If I knew the journey I’d be on once I opened the copy of Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry that my mom sent to me, I would have started reading it sooner. What I didn’t foresee is how Elizabeth Zott’s forceful way of being herself would lead me to the creative community of Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, which evolved naturally into reading Kimberly Garrett Brown’s Cora’s Kitchen, a book by someone I love. I didn’t know how much I’d learn about the feminist struggle or the reminders I’d find about what it takes to create and protect a creative life. It’s been an excellent journey and I’d love to share with you the highlights.
Elizabeth Zott and the Force of Will
The hero of Lessons in Chemistry, Elizabeth Zott, is brilliant, accomplished, and under-recognized chemist in early 1960s America. While she has a deep understanding of chemistry, she is seemingly blind to a society that is trying to limit her from all angles—even though she brutally experiences those limitations over and over. I loved her hardheadedness (maybe my mom was trying to tell me something?) and the book was an all-too-familiar reminder of how many of the feminist (pronounced “women are people too, equally”) struggles of then still occur now. The story is engaging but this was not my favorite of these three books, I think in a lot of ways because while Zott stumbled her way to a better life by speaking to women’s intellect, marrying chemistry and cooking, and there were some happy triumphs, Garmus couldn’t rewrite the realities of society as a whole—sexist realities I’m still impatient to see resolved.
Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Tillie Olsen and the Creative Life
The Equivalents was the perfect followup to Lessons in Chemistry because it’s a nonfictional account of women’s experiences during the same era. For example, I learned by reading this book that (the fictional) Zott filled much the same role as Betty Friedan when she published The Feminine Mystique, prompting women to see that the oppression they felt was part of a larger pattern. But I also read this book for the creative community—something that grew here from something called the Radcliffe Institute, an entity that was created for extraordinary women to take time away from their household duties and get back to the intellectual and artistic pursuits they may have abandoned. The spine of this narrative is the (pre-existing) friendship between Sexton and Kumin, two poets, mothers, and wives and how they navigated their complicated friendship while building a sustaining creative community with each other and others at Radcliffe.
Of particular interest to me about this book was the role of Tillie Olsen, a working class writer who tested the limits of what the Radcliffe Institute could do. Because she was a main source of income for her family (which had no generational wealth) and lived on another coast, she wasn’t really what the Institute was set up to support. But her friends helped her find her way in and she advocated for writers like her from the inside. I’m thinking a lot right now about the ways class can be a barrier to a creative career and it was helpful to me to see the ways Olsen challenged that (and the ways she couldn’t). Along with reinvigorating her own career (that had fallen prey to the need to feed herself and her family), she was especially interested in championing the work of women of color, another group that was not necessarily at the top of mind for the Institute. I also loved reading about how Olsen’s own marriage was more equal, with two creatives trying to support each other while getting by (an experience that mirrors my own).
There was something about the way the women’s struggles were positioned in The Equivalents that was easier for me to exist with. I think part of this is that I could see particular progress in each of their real lives and think about how that might be applied to now. Halfway through this book I remembered that I’d once dreamed of setting up a creative colony or residency of sorts and it’s all I can think of since. I don’t have the funds but I have the passion and I know what even a week away at a residency like Centrum (deadline for application on Tuesday!) can do for a creative person, particularly one with family and work responsibilities.
Cora James and the Complexities of Patronage
Because women of color were really the ones with the least access to something like the Radcliffe Institute, I reached for Cora’s Kitchen next. I own this book because I went to school with the author and because we’ve kept up a friendship (although often too distant) ever since. I remember Kim describing the general idea of this book to me at a bar in D.C. during AWP in 2011 as I wept over my grandmother’s death that morning and Kim continued to pour me amazing wine. Although I saw her again at AWP in Seattle this year, I’ve had her book on my shelf for much longer than that and it was a joy to finally have the right occasion to open it.
Cora James is a Black mother and wife in Harlem in 1928. She works at a library and has an epistolary relationship with Langston Hughes, but she doesn’t really have time to fulfill her own creative dreams. Then she takes over her cousin’s job for a bit of time (because her cousin was beaten terribly by her husband) so her cousin won’t lose her job. What Cora finds during this time as a cook in a white household changes her life. The work is more menial but less constant and she is suddenly free to write for part of the day. The racial politics of the household are complicated and Cora makes an unexpected friend. Eventually Cora even finds a patron, someone who has the power to lift the burdens of running a family and a household (a burden her musician husband is not interested in sharing). The Awakening plays an important role in this book as Cora is also reflecting on literary models of women freeing themselves.
I won’t tell you more about what happens in the book because it’s beautifully complex and I’d spoil it by trying to reduce it. What I will say is there are moments I was afraid some of Cora’s relationships would be a crutch or that she’d fall into clichés, but Brown deftly navigates all of this, giving Cora the power and intelligence to create a life less ordinary for herself, despite the limitations of racism, sexism, and class.
Three Good Books, One Big Message
I guess I’m trying to work something out for myself. While I’m able to sign my own mortgage or get a credit card that’s not in my husband’s name, I still encounter sexism every day. While I have a very supportive partner with whom I can balance a family and the idea of creative lives for both of us, there’s never enough time or money to really dig into what we could be. While I’ve been grateful for the conversations about race that were pushed to the forefront during the pandemic, I’m devastated about how far we haven’t come there either. Wheel of progress long, etc. I am impatient for better. For women, for creatives, for people of color, and most of all for those of us who fall into more than one of those categories. I’m grateful to Brown, Doherty, and Garmus for reminding me I am not alone in my impatience and that I need to find ways to do more for myself and for others, when I can.
What are you doing to sustain a creative life? How do you keep your friends close? How do you pay for it? How are you helping others? Please inspire me in the comments.