During a Q&A, Nelson is asked by a well-known playwright how she managed to write a book about cruelty while pregnant. “Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.”
I am in ongoing awe of words and the ways in which gifted writers can create whole universes out of a combination of consonants and vowels. I am interested in so many different art forms-voice, theatre and performance-but I am indebted to the magic of words and books. For years I have found solace in reading. Writing has taught me about the beauty of ambiguity and the satisfaction of clarification. Writing is the medium that lets me reach into my guts and find the electrical current they carry.
The act of writing gives murky inner lives shape; moulding them into imperfect beings through limiting/limitless beautiful language. In my 29th year on this planet, I am finally certain. I want to be a writer of stories. How will I do this? Beats me! Let me know if you have any ideas.
Having read this intro paragraph (it’s ok if you skimmed it), it is no surprise that for International Women’s Week, I wanted to choose a writer or poet. I care about so many writers. There were a lot of literary voices to sift through but I decided to focus in on American writer, academic, and poet, Maggie Nelson. I just finished her book, The Argonauts, which was recommended to me by my wonderful musicianpartner Joel and my incredible poetfriend and sister-in-law Katie. I was excited to read a work that was so highly recommended by artists I love and trust!
Less about me and more about Maggie! The Argonauts is a searing yet soft novel with writing like a Rorschach test; deeply personal and driven by human psychology- abstract and yet familiar.The book refuses to settle into any particular form or genre which makes it interesting to me. This is how I want to write. To me this seems like a feminist way of creating.
Ultimately a story about love and care, The Argonauts weaves theory about gender, sexuality and womanhood into poetic auto-biographical prose. In the book, Maggie speaks about her marriage with her non-binary partner Harry Dodge, about motherhood, about the trauma and beauty of pregnancy and about navigating the world with a female body.
“(Nelson’s) unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph, a mode that allows for deep swerves and juxtapositions, for the interspersing of anecdote and analysis. If the danger of being elliptical is that one sometimes sounds dotty, the reward is an ability to dodge enclosure, to achieve by way of judicious layering a complexity that is otherwise elusive.”
Maggie uses storytelling to make ruptures in oppressive systems and to pry open harmful binaries. Like me, she is interested in art’s potential to dissolve paradigms of thought that limit humans’ freedom and self-expression. She speaks to the fact that there are a myriad of ways to live a whole life (I’m about that!). I also really liked how openly she talked about her sexuality. I think women talking more openly about their right to a healthy sexual life is wonderful. Women’s sexual experiences have often been so corralled, controlled or intended only for the male gaze. She poignantly addresses this. I think both Maggie and I are in agreement, What scares the world so much about female sexuality? No more control please.”
A scene that was especially haunting and beautiful for me was when Maggie wove the intimacy of her mother’s death into the telling of her son Iggy’s birth. In this she spoke of humans’ capacity to transform and of life’s various complicated transitions. She spoke about the meaning of life as being related to love and care. This is something I can get behind provided that love is interpreted as an ongoing commitment or action and not an unconditional “given”. Not a static state.
What resonates with me about Maggie’s writing is that she is so powerful in her softness, so inspiring with her vulnerability, her complexity and her phenomenal sensitivity. I used to think that being powerful meant a hiding of softness. The power = impenetrability equation was always a strange and difficult concept for me. A patriarchal concept of strength that binds men as well. Reading work like Maggie’s is affirming.
When I think about the kind of artist and human I want to be, I think of the importance of sensitivity and compassion in my life. I want to always ask questions and interrogate the world around me. I want to support and care for others. I want to resist binaries and absolutes and I want to create socially engaged work that is complex and compassionate; searing, soft and powerful.