DIGEST October 2022

Women’s Lives—by Ariyoshi, Yakhina, and Davis

This summer, I read several books about the lives of women, written by women. Reading about the lives of women from their perspective still has a transgressive aspect, even though women are writing fiercely right now, and have been for a long time. Narratives about men from the male point of view dominate how the world is explained, justified and represented—what is deemed to matter—even today. Here are three alternatives.

The River Ki, by Sawako Ariyoshi

Sawako Ariyoshi, who died in 1984, was a famous female Japanese novelist and playwright at a time when very few Japanese women were published. Her writing focused on the lives of women and on social issues such as the well-being of the elderly, and the preservation of the environment. The River Ki, published in 1959, chronicles three generations of women in a wealthy rural family like her own. Hana, the central character, is a beautiful, highly literate and cultured young woman, thanks to the emphasis her willful grandmother, Toyono, has placed on girls’ education. Yet, Hana must accept an arranged marriage and leave her own family behind, going down the River Ki in a spectacular boat procession to join the Matani clan. Ariyoshi describes the traditional, pre-war way of life in Japan in subtle and telling detail. This depicts Hana’s wedding night:

“Given the education she had received, for Hana to be alone for the first time with a person of the opposite sex was already a traumatizing situation. Held tight by Keisaku, her body frozen, she did not even think about the Utamaro print depicting people in strange positions that her grandmother had slipped into her handkerchief holder as an amulet. Trying to overcome the pain, she pressed her neck into her wood pillow, taking good care not to disturb her elaborately styled hair. Even in such a circumstance, her education required her to preserve appearances.”

Hana supports Fumio, her unconventional daughter, and Hanako, her studious and thoughtful granddaughter, through all the change and turmoil leading up to and through the Second World War. The free-thinking Fumio, who has sought refuge with her children in Hana’s serene countryside home during the war, notices that in this time of crisis, Japanese women have bucked tradition and returned to their own mothers with their children: “Mother, don’t you think that the matriarchal system of primitive society was more in line with nature? It’s the woman’s family we turn to in case of need.”

Hana is startled by this question, and suddenly understands something she hadn’t been able to put her finger on. But she knows that particular change has come too late for her: “The house that had sheltered the patriarchal family was definitely being shaken by the storm of changing times, but Hana was not allowed to leave it. She would stay quietly in the main room until its large beams collapsed on her and the home was reduced to ashes.”

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina

Guzel Yakhina, a Tatar writer born in 1977, lives in Russia and writes in Russian. Tatars, the descendants of Mongol invaders, were, centuries later, conquered by the Russian empire; they retained forms of self-government in the Volga/Tatarstan region, in Crimea, as well as in Kazakhstan, into the 1920s. Stalin deported them en masse from Crimea to Uzbekistan in 1944, after accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis (does this sound familiar?). In the 1930s, he also deported the most prosperous of them from Tatarstan, a catastrophic event that provides the context for Zuleikha’s story.

A sweeping and lyrical saga taking place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Zuleikha describes events of such intensity that I could only read a few pages a day. Zuleikha, a green-eyed Tatar girl married to Murtaza, a 45-year-old prosperous peasant, has been raised to be a submissive, pious and hard-working wife and daughter-in-law. At age 20, she has already lost four children, all infant girls, and is constantly harassed by her mother-in-law, whom she secretly calls the Vampire.

Zuleikha’s tradition-bound and oppressive existence is upended when Stalin orders the “de-kulakization” (dispossession and deportation of the kulaks, the wealthiest peasants) of the countryside. Murtaza is killed and Zuleikha finds herself on a prison train that takes her and other peasants (mostly non-Russian minorities) to the Far East, along with a motley group of St. Petersburg artists and intellectuals and a kind but mad gynecologist, under the watch of a Russian army officer, Ignatov. Left for two years to fend for themselves on the shores of the remote Angara River, they survive in unfathomable conditions, only to fall under the brutal and absurd rule of the Soviet penal colony system once the Soviet authorities return. For Zuleikha, who realizes she is pregnant with Murtaza’s child early in the train trip, more hardship is in store, but also unexpected freedoms, and even an affair with Ignatov:

“For a while now, Zuleikha had been doing many things that would have, in older times, seemed shameful, impossible. She rarely prayed, and always in a rush. She had convinced herself that Allah was unable to see them and hear them during the great winter famine: if the Almighty had heard even one of the thousands of tearful prayers that Zuleikha had addressed to him during that time, he could not have left her, or Yusuf [her newborn son], without his merciful support. (…)

She walked regularly in the deep forest, alone. Zuleikha had not met any resident spirits in the forest, either because spirits did not live in these remote parts of the universe, or because they were more discreet and wise than the spirits in the forests of Yulbach [her husband’s village]. (…) She could have tried to give them food to have them come out, show themselves, and maybe place her under their protection. But she could not imagine for one moment depriving her son of the smallest morsel of food (…)

She had stopped her daily honoring of the memory of her husband, her mother-in-law and her daughters; she didn’t have the strength to do it, and whatever energy she had left was for Yusuf. It seemed stupid, unreasonable to waste precious minutes to evoke the dead, when she could devote them to a small living being who waited all day, eagerly, for the cuddles and the kisses of his mother.

She worked all day next to a man, Achkenazi, who was not her relative. Their shoulders hit each other frequently, and even their hands touched: the canteen’s kitchen was narrow. (…)

And no chasm had opened under her feet, no vengeful lightning had come down from the sky, no forest devils had tried to catch her in sticky spiderwebs.”

In Russian, the book’s title is: Zuleikha opens her eyes. And indeed, she does.

As I read this book, I could not help but think of current events in Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. Crimean Tatars, who, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, had returned from Uzbekistan to the Ukrainian-ruled peninsula, are now targeted by Russia for mobilization in its armed forces to fight Ukraine. The persistent brutality of the Russian empire is unleashed in a new form.

Finding Me, by Viola Davis

Viola Davis, the acclaimed, Academy award-winning Black American actress (she also has an Emmy for her TV work, and two Tonys for her theater performances), is a raw and gripping memoirist. Born in South Carolina, Davis grew up in Rhode Island in extreme poverty, in rat-infested apartments that regularly caught fire, with holes in her shoes, subject to constant racist taunting from her classmates, with an alcoholic father who beat her mother.

That Davis became who she is today is simply astonishing. That, as a celebrity, she is willing to describe her past with such honesty is no less amazing: “We were ‘po.’ That’s a level lower than poor. I’ve heard some of my friends say, “We were poor, too, but I just didn’t know it until I got older.” We were poor and we knew it,” Davis writes.

It’s tempting to focus on what outside forces make it possible for Davis to escape: her mother, a civil rights activist and formidable force who finds ways of feeding and clothing her children, even if barely; her sisters, who stand together against the world (their one brother sexually abuses them); teachers who take an interest in Viola and recognize her talent; her father, who, despite his profound flaws, manages to convey his support to the young Viola; the federally funded Upward Bound Program that supports talented but underprivileged students to spend six weeks in the summer on a college campus to take classes and prepare for college (it came out of the 1965 US War on Poverty, and yes, it still exists!); and Ron Stetson, her acting coach in the program. But mostly, it’s something in Viola, a brilliance, a determination, and a deep desire to be seen, loved, and understood:

“[Ron] gave me the first ingredient I needed to be an artist, the power to create. The power of alchemy, that magical process of transformation and creation to believe at any given time I could be the somebody I always wanted to be.

I became an actor because it’s a healing wellspring. Drama provided an escape. The emotional release acting allowed gave me great joy. Perfect joy. When I was acting, I felt everything—every last receptor in my body was alive, 100 percent alive, and I was not hiding anything.”

Davis was accepted on the spot in the Theater Program at Juilliard, after a hilarious and unorthodox audition where she told them she couldn’t stay in New York City the several days auditions normally took: “I just thought you should know, I’ve got forty-five minutes. I’m doing a play in Providence. My half-hour call is at 7:30. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour train ride. You have to tell me whether I’m in or out.” I can’t believe I said that. They looked shocked, as if I pimp-slapped them.”

Davis’ four years at Juilliard were a constant struggle to connect to her true self and her own artistry: “It was arduous listening and watching white guest actors perform, white playwrights coming in to speak, white projects, white characters, a European approach to the work, speech, voice, movement. Everyone was geared toward molding and shaping you into a perfect white actor. I’m a dark-skinned Black actress with a deep voice. No matter how much I adhere to the training, when I walk out into the world I will be seen as a dark-skinned Black woman with a deep voice.”

A cultural learning trip to The Gambia during her studies helped Davis begin to find herself: “For two years I thought the rule was to erase and negate oneself. That’s what I was doing. Lose the voice, speech, walk, face… lose the Blackness.” But in The Gambia, “in the midst of my people, I found it. I found the party inside me. The celebration that needs to happen to combat the pain and trauma of memory. I found that there is no creating without using you.” [my emphasis]

How did Davis make it out? “There is no out. Every painful memory, every mentor, every friend and foe serves as a chisel, a leap pad that has shaped “ME!”. My elixir? I’m no longer ashamed of me. I own everything that has ever happened to me. The parts that were a source of shame are actually my warrior fuel.”

If you want to see the latest incarnation of Viola Davis as a warrior, treat yourself to her recent movie, The Woman King, where she leads the historical Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, in a fictionalized but satisfying epic against 19th century slave traders and other enemies. The Black, female ensemble cast is superb, and Davis is, as always, mesmerizing—and also the fittest she’s ever been!

In solidarity and love for all the feminist storytellers,