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Author Archive: "Jennifer duBois"

Writing Across Gender

In promoting A Partial History of Lost Causes, I've fielded some questions about what it was like to write across gender — to enter the point of view of a man, Aleksandr, and stay there for 30 years of his life. Those questions have made me think in a broader sense about what writing across gender means: what it implies, who is expected to do it, how it relates to some of the most vexing ontological questions about women that have preoccupied the country of late, and how, perhaps, it can help to address them.

I don't think it's terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender's consciousness in a way that men aren't. This isn't to say that women don't often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men ...


Writing Chess

More than a few reviews of A Partial History of Lost Causes have described Irina as a Harvard graduate and/or lecturer, which she's actually not — she teaches at a technical college in Boston's South End, and her alma mater is lazily located in Somerville, home of my own alma mater, Tufts, though both of these facts are only briefly mentioned — and it's interesting to me how horrified and embarrassed I always am by this mistake, as though people think I'm trying to claim a Harvard connection I don't have. As though I'd have the audacity to write from a Harvard woman's point of view! But then I remind myself that I've actually done something far worse than that: I've written from the point of view of a world chess champion, when I am, shamefully, no chess player at all.

I did play as a child with my father, and I've always been interested in the game — its elegance, its metaphorical power, its Old World cachet. (As a young, strange child, I think I often imagined that in my future life I'd live like some ...


The Myth of Realism

Over the past few years of writing and workshopping fiction, I've heard and discussed the word "realism" at some length, and lately I've come to a pretty radical suspicion about it: it does not really exist . That is to say, we talk about realism as though there's an objective rubric against which we can measure a story's relationship to reality, and that that's how we judge whether a story is implausible or outlandish or incredible or otherwise in violation of certain firm parameters of how the universe runs on a narrative level. But this can't quite be the case, because different people have very different plausibility thresholds, which hugely informs the stories they tell and consume. This doesn't have to have anything to do with people's differing ideas about the state of the physical world, I don't think. And it isn't just a question of people having varying levels of willingness to suspend their disbelief, though that's a part of it, or the fact that some people are more bothered than others by the experience of encountering a detail in a story they don't quite buy, though that's ...


The Power of Derision

Of the many monopolies once and future Russian president Vladimir Putin has held over the years — on violence, on the media, on the gas industry — one of the most powerful has been a monopoly on the expression of derision. Over the past decade, the state's stranglehold grip over television has kept public dissent to a minimum, as has the targeted assassinations of particularly mouthy journalists (such as Noveta Gazeta's Anna Politkovskaya). But the Kremlin has carefully policed much smaller expressions of criticism, too. In 2002, the long-running satire program Kukly was shut down after featuring one too many appearances by a Putin puppet doll. Meanwhile, state media has been fed a steady diet of press releases and photographs documenting Putin's myriad talents: his accomplishments in Judo, his facility with motorcycles, his fearlessness in the face of various animal attacks. Putin may have a good deal of KGB sangfroid, but he mightily fears the costs of appearing ridiculous. For such a confident guy, he is just not that great at taking a joke.

It's significant, then, that the protests of the last few months have been accompanied by ...


A Wolf at the Door

When my father was ill with Alzheimer's, he once brought home an enormous stuffed wolf from our town's local dump. I was probably a sophomore in high school at the time. In those days my father was still driving short distances and talking, but not remembering or judging very well. He'd gone to the dump on an errand and had seen the wolf and felt sorry for it. The wolf had probably been abandoned because it was too terrifying for a child to love; it had a menacing red mouth and crazed, slightly manic blue eyes. But somehow it had engaged my father's sympathies, and he brought it home and sat it across from him at the dining room table, where he sat for many hours a day trying to rewrite his music. He'd been a very gifted composer in his previous life. By the time the wolf came to stay with us, my mother had long ago copied and hidden my father's original scores.

This snapshot — of my father sitting across from an enormous stuffed wolf, whose horrifying eyes my mother eventually concealed with sunglasses — is ...


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