Emily Dickinson’s biopic

While A Quiet Passion may not be the best biographical film out there, it has its moments.

My favorites:

# 1 (Because it made me so angry)

Emily asks her father permission to write during the night for quiet’s sake. He agrees. Then she asks him to contact a friend who is the editor of a newspaper that publishes poetry. He does so, and soon after Emily submits some of her poems for consideration.

When Samuel Bowles, the entitled editor of the Springfield Republican, writes back, he starts by condescendingly informing that he has decided to publish one of her poems which shows “some wit“, and ends heart-wrenchingly by saying: “But I must confess that the genuine classics of every language are the work of men, not of women. Women, I fear, cannot create the permanent treasures of literature.”

#2 (Because it captures her wittiness so well)

Emily’s father: “Will you come to church, Emily? Your soul is no trivial matter.”
Emily: “I agree, father. That is why I’m so meticulous in guarding its independence.”

#3 (Because it made me think about the concept of family; the family we don’t get to choose, and the one about which we have a say, should we wish to form it).

Emily’s friend: “Will you marry?”
Emily: “I suppose in time I shall. Isn’t that what we all do in the end? I don’t know. I can’t imagine myself beyond my family. Among strangers.”

Read more:

 

Rachel Carson

Image of Rachel Carlson

Thirty minutes into this documentary about the American marine biologist and author, Rachel Carson, it became apparent how incredibly resilient and dedicated she was. How, after working the whole day as a writer and having dinner with her mother, she would lock herself in her room and write until dawn. By the end of it, I had realized how daunting her self-imposed mission was and why it required so much effort.

Working as a junior aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries, she had access to thousands of official papers and studies about the ocean, all written in a very specific way, and her goal was to read, understand, connect and synthesize them all, so that she could then tell it in a prose that was accessible to people everywhere. 

From war records to submarine research, she would use any piece of information she could find to call attention to the dangers of environmental contamination to humankind. She had to translate the pile of material on her desk, written in academic and technical language, into something easy to comprehend. She had to transform it all, while still being true to it, to tell us that everything is connected, that we all share the environment, and that we must share responsibility for it.

Her journey as a nature writer started when she was 14. Later, in her early 20s, she saw the ocean for the first time and fell deeply in love with it. From that point onwards, she lived a life of the mind. An isolated existence full of responsibilities: Her father died when she was 28, and her sister when she was 30. She then became the sole provider for herself, her mother, and two nieces. She never got married. Later in life, she also had to provide for the son of one of her nieces, who she adopted as her own son, shortly before dying.

The ocean was her parallel universe. She wanted to tell the world about its beauty. Pitching stories to newspapers, she was determined to become a full-time writer. So she used weekends and evenings for creative work.

Her three first books were beautiful odes to the sea. Then, in 1962, her masterpiece came along: Silent spring – a book that aimed to demonstrate that the survival of men depends on the balance of nature. The same men that believed then that pesticides were not poisonous to humans or the land and water resources around them. The same men that still believe that they can control nature. 

Man’s endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature.

Nobody knew what the ocean was really like before Rachel Carson. Nobody talked to the public about pesticides, radioactive nuclear fallout, and their relationship to cancer, infertility, and birth defects. By writing and publishing her books, she challenged corporations and authorities of one-sided science; she raised the level of awareness of the general public. “Her body of work is one of science, literature, and art”. And one that spearheaded the environmental movement around the globe.

Keep reading about Rachel:

 

Think before you breed

People are still expected to provide reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them. It’s assumed that if individuals do not have children it is because they are infertile, too selfish or have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocutor an explanation. On the other hand, no one says to the proud parents of a newborn, Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons? The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification.

Christine Overall
(Canadian philosopher)

After thinking long and hard, Christine decided that she wanted to experience motherhood. Then she became not only a mother but also an advocate for conscious motherhood, which I find incredibly beautiful and inspiring. She is the author of the article “Think before you breed” published in 2012 on the New York Times.

 

Tove Jansson

I’ve lived in Sweden on and off for about six years, and this experience allowed me to hear about women whose lives I’d probably know nothing about had I stayed in my home country on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

One of them is Tove Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, painter and illustrator who created a series of books and comic strips about the adorable and incredibly nuanced and subliminal Moomins.

When visiting bookshops in Malmö, I remember often seeing the hippopotamus-like-but-not-quite creatures on paper without having any idea of what exactly they were or meant.

Recently, upon researching documentaries about childless women for the Empty Uterus Youtube Channel, I came across Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson directed by Eleanor Yule. Having recognized the characters, I clicked on play. And how happy I’m that I did so, as it was a great pleasure to learn so much about Tove’s life in just under an hour.

I’d have watched the documentary regardless of her marital or reproductive status, but to my greater pleasure, it turns out that she was childless.

At some point, the documentary features a scene where the narrator reads out a passage of a letter that Tove wrote to her friend, Eva Konikoff, in 1941, when she was 27 years old. It was just a little paragraph, but the letter looked so exciting that I searched online for her correspondence and found a more significant piece.

Here are some of her thoughts on marriage and having children:

All the reasons I don’t want to get married came up. One man after another, and Pappa, Faffan, came first. The whole male solidarity and protective pedestal of privileges, their weaknesses, inviolable and fenced in by slogans, their inconsistency and charming disregard for the feeling of others proclaimed with no trace of nuance as they beat a big drum from morning to evening from the safety of their boys’ network and connections. I can’t afford it, I haven’t time to marry any of them! I’m no good at admiring and comforting. Of course I’m sorry for them and of course I like them, but I’ve no intention of devoting my whole life to a performance I’ve seen through. I see how Faffan [father], the most helpless and instinctive of men, tyrannises over us all, how Ham [mother] is unhappy because she has always said yes, smoothed over problems, given in and sacrificed her life, receiving nothing in return except children war can kill or destroy with negativity. A men’s war!

I can see what would happen to my work if I married. It’s no use; I have all these feminine instincts to comfort, admire, submit, sacrifice myself. I would either be a bad painter or a bad wife. And I refuse to give birth to children who can be killed in some future war . . . Can we not be together without making demands on each other’s work, life and ideas, continue to be free beings without either one having to give way?

And here is the documentary.

 

Bacha Posh

Today I watched the documentary “She is my son: Afghanistan Bacha Posh, when girls become boys” and learned about the consequences of a deep-rooted belief, in Afghanistan patriarchal society, that “Every woman must have a husband beside her. If not a husband, a son will do.”

And what happens when a couple has only daughters and no sons? The daughter will do, as long as she dresses in male clothing, has her hair cut short and uses a male name. By doing so, she is allowed outside the house by herself, and she can start working to help the family make money. These girls are known as “Bacha Posh“, which means “dressed up as a boy“.

It’s a documentary directed by Alexander Avilov, which is available on YouTube and the RTD documentary channel. To those interested, I’d say: Stop reading this post, press play and watch it now. It is worth it.

In less than half an hour, you’ll have a glance at the lives of four girls: Fazilya, Asiya, Najla and Amena. My head starting spinning from the very first minute. I was, above all, interested in what the girls themselves had to say, how they felt and how they coped with the imposed gender-swap, so I typed the words of a couple of them here (mixed with the voice-over of the narrator for context).

Narrator:

Asiya likes the freedom that her boys’ clothes bring her. A privilege that her female friends can’t enjoy.

Asiya:

In Afghanistan, people don’t have the same rights. In other countries, men and women are equal, but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s why I became a Bacha Posh. Women aren’t able to do what men are. Even sports! A man can play sports, but if a woman does, people say it’s a disgrace. A woman must stay at home and take care of children. People don’t want women to work like men. At school, they don’t let me be.

Amena:

Even though I’m a girl, I must become a boy. I want to do something good for my family, for my father, that’s why I’m a Bacha Posh.

Narrator:

Dressed in boys clothes, Amena goes to the center every day to sell water. Outside of her father’s hearing, she confesses that she hates the job. It’s hard to hide from passersby that she is a girl. (She is bullied in the streets).

Two years ago, there was some hope to Amena’s parents. Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy. The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the heir before he tragically died. Amena’s mother can’t have more children now, meaning that she will have to remain a boy for a few more years.

The person behind the camera asks Amena’s father:

How long do you want Amena to stay a Bacha Posh?

Amena’s father:

Until her sister grows up to the age of 11. Then I’ll make her a Bacha Posh and Amena will be able to continue her education.

Narrator (talking about Najla):

Girls dressed as boys is an Afghanistan tradition. It’s concealed but not taboo. But when Bacha Posh girls come of age, they go back to dressing as girls and their parents try to marry them off. Usually to a relative. It’s a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children. She wants freedom. And in Afghanistan, only the men have that.

So many questions in what is now my very dizzy head. The biggest of all, being: “Why?

Deep down, I already know the answer, and “The Second Sex“, by Simone de Beauvoir, comes to mind striking like lightning.

Thankfully, the book is carefully and proudly shelved in a special section of my library, which allowed me to find the passages I was looking for quickly:

Simone de Beauvoir:

In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.

 

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit (Photo by Jim Harrington)

After I finished listening to A field guide to getting lost, by Rebecca Solnit, I was curious to know what she sounded like when not reading her books.

A couple of online searches later and I ended up downloading one episode of the podcast called “On being” presented by Krista Tippett, where she had Rebecca as a guest. To my complete surprise, they were discussing her new book, that, among other things, explores the question of motherhood and cultural expectations attached to it.

I was about to type the passage where they talked about this topic when I noticed the transcript was already readily available on the website. How wonderful (and what a fantastic team behind this production)!

I’d listen to the whole thing if I were you, but in case you are short for time, here it goes:

Ms. Tippett: I’d just love to have a conversation with you about this piece that was in Harper’s not that long ago, about about the choice not to have children.

Ms. Solnit: Oh, yeah. It’s called “The Mother of All Questions.”

Ms. Tippett: “The Mother of All Questions.” And part of what you were reflecting on, or a jumping-off point for your reflection, was the fact that people are so curious about that and, in fact, so presumptuous about it. And I think you make the case very quickly that it’s a valid and life-giving choice, not to have children. But in fact, the piece, like so much of what you write, becomes a reflection on the vast expanse of what it is to be alive. And so there’s this: you said, “People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.”

Ms. Solnit: Yeah, exactly.

Ms. Tippett: And you say: “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” I just feel like that’s so worth just putting out in public life and reflecting on.

Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and it’s partly — we overemphasize this very specific zone of love. It’s as though we’ve hyper-mapped it and obsessed about it and shone lights on it and things. And then there’s this whole other territory of relationships, to the larger world in particular and to public life, to — I hang out with a lot of climate activists, and there’s this profound love they have for the natural world, for the future, for justice. And that really shapes lives and gives them tremendous meaning. And it benefits all of us that they have this and that this motivates them, because they’re acting on behalf of all of us. And we should call that love.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s a passionate love, right? It’s a passionate love.

Ms. Solnit: Absolutely. It’s just — it’s ferocious, and it’s protective the way that mother love can be. And if anything’s going to save the planet, it’s that love. But mostly we don’t even acknowledge that it exists, and so we have these blank spots on the map of who we are. And I want to try and fill those in and encourage people to go there, to recognize that actually, their lives can take place or are already taking place there and that this will give them this bigger sense of self.

Source: On being podcast with Rebecca Solnit, in Dec 2017.

 

Billie Jean

I watched Battle of the sexes last night, and it’s fair to say it’s been a while since a movie touched my heart so profoundly. This time it wasn’t the movie itself – which is well produced and has fine actors – but the details of Billie Jean’s story: A tennis player who, back in 1973, put everything she had conquered (dozens of titles) on the line, hoping that, by winning a match against a man, women would be seen and respected as athletes, not as “female athletes”, and, therefore, “less skilled”.

Billie Jean’s contribution to women rights is massive, has been continuous, and happened both inside and outside the tennis court.

This movie is an excellent way to start, but if you wish to learn more about her, here are the titles of two books she wrote:

 

Anaïs Nin

I was listening to Essential Anaïs Nin uninterruptedly while making a cup of coffee and tidying up when it hit me. The freedom now available to me, or should I say finally noticed by me? The mobility, the lack of attachment to a room, sofa, bed, or chair. The no longer needed quiet corner, for Anaïs’ voice would muffle the external sounds. 

From now on, I could not only walk all around the house but also leave it and take her with me. She would whisper her many adventures in my ears on my way to work, while I wait for the tube or travel somewhere nearby or far away. She would help me sleep by telling me a story or singing me a lullaby when my arms are too tired to hold the heavy books I keep buying and for which I rarely have time.

It would take adapting and open-mindedness. It would mean leaving behind my conservative view about reading – one that always made me so proud, but that now, I finally understood, was based on ignorance and prejudice about new technologies for readers. The truth is that by deeming myself a true book lover, I held on for too long to the desire to turn and smell paper pages, and was blind to the most recent ways of getting to know new words and revisiting old ones.

Reading books in digital format was the first step I took away from bulks of paper bound together, and The Diary of Anaïs Nin was the first thing I read on my Kindle – at the time, still quite cynical about how natural the reading experience would feel until I finally surrendered.

So, in a way, it is no surprise – and serendipity comes to mind – that one year after getting acquainted with my electronic reading device, my first audiobook was also by Anaïs. She seems to take me further every time we meet, to guide me into the unknown — her thirst for new ways of living, of loving, of being — and my empty cup gets fuller the more I get to know her.

 

The Unit

the unit, childless

I haven’t read The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist yet, but this synopsis got me very interested in making time for it.

Who is dispensable?” That’s the chilling 1984-esque question that Holmqvist poses in her near-future novel. Childless women aged 50 (and men aged 60) must leave their homes and enter “the unit,” where they will live out their days participating in government experiments and donating their organs to younger, more “productive” members of society. When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she is ready to accept her fate, but when she unexpectedly finds companionship in another “dispensable,” she discovers a reason to live. Indie bookstore Orinda Books says, “A taut, creepy, yet thought-provoking page-turner, The Unit is a meditation on the consequences of complacency, the value of human life, and what we’re prepared to give up for security and comfort.

Source of the text: Literature at every latitude

 

Iris Murdoch

If my memory doesn’t fail me, about seven years ago, while still living in Sweden, I watched Iris. A beautiful movie in which Judi Dench and Kate Winslet share the heavy-loaded mission of acting Iris Murdoch extraordinary and sublime life in two phases. Ninety-one minutes was all it took me to fall in love with Iris.

A couple of years later, I found a job and moved to Ireland, her home country. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of being in places where she had been, of seeing what she had seen; I knew I would buy every book, every diary she has written for the possibility of scanning her brain through her own words, memories and twisted lies. I knew I’d read her works chronologically, as a timeline, and backward, as a palindrome.

To my complete surprise, for three years, whenever I entered a bookshop and asked for Iris Murdoch books, I’d get a shrug, or an “I’m not sure we have them”, or a “Check the women’s books section”. I assumed she would have her books printed in gold at the front of every Irish bookshop or library, but no, Joyce and Yeats were all they seem to care about.

Then today, in my last week living in Irish soil, by taking a new path to town, I came across a rare book shop I had never seen before. There I went, opening the door, and gazing at dozens of old and colorful book covers. The woman inside asked if she could help. I said “Yes”, she asked me if I was looking for something, I said: “Do you have anything by Iris Murdoch?“. She went: “Iris Mur… Yes, I have. Only one, though. But it is a signed copy!” My heart skipped a bit.

  • How much?
  • Err, let me see. 95 euros.

I tried not to act as surprised as I was. Then I rapidly converted the value into my home country currency: 95 EUR is something like 500 BRL, which is roughly 50% of a minimum wage in Brazil. Damn. 

After living abroad for almost ten years, I still convert everything into Brazilian Reais. It is as if, no matter where I go, “my currency” continues to be the base for financial decision making, which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever considering the very different economic contexts of both countries and the fact that now I’m paid in Euros, but still, the mind goes where it goes.

  • I’ll take it.
  • Do you want a bag?
  • Yes, please. 

Of course I wanted a bag. A bag to put and protect the most expensive stack of paper I ever bought in my life from the constant drops of rain coming from the skies above in Dublin. “But it is a signed one.” I repeated the woman’s line in my head. Not that I needed convincing, I didn’t. I knew the value of it, to me – the chance to touch pages that Iris had touched, to have a copy of the first edition of one of her books, a book made and bought in Ireland, where she was born and lived.

Who knows, maybe there is an Irish woman signing books as Iris and making a fortune thanks to fools like me. Perhaps the fraudulent woman is not even Irish. Who knows? 

Who cares? I don’t. I knew what having the book would do to me. This is the stuff dreams are made of. The fuel to believers, to faith, to hope. All that I’ve been looking for and that I need to start and finish my own books in this life.

Back home I went, feeling like happiness personified, carrying a pulsing body that is starving for more stories like hers and for more time to read all the stuff I buy, however much it costs. By the time I reached my doorsteps, I had this post written in my head, from the very first word to the last dot.

 

Hello, I must be going

Hello, I must be going is a lovely movie with a simple, relatable, insightful and well-written script — with some beautiful drops of humor thrown here and there — beautifully delivered by terrific actors who look, sound and behave like regular people in everyday situations.

My favorite line, which was not said by the childless woman in the movie, but by a young man, is:

Sometimes it’s just easier, you know, to be like other people want you to be. Rather than fight it.

He tells this to the childless woman, with whom he is having an affair when explaining why he lets his mother continue to think he is gay when he is not. She started thinking he was gay after he played a gay character in a play.

She is really into being accepting, so I just let her think I’m gay. And she gets to be accepting.

Fast forward 5 min and then it’s time for Amy (the childless woman) to say:

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it if you don’t want to do it. It’s your life, right? It’s nobody else’s.

I could explain what she was referring to in the scene, but does it matter? Not really, as I think this line could apply to anything in life.

Even though the topics discussed in the two scenes mentioned above are not the same, I felt like putting them together, putting their lines together, because the theme was the same: being yourself, or finding out who you genuinely want to become.

This young character let his mom and other people believe that he was gay and that he enjoyed being an actor. He hated it. All of it. He really did.

Some women, for whatever reason, maybe because it is easier for them, do the same. They prefer to let people think they are going to have a child one day so that they don’t have to talk about their lack of desire, infertility, or ambivalence about becoming mothers. It’s, in a way, an acting exercise and they too are playing a role.

It’s my type of movie, but not the type of role I want to play in life.

 

Arundhati Roy

Indian writer

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy
(Indian writer)

 

Dana Delany

A friend of mine sent me the link to this interview with the incredibly beautiful and talented actress Dana Delany. You can read more about her life and her work here, but the reason I was sent this link is that Isabel knew I’d be happy to know about one more childless woman who seems to be having a great life!

Dana is 60 years old (I am still in shock!) and said her secret for looking young is, and I quote: 

I’ve never been married, I don’t have kids, I do yoga every day, and I drink a lot of wine.’

I am sure there is much more to it than she reveals, but, hey, why don’t we try it ourselves?

There is a yoga course waiting for me starting next week, and a  bottle of wine needing some attention in my kitchen. Off I go. Wish me luck!

 

Molly Peacock

We live in a pronatalist culture, so when you decide not to have children, you find yourself at the far edge of the bell curve. How do you live happily there? Well, you live happily there if you are comfortable with your own nature. And that requires talking about how to separate motherhood from female identity. It’s still a taboo subject — not even discussed in women’s studies programs. And endlessly fascinating to me, especially as the Census Bureau tells us we will be seeing increasing numbers of people making this decision.

Molly Peacock
(American-Canadian poet, essayist, biographer)

 

Kim Cattrall

Kim Cattrall

Fantastic interview with Kim Cattrall by Jane Garvey at BBC Woman’s Hour special program Kim Cattrall takeover. The whole thing is worth-listening to, but I have transcribed the part about not having children here for you, ladies:

– Jane Garvey: You have talked very openly in the past about not having children, which, I have to say, is a subject that I find difficult to raise with people. Particularly the women who appear on Woman’s Hour. In fact, I shy away from addressing the issue unless the person has come on specifically to talk about it. And so it is important to emphasize that you wanted o introduce not having children into the conversation. I haven’t used the term childless or, at least, I don’t think I have because that is offensive isn’t it?

– Kim Cattrall: Well, it is the “less” that is offensive, isn’t it? Child-less, it sounds like you are less because you haven’t had a child. I think that for a lot of people, for my generation, it wasn’t actually a conscious choice. It was a feeling of I am on this road and things are going really well. And I am very happy. And I’ll do it next year. I’ll do it in two years. I’ll do it in five years. And then suddenly you are in your early forties and you think maybe now? And you go to your doctor and she says to you, well, yes we can do it, but you’ll have to become a bit of a science experiment here because we have to find out how you can stay pregnant. We can get you pregnant but you have to stay pregnant now because your body is not producing. So it was a feeling of: well, do I really want to do that now? And I just thought: I don’t know if I want it that much. What also comes with having a child is: is this the partner that I want to spend the rest of my life communicating with in a very intimate, intimate way throughout the child’s life. So, for me, timing-wise it was was never right.  I have been married and I enjoyed very much been married, my two marriages, but we never really got to the point where it seemed a natural progression in our relationship that we would become parents.

Jane Garvey: so you didn’t become a parent and…

Kim Cattrall: not a biological parent. But I am a parent. I have young actors and actress that I mentor. I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to so I think the thing that I find questionable about being childless or childfree: are you really? I mean, there is a way to become a mother in this day and age that doesn’t include your name on a child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side of you very very clearly, very strongly. It feels very satisfying (…). There are many different ways to be a mom in the world.

 

Empty Uterus

The project
Empty uterus is a blog and a book in the making about childless women around the world.

The blog
A library where I archive parts of my research about the process of reflecting and deciding on not becoming a mother. Here you’ll find reviews of movies, books, podcasts, plays, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve come across since I started the quest to better understand the childless path.

The book
A collection of interviews with childless from several countries, still in the making.