Why I Forgive Jane the Virgin for Making a Writer Its Main Character

I’m happy to say that I’ve been publishing a lot of essays in various publications over the past couple of months! Readers might enjoy these:

“Suicide Contagion and the Risks of Literature,” which considers whether creative writers, like journalists, should refrain from using certain phrases when talking about suicide, was published in The Coil:
https://medium.com/the-coil/suicide-contagion-and-the-risks-of-literature-cynthia-gralla-413f0e3fe483?source=friends_link&sk=21d1a546348e33bf333212f8b6439628

On a lighter note, “9 Fashionable Books That Make Clothes a Main Character,” a list that looks at how sartorial style functions in narratives like The Tale of Genji, The Neapolitan Novels, and The Collected Schizophrenias, ran in Electric Literature:
https://electricliterature.com/9-fashionable-books-that-make-clothes-a-main-character/

And if you want to find dark humor in psychotherapy, “Case Study of a Psychiatrist in the Freudian Style,” published by The Satirist, might make you feel better as it satirizes the Freudian case study and the power dynamics of prescription drug therapy:
https://www.thesatirist.com/satires/case-study-of-a-psychiatrist-in-the-freudian-style.html

And now for May’s essay . . .
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Dream Girls Gotta Have Agency

Below is a link to my essay, “Dream Girls Gotta Have Agency,” which was recently published in Electric Literature. This essay was so much fun to write because it gave me a chance to draw on my graduate school training in literature in English, Japanese, and Spanish. While it centers on the trope of the sleeping beauty in literature, it ranges widely, touching on everything from biases in mental health care to Kawabata’s fetish for female arms and fingers and my experience as a bar hostess in Japan.
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How to Talk to Someone with a Chronic Illness

I don’t typically pen do-and-don’t lists, but in writing Chronic, I thought a lot about how we talk to sick people, particularly the blame and biases encoded in our words. That reflection inspired this list.

Don’ts:

Don’t rush to tell her, “You lost so much weight! You look great!” If the person lost that weight due to serious illness, this compliment, while well-intentioned, sounds weird. Also, equating beauty with extreme thinness is always a bit perilous, no?

Don’t ask, “What did you do to get X disease?” That question sounds like you’re blaming the victim. “Do researchers know what causes it?” might work better.

Please don’t give ludicrous dietary advice or promise miracles if your friend changes her eating habits. You know, “I cut out gluten, and if you do it too, I bet your X will go away.” This one’s a particular pet peeve of mine.

Don’t ask, “Are you better yet?” There is no “yet” with a chronic disease. A more constructive formulation: “How do you feel now?” or “Is your disease currently under control?”

“You don’t look sick” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, most people enjoy hearing that they look healthy, as our beauty ideals are tied up with “looking healthy.” But if you say this in the wrong tone, it can sound accusatory. Especially in the work place, where it might seem like you’re leveling a charge of malingering, please use with caution.

Don’t say, “At least you don’t have terminal cancer/other horrible disease.” Your friend already understands that in theory, things could be worse. Things could always be worse. But your friend doesn’t need to feel guilty for her concerns or anxieties.

Above all, though, don’t avoid your friend or loved one for fear of not saying the right thing. It’s better to try and stumble than to shun someone at the moment she needs you most.

Dos:

If you know someone with the same disease who is thriving, please share the story. It can give your friend a lot of hope.

Do tell your friend she’s beautiful if she’s undergoing cosmetic changes like hair loss due to a disease. Focus on the positive. If she asks for advice, feel free to give it, but I wouldn’t start off with, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of hair. Why don’t you get a wig or scarf?”

Do ask, if you’re inviting her over to your house or out for dinner, “Is there anything you can’t eat?”

Do help her to face the future with optimism. Comments like “Your life will be really hard” are never productive. It’s more generous to say something like, “You’re a really strong person, and I admire how you face your illness.”

Do understand that many chronic diseases have periods of remission and flares. If your friend enjoys a long period of remission, you may be surprised if she eventually gets sick again. You may even feel a sense of frustration—at life, the disease, or even her. And that’s fine as long as you keep it to yourself.

Do express love, support, and empathy—always. This is the best way to make your friend feel better.


Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019

The Hidden Foreigner

I recently became a permanent resident of Canada. For the past year and half, I’ve lived in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island—meaning that 97% of my non-Canadian friends and relatives think I live in Vancouver, despite my many protestations to the contrary.

Recently, I bumped into a man in a local store and apologized. He pointed out that this self-reflexive politeness was what made us Canadians. It struck me that this man would have no way of telling, based on casual observation, that I wasn’t one of his people. My infiltration of Canada is stealthy, given that I am a Caucasian of Eastern European extraction and look similar to most people here. In fact, because I have to avoid direct UV rays due to a diagnosis of systemic lupus, I am even paler than the average Canadian. Which is saying something. Continue reading

A Committed Dancer

Vaslav Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and involuntarily committed to a mental asylum in 1919. He spent the remaining three decades of his life in and out of institutions.

In the early months of 1919, as his psychotic break became impossible for those around him to ignore, Nijinsky kept a diary. He filled it with drawings of eyes and repetitive, rhythmic passages, like this one in which he obsesses over his former lover and boss Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes: “Diaghilev thinks he is the God of art. I think I am God. I want to challenge Diaghilev to a duel so that the whole world will see. I want to prove that all Diaghilev’s art is sheer nonsense. If people help me, I will help them to understand Diaghilev. I worked with Diaghilev for five years without respite. I know all his tricks and habits. I was Diaghilev.”

What might his diary have looked like twenty years later? Continue reading

Top Ten Favorite Metaphors of 2018, Part II Plus My Ten Favorite Books of the Year

Once again, in no particular order, some of the images and passages that thrilled my blood this year:

  1. “But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents had fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.” – Mohsin Hamid, writing about Marin and the South Bay in Exit West
  1. “And no, it is not fate, I said, because Google watches over us like God . . . How is democracy supposed to work if you get only what you’ve already searched for and if you are what you search, and you never feel alone or you always do, since you never get the chance to meet the others, who are not like you, and that’s how it is with the search, you come across like-minded people, God googles our paths, so that we stay put in our grooves, I always meet people who are looking for the same thing I am, I said, and that is why we, too, have met here, and the old man said, This is the very meaning of fate. He was obviously further along in exegesis than I.” – Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther

This book is so fucking brilliant that I might hate the author if I didn’t love literature so much. This passage reads like a mating of W. G. Sebald and Rachel Cusk, but the book is entirely on its own terms.
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What Poland’s Flying University Can Teach Us about Teaching in the Trump Era

The day after Trump was elected, I taught a class on creative writing at the International College of Liberal Arts in Kofu, Japan. While none of my students was American, most felt devastated by the outcome. We talked about what might change. At the time, I was concerned about racism, immigration policies, and health care. But I couldn’t see what should have been obvious to me: that the ascension of the far right, in America and elsewhere, would have consequences for education.
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The Pain and Beauty of Watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal, but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”

Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on traditional news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful could commit suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I had long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain functionality after heroin addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I do understand other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock came because Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they share tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of screwed.
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A Book Lover’s Synesthesia

My favorite books fill my mouth.

Lolita is Tang and crème brûlée, America and Old Europe duking it out on the tongue.

The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, consumes things not meant to be eaten: exotic birds, predators nearly extinct.

Love in the Time of Cholera is eggplant, of course—lost love as real, regal, and bitter as aubergines.

Nightwood is darkest chocolate, kept in a Joseph Cornell box chilled by Marie Taglioni’s ice cubes.

Don Quixote’s fanciful avocado dish should be downed with xocolati.

Absalom, Absalom piques with warm biscuits, blue cheese, and a strangling shot of absinthe.

The Tale of Genji is a meal parceled into small, exquisite servings, a tray of intricate delights.

The Alexandrian Quartet’s bloody steak demands to be inhaled along with Chateau Margaux, while the diner drops her veils.

Proust can only be strawberries soaked in ether.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is pungent soup served by an acrobat in a jeweled, crimson bowl.

As they say in Japan, gochisō sama deshita—I have been feasted. And I have, ever since I learned to read.


Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018

Melania Trump: The First Lady as Courtesan, Troll, or Radical?

A friend recently remarked that she finds Melania Trump’s style old-fashioned. I disagreed. Yes, Melania references earlier first ladies with her fashion choices—most famously Jackie Kennedy, in her powder-blue Ralph Lauren at the inauguration—but citing earlier archetypes can be progressive, even radical, if done the right way. Still, her comment got me thinking, and I realized that there is one time-honored archetype Melania fulfills, through dress and behavior, above all others. She is the first among first ladies to embrace the centuries-old archetype of the courtesan.

Let me be clear about what I am saying. I am not calling Melania a whore. I don’t think “whore” is necessarily an insult, and when used to denote a sex worker, it’s a statement of fact. But the fact is, Melanie is not a sex worker. I would never even call her a gold digger. While it’s hard to imagine a woman marrying Donald Trump for anything but his money—she certainly doesn’t do it for the conversation or proximity to orthographic acumen—the truth is that we don’t know why she did it. Nor is it any of our business. Continue reading

My Ten Favorite Metaphors of 2018 (So Far)

I love a juicy metaphor, and a great extended one can send me reeling. In my own writing, I rely heavily on their transformative power. In The Seductions of Sick, my memoir, metaphors link the tale of Rumpelstiltskin with hair loss and obsessive-compulsive disorder, while in Snow Queens, my historical novel, shells, clocks, and tulips are used to render the rip-roaring ephemera of the female orgasm.

In my recent reading, I have been treated to delicious, startling, poignant, twisted metaphors from contemporary writers like Leslie Jamison, Elif Batuman, Jesmyn Ward, Rachel Cusk, and Carmen Maria Machado. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite ten metaphors from my reading this year—so far. (It’s only July, after all.) I include similes as well as metaphors.

Of course, these metaphors, through my selection, do not just illuminate the thing being described but my own interests and investments. That said, please don’t read too much into #10. Continue reading

Event Dress: The Royal Wedding and Emphatic Presence

I have to confess: I couldn’t wait to see who designed Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. The week before the wedding had been rough. I’d had to scramble to finish a rewrite I’d promised my agent, my rheumatologist was concerned about my heart and had ordered several tests for it, and on Friday there was another school shooting in the U.S. I just wanted to see something faultless. Something shamelessly pretty.

I couldn’t give a fig about the royal family, even if Harry and his bride do make an adorable couple. To me, the idea of being whisked off to Windsor Castle to be scrutinized every day for the rest of your life is less fairy tale than jail sentence, and the wedding veil is the gauze to dress the wounds. But what gauze!

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Riverdale is Burning

Riverdale makes no excuses for its excess. The CW’s much hyphenated, gorgeously shot murder-mystery-slash-steamy-teen-drama-slash-mob-war-meets-occasional-musical leaves no cinematic, literary, or pop-cultural reference unturned. Its characters are references in themselves, drawn from the Archie Comics. Each episode is named after a famous movie—often genre fare or noir, but arthouse flicks like There Will Be Blood are thrown in for good measure. Its characters may date from the 1940s, but their dialogue is shameless post-Buffy, post-Juno quip-speak. Continue reading

Ten Great Books about the Holocaust Created in Honor of Yom Hashoah

In no particular order, here are ten works that testify to the importance of finding words when there supposedly are none—which is to say, when there are no simple ones, yet many things that need to be said.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Only a few of the elements in The Periodic Table—one of the best creative nonfiction books of the twentieth century—relate to the Holocaust. Still, when I assigned it to my students in Japan and watched them struggle to situate the Lager, I realized that Levi’s descriptions of Auschwitz are perhaps most powerful when they are part of an evocation of the larger world in which we all live, love, and make meaning.

Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife

Sensuous and often joyful, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of the couple who hid Jews in the empty cages of their Warsaw zoo after the Nazis seized or shot the animals. Reading it makes you want to be a better caretaker of all the creatures around you. Continue reading