‘That was the best thing, ever. It is so good to be reminded why we go to these things’ said my companion amid the fiercely appreciative clapping at the end of Vivian Gornick’s hour talking with Jolisa Gracewood.
Feminist, memoirist, journalist, novelist, walker, and owner of wonderful cheekbones, Vivian Gornick (picture above by Mitchell Bach) was captivating, strong and reassuring – rather sweetly assisting Gracewood at one point when she became (charmingly) overwhelmed by the possibilities of their discussion (‘my brain is going in five different directions right now!’).
The hour revolved around Gornick’s latest memoir The Odd Woman and the City, described as ‘part paen and part elegy’. Fifty per cent of New York’s households are single occupancy, and the majority of those households are occupied by women, we learned. Oh to be a woman and to live alone, in a city like New York. Listening to Vivian Gornick is like listening to your best inner feminist self, winning the argument over the worst. Gornick says that the feminist revolution is the ‘longest revolution in history’ and ‘every fifty years we are called something different – ‘new’, ‘free’, ‘liberated’, backhanded descriptions…’
Gracewood asked who is ‘the odd’ woman – good question. For Gornick, her ‘odd woman’ was inspired by George Gissing’s 1890s book called The Odd Woman, in which, Gornick says, she saw herself in Gissing’s descriptions of the early feminist movement. You become the odd woman, she says, when you recognise that you can’t not long for equality.
The other primary characters in Gornick’s book are best friend Leonard and the city of New York. Leonard is the fictionalised version of a very real friend of Gornick’s – a gay man also searching for equality. In their friendship, said Gornick, she sees the paradigm for modern life. The question of writing your life came up several times across the session. In the case of Leonard, Gornick said she knew that the real Leonard was pretty OK with how he was represented because he asked her “can I audition for the role of Leonard?”Alongside this friendship is Gornick’s relationship with the city, which she describes as constantly presenting episodes of theatre (in big cities that is, and no, Auckland does not count – we’re more like California here), always reinventing itself but always remaining the same – ‘It’s the crowds, the blissful anonymity of the people at eye level that are the same. (I don’t look up or I’d wanna kill myself – the buildings look like they’re warring with each other)’.
One of the more moving parts of the hour was when Gornick described the way her relationship with New York shifted after 9/11. She described the loss of nostalgia ‘stunning beyond stunning’ – she was feeling as though she was walking through a devastated landscape. And the only way she found to understand her devastation was to read European novels by women who had experienced war (namely Natalia Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bowen). These stories soothed her because they were ‘looking past the history, beyond the bleakness to tell it like it really was, without sentimentality or nostalgia’. And that is clearly what Gornick prides herself on in her own writing – the ability to tell the hard truths.
Gracewood brought the discussion to Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s first memoir about her relationship with her mother and with the woman who lived next door. Both women were widowed but one became a professional mourner and the other ‘the whore of Babylon’ – and Gornick ‘was embroiled between them’. This in-between-ness seems to have defined Gornick for a large part of her life – the struggle to justify herself to herself. Her epiphany came, she said, in her 30s, when she realised that ‘the princess was always after the pea, not the prince’ and the feminist movement came upon her.
Gornick’s mind comes up with striking images – on her discovery of the power of applying her mind to writing she said ‘an image had taken shape in my mind and the sentences were trying to fill that space’ … ‘a rectangle opened up inside my body, clearing space, with myself in the middle wanting to clarify and be clarified’. With that discovery she found joy, safety, peace and understanding. ‘And then I got divorced’.
Question time was hampered by a lack of roving microphone but the best of the lot was: ‘Is Hilary Clinton a feminist?’ Her answer: ‘NO!’ ‘She’s a politician through and through’. Gornick said that Bernie Sanders is important as a provocateur and that Trump is truly dangerous – the hope is that Clinton will get it but only because she’s not Trump.
Gracewood finished the session off with a final question, about Gornick’s idea of the twin persona involved in the writing of a memoir. A vital concept in non-fiction is that you have to pull from yourself the person telling the story and that your narrator contains the tone, the structure. You have to be both sides of the question in non-fiction – you have to find your own part in the conflict so that you have a narrative.
Gornick’s double selves have served her well. And the self on stage today was truly inspiring. What a woman.
Reviewed by Claire Mabey
Vivian Gornick will also appear in the free event Tell It Slant, Saturday 14 May 2016, alongside Steven Toussaint, Stephen Braunias, Chris Price and Joan Fleming
The Odd Woman and the City, published by Nero, ISBN 9781863958141
Fierce Attachments, published by Daunt Books, ISBN 9781907970658