Thursday, April 2, 2009

Pamela Takefman introduces Joan Didion

I think I am a strange candidate to be up here for this intro- duction. During the weeks we in the Writer’s House Fellows seminar talked about the work of Joan Didion, Al and I stood on opposite sides of a barely invisible boxing ring, fighting. We were fighting about how to read Didion’s works and her presence within them. Can we classify what she does as journalism or non-fiction? Is Joan Didion on the outside or the inside? Why is she always there? The whole class got involved, Molly always on my side, Jen on Al’s. One time, Emily went as far as to call Joan Didion optimistic. The whole class went wild. The word narrative became our own “n” word, an overused and underdefined taboo, a word that lost its original meaning, let alone a clear attachment to Didion’s work. I still fought. I might have been the loudest in the class, so unpopular by the final week I felt that I had to bring homemade banana chocolate chip cake in to help my social status. But before and after the snack, I was still pretty unrelenting, just outright confrontational.

But perhaps that’s exactly why I am here to present Ms. Didion, someone unrelenting and confrontational in her own right. I admit, I am terrified to be up here, for I know that even after this brief introduction, Ms. Didion will be able to read me better than I could read myself. Take this from her story “Where the Kissing Never Stops” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She writes: “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense that hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single
theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who ‘feels’ things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when
the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley” (40-1).

I evoke this passage not to talk about Joan Didion, counter-counter-culture icon of the 1960s, who remained cool despite bringing out the bogus aspects of the revolution. For me, Joan Didion’s icon-status extends beyond the sixties. I admire the perceptive, precise, incisive Joan Didion, cool because of the places she got into and the words she heard people use. She always seems to be there when there is a story on the brink of creation. I’m thinking about some more recent writing too, Salvador, Miami, the Political Fictions. Her most recent stuff in The New York Review of Books really
resonated with me: in the Obama generation, where millions of campaign dollars were spent marketing towards me, she pinpointed exactly what his campaign did to win us over. She wrote: “Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into "hope," was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized. Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.”

Joan Didion is strong enough to be critical of what is popular, to read nuance into what is meant to be accepted at face value.

And while there is rarely a hint of fear, rarely a mention of size difference or sex difference in her work, we always have her, Joan Didion, “our Joan” as she is sometimes referred to on our email listserv. She is present in everything we read. She even shared her psychiatric diagnosis in “The White Album.” We always have her, confronting the unanswerable, presenting the black and white images in precise detail and never compromising on a shade of grey, reminding us that in the end, she doesn’t know. She has found the subtleties, the way certain pieces may or may not fit together, but leaves it to us to assume the capital T Truth.

That can explain why we spent our classtime fighting. We were confronted with Joan Didion’s inconclusive conclusions about underwater, murky, “mudgy” subject matters, and then given a choice, a choice we couldn’t agree upon because there was nothing to agree upon. You don’t have to write to advocate, Joan Didion seems to say. Just to try to make sense of what is given.

When we got to A Year of Magical Thinking, the fighting stopped. Reading chronologically, we in the Writer’s House Fellows Seminar were able to read that book within the scope of the rest of her writing, comparing its language to that of A Book of Common Prayer. The book necessarily brought us closer together, forcing us to come to terms with what we brought to the reading. We were not fighting anymore because here it was, the most unanswerable question of all, death, and our Joan took us with her on her personal confrontation.

It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you the second Kelly Writer’s House Fellow of 2009, Joan Didion.