As recently as 2005, you could search for writings by women on their creative lives that mapped their younger selves too and come up near empty-handed.
I remember picking up The Paris Review’s Latin American Writers at Work, published in 2003, and feeling the cold wind of exclusion. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado – and one woman, Luisa Valenzuela, to represent all of that continent of women writers, one only. I did not grudge the male writers their place, but I felt the absence of the women who should have been there too, felt its wrongness.
The previous generation of women writers filled these gaps with oral histories, imagined lives, as they went about the business of creating their own work. Mary Karr said once that there were few really good books about female adolescence. Her memoir, Cherry, is one, and now there are two more, Olive Witch and Drawing Blood.
These memoirs by the writer and photographer Abeer Hoque and the artist Molly Crabapple speak to anyone, but especially women, seeking to understand and build a creative life for themselves.
“My mother’s studio was a wonder, filled with things children weren’t supposed to touch: rubber cement that stank of poison; X-acto blades that left me with stitches in my hands; rows of foul-smelling markers and T squares lined up neatly; an airbrush she wore a ventilator to use.” Ms Crabapple writes in Drawing Blood. She learned to draw at the age of four, and slid into the artist’s life sideways, finding herself as a teenager through reading, punk rock, special-interest groups on Usenet.
“This early Internet was simpler than today’s. Because only nerds and freaks really knew about it, online was safe… Girls like me used the Web in all the ways our parents feared. We read anarchist manifestos and exchanged lurid porn with grown men.”
At 17, she went to Paris, lived at Shakespeare and Company, drawing to fill the hours. An older man, a grubby British academic, based a character in a play that he never completed on her. She steals the name, becoming Molly Crabapple with as much ease as she’d put on burlesque costumes later for her performances as a dancer and fire-eater, or paint backdrops and drawings for the Manhattan nightclub The Box.
In time, Ms Crabapple, who steps into different selves as easily as you might exchange one rented house for another, transforms the early protest energy that had led her to join rallies against the Iraq War and participate in the Occupy Wall Street, into the challenge of political art. Some of this work is in MOMA’s permanent collection, as part of Occuprint.
Ms Crabapple neither minimises nor draws out the hazards of the artist’s life – they are simply there like bad weather, the lack of money, art world politics, and the powerful men whom the powerless have to learn to duck.
She’s at her glowing best with insider stories of New York’s overheated pre-2008 nightclub scene. Always, she works, drawing “hundreds of tiny girls”, audiences as “pigs on the page, snorting cocaine life truffles”, releasing “the anger that dragged my pen across the paper, the cynicism that narrowed my chorines’ eyes”. Her artist’s credo is worth a dozen self-help writing books: “I grew better. I worked more.”
Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch is seductive and sharp, but it is the way she shares the most heartbreaking parts of her personal life that is transformative. Ms Hoque grew up in Nigeria. Her family is from Bangladesh, and her mother sang Tagore songs to her and her two siblings in the dry heat of the harmattan. Briefly, she wishes she had darker skin so that she might fit in better, but even at that age: “I want all or nothing. It might be too hard to almost belong. Not belonging, on the other hand, is cut and dried, an easy place to find.”
In class, they learn Blake’s “The Tyger” by heart: “wot de hamma, wot de chain/ in wot furnace was dye brain”. In her 13th year, life splits: from Nigeria, the family goes to Pittsburgh. She gets used to the stiff new Sears jeans, the snow like grey rice falling, learns about discrimination.
Negotiating what her parents expect and what her instincts drive her towards, creatively, sexually, intellectually, becomes a never-ending balancing act. She is a deft writer, excellent at explaining the alienation that comes from only being at home in your body but rarely elsewhere.
In her twenties, studying the wrong subjects, unaware that she might want to write, be a photographer, her creative self not withering so much as concealed deep beneath the earth, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills.
Ms Hoque writes with skill about what previous generations of creative women used to call “a nervous breakdown” and before that, hysteria. Depression and suicide attempts are difficult subjects to tackle, not just because they are taboo, but because it is hard to write about the scattered parts of your life with clarity and honesty. Ms Hoque pulls off both in short hospital chapters, scattered lightly and memorably through Olive Witch. Instead of a cartoon moment of redemption, she tells a far more moving story of the imperceptible shifts forward, into the writer’s life that she hadn’t known she wanted.
She makes a word wall, “not a journal, more like pieces of poems”. The wall is “all rough paper”. The poems are fragments, but like shards of clear glass, they catch the light. As the book ends, Abeer understands herself far better: “I might be able to create something from the so-called skin, from the outside in.”
She has, and Olive Witch will become a compass for others, women who write, but also anyone who travels between many worlds, and many selves.
(Published in the Business Standard, April 11, 2016)