NOVEMBER 2, 2016
A FEW YEARS AGO, I sat down to begin work on a new novel. I was captivated by an obituary I had recently read about one of the last remaining munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. One detail stood out from among the others for me: when the man was born a dwarf in what was then Bohemia, his parents had tried, unsuccessfully, to have him stretched. I set about writing a novel, a fable-like telling, not about that man but about an invented character I called Pavla. She is born a dwarf and her parents try to have her stretched, only in my version, the treatment works. However, it puts into play a series of transformations in which Pavla, as her identity is stripped away, is hunted, humiliated, and silenced.
Why do we write the books we do? As I was working on this one, I didn’t know why the story compelled me, or why, whatever form Pavla took, she continued to be threatening, an object of fear, and therefore subject to harm at the hands of men. It seemed there was nowhere for her to go, no transformation I could invent — whether she became momentarily beautiful, or tall, or powerfully animal, or helplessly incarcerated — that did not put her in danger. Was this story relevant, I wondered? Was I writing something that would feel politically and socially quaint?
I grew up in the ’70s during the height of the feminist movement. We read Mother Jones and Our Bodies Ourselves. I was expected to have a career, to put myself, if not first, at least on equal footing in any relationship I would have with a man. Having gone to a single-sex school my entire childhood, I never learned to cede the classroom to the boys. I was taught that my intellect was powerful. But I was also subject to the routine humiliations of being female. As an adolescent barely comfortable in her new body, I didn’t know what to make of the fact that the man pressing up against my back in a crowded subway had an erection. Was I meant to be proud that my new body was stimulating sexual desire? Why, then, did I feel frightened? Why ashamed? What was I to do when, a boy my age, in what was decidedly not an amorous or intimate moment, took my hand and shoved it down his pants? Later, as a young filmmaker leading a movie crew, what to make of the fact that the sound guy, in front of the whole crew, told me my ass looked good in my jeans. No matter how strong I felt, there was always this monster at my back.
But this was long ago and far away, not unlike the amorphous fable-like time my character Pavla was living in, a place that was and was not real, relevant, pressing.
And yet, the single most powerful image I will take away from this political season is that of Trump, a man who boasts of assaulting women, skulking behind Hillary Clinton as she spoke about serious issues of the day. He loomed over her shoulder, pacing back and forth like a bull not yet released from his pen, or, to put it in the terms of fable, like an ogre.
Did she know he was there? Did she feel him invading her space? Did she experience that skin-tingling, muscle-seizing sensation that we all feel when we are minimized, objectified, endangered? What I felt while watching was the force of her endurance. She kept talking while the ogre sniffled and paced. She did not let up. She did not give in.
When I came to the end of Pavla’s story, I wasn’t sure what to do. What would be her final transformation? In the allegorical world I had constructed, there could be no take-back-the-night climax; no truth in a victorious resolution in a modern-day sense; I had written a novel, not a polemic. So I wrote the ending in which Pavla slips the bounds of the reality that belittles and bedevils her to become a story told by the two characters who have loved and revered her no matter what her form. In this way, she endures.
Stories matter. They accrue in ways that can and will make change. One day, looking back at this strange and surreal election, we will tell a story about something that happened long ago and far away and in a world that will indeed feel anachronistic and quaint because it will not be a world we recognize.