by Lisa Peet
In troubled times, looking for redemption through personal narrative can be a delicate business. On the one hand, everything now is more broken than ever—children are being tear-gassed at the borders, journalists murdered, gun violence on the rise—and there’s no time for self-indulgence. But the high visibility of injustice has also inspired more voices, and new voices, to make themselves heard; more chairs to be brought to the table; a new set of stories to be told in the hope that they can shine some light on what requires scrutiny.
Fierce: Essays By and About Dauntless Women, a new anthology out December 1 from Nauset Press, adds to those fresh narratives from two directions: profiles of important but largely undersung women from history’s back pages are interwoven with the essayists’ own stories. Each piece brings history and memoir together to produce a hybrid series of portraits that explicitly link those who have gone before with those who are in the fight now. The result is both erudite and urgent.
The intersection of the personal and political is clearly having a moment. From penetrating first-person accounts that simultaneously take the wide view, such as Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body or Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir, to those whose stories serve to magnify anger, outrage, hope, or all three (Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Rebecca Solnit, Jeffrey Chang, Rebecca Traister), an army of contemporary writers have brought their own experiences to amplify civic commentary and criticism.
Fierce isn’t simply cashing in on the zeitgeist, however. The idea for the anthology had been buzzing around editor Karyn Kloumann’s head for a decade before it saw the light of day—and as the proprietor of Nauset Press, an independent publisher of idiosyncratic print books and limited edition fine art prints, she was ready to seize the moment in just the way she wanted.
In 2008 Kloumann, then a production manager at Condé Nast, had just finished reading an article on layoffs in publishing when she was called in to receive her own pink slip. But joining the ranks of the recession unemployed, she decided, could be an opportunity to pursue her own creative interests.
Initially she tried to publish a series of subway sketches that she had drawn on her daily commute along with “witty-ish captions,” going the traditional route and signing with an agent. “It was an excruciating, long, drawn-out process, with lots of kindly worded rejections, and ultimately unsuccessful,” she says. “Truthfully, my heart was not 100 percent into the drawings, and the tooting of my own horn was anathema.”
Kloumann was doing freelance production work as well, which she enjoyed, but she disliked the high stress levels, long and inefficient hours, and the workaholic environment that went with it. It was also dry and repetitious work, and she missed having creative input into a publication.
At the same time, the face of publishing itself was changing. Platforms like Lulu, IngramSpark, and Amazon’s Createspace, with professional-quality technology and easily outsourced distribution, offered access to professional-quality, small-scale print production to anyone with a desktop, a credit card, and a vision. Attitudes about “vanity presses” had begun to shift.
Sixteen years of production experience at magazines such as Allure, Lucky, and the New York Times T Magazine had given Kloumann a baseline of professionalism when it came to content and polished print execution, and in 2012, she recalls, “I decided I had enough experience to start my own press on my own terms—to finally undertake and immerse myself in the lifelong joy that I have working with words and images.”
Kloumann grew up on Cape Cod, MA, where her imagination had room to flourish. “I connected with a group of creative friends” in the late 1980s, she says,
and in addition to the usual stupid teenage stuff, we collaborated on staging elaborate photo shoots with costumes and settings near our homes—which included the beach, the woods, an abandoned mansion, and other people’s tennis courts off-season.
Later, at Bard College and then in New York City, Kloumann looked back fondly on that time of creative, offbeat synergy.
Nauset Press—for the Nauset people, who were Cape Cod’s earliest Native residents—was named to summon some of that energy. Within three months of her decision to go ahead she had established the press—a creative collaboration that publishes art books and poetry, as well as representing underserved poets and artists—built a website, launched social media accounts, and found her first project to publish: Linda Neaman’s Dead Stuff, “a small and charming compendium of death.”
Learning how to use the available technology was reasonably easy, Kloumann recalls, and she loved the work involved in crafting the design, typography, and layout for each book—14 to date, as well as five for Nauset’s imprint Conch Custom, which offers services to help writers who don’t fit into Nauset Press’s art and poetry genres self-publish their work. “I was fairly naïve from a business perspective,” she admits. The first book she published didn’t have a contract outlining expectations ahead of time, and the second wasn’t properly edited.
She learned from her mistakes, however. After taking Holly Howard’s “Ask Holly How” business development class aimed at creative entrepreneurs, Kloumann realized that she would need to outsource elements like copyediting, proofreading, and illustration if she wanted to take on larger projects. (Smaller poetry books are completed in house, but must be professionally copy edited before submission.)
The result is an eclectic collection of visually stunning, engaging print works by a wide range of authors. A number are themselves Bloomers, having found an off-the-beaten-track platform for their varied post-40 voices in Nauset—from Neaman to poet Carolyn Steinhoff (Under the World), Dora Händel (The Peripatetic Notebook(s) volumes I and II), photojournalist Virginia Mayo (Dit Huis Is Bewoond), choreographer Robin Bisio’s dance documentation (Your Flesh Shall be a Poem), poet Caitlin Grace McDonnell (Looking for Small Animals), and artist Jane Fine (Contents Under Pressure). Although she doesn’t credit any one small publisher as inspiration, Kloumann adds, “Sylvia Beach’s [bookstore] Shakespeare & Co. comes closest in spirit—Beach connected, championed, and uplifted so many writers and thinkers.”
Fierce is, in a way, the culmination of the past 15 years of Kloumann’s—and Nauset Press’s—expertise. By the time she decided to move forward with the anthology in 2015, she says, “[I] finally felt confident that I could do the project of this scale justice.”
As a starting point for the book, Kloumann gathered names of some 100 obscure women throughout history; authors could pick from the list or choose their own subject. She approached writers she knew personally and wanted to work with, such as Kara Lee Corthron, Claudia Smith, and Chicava HoneyChild, who were unable to commit to book-length projects individually but game for submitting an essay. In addition, “I asked a few other writers whom I admired but did not know,” says Kloumann, “reached out to friends to put the call out, and placed a call for submissions in a Facebook group.” She offered some guidance and did a bit of matchmaking as writers picked their subjects, with an eye toward including diverse time periods—1945 was the cutoff—locations, and cultures.
Kloumann started out working with 20 essayists, who eventually became the 13 featured in Fierce. “Some writers left; and some I asked to leave, because the balance that I envisioned between the subject’s biography, the writer’s personal component, the broader direction of the essay, and the writer’s additional creativity and analysis was very calibrated,” she says. Some cuts were made because of expenses. But every writer who participated, says Kloumann, whether their essay was published or not, helped the book reach its final form.
Fierce spotlights activists of all eras and persuasions. The essays’ subjects are women whose collective impact on history is more than their footnote status might suggest; their biographers are women making history in the act of writing.
In “Reveling & Rebelling: A Look at the Life of Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith,” we meet the African American nightclub owner whose establishments in Paris, Rome, and Mexico City hosted such bright lights as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Josephine Baker; her story is told by playwright and author Corthron, who finds parallels between the 1920s color line–crossing globetrotter and her own ambition, at the same time she weighs the possibility of bringing Smith’s story to the world as a larger project. “There was no precedent for what she accomplished. No guides or mentors for her to follow. She just did it,” Corthron writes:
I’ve thought about this a lot. Being a playwright, I’ve wondered: could her life be a play? A musical?… She embraced the joyous, the delicious, and often decadent aspects of life, but she was always pragmatic and always worked hard, determined to be the best.
“Audacious Warrior,” the story of Ernestine L. Rose, a 19th-century feminist abolitionist born in Poland, who left Europe and lectured across America on humanitarian issues and the power of free will, is told by Edissa Nicolás-Huntsman, a self-described “21st-century Black, Third-World Feminist with Caribbean roots.” The two may have struggled to extricate themselves from radically different contexts, but Nicolás-Huntsman posits clear and explicit links between them—connections that the earlier woman’s activism made possible. “Over 150 years separate us,” she writes, “yet our fates parallel each other like echoes in time, mine because of a society with well-established basic human rights, which Ernestine envisioned and manifested.”
The “Night Witches”—a cadre of Russian women who ran late-night bombing missions against the Germans in World War II—lead Betsy Andrews to consider her Korean War veteran father’s PTSD in “Baba Yaga Unleashed.” Meera Nair contrasts her outrage at the contemporary remnants of India’s caste system with her gratitude for the activist path paved by Nangeli, who martyred herself to defy caste laws in 1803. In “Trek Across a Trackless Land” Claudia Smith imagines the cheerful backstory of Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive coast to coast, and considers her own, less carefree, road trips.
I drove with a friend from graduate school from Mississippi to North Carolina in a green Neon to deliver my son to his father for a summer visitation. I was broke and had not received child support for some time, but I was determined to follow the court order and deliver my son on time…. When he contracted pinkeye, it ended up being a few hundred dollars on my debit card.
While it seems as though much contemporary editorial writing requires at least a taste of the first person as a way in, to the Fierce writers’ credit—and to Kloumann’s as an editor—the autobiographical pieces of each essay feel necessary, rather than like checkbox ingredients.
“I felt the personal aspect was essential to the book to help readers understand why it is important to care about herstories from the past,” explains Kloumann. “Why is it relevant to read a dusty hagiography?”
History needs to be absorbed, understood, and critically evaluated, she says.
[But] it is also a process where you learn something about yourself and make sense of the current events manifesting around you as part of a larger cycle of life. I also believe it makes a more engaging read…if there is a personal voice as well—this is not a disembodied authorial know-it-all, this is another human being who is passionate about the content.
Nonetheless, that balance took effort and attention to achieve. For additional perspective, Kloumann enlisted consulting editors who understood the anthology’s mandate and helped maintain the equilibrium of personal essay and scholarship.
Mostly, however, the essayists set the tone. “The 13 writers who remained in the book all had a very strong instinctual understanding from the start about the balance required,” she notes.
In “Rose-Poisoning: The Unknown History of Zabel Yessayan,” Nancy Agabian seeks to understand her family’s history through the memoir of Yessayan, a writer who lived through the Armenian genocide and would have been a contemporary of her grandparents. Agabian struggles to see the parallels between their two stories, as well as grappling with her own feelings of invisibility—that she has no story to tell. She writes:
Recently, an Armenian author wrote to me in an email, “Please note that all Armenian writers have been ignored and forgotten.” Yet in the Armenian literary community, there is a widespread impulse to save one another, to see one another, to remember one another.
The anthology pulls that same impulse from a larger intersection of communities: of women, writers, and activists. Kloumann, via Nauset Press, is amplifying that mandate: to save, see, and remember one another. And Fierce reminds us that the boundaries between the personal and the political are always porous.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
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