Thursday, January 29, 2009

En mi pais…

Today was the Family Feast at kindergarten. It was the culmination of a month of studying “What Makes a House a Home.” All the mommies and daddies who could take time from work, brought in a dish representing their heritage and we had a huge buffet lunch. A feast of filled dough from around the world: empanadas, tamales, samosas, Indonesian pastel! There was also spiced rice from Puerto Rico, India, and the Dominican Republic. The potato pancakes, German-style, were fantastic. I made kringle, a very simple Danish figure-8-shaped cookie, not too sweet, with a pinch of nutmeg.

After lunch, the children treated us to a song, “Que Bonita Bandera” (What a pretty flag). Each child got up and said a sentence in Spanish about her country. After, eveyrone sang, "Que bonita bandera (x2) / es la bandera _____ [Colombiana/Dominicana/de Gales/de India]" It was so sweet to hear what they chose as the special thing about their nation. Of all the many nations we are from, my daughter picked Wales because it has the most bonita bandera, with that great dragon on it. She asked me about Wales: what makes it famous. I was cooking dinner and gave it a quick try: um, the Prince of Wales, coal mines, and dragons.

Well, the dragons aren’t real, she noted. They probably just used to have really fierce dinosaurs there. And coal mines? No romance there. Tell me about the Prince of Wales, Mama.

So, there she was, kicking off the song, with her little sentence about how in her country (!) lives the Prince of Wales who is the son of Queen Elizabeth.

She was far from the only child to pick royalty and parties: Trinidad has Carnevale and India has lots of palaces. Food figured large among the 5- and 6-year olds too, with Guatemala growing lots of rice, and a couple other children mentioning crops and dishes (between their mumbles and my very rudimentary Spanish, I missed a lot).

All the children joined together at the end to announce that in their country, the United States, there are fifty states and everyone is happy.

One wants to say “isn’t it pretty to think so?” But I wonder. It was such a touching day, with parents awkwardly circling around each other and one child, it seems, in tears, at all times. We are all so different; we all anxiously watch over our beloved little ones. All these years of theorizing and thinking and talking about racism and culture and multiculturalism and here it is, in action. It’s very sweet, but is this the best way to do it? I am not skeptical—it seems like a winner event to me—but I do wonder.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


When I was younger and less ambitious—or just as ambitious but more na├»ve—I thought of projects like Edna O’Brien’s “Virginia” as derivative donkey work.

Now I see the incredible care and art that goes into creating a script—and, for director Joannie Mackenzie, cutting it—that blends together biography, fiction, essays, diaries, and letters.

Although I’ve known of the show “Virginia,” I’d never seen it before Sunday. It was a really satisfying show. I know Woolf well enough that nothing surprised, but O’Brien and the actors’ spin on familiar material was a real delight. I particularly loved the way Woolf’s haunting story “Lappin and Lapinova,” becomes a metaphor for the Woolfs’ marriage. The story is about a sweet young bride who imagines her husband as a rabbit king. He indulges her, and the nightly fairy tale becomes a path to intimacy. Then, he tires of the story and asks her to stop it. The story has one of the best final lines I know:

So that was the end of that marriage.

Hearing that story alluded to at Sunday’s staged reading in the basement of the Drama Book Shop was deeply moving.

Kris Lundberg, founder of the new Woolfian Shakespeare’s Sister Company, played Woolf. She managed to show the full complexity of Woolf’s character: the grief, the joy, the complex sexuality, mental illness, humor, coyness, sharpness, and wisdom.

Shelley Ray and David McCamish had smaller roles, but other kinds of challenges: without costume changes, each had to portray several characters (Leslie Stephen & Leonard Woolf; Julia Stephen, Vanessa Bell, and Vita Sackville-West). There was a moment at the beginning of the show where Virginia describes her mother as “beautiful, gracious, and afraid” or a similar trio and the slight twitch in her face on the beat of “afraid” was just perfect.

I do fear a little that the show tends to being not adventurous enough, too pious, too honorific.

But it’s deeply moving and very fair. It did avoid all the many, many painful ways that depictions of Woolf seem to go astray and it really moved my students. In all, those are very, very good things.

7 Questions

Carolyn Kellogg of the LATimes blog, Jacket Copy, and formerly of the still-lamented Litblog Co-o, interviewed me on Virginia Woolf. Here's a taste:
Jacket Copy: I've never read any Virginia Woolf. Where should I start?

Anne Fernald: There are a lot of ways to start Woolf. If you are interested in experimental fiction, then "The Waves," her most experimental (and perhaps her most difficult) text, can be a good starting place. It follows six friends from childhood through middle age, all in interior monologues -- you flow, like waves, in and out of the thoughts of Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Louis (based on T.S. Eliot, from St. *Louis*! ha), and Bernard.

But, if you prefer your novels more autobiographical, then "To the Lighthouse" is a lovely entry point. Woolf's most autobiographical novel, it depicts a large Victorian family on summer vacation and then charts the impact of WWI and other life events over the years. It's got Woolf's best artist-figure in it: Lily Briscoe, a frustrated painter.

For sheer perfection of prose, I love "A Room of One's Own," her 1929 feminist masterpiece. It's a great manifesto for all writers: the need for both privacy and the ability to roam about unmolested in the world. But I love it for its gorgeous sentences, its glorious metaphors, the amazing way that its pieces all fit together into a symphony.

Overall, for me, her masterpiece is "Mrs. Dalloway." There is a lot not to like about the main character, a hostess throwing a party (snore), but Woolf knows that and teaches you to care about her in spite of Clarissa's flaws. It's an amazing book and one of the best treatments of shellshock I know. A great version of the novel set in a single day, too.

You can find the whole interview here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My Off-Broadway Debut

I am still glowing from yesterday’s wonderful, festive tribute to Virginia Woolf on the occasion of the 127th Anniversary of her birth. Kris Lundberg, the actress and founder of the new Shakespeare’s Sister nonprofit theater company, organized the day, a staged reading of Edna O’Brien’s play, “Virginia.” She wrote to me about the Woolf conference and asked, oh, by the way, did I know a professor who could offer a brief pre-performance talk.

I volunteered with alacrity, half-expecting a “gee, thanks, but we were hoping for a famous and important Woolf scholar.”

But then, what to say? As I said out loud yesterday, I found myself imagining a really dull and dutiful talk. Then, I imagined something better and got really stressed until I remembered that I had just written an essay on Woolf and the common reader. I read that.

The essay was so long in the coming that I’m shocked. Years ago, when my book was about to come out, Joel Whitney invited me to write an essay on Woolf as an essayist, on my book and what inspired me, for Guernica. I accepted right away and then found myself utterly unable to write anything worthy.

And this wasn’t for lack of effort. I wasted my writing group’s time on a couple different failed attempts.

But then, last year, the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain announced a contest in honor of my late acquaintance and mentor, the beloved and dearly missed Julia Briggs: the best essay on the theme of Virginia Woolf and the Common Reader would win a generous sum of 250 pounds! That’s a motivator.

The piece I wrote turned out to be almost entirely about my grandmother. Not nearly as intellectual as I had thought, not formally innovative, not chock full of dazzling insights, not any of the things that might impress a reader at first blush. But, the more I looked at it, the more I thought it was ok as it was.

Actually, it felt great to read it aloud.

I should, by rights, talk less about myself, and tell you something substantive about how wonderful Shelley Ray & David McCamish & Kris Lundberg were in “Virginia.” I’ll have to save that for tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A new era

If I had more energy and were so inclined, I would fashion this into a proper editorial. But, while inspiration is here, let me just quickly note that the withdrawal of Caroline Kennedy from consideration for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is but one more sign that a political era has ended, that a newer and better politics has, for the moment, come to claim the stage.

Don't get me wrong. I admire Caroline Kennedy. I feel for her many losses. I think she is beautiful, smart, classy. She has handled her life in the public eye with grace and with a deep commitment to service. She is also a scion of America's greatest political family.

We bid goodbye yesterday to a horrible president whose main claim to power was that he was a president's son.

The election to replace him saw the failed bid of a supremely qualified woman who came to our attention primarily as a First Lady.

Now, a woman who wanted the former First Lady's seat has withdrawn. Her main claim to fame is as the daughter of a president.

This is a democracy.

It feels divine to put nepotism to rest.

Divine but also problematic for women: it's been hard in this patriarchal nation for women to find paths to power without the authorization of men. Being a daughter or a wife marks a woman as acceptable; it marks her ambition as an understandable family trait: the tomboy daughter, the wife who learned from the sidelines. Unmarried woman like Condi Rice or Janet Napolitano, are suspect. Married women, well, let's talk about married and partnered women.

See, there is this whole problem of child-bearing, child-rearing, childcare, that comes right at a really strong moment in women's lives. Just when your career seems to be taking hold--BOOM!--you're spending five or six pretty intense years wiping bottoms and wiping tears. Or, maybe you have your kids on the early side and, when jobs beckon you back, there is nothing on your resume to catch anyone's eye, so you end up with a dull job, a job with no leadership potential.

I have no doubt that both Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy were able to fulfill the posts that they sought and, for different reasons did not get. I do not doubt, either, that Obama will be a better President, that Clinton was a better Senator than C. Kennedy.

It just feels more democratic, better, more redemptive, and more politically right to have elected someone who fought for the post out of intelligence, canniness, and good policy.

It's too bad that we're still a long way from having a path for women that permits a Barack Obama to emerge.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cost by Roxana Robinson

Back in August, Lauren sent me Roxana Robinson’s Cost with a note saying that she couldn’t resist sending me a book about a professor.

That interested me. Cost had been getting a lot of press for being (or not sufficiently being) a book about addiction. Addiction isn’t a big theme of interest for me. But I am enough of a narcissist to enjoy the occasional novel about a professor. And, having returned from our annual sojourn on the St. Lawrence River (remote and cheaper than Maine), I was intrigued by the story of a college professor spending her sabbatical at a tumbledown Maine house that she can ill afford. It seemed a nice way to extend the summer, to ease the ache of leaving the River behind.

I absolutely gobbled this book. I cannot explain why it’s taken four months for me to blog about it. Clearly, I’m not cut out for a career in publicity or reviewing. I’m poky. Still I remember getting up at 5:00 one morning and hiding in the bathroom, racing through the book’s tense final half before the children began stirring. Cost starts out dreamy, sleepy and very WASPy. But it builds to a real plot-driven climax with some suspense. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but this is a novel that earns its exciting ending.

Levi has written about the novel’s parallels with King Lear: the protagonist has two sons, a kindly one who suffers because the (possible) bastard son sucks all the attention and energy from the family.

I heard the parallels to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The protagonist, Julia Lambert (itself a Woolfian name—Woolf’s mother was a Julia), a divorced mother of two sons, is a painter, up for tenure after years of adjuncting in order to raise her children. Like Lily Briscoe, she works and works at paintings that no one seems to believe in, hoping to have “her vision.” The notion of a summer house, too, is at the heart of both books: a place to retreat from the world’s cares. And, in both books, the world—in the form of violence, illness, danger, mortality, and death itself—intrudes, reminding the privileged ordinary characters that there is no safe place.

It’s a really smart book, with moments of great humor. I loved all the ways the title itself gained resonance: the house was a major part of the divorce settlement, its cost an issue between the estranged couple. There’s a cost, too, to putting your career on hold for children. And the cost of the adulteries that brought the marriage down is high. Then, as the second son, maybe conceived during an affair, descends into heroin addiction, the costs mount and mount. How much for heroin? How much for treatment? How much had we saved for the other son to go to law school? What will it cost to explain that cruel choice to the kind son who had been promised help?

The literary foundations that undergird the story, the Woolf, the Shakespeare, are not showing off but genuinely enriching intertexts. The writing is lovely, neither pretentious nor very experimental.

Anyway, Cost has been sitting staring at me all fall from its corner of the apartment, asking “When are you going to tell people about me?” Consider yourself told.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration Celebration

I must admit, the Rick Warren debacle took the wind out of my sails. I tried to view it pragmatically, but the anger and pain in the voice of a good friend washed all those excuses away. Her sense of having been betrayed--just as she (a Hillary supporter) always knew she would be--, that same sense of defeat and betrayal among many of my friends, added to my own disappointment, were too hard to overcome for much of Christmas.

That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.

The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be our
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.

I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.

As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.

I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”

I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.

What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Woolf's Birthday Celebration in New York

Last week, I got an email from Kris Lundberg, the founder of a new nonprofit women's theater, Shakespeare's Sister. She wanted to know if a talk by her would be the kind of thing that would interest people at the Woolf conference (of course) and, by the way, did I know anyone who could give a 20-minute talk to open her celebration of Woolf's life? (but of course!) So, here it is, a staged reading of "Virginia" with a short talk by me to start it off! Please come & please do open your wallets w/the small $10 donation to help this exciting new company!

Here's the press release:
in association with the
a staged reading of
Edna O'Brien's award-winning stageplay
in honor of Mrs. Woolf's 127th birthday
Sunday, January 25th at 12:30pm

Arthur Seelen Theater
Edna O'Brien's spectacular play encompasses Virginia Woolf's mercurial inner life, as well as the relationships of her three great loves: her husband, Leonard; her lover, Vita and her greatest writings. Ms. O'Brien touches the heart and captures the essence of Virginia's character and brilliant mind.

Running time is ninety minutes plus a post-performance Q&A with author, Anne Fernald; director, Joannie Mackenzie and SSC Artistic Director, Kris Lundberg. Directed by Joannie Mackenzie. Starring Kris Lundberg* as Virginia, David McCamish* as Leonard and Shelley Ray* as Vita *All performers appear courtesy of the Actors' Equity Association.

The Arthur Seelen Theater is located on the Ground Floor of the Drama Book Shop at 250 west 40th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue.

Event is free to the public with a suggested $10 donation
in support of the Shakespeare's Sister Company.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tweet, tweet

Well, I have signed up for a Twitter account and it's a delicious time suck. You can sign up to "follow" me. It's not that interesting, I promise.

Still, you can go there and find all kinds of wonderful news and terrible things and links, like this one to a hilarious video parodying the process of getting a book published, from typewriter to bookstore. (Via Sarah Weinman) Oh, it's worth every second of its 3:37.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New Year, Same Site

Every time the thought of resolutions for 2009 passes through my mind, I can hear the sweet strains of Death Cab for Cutie, “So this is the new year. / I don’t feel any different.”

I don’t, and no wonder. I was all set to write a December post apologizing for light posting when I saw, thanks to the slightly new format here, that I wrote three more posts in 2008 than in 2007. 2006, the year I had a maternity leave, saw a handful more. In short, my reading and blogging life seems to fall in to a pretty distinct pattern, one that is a surprise only to me.

As for resolutions, I seem to have dropped into 2009 at a rocket's pace. Reflection time has been curtailed. On New Year’s Eve, we were visiting my mother-in-law in Utica, skiing Mt. McCauley in the Adirondacks. I fell asleep by 8:30 and we spent the first day of the New Year driving back down to the city. The next day, I thought I’d catch up here, but the toddler woke up with a raging ear infection. The following day was Saturday, thanks to penicillin, the ear infection had abated enough for us to go to the park where she was scratched by a squirrel! (She couldn’t resist feeding it some of the fish crackers that another toddler had dropped on the ground. I said NO! but she is 2: "No" means, "Try it for yourself.") It turns out, one ER visit later, that squirrels don't carry rabies. Good to know.

All of this to say that I’ve been reading Scott’s series on reading resolutions and Sarah’s amazing accounts of daily books with interest, but the most I seem able to do is an occasional update to my twitter feed.

But, now the semester begins and it’s that lovely new moment in which I feel like this is the semester when the work won’t get away from me….so, Alison Light, Tanguy Viel, Eloisa James, Jean Rhys: it’s hard to know where I’ll go next, but there’s a lot awaiting the telling.

Monday, January 05, 2009

ISO: Writers Who Read Woolf

At the 19th Annual International Virginia Woolf Conference (June 4-7, 2009, Fordham University, Lincoln Center), I want to feature some creative writers who will talk about Woolf's influence, for good and ill, on their work. I especially want those writers to not be all nice white women. If you or someone you know has an interest in participating, please be in touch with me and my graduate assistant at our conference address,

We are already planning a plenary panel, hosted by Katherine Lanpher, host of Barnes & Noble’s “Upstairs at the Square” featuring three artists and activists influenced by Woolf.

The conference will have about 225 attendees, Woolf scholars and English professors, mostly, but also students and common readers. We will have about 30 90-minute concurrent sessions (about 5 per session; about 6 sessions over the 4 days). Most of these will be reserved for academic papers, but everyone really enjoys the option to attend a reading and discussion in lieu of another panel on theory and Woolf.

Several creative writers have already submitted proposals to read but I am actively seeking more. I am especially interested in hearing proposals from men, from writers of color, and from anyone who reads Woolf but does not simply worship at her shrine.

So, if you’re a creative writer and would like to give a brief (15-20 minute) reading on a panel with other writers, please do consider submitting a proposal. You can find the Call for papers here. You can read anything you like, but your proposal should articulate how your work connects to Woolf and you should be prepared to discuss that in the Q & A.

The conference will have a book exhibit, staffed by Bluestockings Bookstore. We will be happy to have them stock your book.

19th Annual Woolf Conference: Call for Papers

I am organizing it. It's going to be great. Proposals are due February 1, 2009!
June 4-7, 2009
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
To escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners…, sheltered and enclosed…. And here—let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence—is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.
--Woolf, “Street Haunting” (1927)

Liberty seems clothed in radiant silver. The air here is about a thousand times clearer than the air in England. There is not a shred of mist or a wisp of fog: everything shines bright. The City of New York, over which I am now hovering, looks as if it had been scraped and scrubbed only the night before. It has no houses. It is made of immensely high towers, each pierced with a million holes.
--Woolf, “America, Which I Have Never Seen” (1938)

For the 19th Annual Woolf Conference, we return to the site of the first: New York City. With this return, we embark on new critical and theoretical ground. Our theme, Woolf and the City, encompasses the familiar and the new, the material and the imaginative.

Topics might include (but are not limited to):
• Woolf and urban theory
• mapping Woolf’s London
• public and private spaces in Woolf
• women in the modern city
• object theory, material culture, trash
• cities and empire
• cosmopolitanism in Woolf
• lesbians and the city, urban sexualities
• imaginary geographies, unreal cities
• teaching Woolf and the city
• films in and of the city
• print culture and the masses
• public memory, monuments, and memorials
• historical London, London past
• New York, Paris, Constantinople
• Wartime London
• Bloomsbury, neighborhoods, and suburbs
• streetwalking, street haunting, and flanerie
Proposals for individual papers and/or panels due by February 1, 2009. We also welcome alternative proposals such as workshops or readings. Independent scholars, high school teachers, and “common readers” are encouraged to submit proposals. Please send 250 word abstracts as Word attachments with a separate sheet indicating name(s), institutional affiliation(s) and email address(es).

Conference Organizer: Email me at the conference address Anne Fernald (

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year!

So many things I meant to blog about in 2008 fell by the wayside.

Last week, Erika tagged me and I haven’t had a moment to even fill in the blanks.

But today, I vowed, would be different: we are back from a lovely visit upstate where grandma lavished gifts on the children and we went cross-country skiing three days in a row. Now, the children were going to daycare and I could collect my thoughts….until...the dear toddler woke up with the ominous moaning and ear-tugging of one with an ear infection.

“How do you know she has an ear infection?” asked the pediatrician, reasonably enough. I am not a doctor. I don’t own an otoscope. I described the moaning, the ear-tugging, the begging for lotion for my ear. (She has great faith in the power of lotion.)

Moments later, she looked in. “The left one is pretty bad. And this one, too. Yes. I’ll give you two prescriptions.”

I won’t bore you with the vagaries of our broken health care system. I hope Barack is on the case and soon, but suffice it to say that 2009 has begun as 2008 carried on: happy, busy, and already full of the little nuisances and distractions that keep a woman from her desk, even to update a little blog.