Editor’s Letter 2.4

Dear Readers,

This morning, as I traipsed the mile or so from my apartment in Greenwich Village to our new office on the Lower East Side, the Missing Persons song “Words” popped into my brain. It starts with “Do you hear me? / Do you care?” and the chorus is “What are words for / when no one listens anymore.” Not to project epistemological profundity on an early-eighties pop song, but “Words” is about the limits of discourse, about the difference between broadcasting your thoughts and conversation.

The slippery, contentious nature of language became, as it turns out, the theme of this issue. Of course, words don’t have to be empty, worthless, in bad faith, or plagiarized. I spent days trying to write something worth reading about the Judy Chicago retrospective and can attest to the labor involved in thinking your way through a puzzle, dilemma, or idea. Writing was key to Judy Chicago’s origin story, as it turns out. In the early 1970s, she was struggling to resolve a conflict between the rhetoric she used with students—she preached “exposure” and working out of “real feelings”—and the rigid structure of her own work. Chicago’s mentor Anaïs Nin advised her to write her “way through this incredible confusion.” The result was a remarkable series of five text-heavy “Rejection Drawings” (Prismacolor and graphite on paper, 1974) featuring the botanical iconography we most associate with Chicago. All this writing yielded the insight that Chicago was protecting her vulnerable core from a macho art world—suppressing “femaleness in order to express” her “artistness.” In 1975, she published Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, her first of nine books. Words—names, anecdotes, questions, biographies—populate her most famous pieces, like The Dinner Party (1975–79).

The singer-songwriter Dar Williams’s origin story also involves writing herself out of confusion and into a creative breakthrough. In her recent book How to Write a Song that Matters, she describes how the line “When I was a boy” entered her brain one day and wouldn’t leave, which Williams found concerning. This was in the mid-1990s and she was ensconced in the “lesbian mecca” of Northampton, Massachusetts. “The feminists are going to kill me,” Williams remembers thinking. “Why would a woman call her childhood her boyhood? But the phrase was insistent. I kept on listening and letting the song unfurl.” The song became “When I Was a Boy,” which launched her career and it is a reliable tear-jerker for me to this day. As Williams let the song germinate, she didn’t imagine that “feminists would understand what it meant to feel that ‘boy’ feeling in my blood as a child. I didn’t know how many men would talk with me and write me letters about their gender identity.” She just trusted that if the song was true for her, it mattered enough for her to write it, no matter how scared she was of the feminists.

I was reminded recently that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to make “the feminists are going to kill me” our issue’s theme for the past year. It’s my version of trying to make “fetch” happen, I guess. As usual, Charis made sense of this urge. “I think ‘the feminists are going to kill me’ isn’t a single issue’s theme,” Charis said. “It’s more . . . LIBER’s tagline.” Indeed, LIBER’s editorial orientation takes as already well-established the fact that patriarchy victimizes, and so we don’t spill much ink on, say, #MeToo. Instead, we’re curious about heterodoxy, transgressions, trashing, irrational fears, sacred cows, and comments like “we’re not allowed to talk about women anymore.” In other words, we explore the perverse dramas and totalizing statements found in the feminist movement, with its distinct history and particular cast of characters. We value this history, and so we write about feminism, even as “the list of what progressive rhetoric has not achieved goes on and on,” as Charis notes in her essay. Still, here we are with a new issue, making another attempt at mutual intelligibility. (Cue Dale Bozzio.)

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