Witchy Women and Worlds Made of Words

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The moment my hands touched this book it began to whisper to me. It said I am the book you are looking. I am the book that you need. Right now. In this very moment. This very book. In your very hands. The cat on the cover nodded her head in agreement and gave a toothy feline yawn.

So, of course I had to buy it. It isn’t everyday that books whisper to me, though it happens more often than I probably ought to admit. And cats can be very persuasive.

The book and the cat were both right. This was exactly the book that I needed. I was reading Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches (new from Feminist Press’s Amethyst Editions) from before Halloween through the mid of November. My reading coincided with countless public revelations of harassment and assault by powerful men, with #metoo, with far too women having far too many awkward conversations with male friends and acquaintances and family members about what was going on and why and how.  I don’t know that I’ve been able to give my male friends any of the answers they seem to have hoped, as their designated feminist, that I could. But I have been sorely tempted to hand them this book.

We Were Witches is all about women. It’s a book about women writing ourselves, writing our worlds and asserting, through language, the shapes of our stories. It’s full of women’s voices, woven with women’s words and one young woman’s response to all these words  as she figures out how to craft her own story in a world that does not feel made for her. This is one of those books that wouldn’t feel quite complete without the Reading List at the back.

If this book hadn’t won me over with it’s first paragraph (I won’t spoil it here), it would have won me over by it’s third page and a section called “Freytag’s Pyramid,” which interrogates the notion of the traditional western plot diagram, of a story shaped like a penis with the climax at it’s tip. The Ariel of the story writes a note to the student sitting next to her in class:

I’m gonna put a vagina in the middle of my story, not the head of a penis.

As a consummate story nerd with no end of plot diagramming experiences and opinions, it was at this moment that I knew this book, not only spoke to me, but knew me. It could read my innermost thoughts and tell me they were shared. Like the Ariel of this novel, I had fallen under the spell of a feminist book.

But what I love most about We Were Witches, even more than the seriously self-reflexive moments it is able to induce in readers or its ability to use the word vagina without blushing, is the ease with which Gore moves between memoir and fiction, the real and the imagined, the realistic and the fantastical. There is no gap in these shifts. They move as naturally as one thought moves into another, almost unnoticed. I could never be sure, as I read, which parts of this book were real and which were imaginary. And, by the end, I wasn’t sure there was any difference between them. I was certain that, if there was, the difference didn’t matter.

Gore is a very generous writer. She is generous with words and feeling and image and form. Her generosity takes shape as empathy for her characters (including the Ariel who may or may not be the author in her youth), curiosity about ways of living in the world, and the space she continually creates for other voices and perspectives. This is one of the most earnestly generous books I’ve read recently. I believe we live in a time that desperately needs generous books.

It’s been disconcerting, to say the least, to be reading a book set in the conservativism of the early nineties – a book where a woman faces violence because she is a young single mother, a queer woman, an unmonied woman, and, simply, a woman – and feel that the book is speaking directly to today. Much has changed and little has changed and we still have so very far to go. But I’m glad to have this book with all its worlds made of words and its cat-like mischief and intensity and grace as a companion along the way.

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