School’s out for summer, chickadees! Welcome back to BOOKMARKS, a series in which I ask writers and artists to reflect on the moments where words, and what words can do, entered their lives, i.e. made a mark. This month we’ve got mermaids, orgasms, jungles, ghosts…. Join us, won’t you?
The book that inspired me to want to become a writer and a better reader was Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales. Her writing was so full of life without being childish or condescending. I felt as though a warm voice spoke to me as I read this book, telling me what to watch for, what to hold on to, what to carry with me forever. The illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon are incredible and also inspired me during my visual artist days. I redrew the afro-wearing mermaid from one of the stories and it was the first time I drew someone who was not a videogame character and who looked like someone I could have been related to.
What drew me to this book was the mythology of it all. I am forever a child of fairytales, myth, the occult, and mysterious true facts. This gave food for my hungry imagination. I revisited the stories inside learned so much about what it means to imagine as well as how it feels to be imagined. In a time where it is easier to find dragons and orcs in fantasy films than it is to see anyone Black, this book gave me permission to believe that I too could populate (and already have populated) the world of fantasy. I am forever in this book’s debt and loving arms.
Oh, so many books I could discuss, but the one that first came to mind was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I think this is a common book on children’s bookshelves, but if you aren’t familiar, it (and its following volumes) is a compendium of horror stories, games, and songs adapted from folklore by Alvin Schwartz, and accompanied by these creepy and gorgeous drawings by Stephen Gammell that look as if they bloomed from their own shadows. Like many children of the nineties, I loved R.L. Stine—read all the Goosebumps and Fear Street—but, at nine years old, the stories in this book got under my skin and burrowed in my brain in ways those stories did not. Each “story” is not so much a narrative as it is a vignette that resists closure, preferring instead to leave you unsettled and a little afraid. The book was my introduction to the urban legends that haunt the kind of neighborhoods in which I grew up: that image of the hook hanging from the door handle, the babysitter learning that the call was coming from inside the house, the high beams and the murderer in the backseat, the rented gown poisoned by the embalming field that had coated the corpse of its previous owner. One story ends with the image of a woman—a witch who had been terrorizing a farmhand by turning him into a horse and riding all over the countryside—in a stable with “horseshoes nailed to her hands and feet.” In another, a boy offers to carry a woman’s basket on a cold night, only to learn that the reason she was bundled so tightly “it was hard to see her face” was because it held her own severed head. One ghost encountered seems a poem embodied in itself:
Her hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh dropping off her face so he could see the bones and part of her teeth. She had no eyeballs, but there was a sort of blue light way back in her eye sockets. And she had no nose to her face. Then she started talking. It sounded like her voice was coming and going with the wind blowing it.
As dark and gruesome as it is, this book is meant for children; it did not introduce me to the complex beauty of language (as Lorde’s Coal did—my introduction to language work that truly dazzled me), or to true and “adult” suffering (as Lolita did). But it did introduce me to Death as Art, to the peculiar pleasure incited by horror and the fear it provokes, and to the uncanny and the grotesque, and, looking back now (and flipping through it now, as I still have the same copy!), I believe it catalyzed the love affair with my own fear(s) that continues to influence and infuse my poetry.
Sitting In My Box by Dee Lillegard was the first time I realized how bodies / words / images took up space and accumulated. I remember my mother reading the book to me and seeing the words next to the illustrations but not knowing they were words at the time and thinking instead that they were bugs that wanted to be let into this little boy’s box, too. After all, when the bigger jungle animals won’t make room in the box for the flea, the flea seems to use his word-brethren to catapult himself into the box anyway. When I finally learned what words were, I couldn’t shake their association to infestation. Regardless, I was happy to make room for them in my box.
I’m pretty sure I learned how to masturbate to orgasm while reading either The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel or Watership Down by Richard Downs between the summer of sixth and seventh grades. I don’t know why this comes back to me now. And this certainly did not make me a writer or even wish to become one. It didn’t make me a particularly focused reader either, which should surprise no one.
The memory goes something like this: my bedroom door is closed, and I’m lying (clothed) on my bed reading a mass-market paperback. What I’m trying to do is force myself to focus on the language of the weird, windswept plains and some creaturely wars that are apparently raging—and here the novels fuse into a single odd story about furious cave rabbits.
And now you can see right where this is going. The more engrossed I become in the story, the more my body presents me with its own stubborn otherness. So I decide to foist it into a game: I rest the open book, face down, on my chest. Then I pull my pants and underwear down around my thighs. Without touching myself, I resume reading. And I would then block my exposed genitals from my view, with the paperback in hand, forcing myself to scour the pages and neither permit my hands to leave the book it was holding nor even to look at myself down there. Until, of course, I finished the next chapter or the distraction became unbearable, and my body would go ahead and interrupt this young reader’s improvised ruse of sexual constraint. And I’d finally just break down.
Perhaps this conceit is what initiated me into the erotics of reading. I don’t know. But it must have opened me up to the strange asceticism of the reader who cannot forget his body. But what was I discovering? What was I allowing myself to avoid in order to burn for pleasure in this way? I suppose it was fun. And it must’ve been shameful, too.
Yes, I am aware that a young adult novel about a warren of rabbits is not particularly tantalizing as pornographic material. Though I do seem to remember something suggestive or lurid from Auel’s story of antagonistic cave dwellers, though I refuse to Google it now. I want to preserve the blurriness of those scenes as a sense-memory, not to replace the young person’s self encounters with the adult’s embarrassed knowing. As if that’s not what this little essay is doing anyhow.
Nevertheless, I’m sure that readers familiar with these books will recall what, if anything, might’ve been a sexually catalyzing moment. Maybe you’ll bring of one these explicit scenes back to me at a party or after a reading some time. (Another weird elsewhere to look forward to.) I hope I’ve had a drink or two before you share it with me though. And maybe you’ll be kind enough to accompany it with your own similar story.
For some reason, what seems essential here is actually just how unsexy my first erotic experiences were. That’s what’s so mysterious and stupidly funny to me now. You remember getting yourself off for the first time. You have your stories about becoming a reader. And I guess mine are fused at some awkward crossroads of adolescent secrecy, constrained pleasure, shame, and otherworldly animality. With rabbits. And cave people.
’til next time! — Sophie