Books In Conversation
Emily Rapp Black with Claire Phillips
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg
(Notting Hill Editions, 2021)
I had the pleasure of speaking with Emily Rapp Black this past year during COVID when she appeared with me virtually at Skylight Books for the book launch for my memoir, A Room with a Darker View: Chronicles of My Mother & Schizophrenia (DoppelHouse). My hope, to have introduced myself to Rapp Black at the Pasadena LitFest at a panel about avant-garde literature and illness narratives had been dashed when the festival was cancelled. Luckily, Rapp Black was willing to work with me despite having never met, a dream come true. Who better to discuss a family account of illness than the prolific associate professor of creative writing and medical humanities at U.C. Riverside. Highly esteemed for her sharp and self-aware work of memoir, Poster Child, chronicling her amputation of her left foot at four years old due to a congenital defect that resulted in numerous other surgeries and prosthetic fittings, and the bestselling, The Still Point of the Turning World, a powerful meditation on motherhood and grief and an elegy for her son, Ronan, who would die before two years old from a fatal inherited illness, Tay-Sachs.
Rapp Black has authored two more stunning works of life writing: Sanctuary, released in 2021, and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, in June 2021. The former powerfully counters the cliched notion of recovery: that we rise from the ashes like the phoenix when given the opportunity to survive the unthinkable. The latter is in a category all its own: Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is a formally daring, life-affirming and feminist work that distills the importance of artmaking as a vehicle not so much for its curative powers but for its ability to sustain and inform.
Written with great bravura, this first-person essay collection is as carefully researched as it is revealing; and will undoubtedly find itself a classic among the robust literature on Kahlo. Reclaiming Frida Kahlo from the misogynist writing of an earlier era through her letters and diaries, Rapp Black shares an intimate portrait of an artist whose seminal painting The Two Fridas granted the author a reflection on “having two Emilys, living in two bodies—one for the day and one for the night.” Rapp Black first became entranced with Kahlo’s life and artworks as a high school student in 1991: “I knew that pain was not a muse, so what sustained her? The Two Fridas was not about suffering, it was about imagination and connection and that word my parents had started to use with me: self-love, which I was supposed to be practicing but was not. I had no model: I knew no female bodies like my own.”
Rapp Black would have much in common with the artist: both would undergo amputation and learn to live with physical and emotional pain, crafting stunning works that demonstrate an ability to live rich, whole, complicated and impactful lives. The parallels allow for great insight. As Rapp writes, “I am one-legged, like Frida, but I am also unlike her, and there in our essential difference is where my fascination lies, and there lies also my devotion, my despair, my repulsion, my resentment, my desire.”
I, too, am an ardent fan of the Mexican artist’s stunning self-portraits, striking surrealist motifs and willfully rendered visibility. I couldn’t wait to receive my NottingHill Editions review copy in the mail, having eschewed the digital version for the tactile experience of cloth. This slim, gorgeous book of studied fury and grace is profound, shocking, and peerless. I could not put it down.
My first question for Emily, I decide, after poring over her gripping, inimitable works, is on the topic of motherhood.
Claire Phillips (Rail): Despite not being a mother myself, I find your writing on the subject riveting, relatable and necessary. Finally, the subjective experience of mothering has been rendered visible. The Western canon of life writing, beginning notably with Michel de Montaigne’s writing, is one that places mothering or mothers at a distance. Rereading Ronald Barthes’ Mourning Diary, I couldn’t help but note how distinctly radical it is for “the mother” to resurface in the 21st century as a cerebral, anomalously embodied, erotic, grieving and loving subject, not as a shadowy background figure, or flawlessly benign presence raised up on a pedestal. You seem determined to honor all phases of motherhood, illuminating its presence in absence. I am especially moved by the essays in Frida entitled, “The Temporary Mother” and “The (Un) mother”; in which you restore something important to women, and to Frida. Can you talk a little bit about the canon of life writing and motherhood and how writing Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg helped to further situate you there?
Emily Rapp Black: It’s an interesting question, as I never thought I would be a mother, and to me, one of the most powerful paintings is the one in which Frida renders her miscarriage. And there’s the corset with the hole in it, representing the same loss. I think a lot of writing about motherhood, to be honest, is vapid and silly. The whole “moms who drink” culture and the “mom fail” hashtags and all the rest. There’s a smug “oh, it’s the best job but it’s so hard” messaging out there. It is hard, and it’s especially hard in a capitalist country that provides very little (often nothing) in terms of maternal leave or family support, but it’s also a sacred thing. In some ways, it’s the only thing when you’re in it; to be charged with the care and comfort and well-being of another human person. To see the ways in which the different selves collapse into one another as the child ages, and yet the baby is still in there, then the toddler, then the teenager. I wanted to talk about the vulnerability of the mother’s body, and the vulnerability of children as well. And within that vulnerability, there is the great strength of self-awareness, of opening. I felt incredibly vulnerable writing this book. I say in it many things I never thought I’d say. Now that I’ve said them, it doesn’t feel so important that I was afraid to send them. It’s like staring down a bully, only the bully is your own thought process.
Rail: Just as important to me is your willingness to stay with grief, not to quickly abandon the loss of Ronan, your son, as if a new story of marriage and the birth of your daughter somehow erases a former timeline in your personal history. You do so in Sanctuary and again in Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg with such sustained fury and grace.
It’s quite a technical feat. How do you distill precise memories of your son’s life without repeating yourself? I mean, I was just devastated when you shared the intimate details of spending two hours with Ronan after he died. You depict cutting the t-shirt from his body with such unflinching tenderness, it stole my breath away. This is not shared in your second book, in which you illuminate your journey caring for him as his mother; this appears in the fourth book, in Frida, in which Ronan is as resoundingly present for me, as much, if not more so as in the preceding books. It completely defied my expectations and understanding of maternal love. Can you talk about your process of nurturing these timelines in your work?
Rapp Black: Ronan’s death, for me, is happening all the time, under every moment. It’s like a subterranean crypt of memory, and as such, it’s not safe to visit all the time. It’s not like having your heart broken by a bad partner or a deceitful lover, which is a clean sadness, like a clean cut, and just like the blood flows out easily, the sadness moves through you. But not with a child; that grief gets stuck. So the timelines also get stuck, the moments get stuck, and it’s a tricky emotional business to sift through that wreckage, and better to get in and out as quickly as possible, while also remembering that those memories and moments are down there.
Rail: You clearly want to honor the memory of Ronan, while rejoicing in your daughter Charlie’s immense buoyant journey. How did the myth of the “replacement child” inform the writing of both Sanctuary and Frida?
Rapp Black: I mean, anyone who is a person should bristle at the notion of any person replacing any other person, as we are singular and only. That said, it is something people say, but to me, it’s just an issue of saying, oh well, if you have another, it won’t be as hard. It will be. It is. You can find and replace words on your computer, but you cannot with children, with people.
Rail: Sanctuary starts in a raw state. You are continually confronted by the insensitivity of “emotional voyeurs” and “grief stalkers” as you grapple with your son’s brief life, being routinely called “brave” and “resilient,” often by complete strangers who offer you little privacy at some of your most debilitating moments. Midway through the book, something loosens. Through the reading of poet Jack Gilbert, a rereading of Nabakov’s Speak, Memory and a consideration of his lapidarian studies, along with your research into the botanic properties of wood you discover a key, what you call “vessels of safety, symbols of resilience.” This is extremely artful. Can you discuss how this investigation into the natural world offered you sanctuary?
Rapp Black: I think at some point I just realized that allowing myself to absorb the world, which is largely indifferent, was comforting. The chaos of sadness and stress was gone. It was just wind or a tree—things that will exist until they don’t; things that stand outside of time in a way that human beings do not, although of course humans are experts at destroying the world. Also, the world experienced in that neutral way wants nothing from you, and doesn’t care if you live or die. It just is. That calm felt safe to me, that indifference felt like a balm.
Rail: If I’m not incorrect, the grieving process for you is not a linear one. The five stages of grief, outlined in the oft-noted Kubler-Ross Model, no longer seem particularly true to life or even useful. I find it fascinating how often the process is inverted in your work, how often you return to key moments of loss and grieving, defying an insistence on what might be called capitalist time: the so-called punching of the proverbial clock. In two months you will feel. In six months, and so on. If you were to rewrite these five stages, based on your experience of writing, or art making in the case of Frida Khalo, what might they be?
Rapp Black: I would say that grief is a big tornado that churns inside you in a secret space for the rest of your life. Sometimes you’re in it, sometimes you’re out of it, but there it is. It’s chaos and motion and whatever shit flies in. No stages. Just wind.
Rail: Your willingness to circle back in your writing to key questions, to defining moments of loss and to the burgeoning of love is such a key feature of your writing. I love that you give yourself the same permission while reading literature. You see no reason to abandon the past. In The Still Point of the Turning World, caring for your terminally ill son, you write about rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at Yaddo, ruminating on when the Doctor comes to discover there is “a monster in the house.”
You reckon: “Reconsidering the book in the context of Ronan’s life, I wanted to tell Dr. F.to man up and stop being such an asshole. Be a father already, because that’s what you are.”
What follows is a wonderful disquisition on exceptionalism, death and the ultimate meaning of parenting.
Later, in Frida, you devote an entire chapter to mining the symbolic significance of this keystone work of science fiction, in the chapter Dear Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a stunning essay in which you posit wonderful insight into science and “the hybrid body.” Can you discuss the need to return to this work, and its significance?
Rapp Black: I’ve been taken by Frankenstein all my life. The idea that a created body could be turned cruel and against his kind nature by the cruelty of humans to appreciate or accept his physical difference—well, that’s clearly going to resonate with someone living with a disability. If we live long enough, we’ll all have hybrid bodies. We just don’t like to think that we will ever be anything less than “perfect” (or our limited notions of what this means), and so we miss the perfection that we are, we miss our singularity. That was the monster. He was singular and only. And the world couldn’t handle him, wouldn’t accept his love, and he was so human and so good, that this cruelty and disdain turned him into the thing he never would have become had he been loved the way he was willing to love.
Rail: The feminist lens that you bring to bear on much of the literature you read is especially incisive in the case of Frida Kahlo. Specifically at the start of the book, you recontextualize the public remarks made by Kahlo’s artistic contemporaries, informing us that the author Carlos Fuentes describes the accident that would eventually culminate in Frida’s leg amputation and numerous grueling surgeries, traction, and a host of other ailments as “rape by streetcar.” She was, as he puts it, “murdered by life.”
Embarking on this interview, I thumbed through a few Kahlo anthologies at a friend’s home and was struck by similarly thoughtless language used by another author, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, for an introduction to a book of photos, the section of which was titled, “Broken Body:” where he compares her to Blanche DeBois, calling her “fragile and pathetic.” Apparently, the term “pathetic” was often applied to this world-class artist. When did you first become aware of the misogynistic and ableist lens through which she was viewed? Why was she deemed “pathetic?” I am reminded of Claudia Rankine’s commentary in Citizen of the microaggressions committed almost daily against Serena Williams by the tennis world, her colleagues and professionals. Kahlo apparently dealt with microaggressions by the arts establishment in her day.
Rapp Black: I became aware when I realized that I had bought that story from art books. That she was vying for Diego’s attention; that she was sad and broken and just a big hot mess. She wasn’t. She was a powerful woman who endured many things. She was an artist who wrote about those things. If she had been a man, she would have been talked about by art critics as some kind of superhero.
Rail: Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is not organized around a controlling metaphor as in your earlier works. You allow for short chapters, poetry, wild leaps and circling through multiple timelines. Can you discuss your divining method for this astonishing collection about artmaking, female identity, motherhood, pain, illness, loss and the “non-normative” body?
Rapp Black: I think the method is that I didn’t have a method. I had words, and I had images, and I had an epic ton of rage and desire and longing.
Rail: There are a lot of myths surrounding artmaking and pain. Writing Frida, reviewing her letters and journals and her art, what clearer understanding did you come to? Is it reasonable to “use her story to heal us”? Is healing always possible? What truths did you come to about writing through your son’s illness and his death?
Rapp Black: I don’t believe in closure, healing, or resurrection of any kind. I believe in embodiment, I believe in the human ability to open to love and comfort even when they feel shattered. The only truth I came to in terms of writing was that without it, I would have died. I would have killed myself, because writing was the only thing that helped me manage what was not manageable, and still isn’t. It was that simple, and that epic. And it still is.
Rail: Frida Khalo, like you, like me, like many of us will, experiences not one instance of bodily trauma and illness, but maybe two, maybe even three rounds. How is it possible to be battered by multiple losses but to continue to thrive in some measure to find “sanctuary” and “to live on in the body you have been given”?
Rapp Black: I wish I knew. I think you have to say, okay, I’m doing this, or okay, I choose not to do this anymore. I don’t judge either choice, but for me, it has always been the former. If there’s just a little bit of light, I will claw at it, try to make a space for it, make room for it, expand it. This has not served me in my personal life in any way, but it has in my writing life in ways that I’m still coming to understand.
Rail: “Rapture” and “rupture” are similar sounding terms that recur throughout your writing. I’m really compelled by the dichotomy. Can you discuss these terms and what they mean to you? In one of my favorite essays, “Montaigne Visits Victoria’s Secret,” a fragrance, Rapture, “a sweet musky rose” is vividly portrayed amid a stunning revelation for teenage Emily: that all women regardless of age or normativity despise their bodies. It is apparently an American pastime. I wonder if you can discuss these terms in relationship to your work and philosophy on loss, love, illness and disability.
Rapp Black: Yeah, there I was trailing the stinky perfume down the stacks of the library. Yikes. Yes, it’s true that women are taught to hate their bodies, to pathologize them, to break them up into bits that are acceptable and those that are to be shunned and hidden away. Patriarchy happily assists in this dismantling and shaming. I feel like, for many women, maybe all women, it’s like carrying around a frame that you have to keep popping over your life, instructing yourself to try to see things in a way that escapes the male gaze, and all that it wants and doesn’t want, and all the ways in which it wants to make a woman believe that she is bad and wrong. I carry my frame around, mentally, and it’s a battered ass piece of wood, let me tell you.
Rail: Life-writing requires attention to philosophy, ethics and especially biomedical ethics. How does that inform the memoir aspect of your writing? In other words, how have you learned to navigate the waters of sharing potentially very intimate details of your life, especially that of your first marriage? Is there an author or philosopher whose works serve as a model for you? On this topic, what do you share with your writing students who might be anxious about exposing themselves to the judgement of family members when broaching very intimate subject matter such as sexuality, illness or divorce or even physical or emotional abuse?
Rapp Black: I write personal narrative to maintain my privacy. If you have a story or a body that people ask you about, have ideas about, or form narratives about the minute they lay eyes on you or you open your mouth, they will spin a story. You can see it in their faces. I resist that. I will not accept that. When I write a book, if someone asks me a question that I’ve tried to answer in the book, I say, I wrote a book, find your answers there, and leave me in peace.