Friday, June 28, 2013

The Myth of Molly Pitcher

Getting back to my earlier blog posts about Molly Pitcher and the question of female war heroes -- how they are portrayed and why we celebrate their achievements (or don't)... I discovered in my internet perambulations a wonderful article by Ray Raphael, which I'll direct you to here.

While you should read the full article (it isn't that long and it is fascinating), I'll offer a brief synopsis (more of a teaser) here.  Raphael argues that the "real" Molly Pitcher was Margaret Corbin, the somewhat coarse character who was injured in battle.  He further presents evidence that the name Molly Pitcher comes not from the battlefield but from a fortune teller in Lynn, Massachusetts.  From these two sources, an entirely mythical beast was born: the Molly Pitcher of the battle of Monmouth.

Not only was this article fascinating for understanding the basis of the legend of Molly Pitcher, but it illustrates several points about female war heroism.  As I've said before, we are more comfortable with "dainty" and "proper" sorts of heroes.  Raphael points out that pitchers would have been impractical on the battlefield; pails and buckets were more likely (indeed, even the Currier and Ives prints show a bucket in the background!).  But the image seems more feminine: a woman traversing the battlefield with a pitcher in hand... it's almost like she's serving someone at a table.  That's much more appropriate than the truth.  And that's why Deborah Sampson is so troublesome: she doesn't fit those "dainty" boundaries and even myth couldn't remake her story in an appropriately feminine way.

There's also the detail that the legends of Molly Pitcher weren't invented or popularized until the 1830s.  When they were told, they were presented as truth.  Each generation likes to make the past over in its own image.  I have no trouble with this when its done under the name of historical fiction (or just fiction).  In fact, that, to me, is often what good fiction does: it translates.  It makes sense of something (from the past or not) and explains it in the context of the author's world.  The danger of the Molly Pitcher legend is that it became accepted as truth and, in doing so, obscured the reality of the women who did serve in the war or who followed the army.  It is these women whose stories need to be told.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Curtis Sittenfeld... Thoughts on her author talk

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Curtis Sittenfeld (best known, perhaps, for her novel Prep) read and speak at Politics and Prose.  Her new novel, Sisterland, is just out.  (I haven't read it yet, but I intend to!)

I wanted to blog about her reading for two reasons, one macro and one micro.

First, the macro: her reading was, in my opinion, just what a reading should be... she struck the right tone of being personable (not saccharine on one end or stiff on the other).  Her talk had good hooks to it as she addressed what inspired her to write the novel (a very intriguing premise) and then read a section that illustrated character and conflict without giving too much away.  After the reading, she took questions, fielding them gracefully.  And, while she certainly answered what was asked, her replies were long and digressive and interesting, taking the kernel of the question and expanding on it.  So... if you have the chance to hear her read, I highly recommend doing so.

Second, the micro level.  Sittenfeld made a number of interesting comments on writing (both her personal practice and on the business side of it).  The one that struck me was her comment (she said she was paraphrasing something that she's heard from others) that when you write nonfiction, people pick at it to show how it isn't true and when you write fiction, people comb through it to show how it is true.

I'd never thought of it that way, but immediately felt the accuracy of this statement.  Readers of fiction want their fiction to reflect reality; they want it to be possible and credible.  This is a tendency that has historical context, I believe, as for a long time novels and other works of fiction were couched as real stories.  Somehow, that's the only way that they are worthwhile.

On the other hand, when someone presents a nonfiction book as "the truth" or an interpretation thereof, the instinct is to disagree.  Oddly, it is actually the same process as with fiction though: the reader is simply asserting his or her own understanding of what is true.

And of course, where does this leave historical fiction?  With the best (or worst, as the case may be) of both worlds!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of If You Could Be Mine

Normally, I keep my reading commentary confined to the "What I'm Reading Now" section of my blog (see the tabs above).  But I just finished If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, and as I got my hands on an advance reading copy (thanks to my wonderful agent!) and as the themes of this novel are close to my heart, I thought I would give it a longer post.

A short synopsis... due to hit shelves on August 20th, this Young Adult novel takes place in modern day Iran.  Narrated by Sahar, a young woman in her senior year of high school, it tells the story of her love for her best friend, Nasrin, and her struggles with this love both in the context of Iranian society generally and also in the context of Nasrin's upcoming marriage.

This is the debut novel of Sara Farizan, and she has done a fantastic job with pacing.  The story moves quickly yet clearly, with the tension heightening in every scene.  I wouldn't call her prose sparse, but she has kept the details to a minimum, jettisoning anything extra, and the result is a stream-lined and compelling story.

Most captivating for me was the setting in Iran.  Apart from headlines in the news and Persepolis, I don't know much about the country or culture.  Farizan uses little phrases of Farsi to create an ambiance, refers to clothing and food in a way that further develops the context, and drops in delightful little details such as the way that the narrator sees the two Khomeinis (angry grandpa and disappointed grandpa) whose images appear everywhere.  

Even more, the setting in modern-day Iran was compelling to me because of the LGBT angle of the book.  These two young women are in love -- they know this and acknowledge it to each other. (Thank goodness, by the way, that this wasn't another novel about a young LGBT person in love with a straight person... I feel like I have read too many of those!)  But their love has to be hidden because it is illegal.  Farizan makes the danger present but not exaggerated. She mentions that young men have been hanged for being in relationships, but she also shows the underground culture of cafes and scenes where LGBT people are relatively open and accepted.  

Once Nasrin is engaged, Sahar is desperate to find a way to stop the marriage and keep Nasrin for herself.  The middle stanza of the book is devoted to her pursuit of sexual reassignment surgery: she wants to become a man so that she can marry Nasrin.  And here's where the cultural context bowled me over.  In Iran (I'm assuming Farizan is portraying this accurately...) sexual reassignment is permitted, even paid for by the government, because it is considered an illness with a cure.  In fact, the implication seems to be that reassignment cures homosexuality.  The novel makes it clear that just because the government sanctions the surgery, it doesn't mean that post-op transsexuals have an easy life.  They face rejection by families and friends and have to keep their past hidden.  But they have a greater veneer of legitimacy than do gays and lesbians.

If I had to lodge one complaint about this novel, it would be that the narrator, Sahar, who otherwise is plausibly intelligent and thoughtful, rushes into the idea of sexual reassignment with a completely unbelievable amount of naivety, ignorance, and lack of forethought.  Even though she is desperate to keep Nasrin, I just couldn't buy that she would actually believe that she could transition in a short window (one month) and that Nasrin (and Nasrin's parents) would accept her after the transition.

But that is one small point.  Otherwise, I was delighted with this novel.  In particular, I want to praise it for the way in which it explains (implicitly) the difference between sexuality and gender.  Farizan illustrates this difficult nuance artfully and compellingly.  This is a great novel to share with a younger reader (6-9 grade?) and open up conversation about LGBT issues as well as human rights in other cultures.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Short Story Published in The Oklahoma Review

In the mood to read a short story?  The most recent issue of The Oklahoma Review features one of mine, "Arm's Length."

You can check it out at: The Oklahoma Review Vol 14

Saturday, June 22, 2013

That Old Inner Critic...

I find myself at an odd junction in my writing life as I alternate between the almost finished draft (second pass pages for Revolutionary are soon to arrive in the mail) and a very rough draft of a new piece.

In the past, particularly when I have worked on short pieces, I will stick with a draft, work it through several phases, then push it aside to let it stew for a while before coming back to work on the final edits.

I've never had to work simultaneously on something that is polished and something that is barely emerging.

And the challenge...

Well, it is to hold up the standards on both ends.  On the one hand, the need to be super-picky and minutely focused with that copyediting.  On the other hand, the need to just write, without caring about pickiness, in the early draft.  To switch from one gear to the other is tough.

I find that I'm giving myself the same advice I give my beginning fiction students: turn off the inner critic!  It is easy for me to be super-picky (I have lots of practice as an English teacher... plus, that's just the way I am.) but it is hard for me to let go of that attention to detail and just let the writing flow.

How does one turn off that inner critic?  I've been giving the advice for years, and in my normal drafting process, I have little trouble doing so automatically.  But now, I have to coach myself -- whenever I find my pen pausing over the page, worrying about a word, I draw little brackets around a blank space and tell myself: move on! 

It is particularly tough when I step away from the rough draft (and back to the final draft of the novel).  Immediately, my mind wants to compare and suggest: that other stuff is crap!  Just ditch it! The key is to reply to that voice and remind myself that without rough drafts, there is no final draft.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with this feeling from the reading/writing comparison.  Ever worked on your own piece, then taken a break to read a "professional" short story or novel?  It can lead to feelings of inadequacy!

But it is so important to come to the page (or the screen) with the feeling that the work -- even though it's rough... no, even because it's rough -- is important.  Speak back to your inner critic.  Believe that the process is important, that nothing gets to a refined state without first going through some ugly stages.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Getting Settled

We have recently moved from RI to DC, and, after the major aspects of moving were accounted for, i. e. the kitchen, a place to sleep, the cats content, I made it my priority to get my new writing space set up.  I have a good span of time to work this summer, and I turned in those first pass pages of Revolutionary, so my desk is now loaded up with work on new stuff... exciting!

This first one is the larger view of the space.  Please note the cat, Magic, sleeping in her carrier in the lower right.  She is, as always, essential to the writing process.

And a closer view of my messy desk.

How do you like to arrange your writing space?  Or do you prefer to work at a cafe?  I know that everyone's different in their requirements... 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Revolutionary Summer

Having just moved to Washington, DC, I want to take advantage of all the city has to offer... to that end, I strolled over to the wonderful Politics & Prose bookstore last night and listened to Joseph Ellis talk about his book Revolutionary Summer, a nonfiction work on the events leading up to (and early on in) the American Revolution.

In general, I like author talks, and this one was great.  He knew the material inside out, spoke without notes, was both precise and expansive, giving a good overall sense of his subject as well as particular and evocative details.

Of course, I was also interested in this material because of my own writing.  And though Deborah comes much later in the war (and has issues of her own to handle -- Ellis touched on women only by virtue of mention Abigail Adams' letters) much of what Ellis spoke about gave me a much better sense of the context in which Deborah existed.

Ellis, at one point, reminded the audience that the vast majority of people during the late 18th century were born, lived, and died within a twenty-mile radius, I was struck anew by how bold Deborah was.  Certainly, a good number of men went beyond this radius in their service to the country (in the army or militia) and certainly Deborah ended up within the sphere where she was born (Plympton to Middleborough to Stoughton/Sharon) but her service, as well as her initial flight, where she seemed to have traveled quite a bit, and -- perhaps especially -- her speaking tour later in life, all speak to a more adventurous and daring spirit than many of her contemporaries.

The second point that really struck me in Ellis's talk was his repeated contention that the Revolution didn't form a nation, so much as a set of sovereign states.  Each state had its own personality and Massachusetts, Deborah's home state, was a firebrand -- far out in front of the other states in its determination for independence.  Even more, the fact that there wasn't a strong sense of nationhood explains why, Ellis said, the Continental Army was treated so poorly, particularly at the end of the war.

This aspect had interested me as I did my research for the novel.  Towards the end of her service, Deborah's regiment is called from West Point to Philadelphia because there has been a mutiny of veterans in Pennsylvania.  These veterans were dissatisfied due to the fact that they had been sent home (furloughed) without pay or pension.  Many of these men had served for years and got nothing for it.  When I was researching the novel, I couldn't figure out why this was the case; I just assumed that the Congress was short on funds (and then I got back to more pertinent research).

Ellis's explanation was that the Congress so disliked the idea of a standing army, and so wanted to prevent the glorification and extension of the Continental Army, that they denied them pay and pension -- sending them home, as he said, as beggars -- in order to detract from their standing.  What an unfathomable shame!  But now I understand the motive.  I left the talk feeling -- as I often felt during my research -- that Deborah's world is unbelievably different than the one in which I live (and I know which one I prefer!).

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Margaret and Deborah

Margaret Corbin -- the other Molly Pitcher, as one might say -- was wounded in battle when she took over the cannon from her husband.  That was in 1776.  As remarkable as her feat of bravery was, the really remarkable moments (and the reason why she is interesting to compare to Deborah Samson) come afterwards.

I haven't been able to find out concrete information as to where she went in 1777 and 1778, but by 1779, people were petitioning on Margaret's behalf and the Continental Congress responded.  In fact, their response was remarkable: she was granted a pension of a soldier's half-pay as well as clothes.  With this gesture, the Congress recognized Margaret as a soldier -- at least in some sense -- they recognized that she had served and been injured in the line of duty.

Even more remarkable, she was allowed join the Invalid Corps at West Point.  This regiment provided for soldiers who were disabled and -- when possible -- got them to perform some military duties (such as standing guard or doing light labor).  Margaret remained a presence in and around West Point well past the end of the war.

There's a great online text that records some correspondence between General Knox and General Fleming about what to do with this woman. The notes make clear a few things: the army was still paying for her upkeep and she was a well-known (notorious, even!) individual.  Of particular interest to me is the fact that General Fleming mentions that she is called "Captain Molly" and that (while requesting more shifts for her to wear) she regularly is seen about wearing an artillery-man's cloak, and (my favorite) she is "brusque, coarse, red-haired, and wholly wanting in feminine charms" as well as a person who swears regularly.

This is a problematic heroine and a complicated story.  It starts so similarly as the other one: a fallen husband, a brave gesture.  It has a middle with a mix of tragedy and triumph: her injury and also her recognition by the Congress.  And the end... such ambivalence: it is clear that even as General Fleming wants to take care of her (he mentions shifting her from the house of a woman who wasn't treating her well) he also is made uncomfortable by some of her behavior and appearance.

It does make me wonder how Margaret Corbin lived all those year in and around West Point.  "Captain Molly," swearing, wearing an artillery-man's coat... was she "just one of the boys" and if so, was that a reflection of her life-long personality or how she adapted to her situation after being injured?  Unlike the other Molly Pitcher, she doesn't fade back into married life.  She becomes a soldier, of a sort, for the rest of her days.

There are several points of contact with Deborah Samson: the achievement of winning a pension as a woman soldier is one of them.  The second is the ambiguity of gender roles after the war.  Yes, Deborah did go back to life as a woman, but she also then went on the road and performed as a soldier.  The third is, perhaps, the most important one.  Like Deborah Samson, Margaret Corbin was an unknown for many years -- her story wasn't widely told until the early twentieth-century, when the Daughters of the American Revolution did research on her that led to the discovery of her unmarked grave and her reburial at West Point (a remarkable tribute).

Like Deborah, Margaret is a heroine that doesn't easily fit within the bounds of expected feminine behavior of the time. She was unacceptable, too much the soldier.  Her heroism was no less than the other Molly Pitcher, but society tends to like its heroines neat and clean.  Just as Deborah's story was "marred" because of how others perceived her act as deceitful or dishonest, Margaret's "brusque and coarse" behavior (other sources speak of how she smoked a pipe) makes her problematic.  It is a shame that it is so difficult to celebrate these women in the full complexity of the characters and identities.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Other Molly Pitcher?

This wouldn't be much of a series if I intended to do was pick on poor Mary Hays (a.k.a. Molly Pitcher) and praise Deborah Samson.
Now's the time for the other part of the story.  You'll recall, perhaps, a few posts ago I mentioned that "Molly Pitcher" was a generic term used for camp followers who brought water to soldiers and artillery.  Many women could claim to be a Molly Pitcher.  The one best known under that title is Mary Hays, whose story I looked at in the last few posts.
There's another candidate: Margaret Corbin.  On the surface, her story appears very similar to Mary Hays.  She, too, followed her husband when he entered the military (a little earlier in the war:  1776) and he served as an artilleryman.  In the battle of Fort Washington, in Manhattan (in November 1776, a lopsided fight between a few hundred revolutionaries a few thousand Hessians) her husband died during the battle and Margaret Corbin took over his position at the cannon.

From this point on, though, the stories of the two women diverge.  For, unlike the Mary Hays of Monmouth, Margaret Corbin was wounded, taking shot to her chest, shoulder, neck, and face (accounts of her injuries vary).  The American side lost the battle and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British, who then paroled her.

There she was, a widowed, gravely injured woman in the midst of a war.  One might have thought that she had suffered the majority of her hardships in that battle.  But sadly, as was the case for many women during this period, her true challenges were just beginning.  In the next post, I'll look at her life after the battle and how she -- like Deborah -- fought just as much off the battlefield as on it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Comparing Deborah to Molly

The question at hand... Why did Molly Pitcher gain a national reputation as a heroine while Deborah Samson did not?

The last two posts have looked at the general role of a camp follower (women who joined their husbands through their army service) and then at the specific person of Mary Hays (the most likely historical personage thought of as "Molly Pitcher").  

At first glance, there are several similarities: both women left home and took to the field of battle; both are from lower-class backgrounds; both assumed a role that was decidedly male; both were proud of their military legacy (Mary Hays was said to be called Sergeant Molly well into her later years... while Deborah was called "The Old Soldier"); both received military pensions.

But Molly Pitcher is celebrated and much-written about, while Deborah Samson has languished.  

Don't get me wrong... she has her fans!  But they are few and far between (and delightfully devoted).  I have known Deborah's story since I was a young child because she is part of my family tree and my grandmother loved to tell her story to me.  But if a young person is likely to associate a woman with the American Revolution, that woman is more likely to be Molly Pitcher than Deborah Samson.

The answer to why this is, I fear, is a simple one.  Molly Pitcher stepped out of social expectations, crossing from the male realm to the female realm, only briefly.  Only under duress.  Deborah Samson did so willingly and for a prolonged period.  Molly Pitcher fought not only in the name of her country but also in the name of her husband.  Deborah Samson fought under an assumed name.

On an overly simplistic level (perhaps), Deborah Samson deceived.  She transgressed.  She said she was someone (Robert Shurtliff) that she was not.  (Perhaps this is where my bias as a transgender person comes in: too often, people have a negative response when I come out because they feel “tricked.”) 

Take note of those pictures of Molly Pitcher – one of the engravings has her wearing what seems to be a military cut of jacket.  It also shows a fair amount of cleavage.  Molly Pitcher could inhabit both realms – she could be a wife, a mother, and a woman… and be a fighter.  Deborah Samson was a soldier.  Her service (like the service of camp followers) was not glamorous.  She fought in little skirmishes.  She worked the tedious labors of a soldier not on the field of battle.  There aren’t any heroics (no cannon balls through her petticoats) that can be attributed to her.  Her valor was no more remarkable than the hundreds of other men who signed on (many for the money) at the tail end of the Revolution. 

What makes her remarkable is that she was a woman and defied all expectations that society had for her – not just once, but for a year and a half.  To celebrate this is to celebrate the fact that women are capable of much more than society dictates. Molly Pitcher’s masculinity is momentary; it is safe and fleeting.  She can be a heroine.  Deborah Samson’s is much more problematic.  It is much more Revolutionary.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Molly Pitcher - Who Was She (Part Two)

In my New England childhood, Molly Pitcher was a household name.  Whenever the Revolution came up in elementary school, she got a paragraph in the history text.  But for those less familiar, here's a brief summary of the common "knowledge" about her: she accompanied her husband to war, she brought water to the men, and when her husband fell during battle, she ran her husband's cannon in his place.

This story is attributed to Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, the real-life woman most often associated with the title Molly Pitcher.  Of course, the historical details aren't entirely clear and there's been lots of conflation and embellishment, but here are the details on the real Molly Pitcher.  In 1777, her husband (she married at the age of 15 or 16) enlisted in the army and she followed him in his training and fighting.  (Her husband had been a barber prior to enlistment, and this was not a profession she could take over.)  

In 1778, her husband, having been trained in the artillery in Washington's army, was on the front lines of the Battle of Monmouth.  Mary served as she normally did: bringing water for the soldiers and the cannon.  At some point, her husband was unable to continue working the cannon (he was either wounded or collapsed from heat -- the battle was in June).  Mary took over his duties.  

There are several wonderful and perhaps apocryphal stories about her time on the battlefield.  One is that as she stood before the cannon, swabbing the barrel out, a shot from the British blasted across and flew through her legs, tearing her petticoats as it passed. She continued in her role despite this close call.  A second is that her service was recognized by George Washington, who noticed her on the battlefield, inquired about her, and even gave her status as an honorary army member.  

There is little to verify these two accounts, but one can understand why they would be told.  The first gives the power to the idea that she was in battle -- not behind the lines.  Too often, women were cast in supporting roles and thus get little credit.  To claim that Molly Pitcher was involved in the war would be true, regardless of whether she worked the cannon or not: she was there, she served, she made a difference. But to get the glamour of the position, she had to be in danger and she had to do a man's job.  (I find it amusing that the cannon ball went between her legs.  This seems ridiculously suggestive to me.  There is a diary entry from a soldier who claims to be an eyewitness to the event; even he recounts it in a humorous manner.)  As to the second, there seems to be little concrete evidence of this happening, and (given the research I've done on Deborah Samson) such a resounding recognition seems unlikely to me. At the time, she was as likely to be condemned for taking on such an inappropriate role as extolled for it.

What is verifiable is the fact that Mary drew a pension for her service (after suffering, like Deborah, with a husband who made terrible financial decisions).  In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania  granted her a military pension.  It is unclear whether she received this for her own service or as a widow of a veteran.  

There are several paintings, engravings, and woodcuts of Molly Pitcher.  These capture the essence of why she gets so much acclaim.  In these depictions, she is shown in full female regalia: ruffled cap, petticoats, dress, and apron.  Often, her fallen husband's body is by her feet.  She has the tamper for the cannon in her hands and thrusts it down the cannon's barrel.  Thus, she is both perfectly female in her appearance and perfectly male (literally and figuratively) in her behavior.  Scandalous at the time, perhaps, but exciting (even titillating) afterwards.

Here are links to two such images (both mid-19th c.)  Engraving   and Currier&Ives

Next - a closer comparison of Deborah and Molly/Mary.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Who Was Molly Pitcher? (Part One)

Today begins a comparative look at women's roles in the American Revolution -- who has been celebrated, for what, and why... the goal is to get some context and perspective on Deborah Samson, the main character of my forthcoming novel, Revolutionary.

Who Was Molly Pitcher?

     Interestingly, this name was a generic term, almost a title, given to many women who served in a similar capacity.  And what capacity was that?  Well, in the Revolutionary War, many women followed men (be they husbands, sons, or brothers – though husband was the most typical) to wherever they served in the war.  Why would a woman do this, given that the life on the lines must be tough and unpredictable?  There might be a variety of reasons, ranging from the romantic to the practical.  But for many of these women, as tough as life might be following the army, life without that would be even harder. 

     The reality for the 18th century lower classes was not a pretty one.  For a woman left alone to tend a farm or manage a workshop of some sort while her husband fought, life could be nearly impossible. Some of these women – even those with children – found it necessary to trail along after their husbands.  Indeed, there were at times so many of these camp followers that Generals, Washington included, had to thin their ranks.  In 1777, he wrote: 

"the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement."

A census of sorts would be conducted and those women who were found to be single or not performing a necessary service were sent away.  The married women who could work for the army were permitted to camp nearby and were often given some quantity of rations and even, on occasion, drew pay for their work.

     And work they did.  These women most frequently did laundry for the soldiers.  Sometimes they cooked or cleaned.  On rare occasions they had a formal occupation as a servant for an officer.  Though they maintained a separate camp, these women were frequent visitors to the army post and some of them labored alongside their husbands.  This was the role of “Molly Pitchers,” who brought water to the lines.  Sometimes the water was intended to relieve the soldiers, but often it was used to cool the cannons down and to wash them out between shots, keeping the barrel clear of debris and sparks. 

     Without question, camp followers were brave.  They transgressed gender boundaries of the time.  During the eighteenth century, the proper sphere of woman was home and hearth.  Even though Martha Washington went to visit George at Valley Forge, she left and went back where she “belonged.”  But the other women didn’t... mostly because they couldn’t.  Perhaps some, though, didn’t want to and followed not only out of personal obligation but out of a patriotic desire to serve. 

Next up... a look at the woman commonly believed to be “the” Molly Pitcher.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Women of the Revolutionary War... A Comparative View

On a recent drive down the New Jersey Turnpike, my wife and I stopped in (by complete chance) to the Molly Pitcher service area.  Perhaps it is only because I grew up in New England, but Molly Pitcher was a well-known name in my childhood.  Fourth grade (maybe third grade?) pageant on American History: the Revolutionary-era women were Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher.  We sang a song about her; we recited a poem about her.

After reading the small plaque about the "New Jersey Maid" and refreshing my memory on her exploits, I had to ask: why does she get all the press while Deborah Sampson Gannett remains somewhat (relatively) obscure?

I returned home and went to the local library (always my place of refuge).  A quick skim of the children's section on the American Revolution showed something similar to what I recalled from my childhood.  There were books that made an attempt to show that women were involved in the American Revolution.  The women mentioned: Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher.

For the first two, I can immediately see why fame comes easily.  Martha Washington's role, after all, is one still familiar today: first lady.  Betsy Ross, well, sewing was what women were supposed to do.  She fulfills a predictable and acceptable female role.

But what makes Molly Pitcher so much more heralded than Deborah Sampson?  That will be the subject of my next few blog posts... a comparison of these two revolutionary women, a grudge match of sorts.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Transgender Authors -- Identity and Writing

A good friend sent me this link to Lamba Literary, which features a discussion with the directors of a small press that has put out a collection of transgender fiction.

The interview hits on many fascinating subjects, including the directors/editors' desire not to include pictures of trans-people in the anthology to avoid fixation on "the body." There is so much of that -- interest in and pressure about passing and surgery.  The connection between "what you have" and "who you are" is so pervasive, both in and out of the trans community.

But, for me, the more interesting section of the conversation came a little over halfway down the page, when they discussed the sort of submissions they had received for the collection.  The answer: too many "suicide narratives and thinly veiled autobiography."

This made me harken back to a conversation I had with a trans-friend many years ago; we were discussing movies and books that had transgender main characters, and we both articulated the feeling that, while novels and movies and tv shows could now have characters who were gay without their being gay taking the central story line, that was not true of trans-folk.  If a character was transgender... that WAS the story.

So, this conversation amongst the Topside editors made the claim that trans writers need to learn how to tell their stories -- "there are no archetypes or narratives constructed for trans-people."  Agreed.  Kind of.  I do heartily agree with the notion that trans-writers need to try out form and content beyond the "coming out" and "oppression" sorts of narratives.  But I also think that archetypes and (grand) narratives are exactly that: they fit everyone.  There's the old fiction writing saw about how only two storylines exist: a stranger comes to town and someone leaves town.  Or something like that.  What's the matter with that applying to trans-folk, too?

Further down, the distinction is made between writing about "who trans people are... and what trans people are thinking."  This, to me, is much more important, a real call to action.  Transgender fiction must be beyond identity, beyond the body... and into the realm of desire, motive, idea.   But I'd argue that's just what GOOD fiction should be about.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

First Pass Pages...

Today's project (and tomorrow's too) = reading through first pass pages for Revolutionary.

What are first pass pages?  

(Don't worry, I had to ask!)  They are a chance for me to look over the whole novel in its typeset form and find the minor errors.  So far, I haven't found many!