That unnoticed & that necessary
On the reproductive labor of self-effacement
One thing I really admire about women is that we’re able to put up with a lot of shit while still smiling. That takes a lot of discipline and strength. But we all have our limits, and sometimes we have to learn how to tell the shit to fuck off.
Tillie Olsen’s 1978 book on Silences keeps coming up in conversation lately. The chapters explore various kinds of silences in literature, with references to Rebecca Harding Davis, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Jean Toomer, Charles Baudelaire. Olsen’s book argues how a writer’s circumstances, as produced by society’s delineations of race, class and gender, can stifle creative expression. Silences is best-known for its attention to gender. A consecutive sequence of chapters bear the titles: “The Damnation of Women,” “The Angel in the House,” “Freeing the Essential Angel,” and “Wives Mothers Enablers.”
Are you a mother? Do you know a mother? Are you the child of a mother? Then you should probably read this book.
A lot of recent conversation about fair or equal representation in literature centers, basically, on the PR end of things. How many writers of x-or-y identification were published in this journals? Or awarded that prize? Or invited to this international poetry festival? I see the value in calling out the numbers, and I know that publicity has power. But what is really powerful about Olsen’s writing, alongside that of other revolutionary feminists (such as Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde), and what we still have a lot to learn from, is their insistence that we consider the material conditions surrounding the act of writing itself. How does one afford the time, space, resources to write and to publish? What leads to the silencing of minority voices even before their poems appear in The New Yorker or get reviewed on Jacket2 or, even, are filed into Submittable?
As Eavan Boland writes,
“Silences” is about its title: the way writers fail to write. But more than that, it’s about the way we’ve constructed a myth of creative expression which suggestions that inspiration trumps circumstance and talent will always emerge. Not so, says Olsen. Age, illness, circumstance, class, fatigue, too many children, too little money, too much care – they can all stifle the act of writing. By her insistence and humanity, and the wonderful writing of this book, Olsen reminds us that writing – or the silence which infers it – is a human act above all.
This is why, even though charts and the word “spreadsheets” make my brain spin into cotton candy – and sometimes I’m suspicious that that’s precisely the point – I appreciate the labor and drive for critique (motivated by and open to self-critique) in essays like Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room.” There is a real difference between this kind of “white feminism” and the kind that tells you to vote for Hillary Clinton because she has a vagina.
(Although I do appreciate the push to think about the fact Hillary Clinton has a vagina. Some of us have vaginas, some of us don’t. I don’t think this determines gender, and it’s not even going to determine my vote, but I also don’t think we think about vaginas enough. I mean, it’s all cunts and pussies and trendy waxes, but the vagina does do a lot of work for humankind without getting a lot of recognition.)
Within her account of Silences, Boland’s phrase “too much care” interests me. Care labor lies on a broad spectrum: from self-care in instances of illness (as written about by Lorde, Anne Boyer and Sara Ahmed), to parenthood, to the service industry, to “Liking” all of your friend’s dog pictures. A lot of people have read, researched and written about this far more than I have, so I just want to raise one kind of care labor that I normally bear while smiling, but right now I am sick of it and tired of how it’s taken for granted. I am sick and tired of how it keeps me from writing.
I am sick and tired of the self-effacement (self-disparagement) required of excellent women, especially excellent women of color, to make everyone around them feel comfortable and secure.
I am sick and tired of everyone pretending everyone has the same background and same level of training and same decision-making capacity all for the sake of “consensus,” “democracy” and “being a team player,” and because “everyone has something valuable to bring to the table” because this is usually ineffective and hides that fact that the guys at top make all the important calls and stay at the top. I am sick and tired of how everyone feels uncomfortable just admitting that excellent women of color should do the decision-making for awhile.
I am sick and tired of European intellectuals refusing to speak out against the rising right-wing, because no one wants to look like they are anti-populist – as if minorities, immigrants and everyone who is not an angry white person, are not part of the population.
I am sick and tired of pretending that women, women of color, can’t have disagreements and differing opinions, affiliations, even within themselves. This includes the “white feminists” we see as our mentors and allies. We’re strong enough to disagree. We’re all too excellent to be pegged as panderers or tokens.
I am sick and tired of all the little kids who don’t raise their hands because that one boy, always a boy, raised his hand first and is saying, “Ooo, oooo, ooo!” I am sick and tired of you, their parents.
I am sick and tired of the female, minority college student who doesn’t say a word in class and then turns in the most brilliant final paper. I am sick and tired of the world that made her feel that either no one would listen to her, or that she doesn’t want to be another one of those obnoxious and narcissistic “talkers.”
I am sick and tired of that Margaret Atwood poem I used to like in college, where she describes love as: “I would like to be the air / that inhabits you for a moment / only. I would like to be that unnoticed & that necessary.” I am sick and tired of how that struck me as a good articulation of ethics. I am sick and tired of how this is essentially what we’re told is a “good work ethic.” I am sick and tired of love and labor being interchangeable.
I am sick and tired of myself holding open the door for someone and getting stuck there for several minutes while people keep pushing in.
I am sick and tired of the letter from the speech therapist that visited my five-year-old’s classroom and decided my son needed therapy. I am sick and tired of reading how my son, who was fully bilingual in Dutch and English even before moving to the Netherlands two years ago, “pronounces his Rs in the Anglo way, rather than the Continental rolling R. We are aware, of course, he speaks English with his mother at home.” I am sick and tired of sitting through Easter brunch with extended relatives wondering about what my children miss because “there isn’t proper Dutch spoken at home.” I am sick and tired of knowing what riches my children grow up with, having a mother who is other and more, and hearing it framed as poverty.
I am sick and tired of my insecurity in ignoring this letter and that the only thing stopping me from caving is an American bravado à la Kid Rock. Fuck me for having something in common with Kid Rock.
I am sick and tired of saying nothing when someone says to me, “But I don’t think of you as Asian (non-white),” like it’s a compliment, or nodding like “I guess you’re right” when they declare, “Gender has nothing to do with this,” or making myself as small as possible when someone says, “We should consider what it means that we’re sitting in this entirely white, Northern European room...”
I am sick and tired of laughing at jokes I don’t think are funny. I am sick and tired of smiling.
I am sick and tired of blaming “the medium of communication” when we get into an argument, instead of facing the fact that we seriously don’t agree.
I am sick and tired of how my friend Fiep actually told me those last two and is usually the smartest person in the room. I am sick and tired of how I organized a poetry reading where she was supposed to interview two boring old white guys, and those guys wouldn’t let her say a word, because they were too busy educating the audience about Lorca being an important poet – and telling the organizers to bring more beer onstage – and how she and we were all too polite and paralyzed in our chairs to tell their boring old white guy shit to fuck off.
I am sick and tired of reassuring people, when I really think they fucked up, because then it makes me complicit with their fucking up. Or it makes it seem like their fuck up is understandable or plausible to me, when actually I would never have done that myself.
I am sick and tired of how, at the train station kiosk, two coffees came out, and the white woman who was behind me in line went straight up to take one, while the black woman next to me and I went back and forth saying, “You take it. No, you take it. No, I think you were first.” I am sick and tired of how manners and etiquette are considered characteristics of the ruling class, when experience always tells us otherwise.
I am sick and tired of being in trains or buses or waiting for my daughter to get out of dance class or anywhere else and having middle-aged men walk into me or stand with their backs pressed into me and having to remind them that I exist and am a sentient person even though I am not another middle-aged man or an attractive 25-year-old single lady. This doesn’t make me wish I were a middle-aged man or an attractive 25-year-old single lady; it just makes me wish you’d all get out of my space.
I am also sick and tired of people treating me the same as they did when I was a 25-year-old single lady. I am sick and tired of people deluding themselves into thinking I’m not sick and tired of that. A lot has happened in the last decade, and I am sick and tired from a lot of it, but still it’s made me far more excellent.
I am sick and tired of people asking me questions about North Korea, as if all Koreans were part of a WhatsApp group chat with Kim Jong-Un. I am sick and tired of people not asking me questions about modernism or American poetry. I am sick and tired of people asking me questions about how I am adjusting to the Netherlands and not asking me questions about the ways I’m refusing to adjust to the Netherlands.
I am sick and tired of the assumption that I only like some poetry for the racial/ gender/ political/ whatever-identitifications of its writers. I am sick and tired of how it would be rude of me to say, “I have a far more classical and rigorous education than you have, Mister Misters,” even though it would be a fact. I am sick and tired of how obnoxious it is when I say shit like, “Of course I love Shakespeare. Of course I can sit here and talk to you, in depth, about every single poem written by T. S. Eliot.” I am sick and tired of how unlikely it seems that today’s T. S. Eliot might be that woman of color whose book I really want you to read. I am sick and tired of having to bring up T. S. Eliot to be convincing.
I am sick and tired of male poets writing about their sad sex lives and that we are all obligated to waste our time discussing and eventually agreeing that this is a valid form of social critique.
I am sick and tired of supplying ideas but not getting to make any decisions. I am sick and tired of beginning sentences with, “Sorry to overstep, and I don’t want to interrupt, but...”
I am sick and tired of people assuming that my life has an upward trajectory, that I’ve only moved to better and better places – that they constitute these better places.
I am sick and tired of pursuing, following, the established (by white men) vision of success and happiness and productivity. I am sick to death of wanting to tell you that, really, I want to be radically unsuccessful and unhappy and unproductive.
Self-effacement – for women, especially women of color – has long been a form of reproductive labor. And right now, at this moment, I’m sick of it. I’m tired of keeping it silent. I’m taking a vacation from silence.
To my sisters: asserting your excellence is not contrary to liberal politics, is not socially indecorous, is not a sign of narcissism. It is also a form of reproductive labor, the kind that is necessary, an imperative, for the longer term, for a sustainable future. To self-efface, to hide your transcendence, to be satisfied with being necessary but unnoticed, is also to be (using Olsen’s term) an enabler. This takes a lot of discipline and strength, which is also a kind of excellence, and sometimes – for your children, for your sisters, for those to whom you want to be an ally – this is something you’ll want to offer. But no one can demand it from you. No one can tell you this must be your work. And not everyone deserves or needs ennabling.
Sometimes the angel in the house has to be the bull in the china shop – so the tea cups know, as well as you do, that they’re the ones to break.