By Angelina Eimannsberger
After connecting through our magazine’s Instagram account with Sarah Schulman, I had the pleasure to meet her for an interview, on New York’s first snowy day of the season. We talked at a café in the East Village, the neighborhood of this novelist’s life and location of much of her fiction and nonfiction writing, from the early novel Girls, Visions and Everything chronicling lesbian life in the 1980s to a recent exploration of AIDS and gentrification in The Gentrification of the Mind.
We discussed Schulman’s latest novel, The Cosmopolitans (Feminist Press 2016), and her experience teaching fiction writing at a public college on Staten Island. Meeting her for the first time, I was most impressed by her warmth but well prepared for the many insights she casually shared over soup and coffee. This is a woman who has spent decades thinking and writing, insisting on the validity and beauty and realness of lesbian lives, angry girls, people with AIDS—in short, non-neoliberal lives of all kinds–through different periods of mainstream marginalization and attempts at erasure. Schulman critiques MFA-programs that produce a dominant contemporary literature homogenous in class, style, and storytelling, her work resists the brief attention spans of a twitter President and a country deeply troubled to conceptualize of the reality of any not white not male not cis-heteronormative life, thus nudging “American Literature” towards an understanding that a Philip Roth or Jack Kerouac -like inspection of man’s life is not the only type of narrative worth telling.
Asserting Women’s Reality from the 1950s to Today: Spinsters and New Women
Set in the 1950s in Greenwich Village, The Cosmopolitans is the story of the white spinster Bette and her neighbor and life friend, the black gay actor Earl. In the world of the novel, the plot ends when the life of its real-life author begins, “in that very building on Tenth Street, down the hall from Bette and Earl.” (369) Bette is loosely based on a woman living alone in the building where Schulman was born. The novel joins this woman remembered from childhood, unusual to be living alone and an American white Protestant, with Honoré de Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette, which had stayed with Schulman since a class on French realism in college. Schulman sets this story of a spinster character in James Baldwin’s post-war bohemia. Of this second literary collocutor, Schulman says, “the Baldwin, of course, I’d always read but it bothered me that the women weren’t real characters.” Her novel attends to the same place and time as Baldwin but introduces the realness of female characters. Besides Baldwin, we usually know of the 1950s as a conservative time of heteronormativity and misogyny, such as in the television series Mad Men. However, Schulman points out that there also was a small avant-garde offering different depictions of women, for example in the novels of Patricia Highsmith including The Price of Salt, inspiration for the movie Carol, or in the ‘career girl’ genre. Schulman recalls enjoying Cherry Ames, Student Nurse or the series about the detective Nancy Drew. However, she insists that these were “a marginalized literature for girls, not ‘American literature’.” They have not been adopted into the literary canon like Balzac or, to a smaller extent, Baldwin. This was entertainment for girls, not stories meant to represent our culture. By taking on the classic French realist novel and the revolutionary but male-centric Baldwin, Schulman adds the realness of women of the 1950s and specifically in New York’s postwar bohemia and the queer world of the Village.
Bette isn’t the only intricate female character in The Cosmopolitans. At work, she meets and admires a marketing consultant. Valerie is an empowered urban woman who does not allow the re-domestication of women in the 1950s to keep her from having her own career. Schulman says, “Valerie is a new type of woman. She’s the first person who says to Bette, ‘you’re very smart, you’re very talented, you could go places and have adventures.’” Marketing has long been an interest of Schulman’s, in particular in her nonfiction book Stagestruck. Schulman explains why it is very likely for Valerie to be in marketing: “When new fields are invented, women tend to do better in them. That’s why there were so many women psychoanalysts for example because it was a new field. So advertising was a new field, and women were in that field. So one of the ironies of advertising is that women rose to the top but the whole concept of advertising was just an idea of women that was very destructive. So women were able to do well in a business that was actually making it impossible for women to live.” And yet, for Bette, meeting Valerie is a revelation. Schulman reminds me, “Bette was in the first generation of women who could even vote, but then in the postwar, you have that incredible cultural regression where women who had worked in the factories were sent back into the domestic realm.” Bette pays the price for resisting this cultural regression. She does not live a banal suburban life, dependent on a male breadwinner. Instead, Bette has an urban life in the queer world of the Village, supporting herself with her own wage labor and building life and relations from scratch.
The reader does not know of Bette’s sexuality, only that she slept with a man while a young girl, committing a sexual transgression that made her family cut ties with her. Schulman explains “I’m not sure that Bette is so straight. She has a story that keeps her away from heterosexuality, which is the story of her past. We never see her interested in any man, ever. She’s a spinster. And the spinster character is a very interesting role. Because sometimes things aren’t possible for people.” Earl and Bette share this story of a sexual transgression. We don’t see Bette labeled gay or straight, but her family experience is similar to a queer person’s family experience, creating a shared history that helps her an Earl become each other’s self-made family.
Talking about other contemporary writing and who is telling marginalized stories, Schulman says, “most of my friends are artists so I read all of my friends’ books, for example, Tayari Jones, a black straight novelist, and Rabih Alameddine who is a gay Lebanese guy who had a lot of success. And then there’s also Claudia Rankine. The book [The Cosmopolitans] is dedicated to her.” Asked about contemporary lesbian stories, Schulman says there’s very little in the dominant genres. There’s the short stories and a memoir by Eileen Myles. Schulman advises me to look to marginalized cultural genres to find queer content, for instance, “solo performance art is more accepting of queer content but a multi-character play that’s in realism is considered in blue chip form then it’s less acceptable. Because they own those forms.” Her own limited popularity might be another indication. Schulman’s contributions to the mainstream genre of the novel, like Girls, Visions, and Everything, and most recently the Baldwinian Balzacian The Cosmopolitans, are overlooked by dominant mainstream culture. In its decades-long inquiry into how to make a life, and the exploration of themes and places, hers is a body of work that should be mentioned as a body of work that might receive the Nobel Prize of Literature. Instead, Wikipedia notes Schulman as one of Publisher Weekly‘s ‘60 Most Underrated Writers.’ If that surprises you, think about how deeply you might be steeped, in bell hook’s famous phrase, in ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ yourself.
Teaching Fiction Writing to Poor and Immigrant Students on Staten Island
A question about how her work as an artist and as a professor are connected sends us on a substantive and inspiring tangent on class, education, and teaching fiction writing with a very mixed group of students. Schulman tells me, “My work as a teacher and as an artist is very different. I teach mostly immigrants and poor and working-class people and they have very little crossover with the art world I’m a part of. They consume the most mainstream things. Usually, younger people are into stuff that older people don’t know about but my students are very mainstream in terms of what they are exposed to. They are very limited in terms of what they are exposed to in American subculture.” Teaching fiction writing as the only fiction teacher at the college is a demanding job that confronts systematic challenges of the US education system and society every day. “It’s really just about my relationship with them, trying to help them think critically about the stories of their lives. Very few of them are writers. Only four or five of my students have ever gone to MFA programs and they don’t do well because they can’t succeed socially because of their class difference. It’s been a hard lesson to learn. Because I thought if they go in they’d be fine. Apparently, that’s not enough. Differences are so huge. They don’t drop out but teachers don’t mentor them. They don’t make friends and they don’t get published.”
As we unpack this sobering summary, Schulman emphasizes that what divides her students most from those attending a more privileged school is class: “It’s about social class. They don’t have the same points of reference, they are not as sophisticated.” She tells the story of her student who got into an MFA program: “He’s the only black person there. There are two kids from Harvard. He was doomed. He just couldn’t network. They don’t mentor them. My students don’t get help from their professors at an MFA level.” This description points to a deeper issue many others have discussed concerning MFAs and their unfortunate similarities to business master’s degree programs: instead of being places of study and communal learning, these programs often turn out to be places to network and garner prestige by paying for the label of an elite school. Students are not there to become better at writing or business but to build a community of like-minded professionals, opening the door to future professional revenue. “These programs [MFAs] could help these kids a lot more, but there needs to be more communication. There’s very little communication between schools for poor people and schools for wealthy people. The food we eat in the cafeteria is so different. The technology in the room. I mean everything is different. And I think a lot of these [MFAs] programs don’t understand what these students’ daily experience is like.” Schulman also discusses the harm of MFA programs and what to do about it in The Gentrification of the Mind.
Turning to the teaching methods that are appropriate for large and very mixed classes, Schulman speaks of her own time as a student of Audre Lorde at Hunter College. She remembers how revolutionary it was in the early 1980s for Lorde to reinvent a generically named class “US Literature After World War Two” by assigning three volumes of black, indigenous, and lesbian poetry. “So in 1982 all these students had to buy a book that’s called ‘Lesbian Poetry,’ they had to carry it on the subway. That was very unusual. She was a very good teacher.” About her own teaching, Schulman insists that individuating students is the most important thing: “The first day of school, I’ll say ‘Where were you born, what languages do you speak, what does your name mean.’ So the kid will say, ‘I’m from Ghana, I speak 4 languages, my name means morning sun’ or something. The next kid will say, ‘I’m from Staten Island, I speak English, I don’t know what my name means.’ And their name might be something really obvious, like D’Alba. And I’ll ask, do you think you’re from Alba? And immediately you’ll see this person who knows who they are and there’s that person who has never thought about themselves, and they’re in class together. So from there, I start individuating, individuating, you catch their eye and you say, remember last week when you said… or on your paper, …’ So they know you know who they are. Otherwise, you lose them, and you lose students anyway.” She explains the social context of her working class American and immigrant students and how their life circumstance often hinders their education. “There’s a lot of heroin on Staten Island. A lot of them have heroin in their families. You lose people. I have a lot of students who are poor. There are always homeless students. We have a food pantry at our school because students don’t have food, you know. Our students have a lot of problems and the school has very little resources. And that’s one of the reasons why there’s such a culture clash between our school and a fancy graduate school.”
Anyone who attended a program at NYU or Columbia will understand that this is a student experience that we don’t know about as privileged students at the elite private institutions of this city. Another cultural difference is the normality of violence in the lives of Schulman’s students: “A lot of my students experience a lot of violence. But they don’t actually think there’s something wrong with that. So they’re not embarrassed about it, they don’t hide it. It’s usually from their fathers. So when they write a story a lot of time there’ll be a lot of family violence in those stories but it’s not a big deal. It’s just normal. And that’s why a lot of the white kids at my school voted for Trump, because they have fathers like that.” This is a very different reality from what most other students in creative writing programs experience, and something that works against Schulman’s students if they move on to MFAs: “So then they go to a good graduate program. Everybody is so PC [politically correct], there’s all this control, everybody is offended all the time. There’s call-out culture, you’re not allowed to use this word, you’re not allowed to use that word. Everyone is accused of being an oppressor. That not gonna make any sense to them. How are they gonna fit in with that? It doesn’t make sense anyway but it’s the culture. So that’s one of the issues.” Another difference is the sheer discrepancy in life quality: “The conditions are terrible. The food in the cafeteria is disgusting. I wish my students could go to Columbia University and see what’s in the cafeteria. Just to see what the class difference is. Those Columbia students need to come to my school and eat in the cafeteria. And see what my student’s lives are like. There needs to be some kind of exchange. So people can see what each other’s class is like.”
Schulman shares numbers that are dramatic, and representative of many situations of college education for poor and working-class people in this country: “80 percent of students are on financial aid and very few students graduate. 26 percent graduate in 6 years. That means that almost 70 percent don’t graduate, and some of them still have debt sometimes. They don’t have enough financial aid, we don’t have daycare at night. Half of the students don’t own computers. The smart rooms don’t work. There’s no tutoring at night. A lot of the courses they need to graduate we don’t offer because we can’t afford to offer them. The course they need to graduate might never come up. We defeat them. And there’s no place to go to get help.” Most of these problems could be fixed by better funding for the school and are something her students can’t do anything about no matter how committed or smart or hard-working they might be. And yet, Schulman says “I love my students. This semester, I have an incredible class. The people are very respectful of each other. They try really hard to do well. They’re great. They’re from every background. So mixed in my class. They’re all fine with each other. ”
The connection of teaching fiction in 2017 on Staten Island to a spinster’s story in 1950s Greenwich Village might seem merely autobiographical, the different ways a non-mainstream author labors to piece together a living in a world that only very insufficiently acknowledges her contributions. But that’s not it, or at least not all of it. Speaking with Sarah Schulman lets me trace realities of writing under conditions of homogenization of style, thinking, and living. It makes legible how much class matters. It shows me (once again but with unusual specificity) that public education in this country is not even close to getting the job done. Most importantly, Schulman models a life of resistance against all this, a life of obdurate insistence on what is the life and the literature she wants.
So, go visit the cafeteria of a school or workplace of a different class than your own. Don’t be fooled by class advantages or other easy belonging to normative superiority. Check yourself and your privilege, and check if your happiness is built on the happiness that comes from reading Sarah Schulman: built on living your life against the destructive proscriptions of the power structures around you. You can start by asking if reading another book by a white man will make you happy. Or by helping elect black women instead of simply relying on their turnout and good choices like this country did in the recent Alabama Senate election. Or by reading the entire body of work that Sarah Schulman has created.