To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of my novel Suicide Blonde, I wanted to have a conversation with a younger female writer whose work deals with similar themes as my novel. While, contextually different, Ruwa Alhayek’s memoir in progress A Life of My Own centers on her religious upbringing, questions of sexual desire, and the complicated relationships between a mother and a daughter. Ruwa was my student as an undergraduate at Princeton and again in the graduate writing program at The New School where she took my seminar on influence. During her final semester we worked together on her thesis. The thesis details the challenges and joys of growing up Muslim in New Jersey. Reading her prose, I felt a kinship with her experience, how in high school her girlfriends use the moniker GT for “got a good thing going” when one of their crushes opens a door for them or takes their side in a classroom discussion. Ruwa’s Muslim world is different than my own but also similar, after a failed marriage she feels ambivalent about both the application of the Islamic rules surrounding matrimony and marriage itself. “The spirit behind the laws governing marriage are meant to inspire mawadda and rahma—love and mercy. I understand it, the wisdom, but I still feel doomed to a cycle of failed marriages—still feel unfit for marriage and insecure. I find no convincing reason to commit to one.” Our conversation, which I hope will continue for many years to come, took place over e-mail. Me in my Sullivan county shack and Ruwa in Jordan, visiting her family. —Darcey Steinke
I met Darcey in 2012, when I was a sophomore at Princeton taking her creative writing course. The first thing I remember noticing about Darcey was the cameo on her ring finger. I was already obsessed with silhouettes and women (the ring obsession hadn’t quite kicked in yet) so I was intrigued. Every class, Darcey asked us for our news of the week—Darcey made watching a movie over the weekend a cultural event that played into her writing. I mention this because her class was where I learned how to universalize experiences and recognize the significance of the seemingly most insignificant words and encounters. Darcey was also my professor at The New School, and my advisor for my MFA thesis—she pushed me outside of my comfort zone and asked me tough questions: “What about your spiritual life? Why are you doing this? I’m sure your mother is a great feminist, I like her, but she can’t be perfect. God wants you to be happy—why don’t you just date?” Sometimes, I just laughed because I didn’t have answers, but her questions shook me up and made my memoir darker and more ambiguous than I expected; it also made the prose less self-conscious. Reading Suicide Blonde, I realized, though it was published twenty-five years ago and our lives are very different, Jesse’ preoccupations were my own. Jesse is so often in her head, and I am right there with her—all of her worst fears, her thoughts about loneliness, about other people, about losing power and herself in her relationships, about not being special or different, about her mother and other women. —Ruwa Alhaye
Ruwa Alhayek (RAIL): I want to start with something I found interesting in Maggie Nelson’s forward. She said that one of the things she appreciates about the writing in Suicide Blonde is that it “doesn’t waste time exhibiting its feminist credentials,” and that the shock value that was attributed to it when it first came out is more symptomatic of the “prudishness and insularity” of many readers of the time and not so much that you, as a writer, were really out to shock. I’m wondering how much of your comfort and openness in expression is because this book is marketed as fiction and not “your life,” and how much of it is just your general comfort as a white, woman writer.
Steinke: The only feminist credentials I have are that I was born and have lived as a woman. I came of age in the Virginia suburbs in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when “Female Raunch Culture,” as New Yorker writer Ariel Levy calls it, was the norm. Wet t-shirt contests were weekly events at the bars along the highway. Sex seemed to be everywhere: playboy bunnies, pro-football cheerleaders... I actually wore a t-shirt at fourteen from a local Pizza Place that read: “Had A Piece Lately?” Many of my friends’ mothers were completely invested in their daughters having sex, and at a very young age. It was well known that the swim team coach was regularly on the make with the young female members of his team. Though it was common knowledge, no one did anything about this. I can’t say I was completely comfortable or complicit with all this, but it interested me. As it seemed the way my suburban world worked.
San Francisco, where I moved to take a Stegner Fellowship, just seemed like the natural extension of my suburban sexed-up world. The tenderloin, the sex workers. It did not seem shocking to me really at all, but a natural extension of what I had learned in southern ‘70s suburbia. What did thrill me about San Francisco was the gender fluidity. While the southern Suburbs had been very Male and Female binary, almost to a punishing degree, any attempt to get out of the cage of femininity was met with punishment; the world of that California City was beautiful in its gender complexity. I really loved that. And I wanted to write a book in which some of what I felt then was manifested.
I think it’s interesting you ask me about being a white woman writing about sex and danger, as I am sure I am always in an unfairly privileged position. I was accused by Gary Indiana, when the book came out, of making up an unsafe place, working up fake danger. At the time I felt hurt by this and that he might be right. But as time has gone on I see that the world I came into, the southern suburban world had a very dark underbelly, and that was the tone I was trying to evoke in Suicide Blonde.
Rail: I definitely feel that sense of danger in the book—it reminded me of how I felt reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) ten or so years ago. That was the first book I remember reading that philosophically disturbed me because my literary horizons only extended as far as YA fantasy and science fiction and Jane Austen. Wilde’s book had discussions of hedonism and sexuality that I had never read about as a middle school Muslim girl, and I found it really frightening not just because it was new territory, but because the pursuit of pleasure to that extent struck me as dangerous and evil and selfish and so displeasing to God. Even though I had grown up hearing that the Islamic tradition was so much more open about the pursuit of pleasure (within “moderation”) and realistic about sex and sexuality, it still, at my core, struck me as evil to be that forthright about sex.
In the beginning of Suicide Blonde, when we as readers are first getting introduced to Jesse and Bell and his “philosophy of life’s emptiness and the cult of pleasure,” I wondered if the sense of danger was exacerbated by that pursuit and that “sex was everywhere,” as you say. How does openness about sexuality and the spectrum of both sexuality and gender play into that feeling of shock and danger?
Steinke: I feel a little worried talking about evil, particularly in books. Partly because I have been truly inspired by some pretty out there texts, like Justine (1791) by de Sade, Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978) by Kathy Acker, and Without Falling (1987) by Leslie Dick. Those books gave me permission for both feelings I have had and the sort of writing I wanted to do. I feel prose needs to roam all over the place, even into very dark, erotic places. Is it evil to be forthright about sex? I guess it depends. I think true physical intimacy is crazy powerful and beautiful. Though I think any sex that has a power imbalance is maybe not evil but always sad and sometimes wrong. And this question about seeking pleasure is one, in terms of God, I have thought about a lot being a minister’s daughter. I mean, if you were God and you had made all these amazing pleasurable things and then people denied themselves these things, not only denied them but also sort of made them into shameful things, wouldn’t you, as God, be sort of angry? I sometimes wonder if we have misunderstood the divine completely.
In the memoir you are working on, I know it was hard for you to write about sex. Do you think this comes from your Islamic background? Or a more personal sense of modesty? I mean wouldn’t God, if we believe in him/ her, who created sex, be ok with us writing about sex frankly? My feeling has always been that the portrayal of the real, the emotionally true, the raw, the not-fake, is what God (higher power) would want. I think gender, at least when we talk about a strict male/female binary, is fake. That might be scary but it’s becoming more and more clear that gender is a construct. Maybe that M/F binary is erotic to some people but there are people now less interested in that strict binary. I think when I wrote Suicide Blonde that idea both thrilled and scared me. Now, particularly as I move through menopause, I think of gender fluidity as freedom.
Rail: I definitely agree with what you’re saying about God being angry with people who, in God’s name, make pleasurable things evil or shameful. When I said evil I meant more how I’d thought of hedonism and sexual fluidity as evil when I was child, since the binary of good and evil was simpler to me then. What scared me was that the books that “disturbed” me—and by disturb I mean really shook up my inner world, challenged that binary of good and evil fundamentally. I think what makes me hesitant to write about sex in the memoir I’m working on is less the sex per se, because I’ve seen a lot of Islamic and Arabic literature, like books of Islamic law or poetry or novels be very forthright about sex. But that’s all academic or abstract, in a sense. The qualms I have about talking about sex are more rooted in the sense of respect for another person’s privacy and the power of describing specific bodies in a sexual way. Those are both rooted in what I still consider Islamic ideals. I mean, describing sex I had with an ex-husband or a future husband strikes me as a violation of the other person’s privacy.
Also, I wear a hijab so I definitely think twice about writing anything that is particularly descriptive about any part of my body that I don’t show in certain public settings, but even for men or women who don’t wear hijab, I don’t know how I feel (morally/Islamically) about describing or talking about sex or bodies in a way that can—to put it simply, turn people on. “Is that Islamically appropriate, to test people’s hearts that way?” that’s the question I always ask myself. In the Islamic tradition, any sex outside of marriage is considered a sin. So when I say “test people’s hearts,” I really mean “make life harder for people who are not happily married by showing them how great sex and physical intimacy can be?” I do not think sex in itself is shameful—certainly not the desire for it, since one of the greatest gifts God promises the people of heaven in the Islamic tradition is sex and companionship—and a lot of other pleasures that are purely physical. But as a Muslim, I have come to think of the pursuit of pleasures outside of a set of guidelines as sinful. I know that different Christians have different ideas about the pursuit of pleasure (sex or otherwise) both within and without sets of guidelines, but what grounds you personally?
Jesse is young in Suicide Blonde, but you were also very young when you wrote it, so do you think there are times for exploration and experimenta- tion, and that there is a sliding set of guidelines that come to form as you grow as a person in a complex relationship with religion and parents and different cities or settings?
Steinke: I guess my first question back to you is, what’s wrong with turning someone on? You can’t really police the erotic in someone’s mind and why would you want to? I just re-read Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In it she speaks about the difference between pornography and an erotic power that infuses not just sex but all of life. I also think that most sex, when responsibly handled in a work of literature, is more often sad or messed up than it is sexy. People take their humanity to bed with them, it’s not like they check their souls at the bedroom door. I am very interested in what you say about wearing a hijab and the idea of representing the body. That is very fascinating to me. In good writing what is unsaid or unseen is almost always as important as what is said. I have a very close friend who is a nun, who wears a habit and I feel your ideas on the connection of clothing and spiritual life are similar to hers. My one worry for both my nun friend and for you, is that I hope wearing the veil or the hijab comes from an authentic female spiritual place and not a top down patriarchal one. I like to think it’s more like wearing black when you are grieving, a sign to the outer world of the tone of an emotional and
spiritual place inside of you. I think everything should be allowed in writing. I came up with the Ecriture Feminine, the work of Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and now Elena Ferrante, the idea that we must write from the female body, the truth of our emotional and physical experience. I felt that way at twenty-five and I feel that way at fifty-five. I have to say the parts of your memoir that were really honest about sexual feelings really helped me; they resonated with my own life and they helped me understand you as person and as a Muslim.
As far as how people should act sexually in life: I don’t know. Who am I to say? For my daughter let’s say, I do want her to feel free now in her early life. To be open. For myself, once committed I do believe in the one-to-one soul connection. But I am old enough now to have seen many people work it out in a wide variety of ways that were nontraditional but also safe and joyous.
Rail: I remember last year there was a celebration at The New School for Toni Morrison where different actors, singers, musicians, and artists were performing readings or songs inspired by her work. I noticed that a lot of the performances were actually of sex scenes and I was so amazed because while they were so physical and descriptive and clear they were also so spiritual and beautiful—they weren’t pornographic or disturbing in the least. That, for me, as a writer and a woman, was so inspiring.
I want to turn your question around about the hijab: is any woman’s choice to uncover or dress in what is traditionally considered less modest ways also a reflection of her “own” decision or top down patriarchal/capitalist control of industries like the fashion and media industries? I think in any context we have an enormous number of factors playing into how women choose to dress/undress themselves and it would be a mistake for us to assume one is more or less, by default, worrying or giving in to the patriarchy.
It’s a good question “what’s wrong with turning someone on?” On the one hand, I feel a sense of responsibility not to make sex “public,” so that sex isn’t “everywhere.” It is the age old question I think of causality—do more books about sex or drugs or suicide make those things more public and prevalent, or do they just expose the reality of the society we live in? But I do believe that making sex outside of marriage or drugs or violence (not that they are equal) common in writing has some effect (I don’t know how large) on making people more open to it, and as a Muslim, if I consider these things sinful, then am I contributing to the spread of these things in the culture I live in?
Steinke: I like this provocation. Yes, it’s true. If I wear something designed by Calvin Klein or Yves Saint Laurent or (more likely) a designer influenced by them... How is this different than other (religious) designs made by men for women? I think you are right really. And the idea of how much or how little of the body to show, does that come from a female point of view or a male point of view... whether we are talking about modesty or showing skin. So touché. You are right!
And I know sex is everywhere. And mostly it sucks. I support rights for sex workers, but I myself do not think of porn as freeing or cool. It just seems sad to me. It’s in the patriarchy’s advantage to normalize sex work and porn. I am against this. I want more for women. Still, I think that writing honestly about sex, as I tried to do in Suicide Blonde, is not part of the sexed up culture. I actually think it’s a part of the resistance. I think you and your work are part of the resistance too.
Rail: It’s so great you mentioned your daughter, because I was so interested in the passage in Suicide Blonde where Madam Pig asks Jesse “who told you that you have to do what you don’t want? [...] Your mother?” I don’t have a daughter, but I’ve been obsessed with the idea of having one for a few years now, and I am obsessed with writing about my own mother and her family. The motif of a complicated mother-daughter relationship is so common in literature written by women. It is empowering in the way that writing about female companionship is, in that it creates a semi-separate world where women are exerting such tremendous influence on each other and supporting each other against a greater (usually patriarchal) force or pulling each other down further. Why do you think we write so intensely about these semi-separate worlds and our relationships with our mothers and other women?
Steinke: In my generation, most women were cut off from their mothers. In part because our mothers had lead lives that were limited because of what was possible for women at the time they came of age, and what was possible for my generation was more. And we resented our mothers for accepting limitations. I see this as wrong now, of course. I just read my mother’s journals—she has been dead for five years—and in one way they are the sad writings of a divorced women who blamed her problems on everyone else, but in another important way they are like The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a woman beaten down by patriarchy.
I wrote Suicide Blonde when I was in my late ‘20s and my mother was a complicated and negative presence in my life then. She pushed me to marry a rich man, but she also wanted me to be a lawyer. The messages I got from her were confused, wounded, chaotic. She felt her life had gone wrong but she did not really know why.
With my own daughter, I have worked hard to make things more straight forward. I want to support what she wants, not force my agenda and longings on to her. She understands marriage is not a way to make a living, that she will have to figure out how to make her own way in the world. Of course, I am in a much more privileged position than my own mother was. There was a desperation in my mother’s hope for me, which I tried to capture in Suicide Blonde. I think she meant it as helpful but her vision of the world, as one in which women need men to survive economically, terrified me as it still does. I was raised to be half a person, a human that would complete a man. I raised Abbie to be a whole person right out of the gate.
Rail: Part and parcel of Jesse’s relationship with her mother and other women in the book, and in your memoir, and your Granta piece on your mother, is the theme of beauty and aging and how that plays out in each of these women’s lives. As women, writers, as mothers, sisters, friends, and mentors, how do we get over this? And, what can you tell us, especially since you’re working on a book about menopause now, about your own opinions regarding both age and beauty, as a woman and a writer and how they’ve changed since you first wrote Suicide Blonde?
Steinke: First off, we need to be sort of bad-ass about it, in that we don’t really care what you think about us as women, we just are who we are: we are twenty-one, thirty-five, fifty-four, or sixty-three. Women should never have to apologize for their age. Without male or cultural approval, it’s not that hard to be a woman. But the hard part is how to fit into the patriarchal grid and that still leaves me confused, frankly. I mean, I am fifty-five, but I want to be desired, of course. But I am not willing to play or act a younger version of myself. I just won’t do it. It is all so surreal. I sometimes feel that women moving into menopause are sort of at a more advanced sexual state, we are beyond where our male counterpoints are, we are waiting for them to catch up with us. Since I wrote Suicide Blonde much has changed. We are at a place where women can live lives of their own making, this was much more in the balance when I wrote the book, also female sexuality was more bracketed. It’s more open now. I feel very grateful for this. We can’t get over the limited ageist way men think of us but we can lead lives in which it matters less, socially, politically, economically, artistically.
Rail: Could you talk a little more about your personal ideas about it? I mean, did aging ever trouble you as a writer? There’s a part in the book where Jesse muses about how Bell used to tell her she looked like a student and compared her to women he thought looked better and more desirable.
Steinke: I do think the culture is still mainly interested in women in their run up to marriage and in their procreative capacity. This is true in regular life and in fiction. In their fifties and sixties men are seen to be in their prime, whereas women are already old. No one suggests that women should not menstruate, but menopause is seen as a problem that should be cut off and stopped. It’s just really sexist. Women are encouraged to stop growth in the first or second stage of adulthood and sort of freeze. I feel this pressure though I try to fight it off!
Rail: Going back to the question of mothers and daughters—I feel like one of the hardest growing pains in my own life to endure is the realization that my mother isn’t perfect and that I don’t want to live her life—no matter how much I appreciate or love her, or how much, especially as a teenager and a university student, she contributed to changing her community and the culture around her. As a reader, I feel like Jesse is constantly haunted by the idea of turning into her mother. But then, what’s interesting is that mothers often push their daughters towards certain ideas or choices out of a similar concern—that their daughters don’t repeat what they see were mistakes they could have avoided. Could you comment on this as a daughter and a mother and a writer of female characters?
Steinke: I suffer from matrophobia, the fear of turning into my mother. I used to think this was because of the kind of person my mother was or the choices she made, but now I see it more as the place my mother was in history and how history worked itself out through her body and her life. She had much less opportunity than I did. She got pregnant with me and felt she had to marry. My father left her when she was forty-five. She wanted more for herself, but did not know how to get that more. Much of this plays out in the mother daughter dyad. I think the mother-daughter relationship has really yet to be mined narratively honestly. It’s more alive, raw, and brutal than we usually see. Someone like Elena Ferrante has a hold of this.
My own mother was so conflicted about work, and marriage, and what it was to be a female that she offered up a confusing array of hopes for me. She wanted me to work but then thought women should stay home with their children. She wanted me to be financially independent but then she wanted me to find a rich husband to take care of me.
I do think Jesse in Suicide Blonde is in the haze of her mother’s chaotic, unlived life. She does not understand that is part of her acting out, but it is what drives her, just as much as sexual desire, the unfulfilled inchoate desires of her mother haunting her and moving through her.
Rail: It’s interesting that you say that Jess doesn’t realize exactly what’s happening in her own relationship with her mother and its effects on her. It reminds me of something you used to say with regards to the more confusing parts of my memoir: “embrace the ambiguity” and “embrace the dark.” It’s such a relief, as a person first and then as a writer, to embrace both ambiguity in our relationships and their complexity and in our lives in general and our opinions about things and how things like our ideas of religiosity and spirituality should play out. In that vein, I want to talk about Jesse’s relationship to religion and God in the book. She says that the point of Jesus (or God), she thinks, might be just to know everything about us and accept us anyway. I love this idea, but it is so human-centric too. Could you talk a little bit more about that conception of God—why do you think Jesse (or anyone) would feel this way about God? And as a larger question what, to you, is the “point” of religion?
Steinke: I actually think the best writing has paradox and ambiguity built right in. You can’t write without accepting it. I mean you could maybe write a genre book, but even the great ones like Cain’s noir novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) or Mildred Pierce (1941) have so much grey. We need to fold our uncertainty into our work, that’s what makes it alive.
I do think love is the key when it comes to religion, not judgment or morals. I had this dream recently, and although I could not remember any details when I woke, the line “Lead With Love” was left with me. And I do think that’s true. Right now we need to practice radical hospitality and radical love, in all aspects of our lives. This means accepting the strange in ourselves as well as welcoming the stranger. I love how James Joyce describes God: “A shout in the street.”
There is no point to religion; there is only faith. I do think faith is helpful. Believing in things that are impossible can be good for you. It can be bad for you too, of course. But a religious outlook is not magic fairy dust, it’s actually doing with less of a grid. Doubt is what fuels faith. I read a lot of theology and always have new religious ideas. At least new to me. And at the moment I am interested in animals, how they are alive but so separate from us. And how the mystery of what their inner lives could be like is so mysterious and beautiful. You can contemplate it like you do Melville’s whale, or the Christian cross. It’s endless and void-like and deep. I also really like the idea of getting away from capitalist or social value when it comes to meaning. Even traditional religious values. This is why people write stories to try to figure out where there is a saturation of feeling that makes meaning. True meaning for them as individuals not culturally or religiously ordained meaning. You might find this in weird places. Not where you think. This is why narrative is so exciting, it’s the place where some odd friendship is more meaningful than a long term marriage or a dead bird you see splayed in the street means more than the words of Mohammad or Jesus. It’s the locus of the real.
Rail: I do think love could save us a lot of problems in our current political climate—but I’m going to throw a Jesse at you here and say, “even love has limits.” This might be totally separate from the sort of love you’re talking about but do you agree with Jesse when she says that the story of Adam and Eve “has less to do with evil than the cosmic human sadness that human relationships are never straightforward, never pure enough?”
Steinke: I think when I wrote Suicide Blonde , at twenty-eight, I was disappointed in love. We are raised as women to feel like love is going to be this huge thing that will make us completely happy and change our life for the better, forever. From the time we are teenagers romantic love is held up to us as an ideal. We diet, dye our hair, get waxed all so we can fall in love and start our life. Relationships are hard though, and complicated and messy. I was beginning to feel romantic love was bullshit when I wrote Suicide Blonde. Now I’d say love is a lovely thing, but that there is much too much pressure on romantic love for women, it’s seen as more important than anything else, meaningful work, friendships, and I think that’s wrong. It’s like femininity in general, it’s not implicitly bad, but there is just too much pressure on it and not enough other options. The love I am speaking of is love for the world, for the Earth and for all sorts of people, even ones we don’t know. Romantic love is not radical, but the kind of love I am hoping to move into and beam out, is.
Rail: I wonder if you’re saying romantic love isn’t the radical love you’re talking about because there’s an expected selfishness to romantic love, whereas radical love spans larger. Maybe this will become clearer with my last question—Jesse says that “divorce just cements the patterns of a dysfunctional family, it institutionalizes and canonizes the sickness, assures its place forever.” Is there something inherently certain in divorce that isn’t in other ways of being estranged from a person or slowly shifting away from them?
Steinke: When I wrote Suicide Blonde I was living with the aftermath of my parents’ divorce. My mother never got over the divorce, she scrambled to make money and find her way after being a housewife for twenty-five years. She grew each year more depressed. She was in that generation of women that really got screwed. The last of their kind. Raised to be a wife and mother, then thrust into the work force without any education or work experience. She struggled financially. Often around the poverty line. I found myself wondering if any new relationship my father’s or any divorced person could have, founded as it would be on the unhappiness of someone else, could be lasting or satisfying.
Since that time, I, myself, experienced a divorce and I saw how, by hard emotional work, it can be ok not just for the children of divorce, but for the partners as well. I mean divorce, as hard as it is, is not a problem, it’s actually a solution to a problem. So I don’t agree with Jesse anymore on this. I think divorce can lead to growth and healing, not only calcified pain. I mean everyone is always coming apart but everyone is also always coming together.