Always Forever: Reading Widow Basquiat
This month I read two books about white women who hide gross things -- rats in one case, dope the other -- in their hair. The doubling was a coincidence, but it’s cool that both were more like Allerleirauh, who hid inside her hair, instead of Rapunzel, who let men use hers as a ladder. (My own hair is too short and roped to hide anything but my eyes, though I did used to wear quarter holiday ornaments in it. I still have one, a sky-blue bird. That has nothing to do with this reading diary except the best Grimm Brothers translation is Tiina Nunnally’s. Anders Nilsen’s cover is the same blue.)
This side of fairy tales, another archetype I let haunt me is Kathy Acker’s dead writer doll from her short in the first Postmodern Culture. In it, Capitol is a woman artist who “makes, damages, transforms, smashes dolls.” The writer doll, writes Acker, “ISN’T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.” (This sentence and its caps always make me giggle.) In the paragraph before this Acker talks about humility, defined as a political reality in any society based on class. (Etymologically, it’s earth: humus. On the ground. Vulnerable stomach, or vulnerable neck.) “Humiliation is one method by which political power is transformed into social or personal relationships.” As always, reading Acker, I feel a magnetic truth first and second, I wonder whether she’s actually saying what I’m telling myself I hear. Acker makes me a more selfish reader, which rules. Reading these two books I kept her on my shoulder. “HORSE MAN HAIR! RAT FUR!” (There is one more beat here, a link between Allerleirauh, Rapunzel, and writer doll, but it’s not clear to me yet.)
Anyway, my first White Women Hide Things in Their Hair Book this month was a compendium of cool science facts that I read with my seven-year-old friend. One paragraph talked about how eighteenth century women would build their hair up and over six-foot-high wire frames, then coat that tower with apple pressings, pig grease, and flour. Once a week they’d “open it up” to sweep out any rats living inside, and in-between they kept wands with ivory hands, for scratching their heads. My friend was worried about the elephants who made the ivory. We talked about what kinds of jobs you could have, with hair like that, and how high the ceiling in your bedroom would have to be. We talked about the dinner parties, the ladies eating meat with almond paste and Burgundy, their hair rustling and everyone hungry in the countryside.
The second book was Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat. I read it in two parts, once at the bar with a beer, and once after my seven-year-old friend went to sleep. “Widow Basquiat” is the “morbid nickname” the writer and painter Rene Ricard gave to Suzanne Mallouk, who loved Jean-Michel Basquiat until he died and afterwards. The first scene is Suzanne, her drugs hidden inside her beehive. “The white powder hidden in the tease and spit. The cops can’t find it. The drug addicts can’t find it… She’s carrying a world without corners.” Now to be clear, I grew up in Seattle and taught on the West Side of Chicago. I don’t think heroin is sexy, I connect it to war, and I never read about it without taking a minute away from the page, back in my body, thinking about friends I miss sharply and still. But back to Suzanne, holding up the sky -- here it is crucial that it’s her drugs, her feet on the sidewalk in white knee-high boots. We don’t know where she’s going but we know it’s her direction, her money. “I’ll never marry anyone,” she says. “No man is big enough for my arms.”
I bought this book at Elliott Bay because it is about a queer- or female-identified person living on the Lower East Side in 1980*, which is the New York I love most this side of my friends’ couches. I bought it because of the beautiful cover photo of Suzanne and Jean, as Clement calls them, shoulders square mouths flat eyes dead in the camera. They are together, and they know they’re being photographed. I bought it despite the terrible jacket copy that flash-promises hip hop and affairs, emotion, street artists, and writes his name twice as large as hers.
After reading that I flipped through pages, as Mrs. Clausen, my elementary school vice principal, taught me to do, and I found this: the day that “some buyer” asked Jean for his CV. He’d never made one before so he scratched out a list on copybook paper. All the public schools he attended since first grade. The school he left in eleventh. How he failed ninth grade life drawing and always wanted to be a fireman. His early themes, numbered: the seascape from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Alfred E. Neuman, Hitchcock, Nixon, wars, weapons, and cars. There was a separate section for music, his greatest influence, including: West Side Story and the Watusi. Towards the end he winces and tells Suzanne next time, he’d rather just give the measurements of his hand. So he measures his hand, then his body, and then hers. He says her left arm is shorter than her right arm.
“I’ve always known that,” is what Clement writes, in the italics she uses to distinguish her storytelling from Suzanne’s oral histories, and so we don’t really know if this is something Suzanne said to Jean, or Clement, or herself. And then, two-thirds through the book, we meet Clement as a character too. She and Suzanne are drinking Rémys, and Suzanne goes to the bathroom and is gone for forty-five minutes. When she returns, she says she was gone so long because the room was so dirty. “I just had to clean it. I am just like my mother!” The triangle this creates is crazy powerful because we see Clement inside and out the story at once, and Suzanne’s love for her, and her love for Suzanne’s love for Jean, and later we see Jean meeting Clement and freaking out that a white girl could speak Spanish so well.
For me this lights up the book like when Cynthia Carr mentions actually meeting David Wojnarowicz in Fire In the Belly, or in any number of pages in Sylvère Lotringer’s A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side. Or, to hop coasts, when Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore begins her goodbye in The End of San Francisco. I suppose in all cases what flashes first is the light from a wall breaking, from friend turning witness turning writer staying friend. How do you write well about what you lived. In Acker’s story, the writer doll chooses to mix it up and so formally, to offend everyone. To Acker this means the doll jumps class. A writer who finds his own voice presents a viewpoint, which necessitates radiating in only one direction. But Acker’s writer doll doesn’t want to be God. She wants to play. To keep seeing wonders. Crucially, for her finding her own one voice is “would be negotiating against her joy.”
Clement does a minimalist version of this in Widow Basquiat, with less broken lines and codes, and one result is we see Suzanne as multi-vocal too. Sometimes she calls herself white, sometimes half-Palestinian, sometimes musician, and, when Michael Stewart was murdered, an activist. Sometimes she bathes Jean at his apartment and squeezes his dreadlocks into a towel. They get high, eat cake, take days. She has jobs, and other lovers. She casts spells. Everything is true. The final image of this book, which dovetails with the epigraph, Jean’s childhood desires, and his drawings of Suzanne, as well as how she mourns him and lives, worked its way into my dreams. When I woke up the next morning my seven-year-old friend taught me how to fishtail-braid my hair. “It’s easy,” she said. “Just pretend there’s four pieces instead of three.”
* It is inappropriate to talk about this time and not recommend Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, a book I’ve given off my own shelf at least four times now.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer in Colorado, where she is also an English and Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Denver and, through Hoist Point Writing, a poetry teacher at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in September 2015.