facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
un(der)known writers

Un(der)known Writers: Frank B. Wilderson, III


After Alice and I had been together for a while, I convinced myself that the looks we got from people in Santa Cruz when we went out were starting to change. Perhaps I’d just been paranoid. Perhaps she was right, I told myself, when she insists that the looks meant no more than, Aren’t those two so in love. Or: Isn’t that cute, a forty-something man and a sixty-something woman. Or: He’s no ageist. Or: She’s really lucky, a second chance at love (not to mention the sex!), when all is said and done, and love conquers all. Maybe they didn’t see me as King Kong screeching from atop the dome when they saw us together. In fact, it seemed as though they liked me. But more importantly, they seemed to trust me. I was soon called upon to counsel. I was called upon to heal. As at an End the War march, when you hear your name being called. Huffing and puffing, she pushes through the crowd and catches up to you. Can I march with you for a little while? she says. Sure, Dorothy, it’s good to see you. Another hour and your lungs are tired from chanting, Hell no we won’t go, we won’t fight for Texaco! Look, she says, pointing to a park bench across the street. She takes you by the hand and together you minnow through the flow of demonstrators to the other side of the street.

On this march the two of you renew your pledge to keep fighting that Son of a Bush! Arm in arm, hand in hand, Black and White and all the Rainbow colors in between are marching with you down the street. You and Dorothy catch your breath on a park bench. You let the sea of signs, towering puppets, and noisemakers flow past. Mind if I ask you something, Frank? I’m troubled. Deeply troubled. Ask me anything, Dorothy. She tells you: I couldn’t even dream of saying this to you if I didn’t know how you and Alice are. You’re the perfect couple. Well, you say (your signature well), we work at it: that’s the key, Dorothy, hard work and commitment. Then you take her hand and you ask her what’s troubling her. It’s really embarrassing, but I’ve got to get it off my chest, she says. You place your other hand over hers. It’s Erica, she says, my daughter, you remember Erica. Frank, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I feel so empty. Dorothy, you say, just breathe deeply, let it all out. Erica’s pregnant, she exclaims, and…and the father is Black. She won’t have an abortion. What is this fixation of hers, Frank? It’s not that she’s with a Black guy, we all dated Black guys in the sixties, it’s not a racist thing with me. But Erica only dates Black guys. It’s unhealthy. A fetish. And now this. I had to talk with you, Frank–anyone else would’ve called me a racist. I’m not racist. I’m a mother. It’s a mother’s pain, Frank: that’s not Black, or White, or Red or Yellow. That’s human nature. No mother wants to think of her daughter falling in and out of bed with a fetish. Tell me, Frank, lay it on me like folks laid it on each other back in the day: Does Erica need therapy? Is she psychotic? She must be psychotic. Frank? Frank, your palms are sweating.

From Frank B. Wilderson, III’s Incognegro


Un(der)known Writers: Clarice Lispector


Animals don’t laugh. Though sometimes dogs laugh. Besides their panting mouths their smile is transmitted by eyes that start to shine and become more sensual, while their tails wag in joyous expectation. But cats never laugh. A “he” I know wants nothing more to do with cats. He’s through with them forever because he had a certain female cat who periodically got frenzied. When she was in heat her instincts were so imperative that, after long and plangent meows, she would throw herself from the roof and injure herself on the ground.


Sometimes I get electrified when I see animals. I’m now hearing the ancestral cry within me: I no longer seem to know who is the creature, the animal or me. And I get all confused. It seems I get scared of facing up to stifled instincts that I’m forced to acknowledge in the presence of the animal.


I knew a “she” who humanized animals talking to them and giving them her own characteristics. I don’t humanize animals because it’s an offenseyou must respect their natureI am the one who animalizes myself. It’s not hard and comes simply. It’s just a matter of not fighting it and it’s just surrendering.


Nothing is more difficult than surrendering to the instant. That difficulty is human pain. It is ours. I surrender in words and surrender when I paint.


Holding a little bird in the half-closed cup of your hand is terrible, like having the trembling instants inside your hand. The frightened little bird chaotically beats thousands of wings and suddenly you have in your half-closed hand the thin wings struggling and suddenly you can’t bear it and quickly open your hand to free the light prisoner. Or you hand it quickly back to its owner so that he can give it the relatively greater freedom of the cage. BirdsI want them in the trees or flying far from my hands. I may one day grow intimate with them and take pleasure in their lightweight presence of an instant. “Take pleasure in their lightweight presences” gives me the feeling of having written a complete sentence because it says exactly what it is: the levitation of the birds.

-Clarice Lispector, from Água Viva, translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler. Available from New Directions


Un(der)known Writers: Aimé Césaire


People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack. 

Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.

-Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 1955 (PDF)


Un(der)known Writers: Elaine Kraf


I am glad I have the radiance. This time I am wiser. No one will know. Perhaps it is a virus—a virus causing my being to expand and glow instead of causing nausea and weakness. It is not what they think it is. Usually they treat this lovely feeling with drugs. Weren’t they surprised when the lithium salts didn’t work. All of them so sure they could call it manic-depression and level it with those salts. I fooled them. Finally it was cured in the usual way. In fact any feeling can be cured if you want to get rid of it by shooting up large amounts of Thorazine, Stelazine and more recent derivatives into the buttocks or ass or bottom or gluteus maximus.

What a fool I was to go there all by myself of my own free will last time and live in the green painted room until they made certain that the radiance was gone. When I have this condition it is hard for me to follow directions, difficult to keep schedules, to play follow the leader. When they cure it with the drugs that make my limbs heavy and my mind stupefied, I cannot laugh suddenly or cry or even dance. It is like something is binding me. But I can follow orders very well. I can do whatever I am told. Then they say, she is over the acute stage. I am praised and the dosage is lowered. Finally I am released. I come out into the world with correct patterns of speech, and for a while I see a psychiatrist and take my maintenance dosage and look for a job in the newspaper. It is a pretense. The realization of who I am comes back to me. Not the radiance. You see, the two don’t always go together. I am the Princess of 72nd Street. This is a fact. Something I know deep inside but only mentioned during my first and second radiance. They want me to believe that a radiance follows some terrible rejection or loss of self-esteem and is some kind of defensive device creating chemical changes and loss of boundaries. They are wrong. I have gotten the radiance when I have been depressed about something and also when things were going along in their normal way. The truth that they refuse to admit is that there is no pattern. None.

From Elaine Kraf’s The Princess of 72nd Street


Un(der)known Writers: Penelope Mortimer

There is much to know about Penelope Mortimer. She was married to one man, but gave birth to two children from extramarital affairs with two other, separate men. While pregnant, she would leave her first husband for her second, John Mortimer. Their relationship was anything but sunny, and the details became excellent source material for her scathingly brilliant novels, of which The Pumpkin Eater stands out. The Pumpkin Eater deals with the slow burn of betrayal, the collapse of trust, the tribulations of reproduction and parenting, and the devastating isolation and depression that plagued women’s domestic lives in the 1950s and 60s. It was made into a popular film in 1964 starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Published a year before feminist classics such as The Feminine Mystique and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, The Pumpkin Eater is a revelation. With its unrelenting honesty and gallows humor, it’s unbelievable that the novel could have ever lapsed into the shadows. Thankfully, it has been reissued under the aegis of the New York Review Books.

In addition to her contributions to fiction (nine novels, two short-story collections), Mortimer was the author of a controversial biography of the Queen Mother, an advice columnist for The Daily Mail, the movie critic for The Observer, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. She was also a mother to six children. She would go on to write a three-volume memoir About Time—though the third volume remains, sadly, unpublished. Mortimer lived to the age of 81, continuing to write at her cottage in the Cotswolds. As Daphne Merkin quotes in her NYRB introduction to The Pumpkin Eater, “Owning land,” Mortimer recorded in her memoir, “made some stubbornly preserved part of me emerge rampant, sweeping the rest out of sight.”

From The Pumpkin Eater (1962):

I wanted to go home, but now my father was dead there was no home to go to, only a house where my mother mourned and thanked goodness that I had at last seen reason. Jake told me that he heard that Conway was roaming London blind drunk. I knew this, because for a week after our meeting he had rung me every day with such vile punishment that now I never answered the telephone, and if I was alone in the house I took the receiver off the hook. I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity: each time I poured myself a brandy in the afternoon I could say to myself “I am a woman who drinks.” It was the positive action rather than the brandy itself that gave me courage. By tea-time I could sit at the head of the table and listen calmly enough to the children, even though I could not understand them. They roistered like billeted troops, cramming themselves with bread and chocolate, swigging great mugs of milk and sweetened tea, miraculously innocent, strong, indifferent. The thought of this half ton of hungry, growing, sentient body and brain coming from my body should, perhaps, have satisfied me. In fact, lacking now my own instincts, values and beliefs, I had nothing to offer them, and what they offered me—dependence, love, trust—seemed a monumental responsibility which I could no longer bear.