Book Excerpt: Alissa Quart Dishes On The Moment She Knew She Was A Feminist
What exactly does it take for a woman to embrace the idea of being a feminist? Two of our favorite writers, Courtney E. Martin (who wrote Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) and J. Courtney Sullivan (the lady who brought us Commencement), have joined forces to answer this question. In their awesome new anthology Click: Young Women On The Moments They Knew They Were Feminists, the Courtneys have collected essays from 30 young, female writers. Read one of them after the jump. And look for a second and third installment later this week.
“I Married a War Correspondent”
By Alissa Quart
About two years ago, I married a war correspondent. You are probably imagining that I myself am a war correspondent, an aid worker or at least a human rights lawyer. If not, perhaps I am a woman known for being patient, calm and unafraid of death, one who tastefully tends a shared apartment while my husband infiltrates overseas hellholes.
You would be wrong on all counts. Although I do write on American alternative culture, which sometimes contains the more metaphorical violence of social transgression, I tend to like abstract rather than blood-drenched ideas. I am interested in politics but domestic ones: the politics of youth and gender and race. The truth of the matter is that I’ve never been interested in conflict, except the kind that happens between two people that, hopefully, leads to their emotional growth.
That all changed, or at least came into question, when I first met my husband, at a party at a hotel bar in 2003. I noticed him across the room: his eyes were a beautiful, overly intense blue. He was very slim, with a shaved head and long neck. After we met, we stood near the bar’s shimmering fire, gabbing without end.
We sealed our new bond when we went outside the hotel together and he lit a cigarette.
“I just started smoking,” he confided.
“Bad love affair?” I asked.
“Bad war,” he answered. He had been one of the first reporters in during the invasion of Iraq the previous April, he told me, and had covered conflict most of his life. Seeing I was shivering in the cold November air, he wrapped my shoulders with his jacket.
He was elegant and restrained. Given these qualities, I didn’t have a clue he wrote on conflict zones and would soon return to Iraq yet again; had lived in a city under siege for a year; had walked around a Somali town with a warlord and met his many wives; and was one of few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He stood with troops in Iraq while they were fired upon. He drove through a minefield at night. And he was planning to go back to it all.
He had had not spent his adult years snowing girls over Mojitos but rather driving on dirt roads trying not to be taken hostage. He was used to interrogating dictators and their henchmen and as a result, he couldn’t sweet talk a woman like the rest of the sleek bachelors—those entrepreneurs of romance. The perpetual traveler was also a man married to his work. He hadn’t refined a separate, private personality away from it.
It—our relationship, as it quickly developed—was lovely but disturbing. I had never planned to sit at the metaphorical feet of the would-be male genius, an “important” man. Yet despite myself, my resentment brought me closer to him. I left my favorite black corduroys and winter coat with the round wood buttons at his house. In short, we were in love. It all had me questioning—was I really a feminist?
I thought I was. But I had to wonder, for the first time, whether my feminism merely a lazy inheritance. Maybe it had been simply handed down to me by my mother who wrote for Ms and only respected women who were professionally accomplished, who never once asked me about getting married or having children into my thirties.
I wasn’t sure I had ever earned my stance with inquiry. There were my copies of Irigaray, god help me, and de Beauvoir. There was that once watched DVD of feminist pornography (boring, unfortunately but predictably).
I fretted that all along, I had just been waiting for a Great Man to reveal me as charming but pointless. Had all of my years of aggressive intellectuality and gender play been mere self-delusion?
My boyfriend kept going on month long trips to increasingly dangerous places. The first was Moscow and Azerbaijan. During that three-week trip, I received only a small drizzle of emails and one phone call. I assumed that this silence meant something as petty as we were no longer dating.
But when he returned, he gave me a very special gift—a plaster bust of Vladimir Putin. A statue of the President of Russia isn’t really the typical gift to one’s lover. But coming from him, it was profound totem of his love, along with the key chain of the dear leader of North Korea he would give me later and the rare pin of Saddam Hussein’s visage I received on the week of our meeting. The next morning, he showed me a book of photos of war zones, pointing out places he had been while we sat in his apartment and I was simultaneously awed and irked.
Why wasn’t his life my life? Why was I trapped in the city while he really lived? And why had I chosen to be in the shadow of a fellow whose “masculine” journalism—and politics—were given more conventional props than my “feminine” interests? I wrote on things like rotoscoping, self-branding and amateurism. They yet they never seemed important enough to me as compared to Kabul, Basra or Somalia.
Every so often, we would fight, usually before or after he returned from a dangerous, lengthy trip that kept me focusing on him. Does love exist, he’d ask? I got bored. He got selfish. I jumped out a slowly moving taxi and slammed the door—I saw yellow all the way home. We broke up six times. I started to feel like a histrionic twentysomething in a reality television show. The first time was when he reported on a small African dictatorship. At the airport, he was detained, led by armed guards to a room where he called me on his cell phone. In that conversation, he tried to sound like he was as relaxed as he was when he was down at the local bakery. For 24 hours, I waited to hear how he was as the guards threatened to take away his passport. He only bothered to call me the next night, from his hotel room in the next nation on that continent. He was “Just fine”…
Back home, I had nothing in the refrigerator besides a bottle of dried plums and soymilk. I suddenly felt there was nothing luminous about being lonely and underfed, waiting for a boyfriend who was always away doing something even more serious in the eyes of the world. It was diminishing. In the morning I’d wander down for coffee and then I would work straight through to evening, when I would break for drinks with my few friends who were not yet pregnant. Was this really what women in New York in their thirties were like—extras in “Revolutionary Road?” How could I be so unfree? I had never defined myself through the men I was with. And yet now, I was, suddenly overwhelmed by thoughts of his life (dazzling) and fear of his death (constant)? I felt like I was being neutralized, a victim of what could be called his “Masculine Mystique.”
Of course, I had been attracted to him for my own reasons. I liked to feel as if I were part of a chronicle, something larger and worldlier than myself, as I was in my childhood. As a lonesome, imaginative kid I memorized atlases and encyclopedias for the imports and exports of countries I would never go to and wanted more than anything to visit: Antarctica, the Ecuadorian Rainforest. Yet as an adult, I’d never had the physical confidence to go to the Congo. My boyfriend became my living atlas and I continued to sit alone in a high-backed chair, turning the proverbial pages of his life.
Yet when I thought of the future, I wondered: what if I lived through him for the rest of my life? It seemed unbearable.
His worst trip by far was the last month he spent in Iraq, in 2005. At first, he didn’t tell me where he was going or what he was writing about. One day, he was packing his satellite phone and flak jacket and the next he was in Baghdad and then Samara. He made my job—worrying—harder by dissembling about where he was going and how much danger he would be in once he arrived. Lying was a tactic he’d refined on his family. With them, he had gotten away with it.
With me, not as much. In Falluja, Samara and Baghdad at the time, there were frequent civilian bombings. I sent emails just as frequently. And he replied infrequently, with few words. He’d call occasionally from his satellite phone, after reporting on some night raid or other, his voice patchy and scratchy. Why was I accepting this, I wondered. It sounded as if the sand around him had actually made its way into the receiver.
I checked the web constantly for news of attacks. At night, I would go out and drink that second glass of wine, take a taxi home that was too expensive for my bank account, and stumble the five stories of stairs to my apartment, where I’d fall asleep dressed, with the lights on, hoping he’d call to tell me he was fine. Meanwhile, he would be in a vehicle leaving the Green Zone or going out on raids for high value targets, walking in detention centers covered with bloodstains and listening to human screams. I felt corny and girlish, like a single female character in a play from the 1980s, thinking: I just want someone to laugh with!
But here’s the thing. Rather than breaking up with him this time, I actually moved into his apartment while he was away. I told myself I did so I could be near his things and that was partially true. Like a woman in a cologne ad from the 1970s, I went through his closets, trying on his shirts, attempting to be as close to him as possible. And he must have had the same idea, for when he returned from a trip to Iraq, just in time for my 33rd birthday, he was carrying a ring he had purchased in Baghdad. It was a man’s ring: beautiful and multicolored, comically big for my hands.
I didn’t say “yes” for the entire year. It was more than the fact that the ring didn’t fit. I was afraid to continue living in his public shadow. How could a woman like me not want a partner who was, well, around? And to make things worse, he wanted me to cook! How could I, of all people, be rendered a household saint?
The truth was, I couldn’t. I had to, to put it cornily, “choose” myself. This was certainly a feminist moment. It was the moment when I stopped trying things on and made choices that had to do with a core truth, as they say in self-help, that I hadn’t yet fully defined. As Betty Freidan wrote, “the only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully is the kind that was forbidden by the feminine mystique, the lifelong commitment to art or science, to politics or profession.” I had to commit myself to this kind of work, and believe it was at least as important as his.
But one day, eight months into our long non-engagement, he told me he was not going to go to active war zones. He was still going on long reporting trips or to places that were dangerous by any sane person’s reckoning. (Cue cars driving backwards in the rain on a dirt road in a West African country.) But at least he wasn’t going to die by an Improvised Explosive Device. He was also not just making this sacrifice for me. He was choosing it for himself. And I felt that I could marry him. (Though, you know, I didn’t really approve of marriage.)
On the midsummer night close to three years ago, with friends looking on, we were married on the grounds of an Adirondack estate. It was one of the best days of both of our lives and as exciting, I think, as any reporting trip in an exotic locale. We even honored his years in the Balkans with a Bulgarian DJ. The guests drank Bloody Marys on a glamorously run-down wraparound porch with wild flowers in Adirondack baskets. The wedding photographer was also a war photographer—she had just gotten back from taking pictures of an uprising in the Philippines.
In the years since our marriage, we have edged toward one another. We spend much of our time together, a first for both of us—ragged iconoclasts who have finally hewn to another. Yet even together, our understanding of ordinary life is still somewhat impaired. We still do not own a Cusinart, both find “couples dinners” hard to bear, and have for years written our books side by side, even at night time and on vacation. And I have also finally fully taken in what all the female writers I had ever read and loved have written so well about. Photography, or urban planning or gender, and, of course, ordinary women and children, and interpreting them, can also be great works. They can be as searing, in their way, as investigating bullets, presidents and dictators.