Roripaugh’s craft talk, “Five Uneasy Pieces About (Writing) Anger,” was originally published in The Southeast Review's October 2017 Writer’s Regimen.
During a graduate thesis workshop, your white male colleague (now retired) tells a female graduate student that stories of sexual abuse are passé. That they’ve been done to death. He says this authoritatively—casually, as if noticing that culottes are no longer in fashion. He advises looking for another topic.
The student is not a strong writer, but her problems, as you see them, are technical, not thematic. You feel that her narrative is both powerful and grippingly awful, and that she simply needs to find the right way to unlock the material.
You wonder about your own experiences with sexual abuse, and if your colleague would dismiss them as passé. You yourself have not found the right way to unlock this material. Instead, you hold it within yourself. It feels like an undetonated bomb. You feel that approaching your narrative – which seems inevitable, and yet you hesitate – will require the delicacy of a bomb squad and you worry that you’ll blow yourself up in the process. Sometimes you feel emotionally muffled due to the bomb-proof exterior of the surrounding detonation chamber.
This is, not surprisingly, the same colleague who writes pervy stories and poems about sleeping with/lusting after young coeds. You feel these stories are the ones that are passé. And creepy, to boot. The colleague, however, would argue that he’s following a legitimate literary lineage in the tradition of Nabokov.
This is also, not coincidentally, the same colleague who has been known to dismiss students’ work as “women’s writing.”
When you are eight years old you are molested by the boy who lives across the street, a doctor’s son. Your parents don’t respond well when you tell them. They alternately blame, shame, and silence you. Over the years, when you bring it up and try to talk to them about it, they dismiss your anger, and say that you always try to blame your problems on someone else. It takes you 40 years to finally unlock this material, in a lyric flash essay/prose poem, titled “Femanint,” and you put it off until the last possible minute—when it is the missing puzzle piece to an otherwise finished book.
“Femanint” drafts itself easily, in one quick sitting, once you finally write it. After you finish the draft, you vomit. Instinctively, you understand that writing this piece will be an unforgivable act in your parents’ eyes. They are your only living family. After the book is accepted for publication, you agonize over what to do. You scour the piece for anything that is deliberately shaming or mean-spirited. You ask trusted friends to scour the piece for anything that seems deliberately shaming or mean-spirited. You understand that your parents will perceive your disclosure of this particular narrative as shaming and mean-spirited, but that is not your intention. You want to be able to own your own anger about this narrative while simultaneously being compassionate. Is it possible to feel both anger and compassion at the same time? You think it is, and this is the place you want to write from, but you aren’t sure if you achieve this in the piece and to be perfectly honest, you still aren’t sure.
The piece isn’t even really about your parents so much as it is about you, your narrative, your agency, your body, and your emotions, and your anger about how women (and girls) are objectified in ways that deny them their own subjectivity. How can one even be a person if you’re never allowed to feel safe or comfortable in your very own body? How can one even be a person if you can’t break your own silences?
Ironically, “Femanint” isn’t the poem that gets you disowned. Your parents’ across-the-street neighbors print off the Amazon listing and sample poem for your book when they’re printing something else off from the internet for your parents. They think your parents will be pleased by this. The poem they print off “The Planet of Dandar” is, to your mind, not even a problematic poem with respect to your parents.
Your elderly parents do not speak to you for over three years. It’s not their anger, which you anticipated and which they are fully entitled to, which bothers you, it’s the fact that their love is seemingly, and always has been, conditional.
Anger is a difficult emotion for you to carry. This is probably why you are writing this in second person. It feels like a kind of emotional flu. It makes your body feel ill. Because you were never allowed to express anger as a child or teenager, it always comes heavily larded with shame. Sometimes when you are very very angry, you begin, humiliatingly, to cry.
Of course, it’s easy for you to express anger toward abstractions, toward systemic oppressions (sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).
What’s difficult is to express anger toward other people. To actually say the words/admit that you’re really angry. (Not troubled, not concerned, not bothered. Angry.) You know that you truly love and feel safe with someone when you’re able to tell them: “I’m really angry with you.” How strange that for you, being able to express anger has somehow become the shibboleth for love, intimacy, safety.
Lately, you’ve been thinking a lot about the taboo of female rage. And the way that anger is gendered. Male anger, for example, seems to be much more easily and frequently perceived and represented in positive terms: rational, assertive, noble, justice-seeking, heroic. Whereas female anger seems to be much more easily and frequently perceived and represented in negative terms: irrational, shrill, petty, spiteful, vengeance-seeking, manipulative.
You’ve also been thinking about the ways in which the permission to express anger is so oftentimes aligned with other forms of privilege, as well. To express anger from the margins of race, orientation, gender identity, and ability—to speak truth to the center in ways that de-center—is always/already a “problem,” always/already incurs a backlash of white, male, cis-het, abled fragilities.
Recently, you have been writing about the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, and for this project you’ve created a supervillainess named Tsunami. One of the things that you love about Tsunami is that she is organically, force-of-nature-ishly, unabashedly angry when she’s angry.
No second person for her.
No second guessing for her.
She matter-of-factly breaks the taboo of female rage easy peasy as cracking open an egg, easy peasy as cracking apart a nuclear reactor core.
The shape of something gun-like, concealed beneath nylon.
The metallic clang of a cashbox against asphalt.
Paint flecks from the aluminum railing sweated into the crease of your palm.
Grit of concrete against bare skin.
Disassociational blur of leaf-shadows’ jumbled quavering.
(He says that he’s doing this to you because you’re half Japanese. He shakes the cash box, says the girl who lives next door to him, has paid him to do this to you.)
Feeling trapped: growing up across the street from your sexual abuser.
Feeling trapped: alone in your grad-student rental house when my drunken lover comes over after a quarrel, breaks down the door, and beats you until the police come.
Feeling trapped: stuck in a country that’s elected into its highest office a man who brags about sexually assaulting women.
The trigger sometimes a queasy slur of panic and nausea; sometimes a dangerously still icy clarity that latches onto an escape strategy, any escape strategy, no matter how self-destructive, like an animal chewing off its own leg, to escape feeling trapped.
For you, the way out of the trap has always been through reading, through writing. Being able to see your experiences, your marginalizations, your oppressions, mirrored in language. Being able to articulate these things in language, has always, for you, served as a way to restore agency and voice, and by extension to move out of the space of feeling like a silenced, trapped, static object into a speaking, moving, living subject.
In many ways, perhaps this is an anti-craft essay, because anger, and by extension writing about and around anger, is anything but crafted: inelegant, aesthetically messy, unstable, volatile.
Its strikes you, however, that now is not a time for silence, and that perhaps, as writers, we find ways to give artistic voice to our anger: however inelegant, however aesthetically messy.
Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. Her latest collection, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 is forthcoming with Milkweed Editions.