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From the publisher:
Cashing into the dream that education is the road out of poverty, a teen mom takes a chance on bettering herself, gets on welfare rolls, and talks her way into college. But once she’s there, the phallocratic story of “overcoming” permeates every subject. Creative writing professors depend heavily on Freytag’s pyramid to analyze life. So Ariel turns to a rich subcultural canon of resistance and failure, populated by writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Tillie Olsen, and Kathy Acker.
Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single mother. She’s beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming odd women into passive citizenship. But even as the narrator struggles to graduate—often the triumphant climax of a dramatic narrative—the question lingers uncomfortably. If you’re dealing with precarious parenthood, queer identity, and debt: What is the true narrative shape of your experience?
Read an excerpt of the novel below.
When I was born, my mother was so horrified to be handed a female baby that she took three months to name me. My birth certificate just says “Gore Girl.”
I have the copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel my mother read when she was pregnant with me.
___She highlighted just one stanza in just one poem: I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
___When Ariel was published, Sylvia Plath had already killed herself—a casualty of the soft, feathery war between art and motherhood. In the book’s title poem, a child’s cry “melts in the wall” as the poet flies on by, an arrow on her horse, a hope, free and suicidal.
As I grew up, my mother would tell me she named me Ariel so I could pass for a man on paper. She said Ariel was a man’s name.
___But I have the book.
___I know that I’m not just a failed man.
___I am at once the malignity and the escape.
Other Starting Points
Things the world has taught me to feel ashamed of:
Things I have in fact felt ashamed of:
My creative writing instructor stood up fast, nearly tripping over the ragged hem of her full-length purple skirt. She grabbed a piece of white chalk, drew a giant penis on the blackboard, tapped her heels on the floor, and said, “This is a pyramid.” Her lipstick edged slightly over the boundaries of her lips, and I wondered if she’d tried to make them seem fuller with the edging or if she just didn’t see very well.
___I glanced at the other women in the workshop.
___Was the illustration on the blackboard not obviously a penis?
___I’d been allowed into the graduate workshop as an undergrad. Maybe best not to ask too many questions.
___The instructor dragged the white chalk up one side of the penis. “You begin with the rising action,” she explained. She drew a quick circle around the head of the penis. “It culminates in climax!”
___The other women in the class nodded like they’d heard it all before, like they totally didn’t see the penis.
I jotted a note, pushed it toward the poet sitting next to me: I’m gonna put a vagina in the middle of my story, not the head of a penis.
The poet glanced at my note, but didn’t seem to read it.
Creative Writing Workshop 201
In the front passenger’s seat of Rosella’s little silver hatchback, I clutched the paperback copies of Spiritual Midwifery and Natural Childbirth that had arrived in the lavender-scented care package from California. My fear takes the shape of every cypress silhouette in the Tuscan night. Where are we going? Dark roads curve through stone mountains. The books said the pain would come in waves. This pain is not waves.
___The books said I could trust my body.
___Where? To a hospital where they speak a language not my own and I won’t remember the word for “push.”
___Had I ever known the word?
No natural light. No soothing music.
___I repeat aloud the only words I can remember in the foreign language: “No farmaci, no droga.”
___The clock on the hospital wall is large and it bends and morphs like Dali’s clock, exploding on the ledge of my girlhood.
___I lay on my back, open my legs.
___The nurse’s gloved hand reaches inside me. “Che tempo,” she says, her voice soft, her words hard, her face blurred.
___The books said try and sleep, but who can sleep with this pressure erupting between spine and belly? The books said I would reconnect with the goddess Artemis tonight, but crucifixes hang on the hospital walls and my boyfriend smells like whiskey.
___“Go away,” I mumble.
___“Fine, if you don’t want me here.” And a door slams shut.
Now cold shower and sudden clamor, now yelling in the language I can’t remember. A wheelchair. The clock on the ledge. Morning light blinds. A man is angry. Nurses scurry to move my body like moving my body will make the man unangry. Fluorescent lights blind. A cold metal table at my naked back. Metal stirrups tighten. And still this pressure. “No farmaci, no droga.” I chant the words like a mantra.
___Nurses scream shrill, “Spingere!”
___A wide leather strap at my belly. They’re tying me down tighter. Tighter still. What does the word mean? Spingere.
___It’s a word written on doors.
___Surely some part of me knows this word.
___Surely no part of me wants to push my newborn into the hands of an angry man.
___I’m naked and tied down. The nurses have my arms now. The nurses have my shoulders. My legs shake and the nurses hold my legs as they yell more words I don’t understand. Stone hospital, and the crucifix swells against the wall and a woman calls from the hallway, “Benedetta?”
___She stumbles into the doorway of my bright delivery room, her nightgown covered in blood, and she’s crying, “Mia figlia sia morto.” She falls onto her knees and someone—another woman—pulls her away.
___I am bright dark pain pull dream bent clock.
___Now the angry man stands between my legs, his eyes glowing yellow gray.
___I blink into his face and into the sound of the women screaming.
___My own scream becomes a moan, then goes silent as the man shoves the pointed blade of his steel surgical knife into my unmedicated teenage cunt and cuts a hard left.
___As the blade slices through the wall of my vagina, it sears hot like molten iron, then cold as everything goes dark.
A starched nurse holds my baby.
___My baby blinks wide-eyed surprised silence desire.
___I pull against the metal and leather restraints to reach for her.
___And in that blinding false light of morning, the doctor hits her. The sound of his open palm against her skin is a sound I will not forget. The doctor wants to hear my baby cry. The only alive the doctor knows is crying.
___My baby cries. She is alive.
___The woman in the bloody nightgown calls from the doorway, “In vita!”
___Alive means they hit you.
___I reach for mia figlia in vita because I have to tell her that alive means your mother will hold you, too, but they splash her with cold water away from me and she cries, alive.
The other woman cries, too. Benedetta is not alive.
By midday, the clock will appear round on the wall again and my baby will sleep in a bassinet next to my narrow hospital bed and the nurses will all mock me: “No farmaci, no droga!” And they’ll laugh and shake their heads and glance at my daughter and call her “poverina” and “zingara.”
The other mother steps into my doorway, her bloody nightgown clean now. A nurse holds her by both shoulders as she reaches toward my baby’s bassinet and speaks in a language I understand clearly: she knows my baby is not hers, but she wants to hold her.
___I curl my hand to invite Benedetta’s mother into my room.
___The nurses watch, nervous, but Benedetta’s mother just places one hand on my baby’s small chest and whispers, “In vita.”
Later, the doctor will appear to ask my boyfriend, sober now, if he thinks they should sew up my vagina. The doctor offers to make it tighter than before.
___And my boyfriend points to my crotch and says, “Si, si, la figa. Sew it up.”
___So a nurse I’ve never seen before sits between my legs and stitches me, laughing to herself—“no farmaci, no droga”—as she embroiders my unmedicated inner labia with her thick needle.
___I stare vacantly at the doctor and my boyfriend as pain blooms through my body like nausea.
___“Cut them,” I whisper to no one. And maybe I close my eyes for a moment because just then I hear a faraway clamor of hooves on cobblestones. As the sound gets closer, the church bells outside begin to clang. I look up to the hospital-room window just as the glass shatters and Artemis appears—head of a goddess, body of a deer—a day late, shooting arrows into necks of the doctor and my boyfriend. They both fall, bleeding from jugulars.
___The nurse looks up, startled, and freezes midstitch.
___I gesture toward the fallen men as Artemis rides on. “Sew them up,” I say to the nurse with her needle, and I close my legs.
Later still—seventeen and a half years later—I’ll have my legs spread for a midwife in Portland, Oregon, because I’m knocked up again, this time with the help of borrowed sperm in a yogurt cup, and the midwife will squint in the soft natural light and she’ll say, “Oh. My. Goodness. Is that a mediolateral episiotomy?”
___And my breath will catch in my throat and I’ll whisper weakly, “Yes,” and I’ll be surprised that an ancient scar I didn’t ask for still holds so much shame.
___The midwife in Oregon will gasp a quick inhale and she’ll reach for me fast as if to touch my scar, but she’ll stop short and instead ask, “Where on earth did you get that?”
___And I’ll say, “Rural Italy, 1990.”
___“Would. You. Mind?” the midwife will breathe, cautious, like she’s discovered a rare archeological site. “If. I. Bring. In. A. Few. Students? To. See. This?”
___And I’ll swallow hard against the tears as four women in white coats gather between my legs and their teacher points and lectures, “This is the routine genital mutilation you’ve read about in early to mid-twentieth-century Western obstetrics. They cut to the side rather than downward through the perineum—so the patient likely experienced excruciating pain and often tremendous blood loss. As you can see, it wasn’t even stitched with dissolvable sutures.
I’ll glance up at the wall as the clock begins to bend.
___The women in white coats will stare between my legs, and they’ll aah, and they’ll hmm, and I’ll know they all want to touch it. But not one of them will have the nerve.
My body is a curio shop.
That creative writing instructor, with her ragged purple skirt and her lipstick edging over the boundaries of her lips, didn’t like my birth story with the vagina right in the middle of it. She said, “Ariel, I’m not seeing the pyramid.”
It was just a few years after I took that class that I started publishing essays and stories and zines and books, and started going out and doing readings and planning zine tours and book tours, and started traveling with bands and other writers or with puppeteers, and always traveling with my daughter, Maia, too, of course.
___And here was America, neon lit and dusty.
___And here were my social anxieties.
___When I started publishing, sometimes the projects brought with them fat checks and sometimes the projects brought with them slim checks and sometimes the projects brought with them no checks at all. Or like, you know, The check is in the mail.
___And here was America, capitalist and anti-artist.
___And here were my rent and utility bills.
___When I started publishing, I thought my career would trace rising action like that creative writing instructor’s chalk-drawn plot structure that looked like a penis—and culminating in an impressive climax—
______career to form the
_____shape of a penis if you
___don’t actually have one.
Take me back to that graduate writing workshop, but this time with a voice. I have some questions for my instructor. I will raise my hand. I will speak when called on.
___Professor, what is the true shape of experience?
___What is the shape of successful failure, of vulnerability and humiliation, of inexplicable joy?
___What is the shape of a story that maps the cultural tyranny of what it means to be a girl child and a woman mother and a woman intellect and a woman creator in a world built from male paradigms?
___Professor, my arc isn’t rising.
The first urge is to shape the story into a vagina—in opposition to the shape of a penis—because the first urge is fuck you, and that’s how they taught us to fuck.
When I was a kid, there were naked women all over my house.
___My mother and her best friend, Roberta, were going through their vulva phase.
___I’d tumble in from elementary school and there’d be one naked woman splayed out across the live-edge oak coffee table, another sitting, back straight, in a wicker armchair, another frozen in some Tai Chi pose by the front window.
___Roberta drew the naked women’s portraits in charcoal.
___My mother sculpted their bodies into wax, planned to cast them in bronze.
___Sometimes the naked women were plump and sometimes the naked women were thin, but the naked women were always younger than my mom and Roberta, and always older than me.
___“Hi, Tiniest,” my mother said as I set down my green backpack.
___“Hi, Ariel,” Roberta called from her easel.
___I smiled awkward, unsure if I’d walked in on something or what.
___“We’re about to sit down to tea and oysters,” my mother offered.
___“Oh, all right,” I said.
At our round dining-room table, the naked women sat silent, now wearing light-colored robes.
___I stared at a raw oyster in its shell on the plate in front of me.
___“Ariel, just eat the whole vagina,” my mother admonished me.
___And so I did.
___It tasted good.
___Salty and citrus.
___“I brought vulva biscuits,” Roberta announced, all singsongy as she rose up from her place at the table and glided into the kitchen and back out again carrying a red plate of sugar cookies each shaped like the oysters. She pointed to the nuances of their form: “The outer labia, the inner labia, the clitoris . . . Ariel, try one!”
___I reached for the plate. My fingernails were bitten down to their nubs. I brought the cookie to my mouth. It tasted like vanilla and maple, but I felt funny.
It was 1979 or 1980. Judy Chicago’s epic vulva-plate installation The Dinner Party had just arrived at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
___Judy Chicago, were you their influence?
___Judy Chicago, I think I had a really weird fourth-grade year because of you.
___I mean, I liked your dinner party.
___Believe me, I ate the whole vagina.
___But what if this genital obsession doesn’t have to be the only taste?
Excerpted from We Were Witches by Ariel Gore. Copyright © 2017 by Ariel Gore. Published by the Feminist Press.