May 17, 2012

Khadijah Qeen on Helene Cixous

Explicating Process: Helene Cixous' Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

I hesitate to write about Cixous' work. She says it all so well herself. In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (Columbia University Press, 1993), she begins with the letters I and H, H particularly for its ladder-like appearance, and when that letter (in French) is "out of breath" (4), she turns to English to give it sound (life). With that introduction, proclaiming "this H, this ladder is writing" (4), she proceeds to send us to the School of the Dead

It is important that these are not schools in the traditional sense, but levels of consciousness that intersect and repeat. Whether you take notes, read straight through, skip around, reread or re-reread, reading Cixous often mirrors the act of memory, much like reading Morrison (as outlined in her essay "The Site of Memory," from Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser).

Then we progress to the School of Dreams, still accompanied by the dead writers discussed in the previous School – Kafka, Lispector, Poe, Tsvetaeva. We learn that "One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One's own night. Walking through the self toward the dark" (65). Forget what you know. Look for what you don't understand, don't see – write through it.

The point of such a process, according to Cixous, is to unravel the self's mysteries, to know more than before about yourself and the world. Armed with that knowledge, "let the dream ladder grow. It grows down – toward the depths" (108) to the School of Roots. Reminiscent of Jenny Boully's recent work, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky, 2011) with its "Home Under Ground" throughout, we enter "a world under the world" (126), a place of metamorphosis, restoration, recovery of self and language anew (129). Then we come to a finishing place. We write something else. Do it again.

(Learn more about Khadijah Queen herself here.)

May 15, 2012

Arielle Greenberg Bywater on Maira Kalman

I was working as a nanny in college in the early 90s, and my three-year-old charge Gracie had this book, which is how I discovered it; and how I discovered that surrealist and absurdist humor is alive and well and continues to thrive in children’s lit, as does Chagall- and Florine Stettheimer-inspired art; and how I discovered how much I eventually wanted to have children of my own, partly to have the excuse to read more children’s books; and how I discovered Maira Kalman, the contemporary author I most want to have over for dinner, because she is funny and Jewish and cares about food politics and democracy and vintage hats just like me; and how I discovered how much joy I get from things like the “tiny story” in Hey, Willy, which goes, in its entirety, “Four very tiny people / walked right by me / on the way to school. / No one knew / where they were going, / but they were / walking very fast / and carrying / little instruments”; and how much I myself wanted to write spare, funny, weird little things, which is not what I was writing then, but is sometimes what I try to write now.

Hear Arielle read this aloud here.
(Learn more about Arielle Greenberg Bywater herself here.)