The Erasure and Self-erasure of Women's Voices
The multiple modes of the erasure and self-erasure of women’s voices sit heavy with me this morning. I’ve read a beautiful and daring text entitled Women and Ghosts, by Kristina Marie Darling, which is part essay and part prose-poem, all experimental, where line-throughs, footnotes, multiple narrative lines, and alternating gradients of text are used to tell stories of female negations with silences and near silences—those that speak to the horror one can feel to realize that the acceptance of internalized conditioning to be less, to take up less space, is actually the most dangerous act a woman can commit or condone on a path to empowerment—and these have a long history. Kristina Marie Darling’s Women and Ghosts is a terrifying read, one well worth the time. For me, it felt like a beautiful funeral shroud, a gossamer wrap of a book I was reminded to cut myself free from in order to survive.
In this book, death, denial, self-sacrifice, and romance are inexorably linked. Gender and gender privilege are examined. The author is subversive in her inclusions and omissions, and the lines are meant to be catalysts toward appropriate rage. “In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia drowns under the weight of her own dress,” Women and Ghosts begins. “I had never imagined before that plain white silk could kill.”
But plain white silk didn’t kill, the reader may argue, jarred already by muted color of the words and the obvious falsehood they champion. Since when was a dress capable of killing? Enter now Darling’s world of realigning the reader’s reality by engaging in disruptive discourse. As the author expects the reader to remember, Ophelia, after losing her lover to palace intrigues, drowns herself in Hamlet. Surely her dress is not to blame, and neither is the water in which Ophelia, off-stage, drowns. At a deeper level, all readers familiar with Shakespeare’s play are aware that the lead character Hamlet’s rejection causes Ophelia’s complete self-immolation. And yet, in line one, Darling adjusts the narrative to hide the crime, makes excuses for it, blames a party blameless as a starry night or a sparkling lake, as written history often does, blurring the lines of blame in order to appropriately question them, where the dress in a virginal hue, ode to female innocence or purity, a highly gendered garment, takes betrayal’s place as villain.
Welcome to the nightmare gender labyrinth of refutation and disavowal. Not to read too much into this single line, but I already felt a chill travel my spine to see the exchange of correctly placed blame for self-defeating symbology and experienced a simultaneous awareness that this chill was intentionally created by the skillful author to highlight the contrast text the reader proceeds with as a paralleled modern “I” woman examines Ophelia’s plight and concurrently exists in a terrifying room where lovers spar and the ambient temperature grows colder and colder, as a modern man serves her joint bouts of gaslighting and liquor, tantamount to emotional abuse. Between doses of his cruelty and lack of returned care, in a sort of willful thought departure, the narrator muses on the aspects of Hamlet’s Ophelia plot most difficult and “unsayable,” at one point asking, “But what does it mean to give one’s consent? We are led and misled by those we love…” where a similar facility of displacement puts the reader right into the ghosted narrative of being two places at once, both interred in a historical play with a dead female victim of self-slaughter and standing in the midst of a new tragic history played out, where the “I” protagonist, already muted by pale ink, lives through a similar sort of identity reduction.
It is telling enough that this modern narrator says, “When he smiled, I felt my whole body grow colder,” where it seems as if a man’s cold judgment, masked by the false mirth of a smile, is on deliberate parallel with a lake in which to drown. Darling’s use of white space here, of incomplete interactions, of dissonance in the said/unsaid, is masterful.
Enter Shakespeare’s own words, often, as foil. Boldly on the pages that follow this opening line, interlacing at strategic intervals, the font periodically darkens, and the reader finds lined-through quotes from the bard, carefully excerpted to highlight the age old dilemma of inadequate self-valuation, of lost agency, of roles, one of such line-through excerpts reading, for example, “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched…”
Here we see the duality of the work’s intent. On the one hand, this text receiving line-through, seems an empowering strategy where Ophelia’s self-negation is defeated by being struck from the record by a female author. However, it is also a female author’s inclusion of a man’s depiction of a woman’s defeat in darker text than the narrative of the modern fictive woman beside it. As in a painting, a color is best read in context, beside another color—so, surrounded by the pale gray text of the I narrator, the stronger hue of a man’s words, lined out or not, seem to extend the struck sentiment well beyond the century in which it was crafted.
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