I wrote this essay in September last year for the Los Angeles Review of Books’ new channel Literature Around the World. The edited version of the essay is here.
I was 11 when I first ran away from home. I ran because I wanted to see how far I could get. When it began to look like if I went any further, I’d forget my way back- I turned around but the idea that something exciting lived right around the corner, that my life wouldn’t truly begin until I turned around that corner stayed with me. What a delight it is then to discover a writer from the 1900s who not only ran away from home when she was 11 (she never returned) but also never forgot what it’s like to want to run away.
Dawn Powell wrote short stories, reviews, plays and novels through the 1920s and after. It is surprising that despite the body of brilliant work she produced (barely making any money out of it) she is still not as well known. I first heard of her last year, in this 2002 video where Fran Lebowitz talked about her as one of the greatest American writers. When I think of how many male writers I am able to name from the same time, I am amused. There are far too many. Somehow there is always room for one more boring male writer and yet Dorothy Parker is the only woman we are given when we want funny female writers. As if two women cannot be funny at the same time and so it is that the saying goes that Dorothy Parker got credit for all the jokes that Dawn Powell made. Let’s not bother setting up two men against each other. After all, no one wants to plagiarize boredom.
Dawn Powell ran away because her stepmother burnt all her short stories [“I burnt all that trash you were writing”] accidentally setting in motion Powell’s destiny to be a writer. There was very little for Powell to do after that. Where I come from, women run away from home to elope. Sadly, they all return with swollen eyes and a divorce. See? They all say – it’s what happens when you run away. As a child, I kept looking for stories of women who ran away alone and lived happily ever after, but they either didn’t exist or were hidden from me.
I wish I’d discovered Dawn Powell then whose writing is replete with women who ran, women who couldn’t, and women who didn’t. In one of her earliest short stories, The Rut, Anne and Marjorie are friends who grow up to want different things. Anne wants to leave town, Marjorie doesn’t. “I am going to get away and do something different and even if I don’t make a success, I’ll at least be out of the rut–this miserable, deadly rut!” Anne says. Years later, they meet again, and Anne envies that Marjorie, married with two children, looks content. Marjorie asks Anne if she’s happy. “No, I am not what you would call happy,” she admits. “I believe it is the people in the rut who are happiest after all. Once they get resigned, they make the most out of it and things are so much easier. Ambition seems to be the obstacle to overcome on the road to happiness”
As if this isn’t enough sting, Anne tells herself that happiness isn’t what she wants after all. “What I want is work” The image of a young girl determined to overcome her failure to prove to her friend that she has achieved what she left to achieve is startling. The clarity of knowing that what she wants is work, not happiness and the ability to recognize that happiness and ambition are two different things is even more startling.
It takes a supreme will to be like Anne. But what does it take to be a Marjorie? Especially since the Marjories of the world are just as important to Powell. In ‘Such a pretty day’, another short story, Powell gives us two Marjories – Sylvia and Barbs – friends and newly married mothers who go shopping one day to escape the boredom of domestic life. Standing in front of an affluent store with barely enough cents in their pockets, ”Barbs and Sylvia clutched each other’s hands to keep up their courage before the hostile clerks.” Inside, Barbs sees a dolphin rubber float, snitches it and stuffs it down her front. They escape quietly and quickly, hitch a ride and when they get out of the car, tragedy hits. Barbs discovers that she has forgotten to steal the stopper, without which the float is useless. She is devastated and begins to cry, noting between her sobs, “I would forget the stopper. I’d have to forget the most important thing”
Powell is not interested in saving her characters and this, Lebowitz points out, is why she was a commercially unsuccessful and at the same time a superb writer. What does it mean then for a girl sitting far away in Bangalore (dreaming of running away) to discover Dawn Powell one hundred years later? For anyone learning how to write, Dawn Powell is a gift. She was so accustomed to the silence that followed before and after writing that it is impossible to imagine now, even momentarily, a silence like that. It would be too deafening. Dawn Powell is teaching me how to write in silence, to ignore silence and to write despite the silence. I believe it is what will save me from becoming too spoiled, even if Dawn Powell never intended and doesn’t care about saving me. Remaining undiscovered is the default state of many women writers, but it must have meant something else to Powell entirely. An early childhood lesson for her was that in order to keep writing, she had to remain undiscovered. When Powell and her sister hid from their stepmother to paint and write, Powell said, “Since our creative labours made no noise, we were happily undiscovered for a fortnight”.
Happiness is double its shape when there are female friends to share it with, ambition too, but for those of us who grow up friendless, these women and their words become a blueprint for surviving both ambition and writing. Women’s writing from even a hundred years before us has the capacity to carry us when we run away from home, walk away from a relationship, or just plain set out to explore a city they’ve lived and died in. This is what friendship with the women I have only come to know through their words means to me. I borrow gumption from the firmness and sureness of their writing, how strong and irreplaceable they look in the shadow of my love for them. Their ghost-like presence and the strength of words they’ve left behind for us is the legacy of female companionship, greater and bigger than any other kind.
“Never forget geography. New York is heroine. Make the city live, so that the reader walking about thinks – here is fifth avenue hotel, where so and so came” Powell writes in her diary in 1951. When I was in Los Angeles last year on a scholarship program, it took me a while to remember that this was Joan Didion’s city. When I realised, it was too late, and I was mad at myself because her words had carried me across the city even if I was barely paying attention to it. The possibility that I had perhaps walked on the very street Didion might have, passed by the very same house in Hollywood where she lived and wrote The White Album left a painful smile in my jaw. As I was leaving Los Angeles, still smiling, Didion’s words echoed in my fingertips “It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point”.
But sometimes, it’s the opposite of remembering “what it is to be me” After reading Parable of the Sower, I went looking for the exact spot Octavia Butler sat and wrote the book in at The Los Angeles Public Library. I was hungry to sit in the same place, imagine her, see what she saw, feel what she felt. I walked to the third floor of the large library where there were huge windows and a few tables. I sat at one of them and decided it’s where Butler wrote from. It was remembering what it is to be someone else, even if that memory was never mine to begin with. But in that desperation to make the city mine, to see what these women saw, I become them, even if for a moment. Such is the pleasure and joy of discovering women writers so far away.
So now I know that if I ever come to New York, as so many others do, I will look for Dawn Powell in the streets of Greenwich, in the cafes, in the parks, and in the hotels of New York. I will look for her in the same way I learnt what writing is all about, which is pretty much the story of “Wait for me in the corner and I’ll tell you how I ran away from home” (What are you doing in my dreams?) After all, history has always hidden women who had gumption, who showed us it’s possible to run away and not look back, and stories always reveal them.