Two young girls chase each other exuberantly, flush with the thrill of play and life and laughter. A writer watches them from a distance:
“In them, I glimpse the girl I fleetingly was. I want to take them by their small, sweaty hands, sit with them on a stoop littered with bubble gum wrappers and cigarette butts and show them where I’ve been and hope my words may offer some protection. Give them a story that is confounding, contradictory, and truer than any other stories they will hear.”
“Girls Run Circles” from I am a red dress, by Anna Camilleri^
Last fall, I bought a book in Portland. I bought it almost at random: the famous bookstore was famous; the resonant title was resonant.
Or maybe a whisper in my bones told me I needed it.
“Give them a story that is more true, most true, true blue. I would say: You may lose yourself. Life is about finding much of who we once were and there are many lost girls who eventually find something of themselves again. I would tell them, you are precious and special and beautiful, not because you are girls, good girls, pretty girls — just because you are.”
Anna Camilleri’s I am a red dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter was the first (and final) book I read last year. The first book I had read in over 18 months. I hadn’t made it past more than a few pages of anything since the ethnographic and cultural study of African-American women’s politics I read in glassy-eyed panic during the long nights of June, 2013, spent in Unit 6 — a book I read mostly to prove I was not crazy.
I was not like the young woman in the room across from the admitting station, who stabbed a nurse in the arm with the three-inch pencil she’d been given to fill out her meals-request form for the next day. (Though after the first day spent alone in my silent room — I too mighta stabbed myself in the leg with a pen, if they hadn’t all been taken away together with my shoelaces.)
I was not like the large man in the flapping-open hospital gown, who migrated about the dining area eating pudding cups off the trays of anyone not yet arrived. (Though after the second day of eating only institutional food — I too was eyeing other patients’ unsupervised desserts.)
Crazy people, I reasoned, don’t bring critical feminist analyses of race and politics with them to the psych ward.
“See, girls, I would say, if you are celebrated for being pretty, then the rest of you remains unseen, if this is expected of you on your saddest days, if you are picked apart and judged for not being the right kind of girl, if you feel like the only lonely girl in the world . . . remember.
“If you writhe in the unbearable tightness of your skin even as you want the eyes of strangers on you, if you learn to hold their gaze and drop your eyes to the ground when you feel consumed, if you revel in and yet are repulsed by those words, “You’re a pretty girl, a good girl” . . . remember.”
At the time of the slow days and long nights in Unit 6, I had not yet begun to find myself again. I had not yet even realized I was shattered, let alone how many pieces of me had become lost. Many moons would pass before I began the hard process of remembering. In the latter stages of that process, Camilleri’s book found me.
Her story is not my story, and yet —
Her experiences are not my experiences, and yet —
And yet I too know red dresses.
“And if they told me they had forgotten everything, I would say, Make it up, girls. Give yourself a story that you need — even if it’s confounding, contradictory. Imagine a love so fierce it brings thunder to its knees. I would tell them that life is a balance of finding who we once were and filling in the gaps with dreams and longing and the imagination of a child.”
Camilleri describes her book as “a memoir in three parts.” The first two parts she commits to telling the stories of first her grandmother, and then her mother. There is more poetry in these portions; sometimes a gesturing to details blurred or left out, as the author wrestles through the act of representing experiences that are not fully hers to own.
In the final section, her own voice splits through — vibrant, vibrating — at last telling the parts of the story she fully inhabits as herself. As I read, I thought, Yes.
This is why we tell our stories. This is what it means to own one’s own tale: we tell it as we need it told. We remember it as we need it remembered. And perhaps, in that process, we pass our bravery along.
Alice, I whisper, remember.
Remember, and listen. I hear our bones beginning to sing.
author after memoir
The year after the publication of I am a red dress, Camilleri founded Red Dress Productions with co-Artistic Director Tristan R. Whiston. According to its website, the Toronto-based organization “creates and disseminates original interdisciplinary performance, and works with/in communities on large-scale, community-engaged public artworks.”
Red Dress Production’s projects range from workshops on ephemeral public art and performances created on tour to massive mosaic murals, zines, and youth-specific outreach. If you find yourself in Toronto any time in the next few months, you may want to check out their public art project at Winchester Park, Promise in the Park.
While you’re there, can you pass Anna a message for me? Let her know I said thanks for the book.
And to please keep loving fiercely.
^Camilleri, Anna. (2004). I am a red dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter. Arsenal Pulp Press. [“Girls Run Circles,” pp. 157-159. All emphasis in selections above added.]
Author page here.