On Writing the Hidden History of American Women’s Lives

Sonja Livingston uses poetic essays to breathe life into some of America’s most remarkable, and little known, women.

“I conjure them – daredevil and poet, singer, slave and social reformer, misfits and models, and girls snatched away in broad daylight,” writes Sonja Livingston of the cast she’s about to introduce. “Some have names you’ll recognize, while most are shadowy figures lost to time, women and girls slipping through the world largely unseen.”

Her latest collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, brings together vividly imagined vignettes of some of America’s lesser known female historical figures. These literary essays in poetic prose offer snapshots of lives as varied as the geographic and cultural backdrops against which they’re painted.

I admire fearlessness in women, if only because it so rarely lies open. Of course, it’s there, our strength. Women rise each morning to begin again, no matter the many mouths opening in their direction, no matter the dullness or sharpness of the task. Women understand how to overlook or wait until next time, can spend years holding their tongues in the face of the thing that most wants letting. No, I need no convincing of the strength of women, but it’s too often a matter of restraint. I do not often see us standing bold or brazen before a crowd. I do not mean to belittle cheerleaders and fashion models and television weather women — though theirs seems a case of the body going through a series of prescribed and pleasant motions. Where are our wild women? Those with open mouths and muscled legs, who flare and flame, whose actions shock, and whose bodies defy gravity, whose every step rivets the eye so that we can’t look away?

The author of 2009’s Ghostbread (which won an award for creative nonfiction) and the 2015 essay collection Queen of the Fall is no stranger to depicting women’s lives. Livingston’s prose is light, textured, and entrancing. What’s remarkable about her latest work is how she’s captured the ability to sustain engaging narratives through such vividly reflexive poetic prose. The effect works better in some essays than others, but when it does, it’s magical.

“Mash-ups of biography and memoir and imagination” is one way she describes them to me when we speak. “Poetic essays” is another. Mashing up the boundaries of genre can be dangerous — today’s culture pundits are notoriously fickle consumers of poetic language — but Livingston tackles the challenge fearlessly and unapologetically.

We ghosts… All of us are coming through.Carrying with us words held under the tongue for so many years — a thousand flocks of starlings finally flapping free, grazing the heads of the living as we push past, turning over rivers and houses, swooping into cottonwoods until every branch is blackened. Nothing like losing the body to better see the woman.

“I like to read poetry, I really like to play with language. Even while my interest in these particular women is in their history, I’m also interested in filtering them through language. It’s what I do as a writer. It’s my style,” she explains.

The characters themselves offer rich and varied material. The Fox sisters and the ghost they purported to channel; the tragic and doomed love of young girls Freda Ward and Alice Mitchell; sculpture model Audrey Munson; “white slave girl” May Fielding; R&B singer Big Maybelle; these and many others spring to life in the pages of Ladies Night at the Dreamland.

“I’d hear about them in different ways and didn’t really have a plan of writing a book necessarily,” reflects Livingston. “But as an essayist a lot of what motivates me to write is to try to figure out why am I fascinated by this particular person. What is it about them? What is it about their qualities that is so interesting? Little by little I began to write these pieces and over time I realized I had something going here, writing about the lives of these women and girls.”

“Of course, it’s really about me as a modern woman looking at them as examples, as a way to know myself better… For instance, looking at Maria [Spelterini] who crossed Niagara Falls, she fascinated me just because she’s fearless. Or desperate. I guess that was the question; I didn’t know if she was fearless or desperate, or some combination. And so I wanted to know a little bit more about what it was like to stand before an audience in a very tiny skirt in 1876. What did that take? And the answers were a combination of my imagination and whatever I was able to find.”

All told, the essays were written over the past three to four years, many of them previously published in literary journals and anthologies.

Livingston never expected to find herself in a writing career. She spent her 20 employed as a counselor, until one day she participated in a creative writing workshop and discovered a new passion for the art. While still working full-time, she pursued a graduate degree in creative writing. This led to an award-winning first book, which in turn led to a job as a creative writing professor. It was an unexpected direction for her life to take, but she sees parallels with her former life as a counselor. “I get to listen to people’s stories,” she says, laughing. “I’ve always been very curious about human beings.”

Writing Women’s Stories

Her stories, however, evince an interest in the lives of women in particular. The stories offer a range of characters, from ‘The Ballad of Fred and Allie’ depicting a tragic, doomed same-sex romance in the late 1800s, to Harlem Renaissance trumpeter Valaida Snow. Ultimately, they depict a broad diversity of female figures, as illuminating in the varied trajectories their lives took as in the different social contexts against which they struggled.

“Here’s the thing. Everybody has good stories. There are just great stories everywhere. But I think there’s something especially intriguing about women. In our culture we know some women’s stories, and we celebrate and share them, but they aren’t really celebrated or known in the same way that men’s stories are. I think women are quieter about things, and yet just like men we have experiences and times when we’re called on to be brave or fight for our future, that sort of thing… [and] these are just a handful. They’re the few that I know of, but there are just so many other stories from the past and from today about women who are living in very interesting ways.”

“It’s not that men’s stories are not interesting, but I think really the honest answer is that as a non-fiction writer and as a female, I wanted to see what I could learn from these women’s stories. I think each of them had a lesson for me. It does get political in part, because at heart a lot of the stories are highlighting the fact that women live their lives differently, more quietly. A lot of these women were living in the spotlight, or doing things that were out of the ordinary for their time, and I’m really fascinated by that. By what it is to get attention, and what that looks like and how long it’s held. A lot of them did really fascinating things and nobody really knows about them.”

She’s been pleasantly surprised by the positive reception she’s gotten from male critics, as well.

“I’m heartened by the fact that men seem to be connecting to the material. I was a little worried, I think sometimes things get marketed as “female” and you put a woman on the cover of the book and I’m not sure how men will respond to that, and I certainly hope that men will read and connect, because you know they’re human stories.”

Being Political Without Writing Politics

One of the most intriguing essays is ‘The Other Magpie’, ostensibly about strong Native American women like the one in the title, but more broadly about questions of identity. “I will not write about the fake Indian,” begins the piece, which tackles issues of cultural appropriation and how far we should go in defining our own identities. Based loosely on real-life characters, it hearkens to recent high-profile cases of individuals accused of assuming identities and ethnicities that are not theirs. On Sioux woman Zitkala-Sa:

As an adult, her writing brought her success but also trouble at the Carlisle Indian School, where she worked with administrators who did not want an Indian remembering out loud the pain of trying to escape palefaces bearing scissors, the way she’d hid under a bed and they’d found her and forced the girl’s submission by strapping her into a chair. No matter all that came later — photographs of her in a long white dress with puffed sleeves and floral wallpaper, looking like a bride as she bears a violin, a basket, and a book — the image that lingers is a child bound to a chair, wildness slipping away as dark hair coils on the floor… I understand but resist and return to the image of a child in a chair, held by straps and hands and whatever it takes to keep her still. A child, the moment before her hair is cut. Face wet, eyes bulging, struggling to flee from those who want to tame her. How much easier to relate to her, the innocent about to be severed in ways we still can’t fathom. How much more difficult to see ourselves in the one who binds and cuts. But there’s something to looking at the white hand straight on, isn’t there? Something necessary about holding the scissors in our gaze long enough to recognize the reflection showing in the blade as our own. Something about the blue eye and what it has sometimes meant.

“I really struggled with whether to include that [piece], because I don’t like to write from a place of judgement. I like to write from a place where I have a question; Why does this person do that? Or why am I so interested in this? But in this case I really had a judgement… The issue has been coming up more and more lately, just the issue of identity and what it means when we say we are this or we are that, and do we have the right to do that? And of course the answer is we do, but what are the repercussions of that? That’s something that I’m interested in.”

In the essay, she alternates between perspectives, using the fictionalized character of Leona Moon-Heron, the ‘fake Indian’.

Maybe Leona is of two spirits in this regard, caught between desire and reality, and why should anyone be limited by the story she happens to be born into? It’s petty, I think, to worry whether someone is or is not what she claims to be — petty and overreaching and perhaps even cruel, yet I find I cannot let it go… The information she shares, while filtered and perfumed, is probably correct. Her heart, I’m almost certain, is good. And isn’t it better for third-graders to get a visit from a faux Native for their unit on local history than no Native at all?

But then she rounds into an eloquent response.

No. The answer has to be no. Because of saints marked by smallpox, lost queens, and villages burned to the ground. Because of battles waged along rivers, land taken and given and taken again. The answer must be no. Because of shivering sisters and houses without plumbing on swaths of land on which most of us never tread. I must object because Leona is too pretty a package, by which I do not mean her features so much as the ugliness that her paintings and school visits hide. The scarcity of real Indians is its own lesson.

Livingston herself lived on a reservation for a period of time, and the passion and power of her essay is grounded in personal experience.

“There’s a lesson there, I think. Even as somebody who is white but who grew up in different places, I still have the benefit of being white. And it just seems too convenient and easy for us to put on leather moccasins and turquoise rings and say ‘this is who I am’ when in fact maybe we need to be more accountable about who we really are and what that means for us.”

Of all the essays in the collection, ‘The Other Magpie’ is more didactic and overt in its politics than Livingston’s other work, although that in no way detracts from its power. In fact, Livingston is more prone to advise against putting politics up front in fiction. But that doesn’t mean that fiction won’t be political.

“I teach writing too, and this comes up a lot with students who write things. There’s so much happening in our culture right now — Black Lives Matter, the election — all of that is very alive in people, so a lot of times students will want to write about it.

“But what I find is it’s much better for the writer and for the reader to not be political. To not sit down and say ‘I’m going to be political’, but instead to follow the thing that fascinates you, whether it’s a woman’s life or just an idea that hits you. Follow that, because I think the thing that you’re trying to do will come out, and it’ll be much more palatable for readers.

I don’t think that readers like to be preached to. We don’t like people to tell us how we should feel about certain things, that’s not why we go to literature usually.”

“It’s best not to be political, but to understand that anything you write is going to be political. What we choose to focus on matters, and says something about what we value. I think that by writing these women’s lives, or any lives, you elevate them a little bit. So it is necessarily a political process but I don’t come to it with the idea that ‘hey, I want to be political’, or make a statement.”

Be Patient – and Vulnerable

As a teacher and writer, Livingston says the best advice she offers to aspiring writers may seem simple, but it can be the hardest to follow.

“The advice I often give but nobody really wants to hear is to take your time, and trust yourself. So often people are thinking ‘I’ve got to write this’ and ‘I’ve got to get published,’ and I know there’s an enormous amount of pressure on people no matter what discipline they’re in to get out there and get started — we hear all this stuff about job scarcity and it makes you crazy — but the truth is that they’re going to be fine. The students are going to be fine, and the writing is always better — no matter what it is, it’s always better — if you trust that.

“Stay open to possibility. It’s true. I find that when you try to force yourself, especially in creative writing, it just doesn’t work as well as letting yourself mull things over. In this case, with these women, I thought about them a long time before finally deciding to write about them. So my advice is to trust yourself and the process. It will work out.”

She also urges writers to pick meaningful topics. It’s something that contemporary writers struggle with, she says, especially in the field of literary non-fiction. The stigma of writing personal and meaningful material is gradually dissipating, she thinks, and American fiction will be better off as a result.

“I think sometimes people are afraid to write something that’s personally meaningful. The worst thing for a writer … is to be called sentimental. That’s like saying you’re a terrible writer. But I think it’s shifting, and I think people are shifting. I’m not saying everybody should put their hearts into their writing and write in a way that is very perfumey, but as a reader the texts that engage me both intellectually and on a personal emotional level, or that cause me to think and stop for a minute, those are the books that I care so much about.

“So I think that it’s great to read something that’s clever or funny, but… they tend to be afraid to go to a deeper place. I think they’re afraid of being vulnerable. Writing is something that matters. Without being political or preachy, write about something that matters. To the writer and to readers. So that maybe we get expanded a little, versus just entertained.”

Photo credit: Michelle Macirella

For her part, Livingston is looking forward to returning to her own roots, to the region of Niagara Falls New York that features so prominently in many of the stories in Ladies Night at the Dreamland. She’s originally from the area, and intends to use an upcoming sabbatical to explore the literary potential of the region further.

“I grew up not knowing anybody who wrote. My mother is very artistic and painted and did all this stuff, but we were always dirt poor so to me the arts and poverty went hand in hand. I never thought about writing as anything other than a hobby… This is a privilege, to be able to teach and write and have people care about my work.”