Books
4:43 pm
Mon August 2, 2010

Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life by Kelly Cherry

Ms. Cherry is the author of 27 previous volumes of fiction, essays, poetry and translations from Greek and Latin. This is a mature, accomplished writer who shares in these essays, Girl in A Library, a variety of memories of her own life as a woman writer and a variety of opinions on which women writers we might pay more attention to.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

After a career at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kelly Cherry retired to Virginia but taught and wrote for a few semesters at the University of Alabama in Huntsville as Visiting Eminent Scholar. Colleagues and students there remember her warmly, and she says of that time: "teaching at UAH was one of the great pleasures of my life."

Ms. Cherry is the author of 27 previous volumes of fiction, essays, poetry and translations from Greek and Latin. This is a mature, accomplished writer who shares in these essays, Girl in A Library, a variety of memories of her own life as a woman writer and a variety of opinions on which women writers we might pay more attention to.

There is a long essay on "Saint Maybe," the twelfth novel by Anne Tyler, the popular Baltimore fiction writer who is almost as fastidious in her demand for privacy as our own Harper Lee. Cherry writes of the power of guilt in human life and discusses the possibility that we might live in an indifferent universe, but one in which "faith is possible only if morality is not."

Cherry has a long essay on four women writers she feels deserve attention: Colleen J. McElroy, Gayle Jones, Rita Dove and Ntozake Shange. The poet Rita Dove and the playwright Shange have certainly achieved considerable recognition since Cherry's essay, but one might argue that writers sometimes receive attention because of such critical essays. Being written about, in the world of serious literature, is crucial to enlarging the kind of audience that a serious writer desires.

Closer to home, Cherry writes of Alabama's Mary Ward Brown and her two volumes of superb short stories, Tongues of Flame (1986) and It Wasn't All Dancing (2002). Cherry's subtitle says a lot: "Art We Cannot Live Without." In this essay she praises Brown for her intelligence, her calm and her truth-telling, especially since she is writing about the Deep South in that most perilous era, the late fifties and the sixties, when conditions regarding class and race were changing fast and no one knew where we were headed. Cherry notes that power shifted abruptly in places like Greene County, site of "A Meeting on the Road": "A younger generation labors under the unresolved resentments and anxieties of an older." In "Fruit of the Season," old resentments lie just beneath the surface, but in Brown's memoir piece "Swing Low," we see clearly that powerful emotions include love and that black and white were, sometimes, not just "like" family, but were truly bonded.

A number of these essays are memoir, obviously the story of Cherry's life, but more specifically, her life as a writer. It seems unlikely now, when English departments are majority female and women writers thrive in writing programs, but in Kelly Cherry's college years it was not the case. She records a certain amount of the difficulties she had being taken seriously, but is also generous in her portraits of the men who were more than helpful, who cared about the writing itself. It should come as no surprise that the names of Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Richard Dillard and, as always, George Garrett, appear prominently. One doesn't hear much about this anymore, but people such as Taylor, Chappell and Garrett used to be literally famous for being kind and generous with their time and energy to promising young writers, including women.

The situation may have been especially difficult for young Southern writers, being raised to be ladies. As a student home on Christmas break Cherry showed her mother a poem she had written which contained the word "nipple." The doctor explained afterwards that mother had had a "mock heart attack." Mother went to bed. "My father was disgusted with me; he thought I had killed her, or more or less killed her, or at any rate sort of mock-killed her."

As with parents, so too with husbands. At Cherry's engagement party, Peter Taylor's wife, Eleanor, took the groom aside and admonished him: "You are marrying a writer. You must not ask her to do the dishes." The groom forgot within a week. The marriage lasted only three years.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on August 2, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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