In Part and Parcel, I talk with writers and artists about a fascinating facet of their work.
Beauty leads to vulnerability, and beauty is most often seen as a feminine quality. These concepts are thoroughly, almost obviously embedded in our culture.
In her newest book of poems, Why God Is a Woman (BOA Editions Ltd., 2015), Nin Andrews brilliantly subverts our notions about gender, identity, appearance, and value. She invents a utopian island where women are known for being biologically wired to be hard-working and in positions of power (while looking like Angelina Jolie); in contrast, men are soft, lovely, weak, domestic, and assigned to master a text called "Relinquishing Self." Men make 70 cents on the dollar as compared to women's salaries, and are often harassed or victimized for their beauty.
What amazes me about these prose poems is that they are never gimmicky. Truly, they are believable, painful anecdotes told to us by a male speaker on this Island. I found myself immediately feeling empathy for this speaker, finding some of the poems sad or funny or alarming. But Andrews also forces us to see that her Island is eerily familiar, and that our own notions of gender and identity are indeed sad, funny, alarming, and in desperate need of critique.
NOTE: My questions appear in bold. After the mini-interview, you'll find three poems from the book (which appear with the permission of the author) and the author's bio. Images courtesy of the author.
Q: As I read your collection, I kept thinking about the concept of discovery and revelation. You feed the reader fragments of the speaker's experience as a man growing up and living on this female-dominated Island. In writing these poems, how did you ration the Island's (and the speaker's) secrets and truths? What aspects of the Island or these poems surprised you even as you invented them?
A: I discovered the story of the Island as I wrote it, so there was no holding back or rationing. It felt like a dream I half-remembered. A place I might have lived in a past life. It seemed so real to me. Or as real as dreams seem when you are asleep. At once beautiful and disturbing, magical and oppressive, the Island was a place revealed to me, bit by bit, through the speaker.
I suppose you could say the speaker, himself, came to me in fragments. The first time I thought of the speaker was many years ago--on an autumn evening when I was teased by young male friends for being afraid to walk to my car after dark in downtown Cleveland. There are street lights, they said. There are people around, and cars driving by. You will be fine. I thought, men don't understand.
I wondered what it would be like if men were the second sex, the beautiful sex, the more common targets of cat-calls and sexual assault. I pictured them then, my beautiful men, with long dark hair and eyelashes, plump lips and thighs, and wings. Yes, wings. These men, I decided, would live on an island--a place isolated from the rest of the world--and be the last descendants of the angels, and everyone would want to ride them. People would come from all over the world, wanting my Island men. But what lives would they lead then? I wasn't sure. So I invented one Islander who would tell me his life story as well as the story of the Island.
What surprised me was the extent to which my Islander as well as his fellow men suffered because they were beautiful. How beauty defined them. In other words, what surprised me is how much women give up to be beautiful. How much peace of mind and how many hours and dollars they spend on their hair, makeup and figures. And how their beauty both shapes and trumps other forms of success. And how they/we are trained in subservience, passivity, acquiescence. How they/we have learned to accept this lower status. And how deeply it's engrained in our culture, our religion, our philosophy.
Years ago, when I studied religion and philosophy, I thought it was funny that Aristotle saw women as one step above slaves, that Plato thought only men have souls, and that the best women can hope for is to be reborn as men in their next life--a belief common in Buddhism. And I laughed at how Christianity blames Eve for the fall from Eden, and preaches that the man must be head of the household. But oddly, it was only when I made these fictional men suffer from these belief systems that I understood how completely demoralizing it is. And how these sexist belief systems still shape our culture, as well as cultures around the world.
THREE POEMS FROM WHY GOD IS A WOMAN
On the Island where I come from
parents worship their daughters. They invest all their hopes for the future in their girls, spoiling them rotten, letting them do and have whatever they wish. When I was a boy, my family was no different. While my sisters were allowed to go out night after night, I was never out of my parents' sight. Like all proper Island boys, I knew I had to remain a virgin. I had to keep my reputation as clean as freshly bleached linen. But by the time I was twelve, I wanted to go out on the town. I wanted to fly around after dark. It's not fair, I complained. My sisters don't have to abide by the rules. Why do I? My father said what he always said. You aren't a girl, son. God didn't make us equals.
Until I was eighteen, my father kept me indoors, checking on me after he turned out the lights. A home-maker and charm-school graduate himself, he was forever tidying the kitchen and garden as well as my hair, my wardrobe and my changing moods. He knew when the first sign of desire crossed my mind, and when I kissed my neighbor, Angelina, on the sly. He knew when I smoked my first cigarette and drank beer with the cool kids after school. And he knew when anger flared beneath my obedient smile. Anger, he said, is unbecoming of a proper Island boy.
On the Island where I come from
there are many stories about why the Island men grow wings. In one story, the Island men are said to be the last living descendants of the angels. Blown from heaven in a moment of God's wrath, the winged men landed on the Island where they were rescued and nursed back to health by Island women. For this reason, they are forever in the Island women's debt. They serve the women however they can, cooking their meals, cleaning their homes, and raising their children. In another story the Island men are considered an endemic species, much like Darwin's finches. The wings, it is speculated, once helped the Island men escape from predators. Why only the men have wings, no one knows.
But in the most popular story, wings evolved as a way for Island men to attract mates. After all, the Island women prefer men with wings. Wings are considered the essence of the Island male's mystique, much as blond hair or large breasts are a part of the feminine mystique in Europe and America. For all Islanders know that men with big wings are the most desirable. And foreign men are as appealing as eunuchs. The wings are what set the Island man apart. Wings are that something extra all Island women seek. Food and sex and money are never enough for her. She wants more, always more. An Island woman wants to fly. And not just in her dreams.
On the Island where I grew up
pubescent boys wear absorbent pads on their backs when their wings are sprouting. The pads soak up the blood, though leakages occur, and boys often complain that they feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. By the age of sixteen most wings are fully formed. But in one out of ten cases, one or both wings stay lodged beneath the skin and must be surgically removed. Wing retention is usually caused by poverty or anorexia, for lack of nutrition inhibits proper wing development. Many boys envy their wingless friends who are not seen as sexual targets by the Island women or foreigners who compare our virgin boys to angels and will pay a high price to be the first to ride them.
ABOUT NIN ANDREWS
Nin Andrews grew up on a farm in Charlottesville, Virginia. She received her BA from Hamilton College, and her MFA from Vermont College. She is the author of numerous books, including Why God Is a Woman (BOA, 2015); Spontaneous Breasts, winner of the Pearl Chapbook Contest; Any Kind of Excuse, winner of the Kent State University chapbook contest; The Book of Orgasms; and Sleeping with Houdini (BOA), named one of ten best poetry books of 2010 by the Monserrat Review. Her poems and stories appear widely in such places as Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry, Great American Prose Poems, and elsewhere. Married to Jim Andrews, a physicist and a university professor at Youngstown State University, she lives and writes in Poland, Ohio.