This is a guest crosspost from Laughingrat.
Laughingrat’s about-me: I’m a liberal utopian radical-feminist librarian who hovers on the outskirts of fandom and watches a lot of movies. I swear a lot, am socially awkward, hold my beliefs ferociously, and never know what to say in an intelligent conversation. Also, I bake cookies.
Joanna Russ died today; I didn’t know her.This is how the conversation goes: a professor, a pal or two, mention a book by Joanna Russ called How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I see it referenced online sometimes; I find an image, occasionally, of the cover, with the phrases “She didn’t write it,” “She wrote it, but she had help,” etc., naming and de-normalizing bad ideas that are always sneaking into my subconscious. Just looking at that cover makes me feel a little less crazy. Over the course of fifteen years or so, the book is frequently on my mind, even though I haven’t read it.
One day, while I’m librarianing, a girl of about 11 comes in with her dad, who won’t let either of us get a word in edgewise: a large, loud man. The daughter and I try to speak directly to each other without being rude to him. Both of us are hesitant, for different reasons, to give offense. We both have a job to do, if only he’d let us do it. This job, as is finally revealed in between the father’s attempts to hold our attention, is to secure a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for the young lady’s school assignment.
“Oh, yes, by Harper Lee! I love that book,” I tell the girl. “I hope you’ll enjoy it, too.”
“She didn’t write it!” barks the father. I glance at him, back to the girl, start telling her I’ll have to request a copy from another branch for her. “She didn’t write it! Hey! You know she didn’t write that, right?”
His interruptions are now too loud, irritating, and frantic to ignore without my being deliberately offensive. I raise my eyes to his and ask him, smiling, smiling, “She didn’t write it?”
“Yeah!” he cries, gratified. “She didn’t write it! That Capote guy did.”
“That’s really interesting,” I say, fighting bile. “I was a literature major, but I never heard that one. How interesting.” How interesting that you would shoot down a famous female author in front of your own daughter, you boor. How interesting.
I turn to the girl, and keeping the rage out of my voice, smile and explain that there’s no copies at our branch–they’re all checked out, you know, because the book is so popular, I say, laying it on thick, a little dig for Dad’s benefit–but that we can get one for her in a few days. “And there’s another book, just so you know, that might be relevant: it’s called How to Suppress Women’s Writing.” The father barks jovially, then becomes silent, his expression quizzical. The effort of thinking keeps him relatively quiet through the rest of the transaction.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I imagine that the girl does not remember the exact book title, but she remembers, the next time her father tears down a woman’s achievements, that someone mentioned that phenomenon to her once. Someone even wrote a book about it, maybe? She’ll remember that not everybody thinks like her father, that not everybody needs her to be small in order for them to be big. That is what I like to imagine happening, except that I would spare the girl these kinds of struggles if I could. I can’t, so I have to imagine her remembering. I have to imagine the conversation continuing, from person to person. When we’re hemmed in by hurtful words and repressive deeds, our minds will sift these phrases from the silt of our memories. These words will remind us that despite all assertions to the contrary, we’re still human beings.
I don’t know Joanna Russ, but I’ll miss her anyway. I’d like to thank her for being part of the conversation.
We’re hoping to have more coming up on Hoyden on Joanna Russ; stay tuned.