By October 18th, 2001, according to my hand-written journals, I was already doubting that the 9-11 attacks had been the sole work of the people we were being told were responsible. But that doubt didn’t carry over from my private writing to the “She Is Still Burning” instalment below; what did carry over into my “Dear Friends” letter was my new journal-concocted self-identification as “earthling: being who lives on the earth.”
Sixteen years later, I still identify primarily as an earthling. Earthling is my “we,” and I must say it’s a “we” I’m forever thrilled to belong with.
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 10
6 November 2001
“Both day and night are good,” Agnes said. “Both speak a language. The language of the night is different from the language of the day. The language of the night is within you. Most two-leggeds have forgotten the language of night, but it would be good if they remembered, for a long night is coming before the break of dawn.”
– Lynn V. Andrews, Flight of the Seventh Moon
Since the last installment of She Is Still Burning (six weeks ago), we’ve passed into the madness-and-mayhem stage: the US and the UK drop their fabulously expensive and high-tech ordnance onto an already devastated Afghanistan, while the people starve; anthrax shows up in Kansas City, Kenya, Pakistan, Russia; American and allied governments begin operating under de facto martial law; the “Bush doctrine” enunciates policies that amount to a permanent state of war. From the point of view of your ordinary earthling (earthling = being who lives on the earth), bin Laden and Bush are pursuing the same chimera—”holy war”—and with the same probable result. The earth can’t take much more of this nonsense, and, as earthlings, neither can we.
Meanwhile, life in Saint John has become, if not peaceful, eerily quiet. The truck traffic that thundered day and night through the neighbourhood has slowed to a tractor-trailer every few hours. The Toronto-to-Europe jets that used to fly high over the city, one after the other after the other in the evenings, seem to have disappeared. Instead, a surveillance plane circles over the docks and oil refinery while a surveillance boat moves in and out of the harbour. On the tracks by Courtney Bay, two hundred railroad cars have been sitting for a month, their wheels rusting in the salt air. With the exception of the almighty Irving industrial empire, businesses have been falling like the autumn leaves. And the “Toronto fever” that had begun to grip this small city’s uptown vanished overnight: no one rushes around anymore with a cell phone glued to their ear.
In the midst of all this, I think about the fundamentalist forces that struck down the women of Afghanistan (who used to comprise 50 percent of Afghanistan’s government workers, 40 percent of its doctors, 75 percent of its teachers) then striking New York, and the worldwide economic and political fallout from that. I remember the saying of Native American tribes, “When the women lose heart, the people die.” And I think of the simple principle reinforced over and over by personal experience: everything is interconnected.
Under the omnipresent shadow of war, what to do, what to do? The only practical guideline I’ve come up with goes like this: whatever you love doing, do it now. I notice in the past few weeks that many of my friends and family seem to be following a similar self-directive—speaking their mind, forthrightly, and in public; beginning a new book manuscript; travelling overseas to a Zen peace camp; painting new watercolours; successfully agitating for the opening, on schedule, of the long-planned exhibition by Arab-Canadian artists at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, “Ces pays qui m’habitent / The Lands Within Me”; taking steps to realize a long-deferred dream. Living as boldly as they can, as fearlessly as they can, as creatively as they can, they become my “role models.” And they have my gratitude for being there, and for continuing to be themselves.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•Verena Stefan: Excerpts from keynote address to conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature” (Ottawa, October 18, 2001)
•Ann Stokes: letter in response to SISB #9
•Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien: “On the New Normal”
•Camille Norton: “After Reading Plato” (poem)
EXCERPTS FROM “THE ROARING INSIDE HER”
keynote address for the conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature,” University of Ottawa, October 18, 2001
by Verena Stefan
Editor’s note: The essay/speech that Verena Stefan delivered on October 18, 2001, is a complex interweaving of literary and political analysis, poetry, mythology and story. I’m grateful for her permission to publish parts of it, but want to caution readers that the following two excerpts—one a story from literature and the other a story from life—do not give a fair representation of the essay as a whole. I selected the first story to honour Suzanne Boisvert’s fortieth birthday, because she has always loved the work of Carson McCullers. The second story I selected because it is a true story, and reflects both Verena’s life and her mother’s life. When the essay is published in its entirety and its final form, I’ll let readers know where to find it.
From the section “To whom does history belong?”
Do you remember Frankie Addams? Carson McCullers created her during WW II. She is the heroine of The Member of the Wedding.
Frankie is preoccupied with soldiers for specific reasons. In her twelfth summer, in 1944, the world seems shattered and torn, and it turns around way too fast, at a thousand miles an hour. The war in Europe is also happening so fast that Frankie Addams can’t keep up. War images and world images swirl in her head, overlapping each other, getting all mixed up together.
The only people who regularly come into the town from the outside and then leave it again are soldiers from the nearby barracks. For Frankie, they embody the big world, the whole world. Soldiers can be sent into any country on earth; they have entry everywhere. But how can she go out into the world, produce a connection? She dreams of going into the Marines and being honoured with gold insignia, but doesn’t know how this dream might be realized. Finally, it occurs to her how she might participate in the Second World War: she will give blood. She won’t bleed on the battlefield, although she is full of bloodthirsty ideas and attacks of rage and possesses a considerable arsenal of weapons. She will give her blood to those who go to battle, to the soldiers. In her mind she hears the doctors say that her blood, the blood of Frankie Addams, is the richest, reddest blood they have ever seen, and she dreams of it flowing on in the veins of all the possible soldiers in the whole world. And after the war the soldiers will thank her and address her, not as “Frankie,” but in soldierly style as “Addams.” But she is not allowed to give her blood; she is still too young. For everything, it seems, she is either too old or too young.
Frankie owns a stolen knife with three blades and a file she uses to sharpen the knife and also to file her fingernails, when they’re long enough. Once she shot bullets on the playing field with her father’s revolver. But when she commits a sin in the garage with the boy next door, she is unarmed, unsure, and doesn’t know what’s happening to her, what it is they’re doing. Something that makes her feel sick to her stomach. Before falling asleep, when the scene appears to her again, she imagines that she sticks a knife between the boy’s eyes.
She packs her suitcase. Where should she go? Everyone else knows where they belong: her father in his jewellery business, the soldiers in the army, Bernice, the housekeeper, with her family and the church. Frankie’s brother wants to marry, and only Frankie is completely alone. There seem to be but two options for her in order to enter public space and travel the world: war or love. Her rite of passage begins when she decides to join her brother and his fiancée on their honeymoon trip.
She walks through town like a queen, no longer separated from the world, although everything seems distorted to her: the unexpected doesn’t surprise her and the familiar seems strange. For the first time she looks a soldier on the street calmly in the eye, without envy and bitter jealousy in her heart. Instead she feels a kind of recognition in his look; in her opinion this is how free travellers look at each other. She interprets all encounters now out of this feeling, and when a drunken soldier takes up with her and asks whether they should go to her place or his, she is proud to be treated as an equal, as a traveller in a foreign country. She goes for a beer with him to the Blue Moon, a flophouse for soldiers and other adults who do as they please.
Here, Carson McCullers has the twelve-year-old girl speaking in sentences she has picked up from adults—”They say Paris has been liberated. In my opinion, the war will be over next month”—an eager, grotesque-sounding attempt to talk politics with the soldier without being able to give the sentences she speaks her own meaning. Finally, the author’s voice filters out the babble and names the girl’s situation on the threshold of the world: Nor would he talk about the war, nor foreign countries and the world. To his joking remarks she could never find replies that fitted, although she tried. “Like a nightmare pupil in a recital who has to play a duet to a piece she does not know … [she] did her best to catch the tune and follow, but soon she broke down and grinned until her mouth felt wooden.”
One can hardly imagine a more fitting description for the situation of the female stranger in the world. Like Lily Everit [the young heroine of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 story “The Invitation”], Frankie wants to participate in worldly affairs with her own knowledge. She simply wants to have a decent conversation with an equal. But the scenario McCullers describes is crazy-making, a game of confusion in which only one thing is certain: it’s a nightmare, and there’s no telling if one will wake up from it.
Many of the girls I have found in literature are lonely hunters, solitary runners—like Frankie Addams, seeking and creating a ritual of transition without the company or support of adult women or other girls. With their experience of ten, twelve years, they preserve an archaic female wisdom. They know what female freedom is; unlike adult feminists, they don’t have to reclaim it. The stress of becoming a woman, a REAL woman, doesn’t eat them up yet. Rather, they determine their own vagabond freedom, their own rhythm, their own life-preserving aggressivity. Theirs is a wild, unruly, primitive response, comprising day and night, the woods, every road of the world and of the mind, magic power, the stars and the aspiration to fulfil one’s dreams, to use one’s potential as a human being. Neither fish nor fowl … they defy the expectation that they unlearn their liberty. Then they discover that these are not the right traits for the true women they are meant to become, that only boys can inherit the world.
Still in the altered state of her lonely initiation, Frankie accompanies the soldier to his room. This time she recognizes the danger in the sudden silence, which reminds her of the silence in the garage. Immediately she turns to go, he prevents her, and without thinking, she bites his tongue with all her strength. When he goes after her again, she reaches for the nearest object and hits him over the head with a glass pitcher. With one blow, with her blow, she has broken the silence, averted danger. The soldier’s head sounds hollow like a coconut.
That night, distraught, she asks her father if one can kill a person by hitting them over the head with a glass jug. As usual, the father isn’t listening. She persists, and he takes the reality out of her question when he says he’s never done such a thing and consequently she hasn’t either. In his friendly way he confirms the adult principle: children are not to be believed. Beyond that his distracted answer says: you could not do anything that lies outside of my ability to imagine.
Frankie’s vision is that humans could and would meet as free travellers, not as women, not as men, throughout their lives, throughout the world. That she should be put into the category of the Other is beyond her imagination. I like to look at her as somebody talking to us about fundamental aspects of the human condition. Like other young heroines, she conveys messages to us from a time when the girl is still a human being, before she mutates into a woman.
From the section “What do I know about war?”
A friend whom I haven’t seen for thirteen years comes for breakfast. Our conversation sparks through the kitchen and weaves into a brilliant mellow September morning. The phone rings. My lover, who knows I don’t listen to the news in the morning, leaves a message about the attack in New York City. At noon, by myself again, I turn on the TV, stare at a plane that enters into a tower and leaves it on the opposite side. Though I have never lived with a TV before, never witnessed a war “live” on the screen, and don’t watch horror movies either, the image bears an eerie familiarity. Has this been the last conversation before World War III? I ask myself. Then I feel the ocean, the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe. It eludes the conceptual mind. How did anybody ever manage to cross it? It is vast, infinite, cold. The void. I am cut off from Europe. The mind jumps again. The towers keep crumbling like sandcastles. Berlin … Berne … there are invitations to teach and to read. But I don’t want to get stuck over there either, is the third flash in my mind. I want to come back to Montreal.
In moments of shock the body’s memory speaks out. The reptilian brain shoots its “fight or flight” reaction through my system. War has been close to me since I have been conceived. One of my deepest emotions before falling asleep is Nicht auf der Flucht. Not fleeing. Then I sigh. Tonight I am safe. The emotion is linked with physical delight: I am in a dry place, it is not humid, I am not freezing. But always have the bags ready. Better to be prepared.
Some things about war I learned from my mother: losing a house, fleeing, being bombed, being on a trainful of refugees, fear of rape, hope for protection by state authorities, being turned down, being trapped on a train, becoming a prisoner of war, defying the enemy with her mother tongue, empowering herself by her mother tongue to a degree that defied rape. It comes to my mind now that it was she, in our family, who had a heroic war story—not Father.
She wants to leave Prague with her two little boys to head for Switzerland. She has already left behind their Berlin home of six years. My father was drafted with the pitchfork troops only for the last shabby battle. The Prague railway station is overcrowded with scurrying people. Were the gilded spheres on the roof, the magnificent glass dome, still shining? May 1945, and the Russian Army arrives. Everybody German or speaking a Germanic language instantly becomes a prisoner. She is arrested with hundreds of people in a cinema. The rapes start immediately. The first time she refuses in French, one of her boys who is in the grip of dysentery in her arms as they leave the bathroom. After two weeks they are transported to a camp in the countryside where they have to work in the fields for Czech farmers.
The rapists, both Russian and Czech men, come every night to pick some of the women and girls. I got so furious, she would tell us. You can’t imagine how indignant I suddenly felt when a soldier tapped my foot one night, ordering me to follow him. It was out of the question. Night after night we would lie there, our hearts hammering. But now I heard myself yelling at him in Bernese German with all my strength. The words just broke out of me. Never before in my life had I told anybody to go to hell, let alone called them a bastard.
The soldier, baffled by a vernacular he didn’t know and that wasn’t the enemy’s language, let her be.
Her story of the power of language belongs to my life like a recurring tune of which one doesn’t remember the beginning. It transmits the secret of gut language, of being outraged to the point of not giving permission to let rape happen, of language use that is hysterical in the true sense of the word.
Note: Verena Stefan’s first book, a memoir published in 1975 by Frauenoffensive, became known as “the touchstone of the German women’s movement.” Translated into eight European languages, it was first published in English by Daughters in 1978, then later republished along with short stories and essays as Shedding and Literally Dreaming (Feminist Press, 1994). Rauh, wild & frei (Fischer, 1997), her most recently published book in German, is an exploration of girls as literary heroines. A landed immigrant in Canada, and living in Montreal since 2000, she now writes in both German and English, and offers creative writing workshops.
LETTER IN RESPONSE TO SISB #9
Sunday, October 14, 2001
This day seems more in tune with the demise of the world—drizzling damp unpleasant: a pall of hopelessness, i.e. stupidity.
It does feel like the world cannot piece back together, what is happening now. I have never felt this dread before. Your She Is Still Burning has the heaviness—it sinks into me. Susan Wood-Thompson’s excerpt from her poem is really something which knocked me out. Your words, your re-dedication, superb. God, you can feel the depth and desire in this issue. (I thought Lynn’s poem the best I had ever seen of her work.) The desire to live, with intelligence and utter necessity. They are within the Petition, also.
A heightened sense of life: I looked at a spider with its legs separated on a tree trunk in the sun, the other day. It was, each leg, soaking up the last warmth of summer. I found her beautiful. Walking in the woods, sort of peering for a deer—instead, an almost-black goodsize garter snake, sunning. It didn’t move away; instead, it glared at me and was ready to attack, should I come nearer. I liked that. I loved seeing a snake. It made my day. The black and dark grey New Yorker cover I found stunning and excruciatingly sad: someone commented on it “how cool” in this flip knowitall voice. I roared to its defense and chopped her head off verbally. She shrunk away.
It’s all or nothing now. Can’t deal with grey, “cool,” nothing.
Your writing is succinct clear determined tender. You are burning brighter—
ON THE “NEW NORMAL”
by Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien
There’s nothing really new about what’s happening this time around — only the weaponry, the protagonists and the reason(s) for killing have changed.
The challenging questions we now have to face are: (1) are we in the West willing to accept and therefore legitimize the “New Order” which is now in the making? And (2) what consequences will this war on terrorism have for the future of humankind? No one in our respective governments seems to know and, I dare say, no one therein even wants to think about it at this point because it is imperative that the infamy committed in New York be avenged, that bin Laden be punished, that certain regimes be held accountable for the harbouring of terrorists—and then and only then will they worry about the consequences of their actions! Typically human, isn’t it?
We in the West have ignored history for too long and have also failed to see that the world which surrounds our comfortable societies has evolved during the past forty years or so into a festering pit of misery, despair and anger. Tenuous coalitions, air-dropped ration packs, blankets, never-ending rhetoric and offers to rebuild a country after bombing it to smithereens will only serve to worsen what has already proven to be historically unattainable for humankind: there will always be war, there will always be poverty and hunger, there will always be a new “bin Laden” and there will always be a need for the eradication of “Evil.” Such is our destiny or so it appears.
Let’s keep religion and religiosity out of this please! Let’s also remember that “we of the human species” are programmed at birth with the ability to kill indiscriminately and we feel completely legitimized in doing so when given the right reason(s). History has confirmed this time and again: all one has to do is to look up the history of ancient Rome, Egypt, Peru; and more recently, that of Germany, the Balkans, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Ireland, just to name a few.
The bottom line: no one really wins in war. Only the military-industrial complexes of this world, and the new groups of “terrorists/militants” spawned by war, will benefit—as they always do—but at what cost to the rest of us?
My UN Peacekeeping experience during a Middle-East war in the 1970s tells me that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, on both sides.
I also hasten to say that we in the West will not be able, this time around, to gracefully exit from war nor will we be able to conveniently walk away from the suffering that we will have so liberally dispensed during this, our “Jihad” against terrorism.
AFTER READING PLATO
I’m thinking about the hummingbirds in the tree behind you.
What do you think about when you see hummingbirds?
I think about their shadows whirring against the acacias.
And I think about the first hummingbird.
Where is the first hummingbird?
In Maine, on a logging road near Mount Katahdin.
It has a ruby throat.
It startles me now like the shape of bliss.
Like something unimagined that is suddenly there?
Like something unimagined.
I’m six, I’m wearing a red coat.
My mother walks ahead of me on the road and she is sad.
And for a moment I look away from my mother
and see the hummingbird
a slashing green jewel of a bird cutting between
my body and my mother’s body
like an arrow from the bow
like the knife of happiness.
– Camille Norton