It’s Annie again, reporting back to the Art + Deco blog. If you haven’t checked out my post from Friday, you can click this link and read up! Today is the first installment of my Tuesday Book Journal column, where I’ll take a personal spin on reviewing the books that speak to our humanity — to our journey toward enlightenment, toward laughter, toward community — the books I fill my time reading each week.
Today, we’re going to have the talk.
Let me take you back to 2008. I’m twelve years old, standing on a Pacific beach playing Smashball or jumping a makeshift rope of washed-up kelp. Sand creeps into my swimsuit the way it always seems to do. The layer of grime on my skin deepens as the saltwater dries and my hands dig into the network of sand tunnels I’ve created.
I look up to see my mom kneeling beside me, earnest eyes implying she might have to say something I won’t want to hear. Sure enough, her lips part and the words fall out: “It’s time to have the talk.” This, to me, was fight or flight. So I stood up. And I ran. I ran all the way down the beach. And for the next hour, I refused to return.
After that, my parents decided to teach me about puberty the only way they could really reach me: books. Books, books, books–an onslaught of books–all with cheesy titles like The Care and Keeping of You and It’s Perfectly Normal and the ever so subtle What is Happening to My Body? They would show up on my bedspread (still girlish and quilted), and one by one I would drop them behind my dresser, sandwiched in a dusty cavern where I didn’t have to hear a word they had to say.
Until one book showed up. I remember it because I thought it was so enigmatic, laying there with its ruby red cover: The Period Book. I inched closer to it, suspicious, only having heard of “Aunt Flow” after hours in summer camp cabins. Up until that point, I had thought getting your period was a one-and-done type of deal, where you bleed for a week and then bam! You’re a woman. But when I opened this book, I was proved dead wrong. Every month for my whole life? The book was a page-turner, a never-ending list of dirty secrets. I was, though I would have never admitted it, really glad my mom left that book on my bed.
I’m not telling you all this just to suggest a good crop of puberty guidebooks and call it a day. And I’m not just trying to embarrass myself, either. But when I read that book, I felt something very new. I felt at home in a community of women, an ancestry which had laid the groundwork for me to understand my body because they had already been talking about it, writing about it. When I read that book, and (eventually) talked to my mom, and when I complain about my period cramps to my friends today, I feel this same type of generational power. Because existing in a female body, or existing as a woman in any body whatsoever, we gain this communion, we gather this knowledge, of what it is like to feel the world through the lens of our purely physical selves.
Now let’s bring it back to 2019, a bit earlier this year. It’s March, a rainy Thursday, and I walk briskly down the block to Mrs. Dalloway’s Books where I am to attend a reading: Namwali Serpell, in conversation with Yael Goldstein Love. Serpell has just released an amazing debut novel entitled The Old Drift, a tale crossing genres and generations, detailing the history of a Zambian family coming-of-age, maturing, expanding.
Throughout her talk that night, Serpell referenced the importance of her maternal upbringing, her history growing up in a matrilineal Zambian tribe, the sisterhood that taught her what it feels like to be a woman. And one thing she kept coming back to was this idea of menstruation. In The Old Drift, Serpell tries to represent thoughts of a girl’s period on a timeline close to how often it actually happens. “If I’m bleeding for, all in all, a quarter of my life,” she says, “then I have to write a book that shows that.” It made me reconsider myself as a character in a story, because, let me tell you, I complain about my period constantly. If you had to write me into a novel, you bet there’d be some dialogue about my uterus.
Serpell writes of these youthful sensations, ones that I felt when I hid my puberty books, the ones you feel when you’re young and hear you’re going to bleed, like a lot.
“Sylvia was too ashamed to tell her aunty she needed new shorts – her period had leaked last month, sealing the fate of the old ones, which were already thin as paper and torn in places.”
Those classic moments of concern, the plotting and planning, the period calendars, maximizing the ease and calculation of your bleeding but somehow always being slightly off.
“Thandi hated having her period on flights: on her feet for hours, timing her visits to the lav to avoid the rush forty-five minutes after meals (stomach syncing up just as wombs do), all the while bleeding sporadically into the thick pad, its adhesive ripping her pantyhose or sticking to her pubic hair.”
Reading Serpell’s characters, I see glimpses of women like me – rough, lovable, complete women. I have known the discomfort of bleeding on a flight, of pinching cramps, of nervous denial. I have felt shame for my body, I have felt worried for my body, I have felt annoyance at my body and also pride. And I definitely bled through my shorts on more than one middle school day. The thing is, even while reading a passage that is, at face value, uncomfortable and maybe a bit icky, I feel safe. I feel at home in my skin.
And there are so many books out there that allow us this communal sensation and feeling of safety.The novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant brings history and dystopian intrigue into the mix. The book’s name is a biblical reference to the shelter women were forced to seek during menstruation and childbirth.They were mottled together, hidden from the world during these moments of power in vulnerability, and it is here that they find community in the mothers, aunts and sisters around them.
“The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth — to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain… In the red tent, the truth is known … cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks … for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood.”
In the late 70s short story “Wolf-Alice” by Angela Carter, we find a different manifestation of this female connection, spanning miles of subconscious space. Carter writes of a girl raised by wolves, coming of age in a space absent of humanity. When Wolf-Alice begins to bleed, however, she discovers the sequence much like I did, with the amorphous sense of a changing body.
“The flow continued for a few days, which seemed to her an endless time. She had, as yet, no direct notion of past, or of future, or of duration, only of a dimensionless, immediate moment. Soon the flow ceased. She forgot it. Sequence asserted itself with custom and then she understood the circumambulatory principle of the clock perfectly.”
No woman feels this in isolation, regardless of her environment, regardless of her status. This cycle connects us to millennia of bodily intelligence, of learning and reacting like the mothers before us.
To finish up, I want to take us back to that night with Namwali Serpell. The talk began to work itself to a close, but not before Serpell left a parting thought. She shuts her book, removes her extra-large, cartoony glasses, and says to us:
“The body is a place where thought happens.”
If you ignore the body, as an author, you ignore such encyclopedic amounts of knowledge. The reminders of femininity, periods, cramps, bodily shame and subsequent empowerment, are like flashcards, reinforcing some innate awareness, guiding us through human experience. Intellect happens in your body, in your blood as much as your brain.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!