Dykes Next Door
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel has built an enthusiastic
following with Dykes to Watch Out For. Now as dyke
subculture hurtles toward the mainstream, Beachdel's take
is changing with the times.
You'd Never Expect When You're Expecting
Naomi Wolf was shocked, during her own pregnancy,
to discover just how little power pregnant woman have.
An excerpt from her new book Misconceptions.
Rites of Passage
Documenting the many ways in which girls mark the
passge into womanhood.
With the Wolf
Guadalupe Beundia, known as La Loba (The Wolf) is
a political leader from a destitute slum in Mexico. Her
cutthroat tactics brought services to her town and made
her one of hte nation's most powerful ward bosses
until the 2000 election changed everything.
The Evolution of a Palenstinian Pacifist
- Word: Alone
- Women to Watch
- Know Thyself: An Abuser Wrestles With His Demons
- My Line in the Sand
Page: Singing Praises
Everyone Reading The Red Tent?
Secret for Julia, by Patricia Sagastizabal
Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood,
by Sandra Steingraber
A Novel of Tiananmen, by Annie Wang
Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance,
by Rachel F. Moran
of God, by Lolita Files
in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and
the Innocence of Youth, by Marjorie Heins
-Boldtype: Kim Chernin
The Naked Sell
Daisy Hernandez, Patricia Smith and Gloria Steinem
Sarah Jones Is Not Obscene
lot of "experts" in the book industry are puzzling over the
latest phenomenon in quirky reader trends: that is, why has
The Red Tent by fiction newcomer Anita Diamant, first
published in 1997, suddenly begun showing up on best-seller
lists in 2001? The term "showing up" doesn't begin to describe
the book's new staying power: The Red Tent hit the
New York Times Paperback Best Seller list early this
year and has firmly held there for more than six months. Book
clubs love it. Publishers in 20 countries have bought translation
rights. Women's studies courses are adopting it, and with
no let-up in sales, The Red Tent shows every sign of
becoming a minor classic in U.S. fiction. Why its new "legs,"
as they say? In some ways, the answer is simple: like Frank
McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Barbara Kingsolver's The
Bean Trees, Diamant's first novel was not a big seller
in chain bookstores and might have gone unnoticed if it hadn't
been for independent booksellers who personally recommended
it to their customers.
"I didn't know what the word 'hand-selling' meant," Diamant
told independent booksellers at their yearly BookExpoAmerica
convention held this summer, "until I met Sarah Zacks of Books
on the Square four years ago in Providence, Rhode Island.
My book had disappeared in the big chains, but it was displayed
in the front area of independent bookstores like hers."
Certainly women are the target audience for Diamant's book,
says Jason Smith of Transitions Bookplace, a Chicago store
that specializes in books on spirituality. "Women readers
dominate the spirituality marketplace," he notes. "They buy
about eighty percent of the books in this categoryso
if any book is going to be singled out, it's The Red Tent.
"But I think a reason it's doing so well is that you might
say we live in a world of grab-bag spirituality today-readers
take a yoga class in the morning, practice Zen meditation
in the afternoon, and attend church events later in the week.
At the same time, as much as we see a widening of spiritual
interests, America is still a Christian nation, and any time
you have a story that's anchored in Western spirituality and
historical detail, it's going to have an appeal.
"But we can never forget when talking about trends what really
sells a book, and that is good writing. The Red Tent
is the classic case of a good story well-told. My mom has
read it, my sister's read it, and happily they, too, are out
there spreading the word."
So while a lot of books are sleepersthey start out submerged,
with little promotion or critical attention, then begin to
surface through bookstore support, book clubs, and word-of-mouth-it's
safe to say that few strike a nerve so deep and abiding as
The Red Tent.
Although a familiar Bible story forms the basis of the novel,
we quickly learn that Diamant is not interested in a simple
retelling of the Old Testament tale of Leah and Rachel, two
of the four sisters who marry Jacob.
"The biblical story that pits two sisters against one another
never sat right with me," she says. "The traditional view
of Leah as the ugly and/or spiteful sister, and of Jacob as
indifferent to her, seemed odd in light of the fact that the
Bible gives them nine children together."
Particularly compelling to Diamant is the one surviving daughter
of Jacob and Leah. This is Dinah (pronounced Dee-nah), who
in Chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis"The Rape of Dinah"is
given sketchy description and allowed no voice at all. "Her
total silence cried out for explanation," Diamant says, "so
I decided to imagine one."
It was a big step for Diamant, whose reputation in the publishing
world was as a successful author of six nonfiction books about
contemporary Jewish life, including Choosing a Jewish Life,
The New Jewish Wedding, and How to Be a Jewish Parent.
But now she has turned toward the biblical story of Dinah
with the ferocity of one of the characters she's created.
As a library fellow at Radcliffe College, Diamant studied
"the food, clothing, social organization, architecture, and
medicine of the ancient Near East" (around 1500 b.c.e.) at
the Radcliffe, Harvard, and Brandeis libraries, concentrating
on the telling details that can so dramatically place readers
inside the life of a particular period.
"The everydayness of giving care, of feeding and clothing
families and each other is the center of The Red Tent,"
she says. "It values that part of women's experience. In the
ancient world, we feel the continuity, the femaleness of trying
to be pregnant or of avoiding pregnancy, of considering a
life in the body, that kind of universal thing. While a couple
of love stories do exist, they're played out against the backdrop
of the women's culture, the wholeness of it, the valuing of
female relationshipssister, friend, mother, daughterin
a way that was separate from the men."
Thus Diamant re-creates the tent city of Jacob's sheepherding
familyhis four wives and many children, his shepherds
and bondswomen, his slaves and artisans, his barbarous father-in-law
Laban, and, eventually, his vengeful sons.
The dust and heat of the surrounding desert; the household
gods worshipped by the women (as opposed to Jacob's one god);
the daily sacrifices, romances, and marriages; and, most precious
to Dinah, the place where women were sequestered during menstruation,
childbirth, illness, and death (the red tent) become so familiar
in their sounds and senses that increasingly we feel at home
When asked why Diamant's book is selling so well, one bookseller
looked up from shelving books and blushed to say, not so jokingly,
"Well, that tent ain't red for nothing."
How true. The one taboo that bridges our modern world with
that biblical oneor so we think at the beginningis
menstruation, and so a tent that's unapologetically and blatantly
called the red tent startles and thrills us at the same time.
And did it exist historically? "We know that menstrual tents
and huts were all over the world in various premodern societies,"
Diamant says. "I have no evidence that something formal called
the red tent existed during Dinah's life. So I made it up.
The rendering of what happened inside that tent is entirely
my own creation."
Well now, how delectable. You just know that in a patriarchal
society where, as Diamant shows, women aren't allowed to speak
when men are talking or even look men straight in the eye,
and where all decisions must be made by men (even if women
really do make them and have to implore or cajole the men
into pretending the decisions are theirs), just walking into
that tent at the end of the day is going to be a relief and
"Readers begin to feel a part of this sacred sisterhood.
Customers talk about that all the time."
since women must hide the wisdom they have gained over generations,
it is only in that sacred place that all the mysteries and
the secretsand the gossip, fears, and hopesthey
have withheld from the outside will be revealed and exchanged.
So it is in the red tent that we see all the secrets that
stretch across the centurieshow women fend off unwanted
sexual advances by altering men's food; how they use herbs
to abort or delay conception; how they attend, rather than
control, childbirth for the greater safety of mother and
baby; and, most of all, how they regard menstruation not
as "a curse" or a lifetime of cramps but as a blessing to
When Rachel, for example, begins menstruating, she is led
into the red tent by her loving, cooing elders, who cover
her head "with the finest embroidery," and her arms and
feet with "every bangle, gem, and jewel that could be found."
The women sing "all the welcoming songs," and they pour
for Rachel "as much sweet wine as she could hold." They
offer her a "fine wheat-flour cake, made in the three-cornered
shape of woman's sex" (this book is so bawdy!). They allow
her to "laze in the tent for three days" and collect her
"precious fluid" in a bronze bowl, "for the first-moon blood
of a virgin was a powerful libation for the garden."
So it is in the red tent that monthly blood is seen as a
gift that "courses through us, cleansing the body of last
month's death, preparing the body to receive the new month's
life," Leah tells Dinah. Women give thanks there "for repose
and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from
between our legs, and that life costs blood."
No wonder "readers begin to feel a part of this sacred sisterhood,"
says Sarah Wingfield of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.
"Customers talk about that all the time."
And they talk about it to Diamant. "At signings and readings,
I'll look up to see three and even four generations of women,
all with the book in hand. It never occurred to me that
fourteen-year-olds would read it, but they do, and often
for the same reasons their grandmothers and great-grandmothers
do. It's that sense of connection, that intergenerational
Perhaps, too, there is a sense of returning to a "primitive"
time and finding out something newor timelessabout
ourselves. "It's sort of magical for readers of today,"
says Randy Rick of The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver.
"We learn to dispense with the judgments we've picked up
and to take Diamant's world for what it is.
"Reading this book is like traveling to an older culture
and going to a village where women are not wearing miniskirts,
for example. Do you say, 'These women are oppressed,' or
do you get to know them on their own terms? You could waste
time trying to change their opinions, or you could learn
a lot by getting to know the community and understanding
The fact that Dinah is the one who not only finds her voice
but tells the entire storyhers, Rachel's, Leah's,
and the othersmakes The Red Tent not only alluring,
but audacious, suspenseful, and thrilling all at once.
In the Bible, we are told very little: Dinah is raped; Jacob's
sons take their revenge. But in The Red Tent, where
sex as both idea and practice is known and felt, listened
to, joked about, and is an acknowledged presence in everyday
life, Dinah's personal story becomes fully, deeply, and
Since she is the only female offspring of Jacob and his
four wives, Dinah is allowed inside the red tent even before
she begins menstruating. No longer the silenced voice of
the Bible, she becomes the chosen daughter, to whom all
women's knowledge is conveyed.
Few are the readerswomen or menwho won't identify
with Dinah, or realize that in the world as envisioned by
Diamant, Dinah may not have been raped, but actually had
the daring to choose her own lover.
But another compelling reason the book is a best-seller
is the fact that Dinah performs an act of "counterhistory,"
as Diamant puts it. "Until recently, men and women inhabited
quite different cultures," she says. "Wisdom in the men's
community was passed on but not shared. While men and women
were deeply involved with each other, men didn't come home
and talk about their day. They lived in interdependent but
separate universes. History has come to value the male culture
more than the female, so Dinah's narrative offers the story
not told as much."
And this is what readers seem to value most. Because we
come to live in the red tent and love Dinah and the women
who teach her about womanhood, we believe what she says.
No more is menstruation "disgusting, filthy, and private,"
wrote one customer to Amazon.com. Rather, it is "a monthly
reminder for all women that their bodies are beautiful temples
B Patricia Holt writes an e-mail column about the book
industry called "Holt Uncensored" (www.holtuncensored.com).
Red Tent from the Ms.