Panelists: Janice Gary, Reyna Grande, Yvette Johnson
In the 1990s, a curious phenomenon appeared on bookshelves: memoirs written by women. These ordinary stories of ordinary lives were extraordinary in that they told the truth of what it was like to be a woman in a patriarchal world. Subjects previously off limits—rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, mental and physical illness—were now exposed to the page. The predominantly male literary establishment pushed back, dismissing the work as “navel-gazing” and “whining.” “Whatever happened to the lost art of shutting up?” asked a New York Times reviewer. What happened was that women writers of literary nonfiction refused to be silenced or shamed and kept writing, breaking through the barriers that suppressed female voices for centuries. On this panel, writers who have experienced the struggles and strengths of writing “confessional” memoir will discuss the role the form has played in one of the most significant social movements of our time.
Janice Gary introduced the panel presentations, saying that “19 million plus have posted on #MeToo” and that “damage has been wrought by sexual violence and institutional enforcement of misogyny.” She reminded us that “the movement did not happen in a vacuum. We have been doing this work as writers, women, human beings.”
Reyna Grande – Reyna shared that as a Latina writer, she has had to overcome many challenges. “Latinos,” she said, “have to fight against invisibility in the publishing business. Latinos don’t get published enough and we often have to fight for our stories.” She said that “immigrant writers serve a place in American literature,” and added, “This is the American experience. I want to use my voice. My voice was almost taken away from me when I first arrived to the US.” And now at this moment in history, Reyna feels compelled to give voice to other injustices she had not heretofore been able to share. When she watched Dr. Blasey Ford on television, her words echoed the same terror Reyna has felt in the past. She was reminded of her own terrifying experiences, the times she was molested by an uncle, a family friend, and then raped by a friend in college. She first reported the uncle and family friend, but elders made excuses for them. She did not confront the college friend, instead blaming herself. She did not experience the feelings of indignation or rage and felt that by staying quiet she was an “accomplice” in these family secrets. Finally, today, she can give voice to injustices through the essay, “Speak Your Truth, Send a Message,” which she shared with the audience at this session.
Yvette Johnson – Yvette shared that “challenging times are also ripe for personal stories.” In the eighties, she grew up hearing about “battered woman syndrome.” It was a phrase she heard often. She added, “In many ways, I had battered woman syndrome with this nation. If you were a person of color and you talked about race, it was explained to you that you were wrong or playing the race card or had a chip on your shoulder.” At a department store make-up counter, she experienced discrimination when a salesperson implied that she didn’t have the money to pay for the products used in make-overs. She said, “I spent so much money just to prove to her that a black woman can do that.” Friends did not believe her about this particular incident. She added that “a second trauma comes when you are not believed.” In home-schooling her children, she had to think deeply about how to teach the history of race in America. The research, she said, transformed her. She learned that her grandfather was a civil rights hero, yet no one talked about him. After the killing of Tamir Rice (by two police officers on November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio), she started to “develop strong hatred toward white cops while feeling hypocritical for promoting that we have to see each other’s humanity.” Now she does unconscious bias training with cops. “The social justice crowd is the toughest crowd to talk to,” she said,” as “it’s difficult for them to acknowledge that their ancestors were horrible individuals who mistreated their slaves.” Yvette added that “the idea that you don’t want to deal with reality informs the silence of the civil rights movement.” In Yvette’s book The Song and the Silence, she writes about her travels to the Mississippi Delta where she uncovered the story of her grandfather, Booker Wright, and gives voice to his own extraordinary acts of courage.
Janice Gary rounded out the discussion with this: “For me, memoir broke through and spoke to me through the pain and the suffering and the secret shame that I had and encouraged me to get in there and let my voice be heard. It started in the ‘90s when Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club broke out.” Janice said that in her college experience “Most professors assigned white male writers but did not address women’s stories.” She said, “The worst things can be transformed into art,” including rape, PTSD, a lifetime of trauma. Dr. Blasey Ford was in marriage counseling 30 years after the incident with Kavanaugh. In 2006 when the memoir craze was cooling, the literary community was also critical of nonfiction writers. She added, “There were wide-reaching accusations that memoir is made up—which is the accusation that women often deal with when they report rape.” The telling on the page changed everything. It was a necessary first step because the page—the words on the page—made it real. Publishers are claiming “saturation” on the #MeToo topic, but “We need it saturated until it becomes impossible to look away and deny justice. We can take back our courts and countries and world by writing.” Janice ended the discussion with this: “If you have the story or if you have students who have the story, it is important to say ‘me too’ until you feel safe.”
Yvette Benavides is a professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. She is a book critic for the San Antonio Express News and a commentator for Texas Public Radio. Her work has been published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Huizache, Aster[ix] Journal, The Americas Review, Mothering, Latina, the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, and The Texas Observer, among other publications. She is a 2018 fellow of the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute.