The patriarchy engages in a systematic erasure of women’s work and identities.
Men often change, censor, or erase the words, experiences, opinions, orientations, rights, personalities, bodies, and work of women, in a pattern that has become ingrained in our society. Sometimes these erasures are relatively benign and sometimes they aren’t.
On December 8, 2014, I ceased to exist. I submitted my manuscript, Fleshgraphs (a hybrid book in fragments that rotate around the unifier of the body), to Tarpaulin Sky Press. Upon reading it, the “man behind the curtain” at the press decided that I was not real. The book references sex, drugs, rape culture, self-harm, violence, bigotry, depression, and PTSD among other things. He initially sent an email in which he pretended to be interested in my manuscript:
Well, Brynne, this text looks amazing. … I would love to know more about this project. It’s definitely in the top ten things I’ve read in the last few days, and I’m not supposed to be reading any of it, just cataloging it. But that’s the problem with the good stuff. Throws everything off. Displaces time. That said, if you are actually fourteen I may either 1) just kill myself now or 2) make a pilgrimage to study, if not worship, at your feet.
Thinking he was genuinely interested in my book, I replied enthusiastically, confirming that I had recently turned fifteen and I had my parents’ permission to publish my work. I also explained the intent behind Fleshgraphs:
As for the project, it is supposed to be a multi-voiced manifesto of the body, as well as a sort of unifier since every person has a body. The voices are supposed to meld the trivial with the suicidal, the amazing with the horrifying, kind of like the internet does. I’ve always found it really intriguing that you can watch a video of baby pandas and then see footage of people being stabbed a few seconds later.
I closed my email “Again, thank you for the response! I’m so glad that you like the piece!” This was my first time sending a manuscript for consideration and my first book contest entry. I chose Tarpaulin Sky because I had read some of the genre-bending books that the press had published and because the press seemed to support female writers. I assumed his interest was sincere, and I was excited.
But then, I received the following email:
I tried to play along and be funny like a normal person—or perhaps I should say “like a typical middle-class artist/author who knows trauma only from stuff they read and appropriate in an effort to appear edgy or provocative or as if they have something of weight to discuss, in contrast to their boring, privileged lives”—but neither chatting with teens nor pretending to chat with teens is a welcome activity for me, let alone when the alleged teen’s MS involves rape and torture.
I want to believe that you’re merely oblivious to what I’ve been through, rather than *trying* to trigger my issues.
If either Brian or Tara [my parents] wants to contact me, I’d welcome some clarity, because I feel sick. Otherwise I’m done.
And then I received another email twenty minutes later:
Also: if you were at all familiar with our catalog, you’d know that some of our titles deal head-on with sexual assault, even child sexual assault. And I publish these books not only because the texts are great but I publish them also because they help ME work through this shit.
But for you to think that an author-publisher relationship can itself be a performance piece? I mean, what the fuck are you smoking? Like I’m even going to pretend to publish a 15-yr-old even if you weren’t fucking with my issues left, right, and center.
I replied, trying to clarify my intentions:
I apologize if my manuscript triggered you. Until you sent me your first email, I didn’t know anything about you personally, so I wouldn’t know what issues you have or how to trigger them. If you publish things to help you work through your issues, you should mention that on your web site, or perhaps include a note about the type of content you do not wish to receive. My work and interaction with your press has been by no means a performance. In my work, I try to portray the human body, and the things people with bodies (especially women) experience, which sometimes include rape and other horrific things, regardless of age. I am a young woman who lives in a world that is rampant with psychos and rape culture. I am not sure why, if you did not feel comfortable talking with a teenager, you would have sent me an enthusiastic email about my manuscript when you were aware of my age. I have published in other places that have always treated me and my work very professionally. I do not want to be contacted by you/Tarpaulin Sky again.
But he continued to email me:
You’re seriously going to keep up this charade?
At least Brian should know enough about TS to know that there is no “content we don’t wish to receive.” Our books peel the paint off the walls. We make a point of it. Which is why I took notice of your manuscript.
Don’t confuse the issue: which is that you’re playing “pretend” with your own teen daughter, and apparently won’t cop to it for anything.
It was funny the first time. But when you wrote back and *continued* to play pretend, it wasn’t funny.
And now it’s plain creepy.
Why don’t you two just tell me what's going on—its not beyond explaining, for crying out loud—Instead of making me have to ask thousands of readers what the fuck your problem is?
Rather than confront his own biases about the abilities of young women and what, in his eyes, would have constituted appropriate or believable subject matter and concerns for young women who write, the editor just decided that I didn’t exist, or if I did exist in real life, in this situation it was in name only. He decided my work must have been a ploy or piece of poorly thought-out performance art on the part of my parents (who are both writers), and he threatened to expose them to his “thousands of readers.” He implied that I (or, my parents, since he had erased me as the author and real, live, woman on the receiving end of his emails), had submitted my book to “fuck” with his “issues.” Even if my manuscript included rape and torture, or was more explicit, would it be so unbelievable that a young woman might choose to write about horrific things that happen to women every day in the world she inhabits? But, in our society, the expected role for a teenaged girl is that of the ingénue (unless or until she is a victim of male violence, and the assumptions and narrative shift dramatically—so the girl, now “mature” and “older than her chronological age,” was assumed to have been in total control of the situation, including her own sexuality and that of her male rapist).
The “man behind the curtain” from Tarpaulin Sky Press did apologize to me, after receiving verification from my parents that I am real, that the manuscript I submitted was really my work, and that it had really been me receiving his emails. However, the assumptions he made about me and my work speak to a much larger issue in our culture—and in most cases there is no acknowledgement that the assumptions were wrong, there is no apology after the fact. In most cases, the erasure or rewriting of women to suit an androcentric narrative is culturally prescribed and upheld—the practice vigorously defended.
If a relatively enlightened man, who publishes numerous books by feminist writers, was so quick to erase or rewrite a young woman’s identity to suit his narrative rather than considering hers, then our society, including the literary world, still has a long way to go.
Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, and visual art have appeared in such journals as The Volta, Revolver, Souvenir, Open House, Powder Keg, So to Speak, Ping Pong, The Offending Adam and other magazines, and her work is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Pine Hills Review and Denver Quarterly, among other publications. She was born in 1999 and currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.