Jo Ann Beard & Melissa Febos
Friday, March 26 at 7 p.m. -- online at Prairie Lights
In interviews, Melissa Febos is invariably asked about what it is like to be so open and honest in her writing. Little wonder, as her debut memoir from 2010, Whip Smart, details her former career as a professional dominatrix, and she has since written with the same fierce intimacy about relationships, sexuality and addiction.
At the virtual Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference earlier this month, the question came up again in a Q&A moderated by Daniel Khalastchi and me. Did her level of self-disclosure have negative repercussions on her career? an audience member wondered. Febos mentioned that she had, after all, managed to secure multiple teaching jobs over the years, though she suspects there were many for which she was never invited to interview due to the content of her first book.
“There were many years during which I struggled financially, but I also didn’t ever want to work at a place that was squeamish about my work, because I knew I’d never be a writer who specialized in polite subjects,” she said. “I’ve always been driven by the impulse to articulate those subjects that we deem or feel are unspeakable. I’m so glad to be at a place that accepts and values that work.”
Febos moved to Iowa City from New York last year, mid-pandemic, to start a job as an associate professor in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (full disclosure: she is also on the governing board of The Iowa Review, where I work).
Besides Whip Smart, she has written two essay collections: Abandon Me and the forthcoming Girlhood, to be published on March 30. Kirkus, in a starred review, called Girlhood “profound and gloriously provocative.”
She’ll read from it at a virtual event hosted by Prairie Lights on March 26 (free; registration required). In these socially distanced times, we chatted by email, with a rain check on coffee at the Java House once she can finally go there.
How are you finding Iowa?
Iowa is — really nice? We got here last July and I immediately fell in love with the summer here. It’s pretty much my ideal: hot, humid, lush and green — something about the air feels extra soft. I was worried about being so far from the ocean, but the sky here is so big, it kind of meets the need in me. Winter is another story.
Listen to me, I already sound like a local, passionately talking about the weather!
I don’t really go anywhere but the grocery stores, though I love the grocery stores here. After 20 years in NYC, the ease of having a house and driveway and washing machine and spacious, well-stocked supermarkets is something I may never take for granted. I’ll be glad when we can see people and make friends, though. I miss teaching in a classroom.
In Girlhood, you write that girls “learn to adopt a story about ourselves … and to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over our own.” At what points in the process of writing this book did you find yourself moving past some of the toxic stories and the self-erasure that occurs during adolescence for girls?
Well, I’ve always thought of myself as pretty liberated — I was raised by a queer feminist and have always identified as such myself. In the most obvious ways, when I started writing this book I had already undone in myself much of the damage that our culture does to girls; I’d been in therapy for a long time and recovery from all sorts of things.
But there is a deeper level of conditioning that I’d never quite gotten to. There were narratives that I’d adopted during my adolescence that I hadn’t ever interrogated. Writing this book was really a process of locating those most deeply embedded toxic stories and habits of self-erasure — the ways my relationship to my body and to touch were still fraught by an internalized belief that I owed my body to other people, that it ought to look and be a certain way.
I’d say that every essay in this book is an artifact of my own transformation. Each one led me to a greater truth and a greater sense of freedom in my body and in the world.
You discuss the way adults can be well-meaning but kind of helpless against the disempowerment of girls. My ears perked up when you mentioned your mother giving you the What’s Happening to My Body Book for Girls, which I can attest is still on library shelves because I’m a parent and in desperation I’ve checked out the boy version for my sons. How can caregivers, teachers and mentors do more for girls than they are doing?
Well, I don’t think any parent or teacher or sister or mentor can protect a girl from the harms of patriarchy. Like white supremacy, it is a social structure that we have been living inside for centuries and which is expert at conditioning us to perpetuate it. I think the most important thing anyone can do is give girls language to name their experiences, the micro-ways that we are taught to undermine our own bodily sovereignty. I don’t think we can show kids how to resist without practicing that resistance ourselves. We need to do our own work — feminist, antiracist, recovery, etc. — in order to model that self-actualization for our kids.
My mother was an incredible parent who very conscientiously tried to counter the forces that she knew would work on me the moment I left our home. I grew up going to political marches and meditation groups, and in a home where we talked frankly about everything from politics to anatomy. When we were little, she gave me toy trucks and my brother dolls, and never insisted upon any kind of gendered experience for us. She corrected my children’s books with a Sharpie so that the girl characters had more agency.
I don’t think there’s anything she could have done to protect me from the experiences I wrote about in Girlhood, the ordinary traumas of growing up as a girl, but her parenting is part of why the book exists, why all my books exist. Both of my parents gave me the love and tools to become resilient, and that resiliency has facilitated my healing, my art and a life in which I am truly happy.
How did the structure of this essay collection evolve? Did you realize that essays you were writing were circling around a theme, or did you set out writing with an overall goal in sight?
I had no idea that I was writing a book about girlhood! I was just doing what I always do: following the threads on which my mind caught. I was pulling apart the stories and experiences of my own adolescence, applying all manner of research to them, talking to other people about their experiences, and assembling my thinking into forms that included elements of all these. I was probably five essays in when I realized what they all had in common. I was like, what? I’m writing about girlhood? I guess I’ll just keep going.
That’s simultaneously one of the best and worst things about writing — my creative brain knows more about where I’m going than my thinking brain does, so where I end up is almost always a surprise. What’s that saying about good story endings? They are always surprising and inevitable. I’d say that’s also true of the writing process.