ESSAY: Rebel Girl by Melissa Febos
Julia Stiles was straight. But that didn’t stop me from thinking about kissing her pretty moon face, with its tiny mouth and nose, her cheeks smooth and delicately furred as an apricot.
We met at summer camp. Our summer camp was not the kind filled with campfires, canoes, and crudely woven friendship bracelets. Our camp offered workshops like “existential crises on the back porch,” zine-making, and creative writing led by a six and half foot tall Nick Cave lookalike named Dave, who gave us Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and said only one sentence all afternoon: “I hate white people.”
At our camp, we chain-smoked cigarettes, swam at a coed nude beach, shaved each other’s heads at 3 a.m., and traded mixtapes studded with Sonic Youth concert bootlegs. It was at camp that I had first heard all my favorite bands: The Pixies, The Cure, PJ Harvey. And in the summer of 1994, Julia introduced me to Bikini Kill.
She and I met in our first year at camp, and had traded letters ever since. Every time an envelope arrived in my mailbox with her SoHo address scrawled in the corner, I tore it open, basking in the parallels between my rural Cape Cod adolescent life and her cosmopolitan Manhattan one. (We BOTH hated everyone at our school! We BOTH thought meat was murder! We BOTH liked to cut the necks out of our thrift store t-shirts!).
Rock & Roll Day was an annual camp event. All day, teenagers plugged in on a tiny outdoor stage, and played covers of their favorite songs. Someone always played “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and somebody always sang “No Woman No Cry.” Though I was so obsessed with music that I’d developed an unpleasant ear condition by wearing my Walkman headphones even while sleeping, I had never considered performing.
I didn’t want to be a rock star, like everyone else at camp. I didn’t want to be a movie star, like Julia did, either. I wanted to be a writer. But I loved Billie Holiday’s voice, and I had a feeling in me that matched it. So I took secret voice lessons from a plump woman named Shirley who ran scales with me in the musty top floor of our local music shop, and I made her teach me “God Bless the Child,” “Summertime,”and “Don’t Explain.”
That year, on Rock and Roll Day’s eve, Julia grabbed me and said, “I signed us up.” We were a band, she informed me, with her on guitar and me on vocals. “We get two songs,” she said. “What’s your pick?”
Without thinking, I answered: “Gigantic.”
“Great,” she said. “Here’s our other song — go learn it.” She handed me a cassette tape.
For the next eight hours, I locked myself in the Rec Hall restroom, and listened to Kathleen Hanna sing “Feels Blind.” Singing was the only way I knew how to articulate my loneliness, but I hadn’t known it was also a way to articulate anger. Until I heard my own voice ricocheting off the tiled walls of that bathroom — what have you taught me, you’ve taught me fucking nothing — I hadn’t even known that I was angry.
On that stage in my torn jeans and Pixies t-shirt, I was so nervous that my voice cracked as I murmured, Hey Paul hey Paul hey Paul let’s have a ball, and I glanced across the stage at Julia in her torn slip and black lipstick. She nodded at me, and I kept going — What a big black mess, what a hunk of love.
But when I sang “Feels Blind,” I didn’t stutter, and I didn’t have to look at Julia, or the handful of dirty teenagers watching us from the grass — I closed my eyes, brought my lips to the cool microphone, and it was better than Billie, better even kissing Julia, which I never got to do.
A year later, I was supposed to go visit her in Manhattan, but instead, I met my first girlfriend, and blew Julia off because we were too busy kissing and fighting and dry humping to Kristin Hersh. The next time I wrote her, she wrote back to tell me that her career was taking off and she didn’t have much time anymore for letters.
We never spoke again, but if I wrote her one last letter, it would say this:
Thank you for Bikini Kill.
P.S. Your solo at the end of Save The Last Dance killed.
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Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, and Bitch Magazine. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and StoryQuarterly, and she is the recipient of a 2012 Bread Loaf nonfiction fellowship, a 2013 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund artist grant, a 2014 Virginia Center for Creative Arts fellowship, a 2015 Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a 2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council “Process Space” fellowship, and MacDowell Colony fellowships in 2010, 2011, & 2014. Currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), she serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and has co-curated the Manhattan reading series Mixer for eight years. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod, and lives in Brooklyn.
The PEN Book Report is a weekly series that challenges the notion of “best of,” “top,” and “seasonal must read” lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them. We simply asked contributors to share with us a list of books they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.
Founded by Hafizah Geter and Antonio Aiello, participants include Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Melissa Febos, Kelly Forsythe, Nathalie Handal, Abeer Hoque, Gene Luen Yang, Loma, Lisa Lucas, Joseph Mains, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Darnell Moore, Celeste Ng, Gregory Pardlo, Khadijah Queen, Camille Rankine, Jeff Shotts, and many more.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Mixed-Form Things: Change is afoot in the realm of creative nonfiction. Or so they are saying. Terms I hear with increasing frequency include lyric essay, mixed-form nonfiction, experimental, innovative, cross-genre, in addition to the more antiquated autofiction and faction (a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction” devised by Truman Capote). I have just completed a work of nonfiction to which many of these terms could and may be applied. Abandon Me is collection of essays that cohere around the theme of abandonment and features a 40,000-word title piece that mixes personal narrative, mythology, psychological theory, and history. Though I admire much of the “innovative” nonfiction being written today, I would name none of its writers as primary influences on my book. So often we mistake popularity or terminology for the advent of form (memoir did not begin with Frank McCourt, nor the essay with Montaigne). Here are some of the “mixed form” nonfictions that I would name as godparents. -Melissa Febos
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (The Crossing Press)
“I have always wanted to be both man and woman,” begins Lorde’s biomythography. “I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered—to leave and be left—to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving.” When I reread these lines while revising the story of my own queer awakening, I wondered if I wasn’t wasting my time. I wondered if she had already said it all in that short prologue.
Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (Routledge)
I first read this essay collection at 19. Though explicitly an instruction manual for how to teach (and enact) social justice in the classroom, hooks utilizes in its telling all of the tools I have since learned to manifest in my writing, my life, and my pedagogy: personal narrative, critical theory, self-interview, dialogue, and historical context.
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (University of California Press)
Cha’s 1982 “auto-ethnography” is structured after the nine Greek muses and Cha chooses her own, among them her mother, herself, Persephone and Demeter, Joan of Arc, and the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon. The book contains as many forms as it does heroines, though the leitmotif of voice surges in each.
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid (Noonday Press)
There are page-long sentences in this memoir—winding, incantatory, discursive, and by some miracle always clear. It is a book about death, about hating and loving someone at the same time, about the chasm between the place that made us and the one we chose.
Storyteller by Leslie Marman Silko (Arcade Publishing)
Silko has described her work as “the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed-blood person.” Storyteller is a literary embodiment of this experience: stories bound together by tradition, orality, image, history, and memory. Books like this, which are not any one thing, have been my best teachers. They have taught me that a person can also be a hybrid animal, a mixed-form thing, and that she can still be whole.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers, and she is the recipient of fellowships from Bread Loaf, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.