SLATED FOR PUBLICATION in the spring of 2019, Melissa Febos’s book Girlhood, in the words of its author, “just wasn’t done.” Febos, an admired writer, isn’t immune to publishing pressures. Something much larger was at stake here, however: her Girlhood’s girlhood. “Kettle Holes,” the collection’s first essay, tells of a neighborhood boy’s relentless quest to disempower and crush — by any means possible — her young body and spirit. That childhood experience is an example of the larger concert of encounters the book chronicles, identifying the insidious ways that patriarchy disempowers girls as they begin to sexually mature. The story’s flawless interrogation breaks the silence regarding the psychological scars that stem from patriarchal indoctrination of females from birth to womanhood.
Mixing memoir, scholarship, and reportage, Girlhood, the third book by Febos, is a gifted reckoning with and reclamation of the author’s sensual and intellectual identity. Febos’s girlhood wasn’t exceptional but rather all too familiar. Her story is a roadmap that guides us toward the undoing of patriarchal indoctrination and the retraining of the mind. This work can’t be done in isolation, since imprisoned silence begets oppression. Girlhood speaks aloud the author’s silences, silences so firmly rooted in the psyche that they have yet to be fully named. This book is the readers’ story as much as it is the author’s.
On January 7, via emails and a phone call, Febos talked with me about her book, the power of the lyric essay, the importance of patience in nonfiction writing, and the need for a more nuanced public discourse about issues of sexual exploitation and consent.
YVONNE CONZA: With the #MeToo movement, the US Women’s World Cup champions chanting “Equal Pay” and “Close the Gender Pay Gap,” climate activist Greta Thunberg giving a thunderous United Nations speech, and the Women’s March entering its third year, your book seemed to have been positioned for a timely launch.
MELISSA FEBOS: The book was initially slated for publication in the spring of 2019, and I just wasn’t done. I had one more essay that I needed to write, and I thought, “Will my book still be relevant in 2021?” Then, with some cynicism, I said to myself, “Yes. It will.” Because these questions were relevant the day I was born and for centuries before that. They’ll still be relevant to some people a year from now, and for years to come.
Your book, which describes various forms of male aggression toward females, came to my mind as the violent mob was invading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They went for the woman’s office. “Let make sure she knows we were here.” This brutal behavior can no longer be ignored or accepted as normal. It must be recognized and spoken about. We need the dialogue about — and the words for — these indoctrinated actions.
Yes. And I do think in many ways that is ultimately the mission of everything I’ve ever written. Certainly, the mission of this book is to find words for what has been unspeakable, both in literal and in metaphorical ways. If we don’t have a word for something, we can’t name it, we can’t refine our definition of it. You can’t fight something that you can’t name.
The ways in which you acknowledged the silences of things done to you, and their impact on your development from girlhood to womanhood, was terrific. What does that mean for you, the silences?
Figuring out ways to represent silence is a really big part of my craft. When you think about how we communicate in person, the “silences” are not a passive part of communication. Silence is an incredibly rich form of communication. It’s an incredibly important part of how we understand things. It makes sense as a writer that I need to find ways to represent that on the page and to create from it. Creating space for the reader to absorb something the way that we absorb things in silence, and for the way that we need silence and its meaning to land as a form of expression. I think, in terms of confronting silence, that’s the whole thing: I’m trying to break the silence. At the start of every kind of social change is speaking the thing — the thing of unspoken silence. Every form of oppression utilizes and depends upon the silence of the people who oppress us, so it makes sense that speaking it aloud is the first, and most necessary, step.
The prologue, “Scarification,” does a ton of work in the book — like a map legend, with the prose fragments forming constellations that represent the essays to follow. What is the origin of “Scarification”? How did it develop?
“Scarification” is the oldest essay in the book, by a few years. It is one of the first essays I wrote that could be described as a lyric. Back in 2011 or so, I wanted to articulate something about my adolescence that I hadn’t been able to do with more traditional nonfiction structures. It was more accurately described in image and — what do I call it? — motion? An accumulation of these things. The repetition of certain dynamics on the page that could represent those in life.
I wrote it and then drawered it for a few years. Then I pulled it out again, and messed with it for a few months here and there until it was doing the thing I wanted it to do. It won a prize and then Guernica published it, and I thought its life was over. Then, when I was assembling the essays for Girlhood, I pulled it out and it felt like a perfect little jigsaw that snapped into place. It was an artifact of the first time I’d been able to describe so much of what Girlhood went on to describe at much greater length, and so it felt like a perfect entry point to the collection, a keyhole that I traveled through as an artist to arrive at the rest of this book.
How does lyricism allow uninterrupted narrative flow to service the material and avoid being decorative?
Part of the definition of a lyric, as I understand it, is that it transmits meaning, describes an emotional reality in a way that cannot be done with more literal means. That is, a simple recounting of the events of a story or an explanation of my interpretation of it will not suffice. It is, literally, unsayable. So, I must communicate it through other means: image, rhythm, and phonics, even the more concrete elements of how the text sits on the page.
I try to use lyric modes when they are contributing something to the material that could not be achieved any other way. Sometimes, the lyric is the only means I have of communicating something — it felt that way for a lot of Abandon Me [her 2017 memoir]. Think of the way a song can move you — it transmits something in a perfectly efficient way, a way that no plainly spoken words could. Similar to a painting. We struggle to describe the way works of art move us, how they provoke a feeling in us that wasn’t there before, because if we could speak it, perhaps the painting or the song would not exist, would not be necessary.
When I was a kid, teachers praised my lyrical work, so I exercised it more. All the way into graduate school, I mostly developed my lyrical muscles, because that’s what I thought I was good at. Over time, I created a story about my being bad at other aspects of writing, so I only wrote these long, beautiful, boring stories. It wasn’t until later that a few key people were honest with me about the fact that I had to know what the hell I was writing about in order to actually say something. My thesis advisor in grad school, Vijay Seshadri, once rolled his eyes in exasperation at me and said, “Melissa, stop indulging your strengths!” I was finally ready to hear it, so his words rung a like bell in me, signaling the necessity of facing my own insecurity. I wrote his words down on a Post-It and stuck it to my computer. After that, I started trying to actually say something, went and learned what a plot was, and began to use my lyrical tools in service to the things I came to the page to say, rather than as a substitute for meaning that momentarily dazzled but failed to clearly communicate anything.
Girlhood’s pacing unfolds with a patience and trust that are folded into each essay. How do you give yourself permission to develop patience and trust in your writing?
I am not, by nature, a patient person. The refrain of my childhood was “slow down, Melissa!” because I was always moving so fast while distracted and crashing into things. I wrote that way for a while, too. I was in a hurry to finish school, to publish, to show my work to people, and I learned the hard way, from repetitive experience, that slowing down yielded much better results.
When I was writing my second book, Abandon Me, I decided not to try and sell it, or really show it to anyone but my closest readers, until it was completely done. It was too difficult to describe and I knew I would do it a disservice if I tried to pitch it without having an actual book to show folks. It was a long haul without any external validation, and it was probably the best professional decision of my life. During that time, I learned to discern between a desire for encouragement and a readiness to show my work. It can be easy to confuse the two. We all need regular encouragement, but we don’t need to publish or submit our work to receive it. I have been well rewarded for my patience and rarely for my haste. Patience has also given me the space to build a relationship to my work and my process that is completely separate from the gaze of others, from publishing or performance. The life of a writer demands more stamina, more patience than most people are equipped with innately. We have to cultivate it, and that can be a lonely process.
In “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” you discuss how the terms abuse and trauma get overused and misapplied, while other forms of psychological affect get overlooked completely. Along with reading Girlhood, how else can we advance this dialogue?
We have to normalize talking about our experiences. And we need to build a consciousness of the whole spectrum of intimate experience, from pleasure to violence, and the places in which those exist together. When we can widely acknowledge how common it is for a consensual experience to have traumatic consequences, then we can name it. There are so many intimate dynamics that don’t exactly qualify as abuse (as we understand it) but have aspects of what we would call abuse. Because of this deficit of language to name them, we are trapped in a linguistic false binary, forced to choose between calling our experiences abuse or not-abuse, when in reality there is so much between those poles.
Our mainstream culture has only relatively recently become interested in the abuses of women — everything that we now call abuse was considered a totally acceptable way to treat women for a long, long time — and so our language reflects a pretty rudimentary understanding of it. This deficit of language is even more pronounced when it comes to the experiences of BIPOC women, trans women, and immigrant women — anyone of a marginalized or intersectional identity. It affects men, too. We are reluctant to name most of the ways that men are harmed in relationships, because our definitions of masculinity are so synonymous with dominance. I’m using “we” pretty loosely here, when of course, it’s not everyone, not every community. But the dominant culture’s inability/refusal to name whole swathes of our experience is harmful to everyone and enables the perpetuation of every kind of oppression.
How can we help our friends and partners who might be struggling with these issues of consent, boundaries, and indoctrination? What would have made a difference to you at 11 years of age?
Honestly, I’m not sure that there is any kind of individual intervention that could have changed my path. I know that my mother worries this question herself, and I always tell her that she did everything right. One person, even a very powerful person, cannot fully counter the authority of a society.
What would have helped me was a more nuanced public discourse about consent, a language to name the murky gradations between enthusiastic consent and assault. One of the primary goals of this book is to publicize a conversation about the aspects of our girlhoods that we consider unspeakable. When we don’t name our experiences, we cannot confirm that they are shared. When we feel alone in our experience, many of us begin to feel responsible for it, and then ashamed of it. This isolation is fundamental to the perpetuation of every kind of oppression. The catalyst of most social movements has been a practice of speaking aloud the experiences of oppression to those who share them, giving language to the mechanisms of subjugation and smashing the illusion of their uniqueness to the individual.
Had I known that so many other girls were being slut-shamed, I would have been less likely to internalize that experience. Had it been explained to me why it was so hard to say no when I didn’t want to be touched, it would have been easier to say no. It was partly through reading that I finally learned all of the ways I was not alone. That is my greatest hope for my work.
Did you think about your readership as you were writing about examining patriarchal indoctrination and its undoing?
I’m going to be totally honest here: I have never for a single moment worried about whether or not my books would appeal to men. My days of catering to men, in most perceivable ways, are long gone. I don’t write for anyone, in fact, except the folks who are drawn to my work. There is no sense in trying to appeal to people who aren’t interested; the art-making process has no room for that.
When I imagine a reader, I usually imagine a younger version of myself — someone who has shared my experiences and worries she might be alone in them. A lot of what I write about concerns the experience of traveling through life in a female-identified body, but not exclusively. Men experience addiction, recovery, love, relationships, desire — and many of them are also interested in the experience of traveling through life in a female-identified body. Men need patriarchal undoing as much as anyone. We all do. Patriarchy hurts all of us, even those who claim the identities that it empowers.
After three books, is your relationship with writing and being able to talk about yourself evolving? If so, how do you feel this will impact your future work?
Oh, sure. It already has impacted my work. As I’ve gotten better at saying the scary things out loud, my writing has shifted, because I am heeding other kinds of urgency. I need to be challenged by my work in order to feel motivated to write; as soon as a form or method or subject starts to feel easy or familiar, I start to lose interest. This is one way I understand the shift from straightforward memoir to more journalistic, intertextual modes. I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever stop relying upon writing as a space to have hard conversations with myself. That need isn’t predicated on secrecy, though they have been connected in the past. Now it is also a space where I can think carefully and slowly, about personal things, but also about more global questions, to examine the whys and hows of our world.
Who are you reading now?
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad — a former student, who is a total star. Also, Elissa Washuta’s White Magic, Randa Jarrar’s Love Is an Ex-Country, Forsyth Harmon’s Justine, and Anna North’s Outlawed.
I’m also super excited to read Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s second novel, Libertie.
I could honestly go on for so long, but I’ll just mention one more, which is Donika Kelly’s second poetry collection, The Renunciations. It is an absolute masterpiece. The fact that she’s my partner might make you question my objectivity and that’s fair. But it was her work that I fell in love with first, before I ever met her. That’s actually how we met. Pre-order the book and thank me later.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Ex/Post, and elsewhere.London’s Dodo Ink and Scotland’s Epoch Press have included her work in the 2021 anthologies Trauma: Art as a response to Mental Health and Aftermath.