March 29, 2011

Remembering the girls of Triangle

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , , at 11:01 pm by chavisory

For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls.  Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them.  I could never call myself a feminist.  I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”

I was bitterly disappointed.  It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species.  Not me.

Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book.  I ran out to buy it.  “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.

Nope.  It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves.  But I recognized myself nowhere among them.  I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all.  I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”

And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.


I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months.  It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week.  On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps.  The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.

Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.

Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.”  And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me.  I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle.  Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them.  I was there to be on their side.


In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead.  The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line.  It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.”  I teared up.  I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.

I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.

And they were all my girls.


More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage

Remembering the Dead as They Were (NYT City Room blog)

Dept. of Commemoration: Echoes (The New Yorker)

March 13, 2011

Blogging is fun when it turns into book club.

Posted in Lists tagged , , at 9:07 pm by chavisory

I’ve had my first blog award, and now I’ve been tagged in a meme, by Rachel at Journeys with Autism.

I think at some point this meme was to post the books that were in actuality physically by your bedside, but for me, that would be all of them…since my bedroom is very small, so the bookshelves which occupy two walls of it are, necessarily, very close to my bed.  Luckily for all, it’s now a more general “what are you reading” meme.  And these are the rules:

1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add them to your post.

2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them

3. For every book you are reading, you have to tag one person.

4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.

I used to have a personal rule that I couldn’t be reading more than one book at a time.  At some point, I had two books (and I don’t even remember what they were) that I wanted to read with equal desperation, and my usual respect for delayed gratification was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do.  Then I realized that that wasn’t a real rule, it was one I made up, and I could be reading as many books at a time as I wanted.  Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading:

1. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle.  An exhaustive but very readable history of the causes and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, this book contains much of the background and source material for the production I’m currently working on, a dramatic choral music piece called From the Fire in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event this year.  The fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster before 9/11/01, in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant girls, died because, for an evil confluence of reasons large and small, they were locked inside a dangerous factory.  I loved reading this, both because I enjoy having a fuller understanding of the background and origin of the shows I work with, and because the Triangle tragedy was one of those things that I vaguely remembered being mentioned in passing in 8th grade history class, but we were never really taught its importance as a turning point in American history, for women’s rights and workers’ rights among other things.

2. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin.  This is the first installment of a fantasy series which came highly recommended by a friend, and my intrigue was sharpened by the visually gorgeous previews for the forthcoming HBO series.  I was totally hooked by the end of the prologue.  It’s the story of a land on the brink of war where nothing and no one is quite what they seem at first, and Martin plays around very unsettlingly with big ideas about power, love and trust, morality, and what we think we understand about the natural world.

3. Rachel’s own book, The Uncharted Path.  Rachel, I’m going to cherish this as part of my growing “survival manual.”  Before I read this, I thought that I had actually hit some limit on my ability to be stunned by recognition of my own experience, or having to keep saying “good god, I thought it was just me.”  Nope.  Knocked speechless.

4. Saint George and the Dragon, by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  One of my favorite picture books as a child, it’s an adaptation of the most famous episode from Edmund Spenser’s Middle English epic poem The Faerie Queene.  It had been on my mind a lot lately and I considered asking my mother to mail me the copy she still has, but then figured I might as well have my own since I could get it for $3 on Amazon.  Its completely enchanting watercolor illustrations have not lost their power to entrance me in the 25 years since this book was first read to me.

5. 1776, by David McCullough.  I actually haven’t started this one yet–it’s next up.  My dad and I tend to like the same kind of history books, so he passed this one on to me after he finished it.  He says it’s an intensely human, personal account of the first year of the American Revolution; it sounds almost impossible that I won’t like it.

6. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver.  I’ve made a habit of re-reading things I’ve loved to wind down before bed.  This is the one I’ve gone to for much of this past year, and is a book that will amply reward re-reading.  I love this book on so many levels, and it’s kept blossoming and unfolding to me the more time I’ve spent with it.  Typically I say that it’s impossible for me to name one “favorite book,” because so many have meant so much to me but in very different ways or times or circumstances.  But this one’s in serious danger of being my favorite book for a very long time.

And now, for my six victims!  You!  I want to know what you’re reading!  Because I either like your writing or think you’re interesting, and not because I, like, need more stuff on my list of things to read or anything….

1. Amish, at The Trivedi Chronicles.

2. Amy, at experiment in a new life.

3. Jess, at This has become a weakness.

4. Leigh, at An American Girl in Cambodia.

5. Susan, at Three Cats on a Sofa.

6. Bruce, at Born 2b me.

Does anyone else find themselves quietly hoping that hyperlexic people are more likely to get reincarnated, because we need more time to read?


March 10, 2011

Why I’m a Muslim today, too, Peter King

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , at 3:30 pm by chavisory

Today, Republican Representative Peter King’s congressional hearings on radicalization within the American Muslim community begin.  And I would say that this blatant and apparently un-self-conscious re-enactment of the McCarthy hearings, this repellent attempt by Representative King to use collective blame to make us view our Muslim fellow citizens with fear and suspicion or as somehow less than fully American, makes me ashamed to be an American, or makes me ashamed that King represents my state.

Except that everywhere, I read about people standing up to what King’s doing, speaking up in defense of the Muslim community, pointing out the hypocrisy of the very premise of the hearings, and drawing comparisons to the McCarthy hearings and Salem witch trials.  And it makes me proud, and makes me wonder if we might finally actually be learning something as a country, even if our leaders aren’t yet.  Which is that, while any of us are in danger of persecution or officially sanctioned injustice, all of us are.

In illustration, one of my favorite articles of the week, shared by a Facebook friend, comes from the Washington Post and chronicles the relationship of support built between the Muslim and Japanese-American communities on the west coast in the years since 9/11.  (Japanese Americans: House hearings on radical Islam ‘sinister.’)  The Japanese-American community remembers the internments of World War II, based on nothing more than suspicion of their ethnicity.  They remember that it can happen to them, and it can happen again.

I have a theory, which is that people who instigate and support this kind of targeting and suspicion of others based on group identity, are people who are themselves pretty sure that the same tactics will never be turned back against them.  People who have never been excluded or abused or marginalized based on who they are, have an easy time believing that they never will be.  People who have always been able to take their place in society, or even humanity, for granted, have a hard time imagining not being able to do so.

But people who have been marginalized instinctively identify ourselves in every marginalized person, and see the danger to ourselves in injustice against anyone.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, which I’ve written about before, World Without End, in which a serf named Wulfric and his family have run away from the lord who controls their land, to another community where they have a chance to be independent and escape the grinding, perpetual poverty of feudal life.  Sir Ralph comes to force Wulfric to return, as was legal in those days: the lord who owned your land effectively owned you.  Another man tries to defend Wulfric, who says “Be quiet, Carl.  I don’t want you killed for my sake.”

“It’s not for your sake,” says Carl.  “If this thug is allowed to drag you off, next week someone will come for me.”

And that’s why King seeks with his hearings to get Americans to see American Muslims as not truly us, but “them,” some alien and hostile force among us.  Whatever his ultimate aim is, and I don’t believe for one second that it’s really just to determine the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community, it depends on us seeing Muslims as something other than and less than ourselves.

And that’s why I say that today, I’m a Muslim too, or might as well be, because anything that can be done to anyone–like being presumed guilty of collusion with terrorists and investigated by Congress for your religious identity–can be done to all of us.  Every single one.  Never pretend that it can’t.


“Congressman defends hearing on radical Islam” (NYT)

Representative Keith Ellison’s testimony at King’s hearing:

March 2, 2011

Do you hear the people sing?

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , , at 12:34 pm by chavisory

A friend shared this video on Facebook the other night; it’s several years old, being from the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables, in which 17 actors who have played Jean Valjean in productions from around the world join in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”

I remember reading the book in high school, and then seeing the musical, and mostly wondering whether, if it came down to it, I’d be capable of the incredible acts of bravery and love that characters like Valjean, Marius and Eponine were.  I wonder it again now as I follow the coverage of the democratic uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya.  I often wonder how much what looks like bravery in retrospect only felt like the only possible or acceptable thing to do at the time.

So I dedicate this to all the brave people of the Middle East.

Note: Copyright issues apparently will not allow the embedded video to play here.  Use the link provided in the error message to watch it on YouTube.  Sorry!