A Female Text


Back in January I had a brief Twitter conversation with Garry Cox about how Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of A Ghost in the Throat calls her book “a female text.” I knew I was going to read the book no matter what, but I did bristle a little at the idea of a text that is “female.” I appreciated Garry’s description of the ways he identified with the book, but that identification leads me to ask, what is a female text? What about it is specifically female? As I said then, I find the whole idea bewildering. I still do. To describe a text as “female” means defining what it means to be female, at least to some extent, in order to make the statement meaningful. And I resist attempts to define it. Yes, I am a woman and female, but don’t you dare tell me what you think that means! I don’t even know myself. And then a female text? That’s a whole other level of complication.

None of the above, however, changed how I felt about Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s book, which is that I loved it. It’s clear that she is writing about her personal understanding of what it means to be a woman and to write as a woman; A Ghost in the Throat is one version of what a female text might be. I loved reading it, even though I did not identify with a lot of it, especially the domesticity she describes, which sounds to me like a nightmare. My own female text would be very different, should I write one, except I would never choose to call my writing “female.” But I can respect that Ní Ghríofa feels differently, even as I feel discomfort at a “female” text that revels in losing oneself in motherhood and household chores.

A Ghost in the Throat is gorgeous. It tells the story of Ní Ghríofa’s obsession with the eighteenth-century Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and her poem “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire,” or “The Keen for Art O’Leary.” The poem (included at the end of the book in Ní Ghríofa’s translation) is Eibhlín Dubh’s lament at the murder of her husband. It describes how her grief was so strong, she drank handfuls of her husband’s blood upon discovering his body. Ní Ghríofa first read the poem as a child in school, where it didn’t make much of an impression, and returned to it as a teenager, where she read it for its tale of overpowering love. But then she rediscovered it as an adult and found herself drawn further into the world of the poem and Eibhlín Dubh’s life.

Ní Ghríofa sets off on a quest to learn everything she can about Eibhlín Dubh. She travels to places Eibhlín Dubh lived to better imagine what her life was like. She scours libraries, searching through endless pages for any clue, however tiny. She found so little. We don’t even know how old she was when she died or where she is buried. Ní Ghríofa researches the people around Eibhlín Dubh, her family and descendants, and she finds that it’s mostly the men around her who are present in the historical record. Eibhlín Dubh is usually described as so-and-so’s daughter and so-and-so’s aunt. Her poem is famous, but because she composed it orally and it was passed down among generations of women before it was put in writing, her authorship gets dismissed.

The other part of the story is Ní Ghríofa’s own. At the book’s beginning, she is a mother of two boys, then three, and then comes another pregnancy. Her days are focused around two texts: the poem, and her to-do list. Her days are full of laundry, cleaning, baths, food shopping, taking the older child to school and then putting the baby down for a nap. They are full of breastfeeding and pumping milk for her baby and then extra to donate to a milk bank. Her time with the breast pump is when she is “free”: that’s when she can read and reread the poem. But even her free time is spent giving.

The book circles and circles around erasure. Ní Ghríofa mourns at the near-erasure of Eibhlín Dubh’s life story. She tries to reverse it by taking a collection of her family’s letters and erasing the material about men, to leave only the women’s stories standing. At the same time, she crosses out — erases — her to-do list every day and finds great joy in doing so. And she erases herself by disappearing into domesticity and motherhood:

Every day I battle entropy, tidying dropped toys and muck-elbowed hoodies, sweeping up every spiral of fallen pasta and every flung crust, scrubbing stains and dishes until no trace remains of the forces that moves through these rooms. Every hour brings with it a new permutation of the same old mess. I sweep. I wash. I tidy.… There is a peculiar contentment to be found in absenting oneself like this, subsumed in the needs of others: in such erasure, for me, lies joy. I make myself so busy chasing lists that I never need to look beyond the rooms through which I hurry.… As I clean, my labour makes of itself an invisibility. If each day is a cluttered page, then I spend my hours scrubbing its letters. In this, my work is a deletion of a presence.

The last two sentences show how, for Ní Ghríofa, everything is a text: bodies, days, lives are all texts that can be written and unwritten, composed and deleted. Some we take joy in erasing, others we mourn when they are lost. She gets words tattooed on her skin in white ink, words that medical students will read when they dissect her body, which she will donate upon her death. They will read the words as they “read” her body for the stories about her life that it tells. Or they may read those words: in a podcast interview, she talks about students encountering her tattoo and what meanings they might find in it, and that they might not find it at all. This might be another erasure. She has no idea if her message will be read, or how it will be read — something that is true for all writers, everywhere.

Of course, certain writers are more likely to be read and remembered than others, and it’s the loss of Eibhlín Dubh’s story that touches me most, that feels most meaningful about her life story as a “female text.” Regardless of one’s feelings about one’s own gender, regardless of what feels female or male or neither, the female text, the nonbinary one, the trans one — and also texts by people of color and other marginalized people — those are most likely to be the lost ones. I loved A Ghost in the Throat for its celebration of a poem that is remembered, but written by a poet who is largely forgotten. I loved its adoring, obsessive search for details to bring that poet back, and the account of how Ní Ghríofa lost and found herself over and over, finding joy in both.

If you have read or plan to read this book, absolutely do not miss David Naimon’s conversation with her on the Between the Covers podcast. Their interview is deep and wide-ranging. Ní Ghríofa is a joy to listen to, and the way she reads her own work is unforgettable. If you want more material on Ní Ghríofa, there is a lot available here. The book and its author are an utter delight.

Publishing This Week

New (mostly) small-press books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. Quotations from the publisher:

  • Distant Fathers by Marina Jarre, translated by Ann Goldstein (New Vessel Press): “This singular autobiography unfurls from author Marina Jarre's native Latvia during the 1920s and '30s and expands southward to the Italian countryside.”

  • Migratory Birds by Mariana Oliver, translated by Julia Sanches (Transit Press): this is part of Transit Press’s “Undelivered Lectures” series. My copy should be here soon! “Mariana Oliver trains her gaze on migration in its many forms, moving between real cities and other more inaccessible territories: language, memory, pain, desire, and the body.”

  • Transmutation: Stories by Alex DiFrancesco (Seven Stories Press): “a wry, and at the same time dark and risk-taking, story collection from author (and baker) Alex DiFrancesco that pushes the boundaries of transgender awareness and filial bonds.”

  • Filthy Animals: Stories by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead Books): I loved Taylor’s book Real Life and will read this one for sure. It’s a linked story collection: “A group portrait of young adults enmeshed in desire and violence.”

  • Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir by Rajiv Mohabir (Restless Books): this won the Restless Books Prize for new immigrant writing: “Rajiv Mohabir's Antiman is an impassioned, genre-blending memoir that navigates the fraught constellations of race, sexuality, and cultural heritage that have shaped his experiences as an Indo-Guyanese queer poet and immigrant to the United States.”

New on the TBR

New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own, quotations from the publisher):

  • Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş (Riverhead, 2019): “A mesmerizing novel set in Paris and a changing Istanbul, about a young Turkish woman grappling with her past and her complicated relationship with a famous British writer.”

  • The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader by Madeline Gins (Siglio Press, 2020): this and the next two books came up in a conversation between Kate Zambreno and Kate Briggs (you can watch it here — it’s really good! “A revelatory anthology of poems, experimental prose and previously unpublished work by Madeline Gins, the transdisciplinary writer-artist-thinker famed for her ‘Reversible Destiny’ architecture.”

  • Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici (Autonomedia, 2004): “Caliban and the Witch is a history of the body in the transition to capitalism.”

  • The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (Autonomedia, 2013): “In this series of essays Fred Moten and Stefano Harney draw on the theory and practice of the black radical tradition as it supports, inspires, and extends contemporary social and political thought and aesthetic critique.”

Currently Reading

The Cormac Report

Lately Cormac has been reading and rereading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and the Big Nate books. As I’ve written about before, he reads these with a very critical eye toward the protagonists, especially Greg Heffley: he loves thinking about what an annoying kid he is. Cormac has also liked fantasy stories, but this recent interest in books with realistic characters and settings has made me think about how I was drawn toward realism in my reading as a kid. I read some science fiction and fantasy, but my real loves were books like the Little House series, where I could think of the stories as having really happened. It didn’t matter to me that Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing (more or less) about her life — I wasn’t thinking about the fiction/memoir distinction — I just liked it that the stories seemed real. I’m wondering whether many young readers fall into one camp or the other — realism or fantasy — or whether it’s just as common to read a mix of both. And, of course, I’m wondering whether Cormac will be a reader like me. He seems skeptical of my interest in, as I describe it, books where people tell their own life stories and books about people who don’t exist but could. He seems to think they sound boring. But maybe as he reads his own stories about everyday life, he is seeing their appeal?

Have a good week everyone!