July 26, 2016
Istanbul reading diary
by Jessa Crispin
I was asked by a publication to keep a reading diary for four days, and those days happened to be while I was in Istanbul. The woman I spoke with told me she had trouble finding writers for this reading diary series because she kept being told — by writers — that they didn’t read. Sure, they read Gawker or their Twitter feeds, but they don’t read books. I can’t tell you the wave of despair that hit me when I heard that.
Anyway, the publication then told me it would be over a month before they could publish the piece I wrote. Right now, in my ongoing “Reading the Tarot” project, I’m up to Swords, and in that spirit I thought I’d let MobyLives publish it instead. The Swords are about learning and reading as they are about just fucking communicating. What is the point of being a writer if you don’t read, if you don’t have anything to say? I’m sure I’ll write more on this subject later, but it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. So, here we are:
My favorite reading of the day is the hour or two I spend in bed after waking, with a few cups of tea, watching the ships chug through the Bosporus. I am in Istanbul, staying in Kadıköy at the home of a publisher while he and his girlfriend are somewhere else, and there is a room here that is just floor to ceiling stacks of the books he publishes at 160 Kilometre. I don’t know why I am entranced by the ships—I have never romanticized sea travel—but I am.
The publisher’s apartment is full of books in Turkish I wish I could read. He has a thing for German literature, like all smart people, and so the shelves are full of unreadable Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, and Peter Handke, as well as a lot of Turkish writers I have never heard of, as they have not been translated to English. The only thing here I can really read is the vegan nutrition guide on the refrigerator, and that is because there are little cartoon drawings of the items of food next to the word in Turkish.
The reading material I miss the most when traveling is magazines. I love magazines. And sure, I can find a few English language magazines here, but mostly it’s Time and the New Yorker, and I am definitely not that desperate yet. I am substituting with Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. It’s very short essays about writers hanging out with other writers, something I find insufferable in real life, but when they’re all dead and a full half of the essays seem to be about the James family, I’m up for it. I can dip in and out as I like.
I’m writing a piece about magic and revolution, about how first wave feminism coincided and intertwined with the rise of Spiritualism and mystery cults, and about several revolutionaries who were also magicians and occultists, and so I’m reading Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, which suffers from being written with the dull old biography template, and Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits, which does not suffer at all, it is a fine book.
Only a few times today do I remember it is Independence Day back in the States, the worst American holiday. I am happy to be many time zones away.
All of my outdoor plans have been ruined by this infernal rain. I am so used to living here with all the windows open, as the crazy wind whips the curtains and everything else around the space, that to close the windows to avoid living in a puddle feels oppressive. I miss the air. Everything feels stagnant without my hair flying around and getting stuck in my lipgloss as I try to do laundry. I’m always up for a storm, though.
The weather means I’m couch-bound and lethargic, but at least my friend D and I exchanged reading material a few days back. I gave her Mary Gordon, she gave me Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. Douglas, she tells me, is the connective tissue between William James and Julia Kristeva, and I am immediately intrigued. Not that I need the hard sell. I have some destructive Virgo tendencies, so I’m always interested in books on purity, perfection, and cleanliness.
I’m not sure who the Routledge Central European sales rep is, but I’m beginning to think of that bitch as my guardian angel. In the English language bookstores throughout the region you find these spinning wire racks that usually hold Stephen King novels but are instead filled with Routledge Classics. I picked up Helene Cixous’s Stigmata in Budapest once, and Mary Midgley’s Wickedness in Ljubljana, somehow the exact book I needed to understand what I was experiencing was always just there, waiting for me. Now I have Douglas, as well as another Routledge Classic, Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, which I stole from a friend in Paris. Both Douglas, who borrows this idea from James that what is “dirty” is just what is out of place, and Weil are good companions in a city that is the site of so much displacement. Turkey made some big announcement that it would offer citizenship to the settled Syrian refugees, despite its own nefarious and flat out fucking evil dealings in the region, and the refugees told Erdogen to go fuck himself.
Following the news here is an exercise in managing despair, and tea with D as we talk about our shared formative works of literature (Diane di Prima, William James, Tori Amos lyrics) does much to help.
I am looking online for a piece that does not exist. I keep looking, though. A few weeks back I was in Paris, on my friend’s couch, with a hangover. The best thing to do at that point is stuff cheese in your mouth, pour a little whiskey into your coffee, and just watch some television. And so I settled on Outlander.
“It’s like a feminist romance novel,” people kept telling me. “It’s like Game of Thrones with the genders inverted.” I once asked a friend if I should watch Game of Thrones, letting him know that I could not tolerate television shows with men wearing fur riding horses. I just can’t do it. “Ah, you’re fucked for that one, then,” he said, and so I never took it up. There are men on horseback on Outlander, too, but at least they are not wearing fur.
Here is what I learned on my day of praying for the god Bacchus to kill me and watching eight hours of Outlander: Outlander is garbage. It might be the worst thing I have ever seen. It hates men, it hates women. I suppose people keep calling it “feminist” because the lead is a mouthy broad who is always talking shit until she causes a lot of problems and then has to be rescued by her very manly man. But the gender dynamic makes me ill. We talk a lot, so much, about the corrosive nature male desire has on the female self, but we never want to own up to how female desire, what we want our lovers and sons and husbands to be, is just as oppressive to men. I almost can’t believe a show that so baldly says women want men to be their providers and their protectors can be called feminist.
I keep looking for a piece of criticism that calls this stupid show out for being what it is, to see through the thin veil of “empowerment” to its reliance on patriarchal notions of femininity and masculinity, and I seriously cannot find it. I keep looking, though, because I have a deadline today and not looking means actually finishing this fucking essay I’m supposed to do. Some publication please hire me for my hot take so I can stop thinking about this show.
There was this scorcher interview with Jarrett Kobek at Lithub recently, wherein he accused literary fiction of being CIA-based propaganda. “Much of what we consider literary fiction was constructed as part of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird. The Writer’s Workshop at Iowa was funded by the CIA. The CIA engineered Dr. Zhivago’s Nobel Prize. The Paris Review was funded by the CIA. It goes on and on.” It of course made me buy his book immediately.
But what struck me the most in the interview was his claim that literary fiction is “hopelessly unable to address the challenges of our present moment.”
The news today is terrible. Back in the States, there was another police shooting caught on camera, and I watched it for a few minutes until I couldn’t anymore. Here in Istanbul, there is still fallout from the bombing at the airport. My Twitter feed is monitoring the full political collapse of Great Britain.
And so I keep thinking back to Kobek’s claim, because when I switch over to what’s going on in the literary world, it’s just more fucking novels about divorce and female friendship and infidelity and family secrets.
Last week I did read Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island, which seemed horribly prescient. Nuclear war sets off a massive refugee crisis from various countries in Africa, and while this is destabilizing world wide, it starts a war between the British and the refugees in England. There’s the racist, nationalist government, a mob of angry, ignored white men, and external manipulation by both the United States and Russia: boom, chaos. It’s a weird little book, smarter than it looks at first. Priest is one of those crazily talented writers who is never called genius enough. Somehow he’s always shoved off into genre categories, while being one of the few fiction writers I can think of who really engage with their time.
And, you know, meanwhile Ben Winters is ripping off Octavia Butler and being called a genius for it, and the hottest book everyone keeps recommending to me is The Girls, a book about the dark side of female friendship. Yeah, that seems important, too.
A friend also recommended Magdalena Platzova’s The Attempt, a novel about radical politics, and having read only two pages I can say it looks promising. But it’s no wonder I’m traveling with 85% nonfiction, fiction, at least in America, seems to have shied away from the battle. And if it can’t be bothered, then neither can I.
Jessa Crispin is the founder of Bookslut, one of the country’s first book blogs, and the author of the recently released The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (University of Chicago Press). Her book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto is forthcoming from Melville House.