Bernardine Evaristo, Elaine Dundy, Patti Smith & Resilience
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
There’s a great passage in Manifesto: On Never Giving Up where Bernardine Evaristo declares “In spite of what my father endured, he never saw himself as a sufferer, a victim, but as a fighter who gave as good as he got.I’m the same, although my battle is fought with words.” This refusal to be a victim is a theme running through several books that I’m reading now.
The Dud Avocado,* a marvelous novel by Elaine Dundy that was published in 1958, features 21-year-old Sally Jay Gorce, an American in Paris who is determined to fulfill her childhood dream: “to stay out late and eat whatever I liked any time I wanted to. And I wanted to meet people I hadn’t been introduced to. And I wanted to guess right.” Her experiences take her from highs to lows, from acting roles in plays to nearly being raped, but resilience is her hallmark. She recognizes the challenges (“I reflected wearily that it is not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.”) and is, at times, brought low by them, but her spirit has what she might call bounce. “Now that I’d really really hit rock bottom I found myself full of bounce.”
It’s that bounce that I’m relishing right now. Patti Smith describes it in her memoir Just Kids. At 19, realizing she’s pregnant by a 17-year-old boy, she experiences a profound shift from being a person-life-happens-to to a person responding with integrity to life.
“I sat for a long time looking at my hands resting on my stomach. I had relieved the boy of responsibility. He was like a moth struggling within a cocoon and I couldn’t bring myself to disturb his unwieldy emergence into the world. I knew there was nothing he could do… I sat readying myself to face my parents, praying beneath my breath. For a brief moment I felt as if I might die; and just as quickly I knew everything would be all right. It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would not return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen.”
Patti Smith’s resilience seems to have a spiritual source (no surprise that with Neptune in Libra on the 10th house cusp, Smith had a vision of her artistic mission), while Sally Jay’s bounce seems to stem from her insatiable curiosity. “That’s my answer to the question what is your strongest emotion, if you ever want to ask me: Curiosity, old bean. Curiosity every time.”
In each of these books, the writers resist what Parul Sehgal calls “the Trauma Plot.” In her New Yorker article “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Sehgal writes that today’s representative character is “stalled, confusing to others, prone to sudden silences and jumpy responsiveness. Something gnaws at her, keeps her solitary and opaque, until there’s a sudden rip in her composure and her history comes spilling out, in confession or in flashback.”
Although writing is a cathartic means of addressing trauma and finding meaning, the trauma plot mires us in what Carolyn Myss calls “woundology,” the tendency we each may have to base our very identity on our wounds and illnesses. If ignoring our wounds leaves us unconsciously at their mercy, identifying too closely with them can lead to a life circumscribed by victimhood.
In Manifesto, Evaristo describes the unfairness of systemic racism and sexism and the dark turn some relationships can take, while refusing to be shackled to or defined by these realities. She writes,
“I was not a victim, although for many years afterward I saw myself as one. I now prefer to view myself as complicit in a relationship where I gave my agency away to the point where it was hard to reclaim. I was always free to leave.”
* It’s interesting to read The Dud Avocado while also reading Heather Clark’s biography of Sylvia Plath. Sally Jay would seem to be a few years younger than Sylvia, but both are born in the 30s and come of age in the 50s. Both have a voracious appetite for life. Sylvia, taking dance lessons, writes “I've just Got to Express all this life I have inside me somehow in rhythm and patterns, freedom in discipline.” Both women want to strike out against the confines of 1950s social conformity. As Sally Jay says, “I mean, here was I practically fresh out of the egg, everything so new to me, and here was everybody telling me to stop drifting, and start living in this world; telling me to start cooking, and sewing, and cleaning, and I don’t know what. Taking care of my grandchildren.” The pressure placed on women to limit themselves to the role of wife and mother is evident in Adlai Stevenson’s commencement address to Sylvia Plath and her Smith classmates. Stevenson told the graduating class of '55, “This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, has great advantages. In the first place, it is home work - you can do it in the living room with a baby on your lap, or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hands. If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television!” Both Sally Jay and Sylvia are trying to forge a life in this constricted, discriminatory environment. As Sylvia writes to her mother, “I am fighting, fighting, and I am making a self, in great pain, often, as for a birth. I am being refined in the fires of pain and love.”