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Introduction to the Special Issue
April Gentry and Teri Schell
Savannah State University

06/06/05

I. From the Guest Editors: Collaboration

For the two of us, literature and mentoring belong in the same issue-especially an issue like this one, co-edited by professor and student. We are not, however, the typical professor and student pair. Teri, a non-traditional student, just received her Bachelor's degree in May. April, who is beginning her third year as assistant professor in American literature, is four years Teri's junior. Thanks to shared interests and shared vision, we trade books incessantly, we have presented papers at the same conferences, and we seem always to be in the process of dreaming up further joint creative ventures. We are both mentors to each other, and both mentored. Though our discussions with each other, we have discovered numerous intersections between women, mentoring, and texts-texts beyond the (stereo)typical stories of teachers and students or professionals and protégées. We contend that it is important to celebrate joint feminist ventures as well as individual successes-and that individual successes are not possible without collaboration, guidance, and imagination.

For us as passionate readers and writers, these elements all coalesce in women's literature. Our contributors seem to agree, and what they've submitted represent a broad range of women's experience and interaction. Some pieces presented here were written collaboratively by undergraduates and their faculty mentors; one was the result of peer mentoring among women academics. Many women wrote about being mentored through literature-sometimes by texts, sometimes by literary women themselves. But what inspires us most about these essays is their practicality: even though the content of each piece differs, all of them reveal a meaningful relationship between women that supports ongoing reading, writing, and scholarly activity. Each piece teaches us the very real value of our shared intellectual and textual life. It is the measure of our progress, as well as the roadmap for continued forward motion.

II. From Teri: Unexpected Literary Mentors

Growing up in suburban neighborhoods west of Birmingham, Alabama offered me little in the way of feminist mentoring. While my Mom and Dad were working or out relieving work-related stress, the women who raised me became my role models. My parents were young, money was tight; my days, before I started school, and later, after school let out, were spent with my grandmothers and a great-grandmother and each shaped my personality through theirs. My maternal grandmother, with whom I stayed the most, loved to play (she eventually studied and worked as a hospice clown) and she shunned the regular work of a housewife to concoct elaborate games and trips and crafts for us to do together. My grandfather would fuss at her every evening for the deplorable state of the house and the scanty meals she delivered but she always winked at me behind his back and I reveled in the knowledge that we were co-conspirators. My maternal great-grandmother Ressie treated me like an accomplice in some mysterious adventure. Ressie was considered a bawdy renegade granny by her own daughter, my fun-loving but religious grandmother. I came back from her house with new bad words and a sass that always required me to go out and cut myself a "switch." In time, I learned to hide the luxurious naughtiness of these visits and claimed innocent hours of TV, trying out Ressie's milder phrases like "great days in the morning!" and "see you in the funny papers!" with less-painful success. My paternal grandmother lived in the "country" beyond the suburbs and encouraged me to explore the woods and the wild strawberry patch, alone. Despite never finishing high school, she loved words and sang them, rhymed them in horribly misspelled poems, and told fantastical stories in her whistling grammar-bending southern-fried accent. Although my grandmothers never had much money or education or even hinted at a feminist mentality, and though I was an avowed tomboy, these women were my heroes. In the books I read in the seventies when I was growing up, the protagonists and heroes were boys and men. I may have been a tomboy but I never wanted to be a boy; I wanted to be like my grandmothers, witty and irreverent and creative. They figured in my dreams, invincible and fearless, rescuing me from high trees, rolling seas, and the teeth of wild animals.

When my father's constant working began to pay off, my mother quit her job and we moved to a suburb farther away from my grandmothers. I no longer saw them regularly and my mother didn't like me to play with the neighborhood boys or act like a tomboy; she wanted me to act like a "young lady." I retreated into books and proceeded to devour the small library in my town. I ran across some women and girls in these books, but they never seemed to have the fun or adventures of the males. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, whose books I read faithfully, failed to excite me. Even in middle school and junior high when I read Judy Bloom and tried to read her "adult book" in the bathroom of the library (the librarian wouldn't let me check it out and banged on the bathroom door if I was in there too long while Blumes' book was missing from the stacks), I felt cheated. I longed to discover strong fictional women to fill the void I'd felt since I'd quit playing outside, lost my daily visits with my grandmothers, and immersed myself in books. Finally, in high school, I read Flannery O'Connor and found the playfulness of my maternal grandmother, the macabre humor of Ressie, and the backwoods speech of my paternal grandmother. And while the women of these stories weren't necessarily feminist, I recognized a female strength that was familiar in its southern subversive-ness. I also read Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf at this time and although I did not always understand what I was reading, I began to think I was on the right track. When I haphazardly bought Jeannette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit my senior year in high school, I had an epiphany while reading. I identified with this coming-out lesbian, British, evangelically-raised strong-willed woman even though I was a straight, secular, reclusive, American, southern girl. With no real literary education (Alabama public schools were pretty atrocious), I had stumbled onto the idea of universal themes and the power of creation. I began to realize that it wasn't a heroic fictional character or storyline I craved, but a taste of real women who were heroic, strong, and creative. I discovered, for the first time, authors.

I realized that O'Connor, Rand, Stein, Woolf, and Winterson were real women and they created characters, sentences; books didn't just magically appear. Even though I had scribbled poetry and character sketches in notebooks since fifth grade, I'd never thought about it as any more than doodling. I figured that I doodled with words rather than pictures. I started reading anything by women, only listened to music sung by women, and sought out my grandmothers again, driving over by myself instead of waiting on family visits. I thought I'd go to college and become an artist or a writer, but my parents laughed at this idea-no women in the family had gone to college and art was not "Art" in my home, but something children did with finger paints. I left home the day after high school graduation with money I'd earned at part time jobs, paid for one semester of tuition and a dorm room in the fall, and quickly dropped out without means to pay for a second semester and the horror of finding that the same silly girls I ridiculed in high school littered the college dorm. I found a low-paying job, shacked up with a musician I later married, and tried to will myself into being a bohemian. Many years of reading later, after a divorce and the acknowledgement that I didn't feel comfortable anywhere but inside books, I went back to school, taking one class a semester in literature, women's studies, or art. I dropped out again but had stayed long enough to learn about feminism, how to find it in bookstores and libraries, what was considered "good" and "bad" women's writing, and how to ignore those considerations and read what I wanted. More years pass and with the relative financial ease of a second, more responsible husband, I finally find myself finishing a degree in literature. I've had the privilege of meeting real feminist women and writers and artists. I've found the long-sought fictional female characters and studied the lives of the women who created them. I've learned how to write critical essays and do research and edit my own creative work. I've developed a desire to integrate, somewhat, into society, enough so that I can talk to women, and be inspired and nourished by my women mentors in and outside of the university.

Brainstorming with my professor and mentor April Gentry on a proposal for this special issue of womenwriters.net, I thought of my current life and how literature, female writers, and the women I know now have mentored me. I thought solely of these last few years, the years after the confused solitary reading, self-taught and sometimes seriously misguidedly so, and the years of not knowing where to turn for courage to be a strong woman in an often hostile patriarchal country. And I sit down by myself to write a quick little introductory remark about this special issue and my current literary and real-life mentors and have another epiphany (resulting in anything but a quick introductory remark, sorry). My three uneducated, clueless about feminism, women's-work-weary grandmothers are my true mentors. Sure, I'd always appreciated them and loved them throughout all of my searching, but never realized how literary they really were. My maternal grandmothers' winking playfulness preceded Gertrude Stein's The World is Round in my cherished-book stack. Ressie's bawdy wisecracks swirled through my mind long before Jeanette Winterson's. And my paternal grandmother's dogged pursuit of poetry and advocacy for solitary walks foreshadowed Virginia Woolf's A Room of Her Own. Everyone I've spent any amount of time with has heard at least one of the many stories about these women that crowd my memory. Their essence is written into all of my fiction. When I need strength, I whisper "great days in the morning" rather than "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth. I don't regret the years of living within the pages of novels and biographies and essays and poetry, and seeking out the company of educated, feminist women. I do wish I had thanked my paternal grandmother for her poetry and introduction to comfortable solitude and told Ressie how much I appreciated her wild ways and words. A few weeks ago my maternal grandmother watched me accept a college degree, the first woman to do so in her family. My family does not talk about this achievement as a significant event, nor did my grandmother, and it's not, really, in the big scheme of things. Instead, she told me stories about other family members, people I never knew and some I did. She told jokes and laughed and related tidbits about her ailments. I listened to how her southern accent clipped off the endings to words and filed away the pairings of her verbs and adjectives and how they flowed like music, great art, even though they described the banal. I read her presence and drank her in, loving her by listening, knowing that she will not always be here like the published works of my more famous mentors and the future published works by my youthful feminist friends.

Reading the works submitted for this special issue, I again realize the universal power of written and spoken words to inspire. I applaud the women who write and read women's words, give thanks for the relationships forged and maintained between women, and hope you receive as much inspiration from reading these works about women mentors and those who mentor as I do.

III. From April: We Did It Again, Mom

You always have in your writing the resistance outside of you and inside of you, a shadow upon you, and the thing which you must express. In the beginning of your writing this struggle is so tremendous that the result is ugly. . . But the essence of that ugliness is the thing which will always make it beautiful. I myself think it is much more interesting when it seems ugly, because in it you see the element of the fight . . . the vitality of the struggle.
---Gertrude Stein, How Writing Is Written

 

My mother is not handicapped. She is not disabled, or crippled, or "hurt." Just ask her. She will be the first to explain unflinchingly, in her own terms, why her right arm and leg are paralyzed, and why her speech isn't exactly like that of anyone else around her; to those who steal backward glances at her in the grocery store check-out line or stare from another restaurant table, she will smile her knowing, slightly crooked smile and simply say, in answer to their unasked question, "Long time ago, stroke." Of all the ways I might describe my mother, her own words frame her best. She did not suffer a stroke, or survive a stroke, or even have a stroke-the stroke just was, an entity unto itself, a noun with no need of verb. It was a long time ago. No further explanation necessary.

My mother was twenty-four years old, and I was three, when, as best I remember, she fell down at the end of our sidewalk and didn't get up. She had shiny black hair down to her waist and an infectious laugh, and she was pregnant with her second child, my younger brother. But most of all, what I remember about my mother was how much she loved to read-to me, yes, but also to herself, in every spare moment she could steal. I did not know it at the time, but that morning in the bathtub, she had just finished rereading her favorite book. It was the last novel she was able to read. Her love of reading had already been instilled in me even at that early age; I was able to make my way through many of my favorite books on my own (largely by memory, I'm sure), which was a comfort in the weeks and months and years that followed, when she couldn't read to me anymore. Or to herself. With the kind of prescience that might seem the stuff of fiction, she had already passed on to me the joys of language and reading that the stroke stole from her. Of all the skills and abilities she has been able to recover, at least to some degree, reading lags the farthest behind.

My childhood was lived in books-Alice, Ramona, Jo March and Jane Eyre were as real to me as anyone else I knew, and a good deal more interesting. I admired their courage, envied their adventures, and emulated their mannerisms and ways of speaking. Because my mother taught me to love books, to love my own ability to read and imagine, I was able to seek out and connect with educators-a large majority of them women-who ultimately helped me craft a career out of that love. At every stage of schooling, I had the good fortune to be taken seriously by those who taught me; they loaned me books, sent my work into contests and competitions, and even paid for me to attend events and workshops that I'd have otherwise had to pass up. Most importantly, they encouraged me to keep moving forward: from high school to college, from college to graduate school, and from graduate school into the ranks of academia. I am struck by how often books served as gifts to mark the occasions of success along the way, slim or fat volumes each carrying handwritten wisdom from the giver in addition to the printed wisdom of the author. Yet the work of all these teachers-through high school, college, and graduate school-rests on the foundation so successfully laid by my mother.

As a mentor, my mother gave me more than just her love of books and her faith in education. Her all-out attack on those post-stroke barriers that separated her from the books she loved has impressed upon me the real power of determination, hard work, and graceful self-possession. She has never made excuses or exceptions for herself, and she refuses to let me make them for either of us. Any sentence I began with "Girls can't…" or "Girls aren't supposed to…" (recitations of things I'd often heard elsewhere in the family) was halted by an icy glare that did not need words for explanation. My mother's strength, her persistence, and her certainty that being female is a deep source of power prepared me for all that I would later learn about feminism. Her absolute refusal to accept the limitations placed upon her by so-called authorities who claim to be certain about her inabilities-and whom she delights in proving wrong-continues to inspire me. No matter what I undertake, she says, "You can do it." And she means it.

When I earned my PhD two years ago at the age of twenty-eight, my mother stood up during my hooding ceremony and cheered, sobbing, "We did it." Though we are now living 600 miles apart, she regularly checks in to see how my teaching-the career she'd planned but never got to pursue-is going. I tell her about the books I'm teaching, what I'm reading for fun, and she suggests good books that she's listened to on tape. As the youngest faculty member in my department, I am grateful for the mentoring relationships I've developed with several women among the senior faculty. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of these friendships began with the sharing of books. My office is a lending library of sorts (I can hear the gasps of horror now-yes, I let students borrow my books! And yes, they return them!). Zora Neale Hurston, Maryse Conde, and Toni Morrison barely make it home to the shelf before they're checked out again, and even Gertrude Stein and Emily Dickinson get their occasional days out. Quiet students who sit silent in class filter in to discuss what they've read-how it connects with their lives, their hopes, their imaginations. I am always honored, and frequently a bit startled, when a student refers to me as her mentor. It is not a relationship I take lightly-not after having had such formative and transformative relationships with mentors of my own.

When Teri and I began thinking about guest-editing this issue, and began discussing how we might open up a space for discussion of some element of women's writing, the proposal practically wrote itself. Nearly all of the work we found discussing mentorship among women focused on the workplace; a valuable type of mentorship, certainly, but the body of work discussing it failed to depict the particular kinship both Teri and I had always felt with books, with the women who created books, and with other women through discussions of books. We are delighted with the submissions we've received, and we are proud that this issue showcases a full range of scholarship, from undergraduates to established academics, each writing in her own voice about influential texts and influential women.

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