thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

An Interview with Dodie Bellamy

In activism, gender on April 17, 2012 at 9:35 am

Sarah T.

Dodie Bellamy is a force to be reckoned with: an experimental feminist writer and poet whose work pushes against boundaries of genre, form, and literary and social conventions. The author of the acclaimed The Letters of Mina Harker and numerous other works, Bellamy recently gained a passel of new admirers (including me) with the publication of her confessional memoir the buddhist.

the buddhist draws from Bellamy’s blog Belladodie to explore the emotional aftermath of her relationship with an unnamed, and perhaps unknowable, man. Writing about the memoir for Emily Books, Sady Doyle describes it as an effort “to reconcile the person you thought you knew with the damage you know you’ve suffered — to ‘integrate the trauma into acknowledged memory,’ as they say.” This effort, Doyle says, “can, under some circumstances, be a struggle to live.”

The vitality of the buddhist comes from the struggle that unfolds as Bellamy questions, fights, assures, and arm-wrestles herself and her memories. Not wanting the story that refuses to end to end for me as a reader — at least not just yet — I reached out to Bellamy to see if she would answer a few questions for Girls Like Giants. Happily, she obliged. Read on for Bellamy’s thoughts on blogging, boldness, and Charlotte Brontë.

One of the things I love about the buddhist is how you document your resistance to telling your story as you tell it. What was the value, for you, in pushing back against that resistance?

Beyond technical prowess, what makes writing compelling is the energy behind it, the tension, the charge.  I often write about material I feel resistance to, material that makes me uncomfortable, because that creates a charge for me, a sort of erotics of disclosure.

You’re one of the originators of the New Narrative movement [Ed: this is inaccurate! See below]. What relationship you see between the New Narrative and personal blogging—particularly in terms of writing about other people?

I’m not one of the originators of New Narrative, though I was a student of those originators when I was a young writer.  New Narrative was very much about using the personal in writing, and about forefronting the position of the writer, rather than he/she hiding like the Wizard of Oz behind a screen, pulling all the switches and levers.  New Narrative was also very interested in writing communities, how we’re not writing alone but among a community of peers, as well as historical communities of previous texts.  So, this emphasis on the personal and community make New Narrative highly compatible with personal blogging.  But there also was a focus on various experimental strategies in the work that’s more akin to poetry than what you see in most personal blogs.  It’s been a long hard road for me to feel okay about the sort of straightforwardness I perform in the buddhist.

Do you know if the buddhist himself has read your blog or book, or if he knew that you were writing about him? Does that matter to you?

Approximately four months before I finished the book, I told him in an email that I’d been blogging about him and was writing the book.  He said he hadn’t read the blog and that our worlds were so different, he was fine with my writing about him.  This was a brief exchange that surprised me, his permission, but it was very helpful for me, psychologically, in finishing the project.  To my knowledge, he hasn’t read the blog or the book, but I don’t really know.  When I was writing the blog, at first there was the fantasy of him reading it, that I was somehow communicating to him.  Now, no, it does not matter to me if he’s read any of this.  In an odd way, the project no longer feels about him, there have been so many layers of mediation in the writing of it.

How did the immediacy of the internet—writing and publishing instantly, rapid feedback from readers—shape your story as you were telling it?

The addictive quality of instant publication and instant feedback, and all the support I was given for writing the blog, both from personal friends and from previously unknown readers of the blog certainly generated a lot of energy that kept me going.  Some people followed the blog the way you follow a soap opera, so eventually I had this trained readership who was willing to examine every little nuance of the experience with me.  It’s amazing that people were so interested.  We’re talking maybe 100 dedicated readers, many of them visual artists.  As I continued the blog I came to view it as performance art.

Do you read other blogs by writers—particularly women writers—who talk about their personal lives on the internet? What do you think about it as a collective movement?

I do read a variety of blogs by women, but not as regularly as I was, as I’m trying to spend less time online in order to finish a couple of print projects.  I’m continuously moved by the generosity and intelligence I find in the writing of women bloggers.  It’s not a lot of dreck and babble—there’s so many talented women writing personal blogs these days, and by generosity I mean not only sharing themselves, but also writing about the work of other women, promoting other women writers and artists.  There’s a sort of purity to blogging, writing for the love of it.  There may be disagreement among women bloggers about the value of feminism and what it means to be a feminist, but I see women blogging as essentially a feminist movement.

I love the passage in your book that talks about the different kinds of female suffering that get designated as cool or uncool. Among your community of experimental women poets in the 1980s, Sylvia Plath was “bad emotion, bad suffering.” The suffering of Billie Holiday and Frida Kahlo was hip, for reasons having to do with their technique and, you suspect, the fact that they weren’t white and weren’t writers. Do you see that preference for Holiday and Kahlo as a form of cultural appropriation? And what kinds of suffering do you think are culturally acceptable, and unacceptable, for women to express today?

Our culture is so fucked up as far as women goes, and with things like the recent vaginal probe legislation, it’s clear that it’s far more fucked up than even the most pessimistic of us dreamed.  I was recently reading about the reception of Jane Eyre, when people were debating whether this Currer Bell was a woman or a man, and the same characteristics of the novel kept coming up again and again, but when those traits were labeled male they were seen as strengths, and when labeled female—surprise—these same traits were seen as weaknesses.  What one critic sees as boldness, vigor and intellect, when gendered female becomes hard, angular and indelicate.  What’s acceptable culturally for women continues to be such bullshit—anger takes over and I can’t answer this question.

You call yourself out on condemning high/low hierarchies in the same post where you draw a distinction between Real Writing and blogging. How do you think about that now—is there one kind of writing that’s more real, or more important to you, than another?

I do feel there is a difference in blogging and other types of writing I’ve done, but I think it’s more about level of attention than quality or validity.  There’s a quickness to blogging and immediacy that’s exhilarating, but there’s another type of writing I do that’s almost like going into a trance where I spend hours thinking about something and I lose myself in it—and that deep focus writing is very important to me.  I’ve been blogging less because of another project I’m working on, but when I allow myself the treat of blogging, it’s so comfy and soothing, like a glass of red wine after work or a lavender-scented bath.  Sometimes I use journal writing in the same way, but in blogging that sense of an audience, no matter how small, changes the dynamic.  There’s more of a quick shaping and an outward focus.

One thing that I appreciate about blogging—and internet publishing in general—is that it exists outside the economy of MFA degrees and awards.  You don’t need some authority to pronounce you worthy, you don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars that will put you in debt for the rest of your life in order to have USDA-certified burnt on your rump.

Here’s another passage of yours that’s really stuck with me: “[. . .] An in-your-face owning of one’s vulnerability and fucked-upness to the point of embarrassing and offending tight-asses is a powerful feminist strategy. Writing is tough work, I don’t see how anyone can really write from a position of weakness. Sometimes I may start out in that position, but the act of commandeering words flips me into a position of power. To deny behaviors and experiences gendered as weak or “feminine” is not feminist or queer, it’s heteronormative to the hilt.” With that in mind, what have been the risks and rewards in exposing your vulnerability with this project?

As I imply in the passage you quote, I think that admitting one’s vulnerabilities is a source of strength.  Few would call me a wimpy person; I scare people.  I live so far on the margins of society, so fully immersed in an art and writing world, that the risks for me aren’t as high as they might be for some.  But, who knows, all this may come back to bite me in the ass some day.  The rewards of this project have been that I’ve connected with some wonderful people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and, oddly, due to publishing the buddhist with Publication Studio and its radical approaches to publishing, I’ve made more money off that book than any of my others.

Your editor points out, “A blog can go on forever (scrolling scrolling scrolling) but a book ENDS.” Did transforming your blog into a book end the cycle your blog longs to break—the constant return of thoughts of the buddhist? Or is that kind of finality a pipe dream?

There is no finality in matters of the heart.  The blog and the book both helped me cope with my mourning over that relationship, but it also extended it.  Here I am, still talking about it.  Thoughts of the buddhist the book inevitably bring up thoughts of the buddhist the person.  My hyper-awareness that any sort of finality would be a pipe dream made it very difficult to figure out how to the end the book, how to bring it to some kind of satisfying closure, but also keep a sense of openness.  That’s why the book has multiple endings; I couldn’t get it right.

What other works would you recommend that fans of the buddhist seek out?

Emily Books published an ebook edition of the buddhist, and I’m very impressed with their lineup, their taste—quirky and edgy, but good, solid writing.  Fans of the buddhist should read anything Emily Books publishes.  Fans of the buddhist should also check out the catalogue for French artist Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself.  Here’s how Calle describes the project:

I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn’t know how to respond.
It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me.
It ended with the words, “Take care of yourself.”
And so I did.
I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers),
chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter.
To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it.  Exhaust it.  Understand it for me.
Answer for me.
It was a way of taking the time to break up.
A way of taking care of myself.

(from <http://www.paulacoopergallery.com/exhibitions/56>

Fans of the buddhist should read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, then check out the four abject letters Brontë wrote to Constantin Héger, the inspiration for Villette’s Paul Emanuel.  Over and over I’m finding that after the lover leaves, from a reader’s perspective, that’s when things get really exciting, for that’s when a woman can finally settle into herself.  It’s as if the absent lover creates an opening to surprising depths of humanness.  That’s a big generalization and I’m wary of generalizations, but it’s something to think about.

*

Previously on Girls Like Giants: True Confessions; Dangerous Minds

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