Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Women and the Global Imagination: Making Room for The Girl

by Emily Vizzo

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Emily Vizzo uses YA literature as a jumping off point for a deeper meditation on gender and violence in America. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.


Making Room for The Girl

Stories love women. The imagination has a recipe for women.

Make her mother dead. Make her father cruel, or dying. If she has brothers and sisters, make her powerless to protect them. If she is beautiful, let that be her ruin. If she is ugly, let her be outcast. Let there be no sensible terrain between beautiful and ugly.

Put her in danger. Give her struggle. Let her survival be in question.

If there is a powerful man, let him quest for her against her will. If there are weak men, allow them to impede her. Let most women shun her. But give her a mentor, human or otherwise.

Give her weapons, like charm or arrows. Let her be young enough to experience control.

Story loves the long shot. Stack the cards. Give her wits. Make her a fighter.  

*

I recently reread two 1960s YA novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and Where the Lilies Bloom, by Vera and Bill Cleaver.

In Island (based on a true story) Karana is a Native American girl living on San Nicolas Island off the coast of California with her family and tribe. When her tribe must evacuate the island, Karana abandons ship to rescue her brother Ramo, whom she realizes is not aboard. The result: Karana and Ramo are abandoned on the island. After wild dogs attack and kill Ramo, Karana successfully fends for herself alone for 18 years.

During that time, Karana lives a solitary life. Unable to bear the loneliness of her tribe’s abandoned village, she burns it down house by house. She kills a number of wild dogs. Given the chance to kill the pack’s wounded leader, Karana instead heals and befriends him. When Rontu eventually dies, Karana captures one of his offspring and names the pup Rontu-Aru, for Son of Rontu. When Aleut hunters arrive to the island in search of otter, Karana begins a secret friendship with a girl traveling with them, gifting her with a circlet of olivella shells. She survives a tidal wave and earthquake.

In Lilies, Mary Call, age 14, lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her three siblings and dying father. Before her father dies, Mary Call promises him to never allow their disgusting neighbor and landlord Kiser Pease to marry her older sister Devola, who is pretty and sweet but at age 18, much younger than Kiser and also possibly developmentally delayed. Mary Call matter-of-factly buries her father in the mountains, and makes her siblings promise to keep his death secret. Then winter comes early, and starvation.

In desperation, Mary Call offers herself in marriage to Kiser Pease. Ultimately Kiser Pease and Devola decide to marry, and Kiser becomes legal guardian for Mary Call and her two siblings. He legally deeds land to Mary Call’s family so that they can remain on the mountain, earning a living by searching out wild medicines.

*

Feminine is an uncomfortable word, with its classic associations with delicacy, prettiness, and “the girl.” Karana might split her time between a cave and a hut, but we learn that her name means “Girl With the Long Black Hair” and although she kills dogs and hunts devilfish, she also makes herself a glorious black-feather skirt and jewelry. Mary Call is more implacably unfeminine in the traditional sense. When three different characters remind Mary Call that she’s ugly, she shrugs it off. “I’m glad I’m not sweet and pretty like you,” she tells Devola. “It takes time to be sweet and pretty and I haven’t got any to spare.”

*

Literature gives us Karana and Mary Call, gives us Antigone and Katniss. I learned to be a fighter in this way. I never wondered whether the world was a safe place.

When I was in fourth grade, my family temporarily lived in a not-great part of town between an oil lube business and a used car lot. The front door faced a green dumpster behind my family’s plumbing shop on Thompson Boulevard. The back door opened into an alley where we were not allowed to play. It was my grandmother’s house, but she no longer lived there. Because my parents were remodeling our house, they spent a lot of evenings and weekends at Home Depot or at the remodel site.

I had four younger siblings. I was in charge.

Every now and then, a homeless man would come terrorize the house. We called him Drunk Bill. He was a mentally impaired war veteran who at one point had known my grandfather, and who believed we were stealing his government checks. Drunk Bill would suddenly appear at the back door window, pounding on the glass and screaming, I want my check! I want my check!  He’d move from window to window, mumbling and cursing.

Because every room in the house had a window, I would herd my siblings into the closet in our shared bedroom. There were no windows in the closet, and there was a lightbulb. It seemed safe. We would stay there until Drunk Bill went away. Time is funny when you’re little, so I can’t tell you if it was minutes or hours. While my sister held the baby, I planned what I might need to do if Drunk Bill somehow got into the house. Would I fight him? Would I kill him? I guess I would.

We weren’t always alone. Once or twice our friend’s older brother came to babysit.

Don’t let him see you naked, my mother told me before she left. There are no villains in this story. We were wrong to call him that name.

*

I’m smart enough to know that being strong is better and more important than being feminine, although the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Many years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I had the greatest sparkling silver dress. My boyfriend was wasted enough that I was tipping the bartender extra to serve him shots of water. He was too drunk to know the difference.

During the 2 a.m. walk home, he suddenly lay down in the middle of Pacific Coast Highway, spreading his arms and legs like a snow angel. Cars flung their headlights on us, honking and swerving. Probably everyone was drunk. I squatted down in my high heels, trying to pull him into the embankment. One of his buddies looped back to help. I could actually get hit right now, I remember thinking.

I’ve looked back on photos from that night. He looks handsome and blacked out. I look hopeful and happy. Things didn’t work out. I still have that pretty, pointless dress.

*

When Karana leaves the Island of the Blue Dolphins, she marks her face with special clay designs indicating that she is unmarried. I can only assume that Mary Call did not give a fuck about marriage, but then again she was only 14.

*

There are two more things I want to tell you.

One: The closest I’ve come to an ars poetica so far is the terrifying fight scene between Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini in the 1993 Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. Arquette plays Alabama Whitman, a prostitute defending a stolen suitcase filled with cocaine. Gandolfini plays Virgil, who wants the suitcase back. Alabama’s beaten badly enough that she and her turquoise bra are smeared with blood. Despite the fact that she’s clearly lost the battle, she grabs a screwdriver and, on her knees, makes an extremely pathetic, futile attempt at facing off with Virgil and his gun. It’s so ridiculously sad, the screwdriver is so inadequate an instrument and Alabama so deceptively cute, that Virgil laughs and as a joke indulges her in a chance to fight back.  

Here’s the thing. She kills him.

Two: At my nephew’s recent birthday party, my brother carefully hoisted a piñata from a patio beam in his backyard and explained his version of the game to me. I don’t like to blindfold kids, he said. And I like to keep the piñata steady, so they can really hit it.

The whole backyard of adults watched a tiny little girl with soft, scruffy hair pick up the big bat, square off with the clearest of eyes, and proceed to knock the shit out of it.

My brother was right. It was a better, fiercer game.


Emily Vizzo is a San Diego writer, editor and educator. She currently serves as AME for Drunken Boat; volunteers with VIDA, Poetry International and Hunger Mountain. Her has been published/is forthcoming in FIELD, jubilat, The Journal, The Normal School, Blackbird, and North American Review.