through fellow Literary Wives blogger Carolyn’s beautiful review, which you can find here. Her post was compelling, but it left me in a predicament: I knew I wanted and needed to read this book and yet I wasn’t confident I could handle the intensity of the subject matter.

The book is a work of fiction, about a young Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped during her visit to Haiti to see her parents. Mireille is a spirited and headstrong woman who is living the American Dream. She is happily married and successful in her career as a lawyer. She is also the new mother of a baby boy.

The kidnapping takes place in the first pages of the book. The screaming, the pounding of fists on the glass of the car, the cries of the baby in the backseat – I can still see, hear, and feel the blood-thumping events as I type this. At that point I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I had to, reading this as a woman and as a mother and wife.

Mireille’s father is a self-made man, who has succeeded in business and now lives a life of luxury that stands out all too starkly from the majority of the Haitian population. His wealth makes his family an easy target for kidnappers. And so the abductors demand a handsome ransom, but one that Mireille’s father can afford, and one that he makes the kidnappers wait to get. It would take him 13 days to give up the money, and so it is 13 days that Mireille has to endure – is there a stronger word for what she goes through? – before she is released.

The first half of the book details Mireille’s 13 days as a captive, and these scenes alternate with flashbacks to her past, mainly the development of her relationship with her husband and her entry into motherhood. There is some flashback to her life with her parents as well. This back story allows us to understand Mireille as a human being and gives a context for the second half of the book, which details the aftermath of her ordeal. When Mireille is finally freed, she is, both literally and figuratively, broken. She struggles to feel human again but doesn’t know how. We see how her husband copes, or doesn’t cope. We see her struggle in the new light through which she sees her father.

Mireille’s voice is a force. Roxane Gay’s writing is a force. The scenes of violence were intense and effective, but they were not gratuitous or more than I could handle.

Why did I choose to read this, knowing it was going to be difficult? Carolyn said it so beautifully, and so I will borrow her words here – first a quote from writer Cynthia Bond, and then Carolyn’s words:

 “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

I second that. And I’ve felt doubly so after learning that Roxane Gay had drawn from her own experience of having been gang-raped as a teenager to write this book. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this writer and I’ve already ordered her subsequent book, Bad Feminist: Essays.

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Have you read Roxane Gay? What is the most difficult book (in terms of subject matter) you have ever read? 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

Our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ August read is Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, The World’s Wife.

In The World’s Wife we are introduced to the women – lovers, partners, sisters and wives – of some of the most well-known men in Greek mythology, the Bible, history, literature and pop culture. We hear from the women themselves, from Mrs. Faust to Frau Freud to Medusa, and the voices are often surprising. They’re irreverent, sarcastic, angry, sad, triumphant, bawdy, spiteful and, not infrequently, laugh-aloud funny. Here are my responses to the two questions we explore with each of our Literary Wives reads:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Being a wife is not a happy thing. In these poems, it is about putting up with egos, living in shadows, being neglected. Through the fictional voices we are imagining what it might feel like to be the wife of one of these famous men. Mrs. Aesop is tired of her husband’s moralizing; the loyal Mrs. Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s physical equal, is betrayed by her husband when he falls in love with someone more attractive; and even Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus loves her and tries to get her out of the underworld, prefers to stay in Hades, apart from him. She would rather be dead than to not have a voice, to live in her husband’s artistic shadow:

Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals . . .
flocked to his side when he sang . . .
 
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again, 
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
      etc. etc.
 
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

 (page 59)

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The women in the book grasp for power where they can within the confines of their relationships. To continue with Eurydice, she ends up appealing to Orpheus’ ego, in order to trick him into turning around to look at her, an act which causes him to lose her back to the underworld. Mrs. Midas, tired of her husband’s obsession with material wealth and his thoughtlessness toward her, eventually leaves him. Mrs. Icarus and Mrs. Aesop view their husbands with scorn and condescension. About their disappointing sex life, Mrs. Aesop says, “I gave him a fable one night / about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle. / I’ll cut off your tail all right, I said, to save my face. / That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.” (page 11)

The poem in which I found a defining message about wifehood, though, is Mrs. Beast. Here she warns about princesses and princes and happily ever after:

 . . . The Little Mermaid slit
her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.
I could have told her – look, love, I should know,
they’re bastards when they’re Princes.
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex
is better. 

(page 72)

A celebration of love and partnership these poems are not. But I did find The World’s Wife a sharp, clever and witty read. Though many of the women were cattier than my preferred tastes in women’s voices (many of the poems reminded me of the darker side of female conversations bashing boyfriends and husbands), I read this collection for what it is. I enjoyed the modern and feminist twists on traditional and historical stories as well as the opportunity to revisit various cultural and historical references. (I kept my iPhone by my side to look things up while reading.) As a novice poetry reader, I also found this collection very accessible. My favorite Literary Wives read so far!

……………….

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

running_onlyou

 

 

How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01813/englishpatient_1813424i.jpg

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy: i.telegraph.co.uk