“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? 
 The world would split open.” 


― Muriel Rukeyser

 

 

Twenty years ago, Anita Hill sat in front of a Senate hearing and told her truth at the intersection of race and gender.  She was publically pilloried by a panel of white men. This weekend, at Hunter College, Anita Hill was celebrated by a sold-out, star-studded conference, whose participants had a chance to thank her for enduring what she has so that women today could stand on her shoulders.

After a full conference day, the evening was filled with stories, in a hot ticket night of performances curated by Eve Ensler.  But throughout the day, there was a clear refrain that will resonate with all women writers.  What Anita did, and what we all must continue to do for each other, is to tell our stories.  Gloria Steinem quoted an Indian saying: “The loss of memory is a source of oppression.”  When we forget, or hide in silence and allow others to forget, we literally lose our ability to speak up for who we are.  “We are restoring, supplementing, and extending each others’ memories,” Steinem declared about the conference.  For me, a writer who has dedicated herself to unearthing other people’s stories, this was the most powerful reminder in an electrifying day.

At lunch, Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington state, hosted a conversation about storytelling.  “When one woman tells her truth,” Executive Director Amy Wheeler said, “sometimes everyone beside her takes a step back to get out of the way.”  When my memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, came out last year and I tried to tell the truth about my motherhood and open a discussion about different forms of happy families and the importance of love, I got my own small taste of the white male panel, which was only interested in shutting me down.  Everything I had to say was misrepresented, and at times it seemed like my only options were to accept an invitation from a hostile television show and shout over their slurs (which I decided not to do), or to retreat and be silent.

Hedgebrook was there for me, with their radical hospitality for women writers.  The Feminist Press, my publisher, also stood with me.  Someone recently asked me, “Was it worth it?  What did you gain?” and I have to say that it was worth it to me to get so many emails from women who shared their own stories.  From them, I was reminded that we all have similar struggles, though we make different decisions.  And if more of us begin to speak up, none of us will have to go it alone.

Twenty years after Anita Hill’s testimony, the immigrant service worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in New York had her case dismissed as her imperfect past was tried in the court of public opinion.  It seems that we have not come as far as we want.  But as Steinem also pointed out, her courage to tell her story inspired others to tell theirs, and charges of inappropriate sexual behavior and predation continue to haunt the man who now will not be President of France because one story unlocks the next, and the next.  Storytelling is a radical act – I know it, and you know it because you are a writer – but I did not expect to hear that truth reflected back to me so often by so many of the conference panelists, whether they were domestic worker organizers, academics, lawyers or performers.

We women writers need to tell the truth about our lives.  It’s not a hobby or an indulgent luxury that we sit down to our desks and write.  It is a service, a path-showing, a community we create for others. We also need to support each others’ truth by short circuiting the media and structures that would keep us silent and by sharing each other’s work.  As Amy Wheeler said, “It’s not about my voice.  It’s about my voice, and your voice, and your voice.  We are in it together.”

That’s when the world will truly split open. Keep writing!

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Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on November 10, 2011 at 7:32am

Hi Kim,  Your book sounds amazing.  Talk about "The loss of memory is the source of oppression"! You are right in the heart of it.  The stories I have been privileged to hear in my interviews have forever changed me. I am sure this is true for you too. My best for our work, and thank you, too, for reading!  All best, Reiko

Comment by Kim Miller on November 10, 2011 at 4:46am

Hi Rahna, Somehow I missed your comment until just now - thanks so much for posting the conference link, Ill see if I can watch the video.  Thanks for asking about my book - I could talk about it all day so Ill try to restrain myself :).  My book includes interviews with women and also documenting history through archival work and writing about visual culture.  Its about the ways in which women's political activism in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement is being represented and remembered (and, as you might guess, in many cases forgotten) in post-apartheid visual culture including commemorative sites.  As part of my research its been a great privilege to get to talk to and befriend some of the women Im writing about.  I have followed your story and your work, by the way, and your book is on the very top of my reading list!  Have a great day, Kim 

Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on October 21, 2011 at 6:05am
HI Kim, Thank you!  I think that the conference link that I provided has a cspan link to video.  Your book sounds so intriguing.  Are you interviewing women for their stories, or documenting history?  Is there a particular focus?  Good luck with it.  Today is a beautiful day to push forward (at least here in New York it is)!
Comment by Kim Miller on October 21, 2011 at 5:46am

I rarely post in the comment section but just cant resist this time.  Rahna, what you've written here is incredibly moving, insightful, and inspiring.  Im in the process of writing an academic book about unearthing women's stories - and about covering them up - and reading this has given me just the jolt that I need to push forward today.  Im also going to try to see if I can find the full text of Steinem's talk at the conference - what great quotes!

Thanks so much for writing this,

Kim 

Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on October 20, 2011 at 1:55pm
Hi Nelle.  It can be a fine line between hurting others and telling an important truth - that's why many of us turn to fiction.  But the loneliest places are the dark ones, and that is where your readers find themselves alone searching for stories to show them that they are not the only ones suffering, and how others have found their way forward.  Good luck!
Comment by Nelle Douville on October 20, 2011 at 1:29pm
Good post and points. It is important to tell our stories. Some may not value what we share, but... if one finds something of importance in our writing, then it matters.  I will never write out my life much as I've been encouraged to, since it has ugly elements with adverse impact on others, but I do share snippets through the fiction I write.
Comment by Nelle Douville on October 20, 2011 at 12:30pm
Well said. Sometimes our stories aren't pretty, but I agree telling them is important. I won't write the whole of mine out, but i do pull snippets out and use in fiction.
Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on October 20, 2011 at 10:08am
Thank you, Iris.  Good luck with your own writing.  And I encourage everyone to check out Hedgebrook, which has begun trying to bring events into communities.  It really is about being in this together.
Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on October 20, 2011 at 5:30am
@Suzi: I'm sorry to hear about your mother.  My mother also passed from Alzheimers' recently - it was November but it feels like yesterday.  She had it for 13 years. Not to plug a book, but I have written of it in my memoir - how do we remember ourselves when one of the most important people in our lives is not there to remind us of the little girl she knew us as? And how do we move into older age when the woman who is our guide is not there to help us?  Such essential questions.  Your writing will be so important for the rest of us to read and share.  Good luck with it.
Comment by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on October 20, 2011 at 4:47am
@Nandi - Oh, those periods of silence!  Sometimes, we are gathering, or resting.  And sometimes, you just need to put the pen to paper to know the muse is there waiting for you to hear it, isn't that true? The other day, someone asked me to write a blog and I literally thought, "I have nothing to say!"  Then I took a walk, and so many thoughts came to me on the street, just from the people around me and the lives I glimpsed.  Thanks for commenting and keep writing!

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