What to Read When the Patriarchy’s Got You Down

By

In the past two years, whenever the patriarchy got me down—so just about every morning when I asked the Internet what was new—I turned to the book I was compiling and editing for McSweeney’s, an anthology of #MeToo essays, short stories, and poems. Engaging with the writings that came to comprise Indelible in the Hippocampus comforted me like nothing else. I felt at once more connected to my rage and calmer: we were all doing something, using our stories to claim—in our way, from our tiny corner of the world—the future we want. Sometimes I cried and often I laughed and without exception, I always felt less alone. I hope readers of this book will share my experience.

Now, when Indelible in the Hippocampus is almost out in the world, I asked some of the contributors to recommend books that have helped them feel that way—books they’ve turned to when the patriarchy’s got them so down that they needed an uplift.

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Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Caitlin Donohue

Over the years that I have read her work, first at The Hairpin and Jezebel, then at the New Yorker, I have come to trust culture writer Jia Tolentino’s byline very much indeed. In her first book (how? But finally!) Trick Mirror, she does not betray my faith in her take. With characteristically readable prowess, Tolentino gets to the core of subjects whose very complexity pains me: #MeToo, Bari Weiss, being a writer on the Internet, marriage. For all its humorous moments (I will not soon forget the chapter on her reality TV gig as a teenager), the book provides analysis of—not respite from—patriarchy and other oppressions’ leaden effects. Tolentino’s analysis of the modern forces packaging us into ever smaller, ever more cliché identity satchels is so apt that, I’m telling you, I found myself actually gasping after certain points were made. I emerged breathless, inspired to traverse my own mental obstacle course for answers on how best to live.

 

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Karissa Chen

This beautiful book is about a brilliant mathematician who is trying both to solve an ambitious theorem and the mystery of her own family legacy. Katherine, an Asian American woman, is sidelined, overlooked, cheated, and subject to other forms of racism and misogyny, and you’ll find yourself wanting to punch someone in the face even as you cheer Katherine on for her ambition and determination. Chung’s gift is that she is unflinching in her depiction of the difficult world Katherine must navigate yet does so through an elegant lens brimming with hope, empathy, and grace.

 

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Honor Moore

Do not miss Memories of the Future, Siri Hustvedt’s feminist novel for our time—utterly engaging, raucous, brilliant, philosophical, touching, hilarious, populated with characters so vivid they enter your own memory—a coven, a circle of artist friends, a tragic family, a girl artist adrift in late 1970s Manhattan—and a sequence that will become, for its wit and terror, a classic #MeToo scene. To top it off, in an amazing act of conjuring, appears the dada feminist artist/poet Baroness Elsa on Freytag-Loringhoven as the narrator’s muse—a great woman on whom Hustvedt sets the record straight.

 

Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Diana Spechler

Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell is a memoir-in-fragments about the author’s rockin’ sex life. Her lover is a strong, sexy, evolved man (“He is not afraid of my desire,” she writes, “of its depth, its lengths”) and she uses the beauty and safety and heat of that relationship to explore the intricacies of female desire. The result is equal parts lyrical and academic, equal parts thought-provoking and empowering. It’s one of those rare works of art that makes you want to write and fuck and think all at once. Angel’s mind twists and turns and burrows in: “The anti-pornography critique is often ideological and partisan, yes. But what no one in this room can say… is that so, too, is the defense of pornography; so, too, is the critique of the critique.”

 

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

If you’re looking for a book to lift you gently, wrap you in warmth, and transport you swiftly from heteropatriarchal despair, this isn’t the one. Playing in the Dark is not gentle, and its transcendence is not warm. But it is a healing, because in it, Morrison offers crucial context for patriarchy—and power more broadly—as a product of the racial musings that pervade our literature, our culture, and our own imaginations. Published three years after Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” and many decades before it became the buzzword it is today, Morrison walks us through the inner workings of power, racism, and oppression in some of the most familiar literary minds—Gertrude Stein’s, William Faulkner’s, and even our own. Playing in the Dark pushes us to see the work that oppression does in literature and in life—how imagining blackness as brutal creates the fantasy of white noblesse, how crafting black women characters as preternaturally wanton or bereft of desire creates white standards of purity that damage us all. This crash course in power helps explain why America can only hear a movement like #MeToo when its message comes from white voices that displace the work and genius of black women like the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke. Morrison’s reflections on whiteness are the missing line in the national #MeToo dialogue. Don’t read this book if you need your healing to happen in soothing tones. But if patriarchy has you yearning for recognition and language and real learning about power and how we might undo it, you should dig in.

 

The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Rebecca Schiff

The week Trump was elected, I was reading Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard’s narrator Rudolf is one of the most miserable souls I’ve encountered in fiction, and somehow this cheered me up immensely. It convinced me that the best thing to read when you’re down is a book that will simply pummel you with its bleakness, that will hit so hard that you forget the world itself is a pummeler. Elisa Albert’s first novel The Book of Dahlia is narrated by an enraged, dying twenty-nine-year-old. Dahlia resents her brother. She hates her mother. (She kind of likes her dad.) She has a brain tumor. She’s a feminist who remembers finding solace in Penthouse as a kid:

In Penthouse there were women with giant teardrop-shaped breasts and soft bodies… All had that same look on their faces: terror and deadness and shame masquerading as seduction. [Dahlia] may have been a kid, but again, she wasn’t a goddamn moron. There was something the matter with these ladies. She loved them.

I love Dahlia because something’s the matter with her. It’s not the brain cancer, but how fucked up and cranky and funny Albert lets her heroine be. One of patriarchy’s greatest crimes is trying to suppress women’s flawed humanity, to turn us into martyrs or villains, “goddesses or doormats” (thanks, Picasso), so watching Dahlia rant, contradict herself, curse too much, try to do better, fail, try again, admit she doesn’t know anything, die, gave me a great deal of courage. I can die, too. I know I have it in me.

 

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Courtney Zoffness

Before The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, there was The Edible Woman. Atwood’s lesser-known first novel, published in 1969, pokes fun at gender stereotypes and women’s expectations and consumerism. Our protagonist Marian, a discontented market researcher, expects life to improve when she marries her insufferable chauvinist fiancé, Peter. Curiously, the more passive and acquiescent Marian becomes in their relationship, the more she loses her appetite for food. Marian starts to pity steak. She empathizes with eggs being gobbled and swallowed. Peter, she realizes, is devouring her. Towards the end of the narrative, she bakes him a woman-shaped sponge cake, one that was “pliable” and “easy to mold,” and implores him to dig in. “This is what you really want,” Marian says. A relatable and hilarious feminist sendup, even fifty years later.

 

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Paisley Rekdal

Actually, it’s a novel whose devastating ending will bring you straight back to hating the patriarchy, but it’s a novel everyone should be reading right now. It’s a short dystopian tale about an unnamed female narrator who wakes up one morning in a hunting lodge she’s vacationing at to discover that she’s cut off from the rest of civilization by an impenetrable and invisible wall. No explanation whatsoever is made to explain the sudden presence of this wall—it might be the work of aliens (who never appear), or something the earth itself has generated, for no particular reason. The wall itself may be a figurative symbol of climate disaster or nuclear war, or even for the narrator’s psychological state, as she is emotionally, as well as physically, cut off from a series of events in her past and from the other humans in the world of the novel, all of whom have died. Instead, the narrator survives by forging profound bonds with the few animals she gathers around her, whose lives become intricately bound up with her own as she struggles to keep herself—and them—alive. It’s a novel that defies all kinds of easy genre classifications: it’s speculative and realistic, it’s psychodrama and eco-criticism, it’s feminist and “animal”-ist. The novel was first published in German in 1963, but it’s an incredibly prescient and relevant novel for today. It’s beautiful, and haunting, and terrifying. The end will stay with you forever.

 

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Syreeta McFadden

To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement in 2017, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor gathered women from the collective and activists who were influenced by the collective in conversation in the book-length work, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017). Combahee draws its name in honor of Harriet Tubman, who in 1863 led a raid on the Combahee River, freeing seven hundred and fifty enslaved persons. Taylor, in her introduction, reminds us how black women—black feminism—are vanguard and visionary in the cause for liberation. These interviews and reflections do more than comfort; they inspire and remind us that we are part of a lineage of women fighting for freedom.

 

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Melissa Febos

The patriarchy has always got me down and so I am never not reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, the essential collection of her essays and speeches, which includes one of my favorite essays of all time: “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in which she tells us: “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” If you want to know what it means to write from an intersectional experience, or to be reminded that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” or that your joy can be revolutionary, then you should be reading it, too.

 

Twine, an open-source platform for nonlinear interactive storytelling
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Nelly Reifler

What to read when the patriarchy’s got me down? This question unsettles me. After all, isn’t linear narrative—the need to pluck events out of chaos and plant them on a temporal line with a beginning, middle, and end—a product of the patriarchy? The idea of time measured in hours and minutes with distinct beginnings and ends was created by men. Narrative itself, therefore, married to time, is patriarchal. Even the punctuation I’m using here, these sentences with their dominating spaces, stops, and starts, are the fruit of the patriarchy. And books, too, the objects they are, and the publishing “industry,” are inescapably patriarchal. I think about these things, and the patriarchy feels not like something that gets me down, that I can just read away, but the air I breathe, the molecules that make me.

These past few years, for reasons both personal and culturally systemic, the patriarchy has gotten me oh so low. Often writing and reading are themselves the suffocating sludge. That’s how I was feeling when an undergraduate student of mine introduced me to Twine, an open-source platform for nonlinear interactive storytelling. Narratives built in Twine break out of the cage of rising and falling action. Some end before they’ve begun. Some never end—we simply choose to exit. When we create a story in Twine, we can push time hither and thither. These pieces don’t—can’t—exist in books but rather they hover in technology that is free.

I recommend Porpentine’s games—like “With Those We Love Alive” and “Skulljhabit.” You might also look at Anna Anthropy’s “Queers at the End of the World” and “Ghostburgers.”

 

The Faggots and their Friends Between the Revolutions by Larry Mitchell
– Recommended by Indelible contributor Kaitlyn Greenidge

The Faggots and their Friends Between the Revolutions is both a time capsule and a letter from the future, a fairy tale of how to imagine life outside the patriarchy that is very much bound by the limitations of its time. Written by Larry Mitchell and first published in 1977, it was reissued this year with a vital introduction by the artist and scholar Tourmaline. Read it to imagine another world and to appreciate how much we have learned since this book was written.

 

Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger
– Recommended by Indelible contributor and editor Shelly Oria

I hope that if you’re in a down-because-of-the-patriarchy type mood (and if you’re not, can you tell me your secret?) you’ll delve into Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the MeToo Movement, and let the essays, short stories, and poems by this great crew of recommenders and many more lift you up. When you’re done reading Indelible, and you’ve laugh-cried and cry-laughed and felt inspired to take action (and, if you’re a writer, also felt buzzing to write, I hope), if you’re still feeling pretty down about the patriarchy (and if you’re not, seriously, can I know your secret?) then count the days to October 8, when another powerhouse of an anthology is coming into the world. With essays from Leslie Jamison, Reema Zaman, Marisa Siegel, Samantha Riedel, Indelible’s Melissa Febos, and seventeen other rockstars, Burn It Down legit changed my brain. I found myself thinking about anger in general and women’s anger in particular in a whole new way, and seeing how reigning in and policing our anger has been sustaining patriarchal structures for centuries. Read this beautiful book and feel your beautiful rage. Maybe we’ll run into each other at a kickboxing class.

 

And to close out this powerful list, we just had to include Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, edited by Shelly Oria and forthcoming on September 10 from McSweeney’s!  – Ed.

Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement edited by Shelly Oria
Among the first books to emerge from the #MeToo movement, Indelible in the Hippocampus is a truly intersectional collection of essays, fiction, and poetry. These original texts sound the voices of black, Latinx, Asian, queer, and trans writers, to name but a few, and says “me too” twenty-two times. Whether reflecting on their teenage selves or their modern-day workplaces, each contributor approaches the subject with unforgettable authenticity and strength. Together these pieces create a portrait of cultural sea-change, offering the reader a deeper understanding of this complex, galvanizing pivot in contemporary consciousness.


Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she coauthored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria's fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and elsewhere; has been translated to other languages; and has won a number of awards, including the Workspace grant from LMCC and three MacDowell Fellowships. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life and creativity coach. Visit her website, www.shellyoria.com, for more. More from this author →