BITCH FIRE: OF TATTOOS, FUNERAL FANTASIES, SKULL STABBINGS, SHITTY MALE WRITERS, AND SEXISM, NOT NECESSARILY IN THAT ORDER

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Me and my “bitch fire.” Ok, really, they’re cheap vampire teeth, but I don’t have a picture of my “bitch fire.”  It refuses to sit still long enough to pose for photographs.

Yesterday, all the trees in New Mexico sprouted cotton candy, or so it seemed to me.  I blinked, and winter was gone, and everything was pink, and petals blew across the ground everywhere I turned.  High on spring, I felt inspired to write a zillionth poem about Persephone, but also like maybe I shouldn’t spend the day being productive when nature was clearly indicating I should try my hand at being useless. Never one to spit in the face of mother nature, I collected my 26-year-old daughter Desi for a day of torpescence.

We talked about our options.  Working out was first on the list, because you burn at least 20 calories just by talking about going to the gym, but both of us had the good sense to invent knee injuries before we rode that train of thought too far, after which we considered hiking, but that too was ruled out by imaginary ailments. Hamstrung as we were, our only choice was to wile time away at Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee and reading books.

When we arrived, I picked up a prominently displayed complete David Foster Wallace collection, because I know I don’t even count as a real writer, never having read Infinite Jest. I’m always being shamed by this deficiency at cocktail parties, so I decided to rectify the situation. Sitting there drinking my expensive latte, I tried, but I couldn’t focus. Frankly, as I read about 18-year-old white male Hal and his observations of the various white male deans making his life difficult, I kinda wanted to chuck the book.  Hard.  Like knock over a potted plastic plant or a painting of Hemingway with it.

I was surprised at the ferocity of my reaction, so I analyzed it.  It turned out I was really tired of reading about white males and their angst-ridden (but seemingly utterly banal) youths, no matter how good their writing was, technically speaking.  How many white male writers did I have to read during my education, so I could see how the pros did it and learn to be like them when I grew up? How many hours of my life will I never get back because I wasted them marinating in the all-holy, angst-ridden white male coming-of-age experience?  I hate to break this to y’all, but in my humble opinion, most of the canonized white male pros were boring as fuck.

Sitting there in that Barnes and Nobles, with hours of Hal’s trouble with the deans looming ahead of me, I wished I hadn’t invented a knee injury.  I would have much preferred weeping gently and cursing god on an elliptical to reading this shit.  (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  I feel I’m committing blasphemy.  I know David Foster Wallace is good. Maybe I should have tried him when I was drinking whiskey instead of coffee.  Maybe that would have made it all more palatable.  My reaction wasn’t really about him, and to be fair, I only read like five pages.  My reaction was more about having had it up to here with reading the same story over and over, at the expense of other stories I really want to read.)

Dearest James Joyce, I’m sorry Stephen Dedalus had such a rough go of it, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t care that much, and I would be happy to leave little downtrodden Stephen to his own devices, were it up to me. In fact, in my weakest moments, I wanted to knife Stephen Dedalus in the skull just so I wouldn’t have to read his internal monologue anymore.  And John Updike makes me want to upchuck every time. It’s like clockwork. Would I have kept reading any of these dudes if I didn’t have to regurgitate the info on an exam to prove I had potential to be a pro someday, and later, regurgitate it at cocktail parties so I could prove I belonged in the professional writer club? In most cases, probably not, kids. (Walt Whitman, you know I’m not talking about you here. I love you, man.)

I longed to go back to the time when I read things that I wanted to read, because I was blissing out on the way they made me think, and the way they resonated with my experience, and the way they expanded my horizons.  So I said to myself, “Tawni,” (I call me Tawni), “do you really want to spend your Persephone-ish Sunday afternoon choking down something you don’t want to read just so you can sound smart at cocktail parties full of people who probably wanted to knife Stephen Dedalus in the forehead too?” My answer to myself was, “Fuck, nah.” So then, I took David Foster Wallace back to his altar, where I gently released him and said a prayer to the writer gods, asking their forgiveness. Walking away, I saw this book called, the witch doesn’t burn in this one, by Amanda Lovelace. I loved the title, so I picked it up and turned it over. The back cover said, “burn whoever tries to burn you.” I was so in.

I took it back to my table, introduced Amanda to my latte, and also to myself.  Within minutes, I was besotted by her voice and her rage and her truth, and I knew I had to buy it even though I was broke, and my phone bill was overdue. The poem that got me was titled, “prophecy I” and ended with the lines, “i may not survive the match-boys, but my bitch-fire will survive them all.” I loved it because this woman was telling MY story, not trying to convince me to believe some white guy describing a headmasters’ elbows was groundbreaking. The raw honesty of the work reminded me of Carmen Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which is by far my favorite thing I’ve read this year. (I devoured Her Body and Other Parties once, and then went back and read it again so I could learn to write like a pro when I grew up.  I really wanted to be like this pro.)

So then, my spring day leapt into technicolor, as we old folks say.  Desi and I spent hours reading these poems aloud to one another, feeling completely validated and enlivened by the truth in them.  We were positively giddy.  Desi decided she was going to get “bitch fire” tattooed on her wrist.  I told her I’d join her.  And I’ll just say it.  We bonded.  I think I even got some cool mom points.  Probably irrevocable points.  I bet at my funeral, my daughter will say, “My mom was so cool.  We got ‘bitch fire’ tattoos together.”  And the whole audience (or whatever you call the people at funerals) will sigh with admiration, and also thinly veiled, gut wrenching sorrow, because a light has gone out in the world, and who else ever would have been cool enough, at the ripe old age of 46, to get a “bitch fire” tattoo with her daughter?

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My Desi.  Bitch fire at its finest.

Knowing me as she does, Desi saw my eyes mist over, figured I was imagining the emotional impact of the “bitch fire” tattoos at my funeral, and guessed I would momentarily be highly susceptible to buying her gifts.  She gently suggested I buy her a journal, the cover of which read, “Though she may be little, she is fierce.” Dabbing at the corners of my eyes, I said yes, amending my imaginary funeral to include a softly sobbing Desi producing the journal and saying, “She bought this for me that day.  I kept it with me all the time after that, and in it, I wrote my first novel, which eventually earned me fame and fortune.  I owe it all to my bitch fire momma.”  It was a pretty enough scenario, and the journal was only $10.  Paying the phone bill is overrated anyway.

So all high on cherry blossoms, witch poetry, caffeine, and bonding, we took our choices to the register.  Desi, being as fierce as the journal cover suggested, verbally eviscerated a guy she caught staring at my ass while we waited in line.  (I didn’t even know he was there.  I have a highly developed sense of obliviousness.  I think it’s a survival skill.)  Thanks to mister “your mom’s ass is my eye candy,” we were a little lest jovial by the time we got to the cashier, but still pretty bubbly, when the cashier looked at our choices and said, in a rather snotty tone, “Oh, if you’re into this teenage angst stuff, we have more over there.”

I was pretty sure my daughter was going to punch her, but the offending cashier got off with a few glares and a sarcastic comment or two, after which my daughter and I walked to the car, speaking in loud voices about the sexism inherent in the publishing industry, and in the world at large, really, and wondering why no one thought David Foster Wallace was writing teenage angst literature when he was writing about an angst-ridden-18-year-old male, but this woman who was writing about full grown women being burned at the stake and raped, in a context that suggested she might be pissed off about eons of oppression, was immediately dismissed as “teenage angst stuff.”

So now, I’m writing this, and I’m deciding that I am never, ever going to read a book, especially a book by a white male writer, again, if it doesn’t grab me and speak to my heart and my experience.  And at parties, if someone asks, “Have you read Infinite Jest?” I will answer, “No, it bored the fuck out of me, but have you read Her Body and Other Parties?”  

And then I’ll show them my “bitch fire” tattoo.

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These are my current wrist tattoos.  People always ask me why I got them, and I hem and haw.  I’ll just say it.  They are my “you have reasons to live, don’t slit your wrists” tattoos.  I used to struggle with severe depression.  Sometimes, I still do.  Admittedly, “bitch fire” might not work with the current motif. But then again, it might.  If “bitch fire” isn’t a reason to live, I don’t know what is.

 

 

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