Poetry Hollywood Producer Orders Up a Sunset | Aleida Rodríguez
Hardscape | Eloise Klein Healy
Fiction Deja New | Lee Martin
Passing Andrea Dworkin | In her own words
Celeste Fremon on Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ Promises I Can Keep
Michele Kort on Johnette Howard’s The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova
Susan Straight on Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad
Sarah Gonzales on Isabel Allende’s Zorro Samantha Dunn on Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation
Like many progressive women, I once saw single motherhood as either an act of laudable independence — think Murphy Brown or Rachel on Friends — or as a youthful mistake: children having children. Then, 14 years ago, I began reporting on street gangs in Los Angeles County ’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where I met entire communities full of women for whom the concepts of babies and marriage seemed radically unconnected.
My reaction was at first judgmental. Why didn’t these people have better sense? Hadn’t they heard of birth control? Over time, I got to know the women in-depth, and found that each pregnancy and its unmarried aftermath had its own complex and often tragic web of reasons.
Take, for example, smart, funny Ophelia, with her curvy body and her fabulous cloud of bottle-red hair. Born in the Pico Aliso housing projects of East L.A. to a heroin-using mother, Ophie was dumped as a toddler on the doorstep of the first relative who agreed to take her, then abused by almost every male family member who should have been her protector.
After she hit adolescence, Ophelia seemed to get pregnant with every infatuation, each time hoping this guy was the one who could save her and that a baby would provide the glue. Instead, by age 24, Ophelia found herself with four children by charming but wounded men who quickly disappeared. So she did whatever it took to support her small family, sometimes dancing in clubs, other times working two or three straight jobs.
“At least my kids know they can depend on me,” she told me. “At least we have each other.”
Graciela — called Grace for short — also grew up in the projects, but her dad was no abuser. He was a crack-cocaine addict who stole anything not nailed down whenever he was on a binge. Heartbreakingly beautiful, with an IQ registering highly gifted, Grace steered clear of boys until age 15, when she met a charismatic homeboy named Danny and the two fell in love with Romeo-and-Juliet intensity. They had unprotected sex only once, yet it was enough.
I drove Grace to the hospital to deliver her daughter a month before her 16th birthday. She and Danny talked about marriage, but only as a dream in the distant future. He kept badgering Grace to go back to high school, then on to college. After that, they’d think about a wedding. Before any of those things could happen, there was a gang shooting, and Danny went to prison for life.
Ophelia and Grace are more than a couple of painful stories. They are emblematic of the largest American demographic shift in the last half-century. In the 1950s, only one in 20 babies was born outside marriage. Now the figures are one in three. The vast majority of unmarried mothers are poor, and half of these lower-income mothers have no high school diploma. Four of 10 poor unmarried fathers have been to prison by the time their baby enters the world; a quarter have no job.
A few major studies that have received considerable attention indicate that kids raised by a single parent are at greater risk for a daunting range of problems, so, for decades, academics and policy-makers have been trying— largely without success — to locate the causes of and solutions for this escalating pattern. It’s the fault of the welfare state, shouts the political right. We must reattach “the idea of shame to those who have children without getting married,” opines the prominent social theorist James Q. Wilson. And the Bush administration plans to throw billions at unproven “marriage cure” programs.
Inherent in all this finger-pointing is one major flaw: Although the trend is painstakingly tabulated, few researchers or politicians — on the right or the left — ever bother to talk to the actual women who are having those out-of-wedlock babies.
Enter a couple of Pennsylvania sociology professors, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, who spent five years asking 162 low-income single moms in eight neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., for their thoughts on marriage and family. Edin moved her own family to East Camden in order to gain trust and build relationships with the women.
The pair’s refreshingly original results can be found in an essential new book, Promises I Can Keep. Unlike previous explanations for marriageless parenting which seemed so obviously off the mark, I found Edin and Kefalas’ work a revelation. Not only did their research validate what I’d observed for years in East L.A., the two had fashioned a comprehensive theoretical framework to give these observations shape and meaning.
Yes, Edin and Kefalas discovered that the women they surveyed had kids out of wedlock for reasons that were varied and complex, but they also noticed the women’s lives had elements in common. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of them took marriage seriously — so seriously that they were unwilling to risk failure.
“The poor avoid marriage, not because they think too little of it, but because they revere it,” write Edin and Kefalas.
The reasons these women had so little faith in matrimony emerged from the panoply of social dysfunctions that haunt most poor neighborhoods: joblessness, incarceration, drug addiction, serial infidelity and physical abuse. In addition, they feared marriage as a “loss of control” that would transform their men into autocratic decision-makers, so they back-burnered their bridal plans pending their own, hoped for economic security sometime down the road.
“A woman with income and assets of her own,” write the authors, felt more able to insist upon a “partnership of equals.”
OK, so why not also wait to have children? Their middle-class sisters put off marriage and childbearing to pursue careers and financial stability. But in an economic climate where underclass women have shrinking educational and career opportunities, write Edin and Kefalas, childbearing is the one reachable goal. “[Poor] women consider marriage a luxury — one that they … hope someday to attain, but can live without if they must. Children, on the other hand, are a necessity.”
For poor women, it’s motherhood, not husbands or work, that’s the primary signifier of personal success and emotional fulfillment. Still, Edin and Kefalas found that many women do marry if and when they — and the men around them — achieve sufficient economic and emotional stability.
This was also true for the women I know. Now in her early 30s, Grace is in a solid, married relationship. Ophelia has a good job and a savings account, but is still single. Yet, just recently, she emailed to say she’s seeing a Navy man with four kids of his own. “We’re really head over heels,” Ophie wrote, “and there’s talk about marriage. But you know me. Yikes! Not the M word!”
In women’s professional tennis today, the spiciest and most thrilling rivalry is between two women who don’t even want to compete against each other — sisters Serena and Venus Williams.
In the 1970s and ’80s, though, the two greatest female competitors weren’t stymied by blood relation. They went at it, unconstrained, over the course of 16 years and an unfathomable 80 matches, with first one then the other proving unbeatable, yet neither backing down. Along the way, they formed their own surprising bond, which transcended a lack of almost any similarity beyond their unswerving drive to win.
Chris Evert: cool, metronomic, girlish; a baseline player from a devout Catholic family in suburban Florida . Martina Navratilova: overemotional, unpredictable, jockish; a serve-and-volleyer from Communist-run Czechoslovakia . Chris, the girl next door; Martina, the defector from a seemingly alien world. Chris, straight; Martina, gay.
Yet they hit it off from their first meeting at a tennis tournament as teenagers. When they weren’t running each other ragged on the court, they could joke and laugh and put The Game aside. Only when Navratilova came under the sway of early-1980s girlfriend Nancy Lieberman — who felt rivals should barely be civil to each other — did the friendship waver, but they reconnected once Lieberman left the scene.
Howard, a columnist for Newsday and a former Sports Illustrated staff writer, has played this stirring double-biography like a great tennis match, volleying back and forth between the two women’s lives on and off the court. As their rivalry progresses, so does the suspense Howard creates. Will Martina ever reach her potential? Will Chris have to choose between love and tennis? Will Martina be crucified for coming out? Will Chris change her trademark style — and lift weights! — to challenge unstoppable Martina?
Sports fans will be easily drawn into the well-limned scenes of tennis matches, but feminists should be equally intrigued by Howard’s retelling of how women’s tennis mirrored the Second Wave’s struggle for recognition and equal pay.
Howard recounts a particular tasty discussion that legendary women’s tennis leader Billie Jean King had with Ms. cofounder Gloria Steinem: “Gloria, you’re not using us right! Gloria, we’re the ones! We can sell this movement!… You guys keep thinking from the neck up, and it’s the whole body — the whole body — that makes women powerful. And empowered.”
Navratilova had no problem accepting King’s charge to political action — she’s been outspoken about gay rights, as well — but the more demure Evert couldn’t help but being affected by the women’s movement as well.
“I read magazines like Ms. and WomenSports,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1974, “and it’s like all us girls are together, you know — sisterhood.”
The differences between the two women were obvious; Howard’s achievement is in mapping their common ground and how each grew from the other’s example. Through it all, they honored each other, without judgment. You know — sisterhood.
The first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in English in the United States is a hallucinatory incantation, a fevered dream and nightmare and, finally, a lyric evocation of a place disappeared.
This place, whose cities most Americans will know only through dispatches from our current war, is Iraq in the 1950s, where Huda, a fierce and uncompromising young girl, travels through Najaf and Karbala, and takes the reader on journeys through the heart of old Baghdad.
But the true paths of this coming-of-age story, with its fragmented narrative and leaps back and forth in time, are through the private courtyards and public baths where the women in Huda’s life rage and pray and love and scream.
In the baths, attended to by her aunts, “They rubbed and twisted my braids. I died among these women’s fingers; my eyes were blinded by the soap lather … The soap, steam, and all that noise; I was an egg thrown onto the ocean.”
Iraqi women, called by the name of their eldest son (preceded by “mother of”), are defined by their children. Men are, as well, and when Huda’s mother becomes ill, her father, a prison guard, leaves the family for a woman who can bear more sons. The family’s Baghdad world begins to collapse. Huda’s mother dies of tuberculosis. Her grandmother prays. Two aunts survive by loving each other. Another aunt marries late, then is abandoned, still a virgin, and attacks her husband upon his return.
Huda watches the helplessness and rage of her family’s women, and the brutality and arrogance of her father, her uncles and the other men of Baghdad . But Huda remains defiant, more like a boy than a girl, spending her time on the roof, a refuge from summer heat and family violence.
After her father beats her, she recounts her response: “The call to evening prayer dispersed the voices, and you were consumed by weeping. You cried alone, and your tears made you laugh. The stars were unruly, and this whole horizon was a lie.”
Author Alia Mamdouh, a Baghdad native who was prohibited from publishing her work by the Iraqi government, lives in Paris . This novel, her third, is an ode to her city and an elegy for a former life: The mosques, the market and the Tigris are landscapes of her character Huda’s childhood, the places where she runs with her brother and friends.
As she enters adolescence, Huda’s family and country begin to fracture. When her neighbor, her childhood love Mahmoud, becomes politically active, his actions mirror Huda’s father’s descent into madness, and Baghdad’s initial rumblings of dissent: “The day he gave me a leaflet I was afraid, trembling and stammering. The first leaflet was like a first forbidden kiss … I knew that there was something like a bomb inside it, and if I touched it, it would blow my head and hand off.”
THAT MASKED MAN
Sarah Gonzales Zorro By Isabel Allende
The legend of Zorro has become a fixture of Western myth, with every kind of media retelling the tale, each take different from the one before. The Zorro motion-picture canon alone ranges from the original Douglas Fairbanks 1920 swashbuckling The Mark of Zorro to 1981’s “swishbuckling” Zorro, the Gay Blade. So why is one of our most celebrated and trusted woman authors turning her imagination to a story that is at best a much-loved cliché?
It seems odd that a literary doyenne like Isabel Allende, always original and enduringly fresh, would take to her famously sacred writing room to pen yet another version of Zorro. But she has, and feminist readers should rejoice.
With her signature subtle humor, first-person narrator and ability to both entertain and educate, Allende introduces Diego de la Vega, a.k.a. Zorro, as a child. Born in Spanish-colonial California at the turn of the 19th century to a landowning Spanish captain and a Shoshone warrior named Toypurnia, young Diego receives the schooling befitting a young don.
But this tale departs from the usual Zorro template with an emphasis on his Indian education under the direction of his mother and his shaman grandmother, White Owl. He observes oppression of the Native Americans, and the bad taste of justice denied remains in the deepest part of his memory, determining the course of his life.
Ultimately, he travels to Barcelona to add academics and fencing to his education. Amid forced Napoleonic rule and the lingering influence of the Inquisition, Spain is a tumult of guerrilla soldiers, crown loyalists, scorned Gypsies and those like Diego without allegiance to any side. He joins La Justicia, a resistance movement armed with sharp swords, concealed identities and a hearty distaste for villainy. Soon, tales of the masked hero’s feats spread throughout the city, along with the “Z” left carved at the scene of his engagements.
Back in California, his skill with the sword vanquishes evil, his passion for justice fueled by the intuitive, yet fierce, upbringing he received from his mother and grandmother. Although he falls in love with the beautiful Juliana, this is not a romance novel. Instead, Diego’s hapless attempts at courtship are recounted with dry humor by the narrator, whom we begin to suspect is Juliana’s less-lovely sister, Isabel. It is Isabel who will eventually take up a sword and fight alongside Diego, matching him in combat and wit.
Isabel, Toypurnia and White Owl are more than the women behind the great man. Allende has imbued them with the humor, strength and cleverness that befit any legendary character — masked or otherwise.
Sarah Vowell’s strange tour of sites and monuments that commemorate presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) is a kind of obsession, an attempt to get her mind around the conundrum of American history in the hope that will illuminate something about the present.
It’s no accident that Vowell — best known for her pithy commentaries on NPR’s “This American Life” and as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles — begins this journey as the U.S. is invading Iraq, which is exactly the moment her “resentment of the current president cranked up to contempt.”
Underneath some peculiar details about American policy, Jeopardy-style factoids on architecture, little-known biographical details (Garfield was a bookworm!) and trenchant musings on everything from Elvis’ gospel recordings to a 19th-century vegetarian sex cult in upstate New York, Assassination Vacation is a record of human failing, of what seems to be our fundamental inability to live up to the beautiful, noble ideals of which we can conceive.
For brief moments, the reader is allowed past Vowell’s sardonic exterior into a place of passion and lament that is the deep current pulling this work forward. Those are the moments that make this book worth reading.