Synopses & Reviews
Born into the turmoil of mid-sixties San Francisco, the daughter of a flower child and a surfer, Joelle Fraser grew up with no bedtime, no boundaries, and no father. But “dads” she had in abundance, as her mother worked her way through boyfriends and husbands, caught between the traditional rules of her upbringing and the new freedoms of the “me generation” and women’s lib. Moving every few months, from houseboats and beach shacks to run-down apartments, Joelle came to learn that a woman’s life, free or not, is played out on men’s territory.
Set in northern California, Hawaii, and the small coastal towns of Oregon, Fraser’s engrossing memoir captures this centerless childhood in wonderfully vivid, frank writing, then goes on to show how a legacy like this affects a girl as she grows up. Pretty, blond, precociously aware of her own sexuality, Joelle was drawn to men early, eager to unlock their mysteries. Working in bars, prisons, and firing ranges, she liked to hang out where they congregated. To her the only worlds that counted were men’s worlds. Men held the power; they made life matter.
Fraser’s sharp vignettes of her intense relationships, brief, turbulent marriage, and itinerant life are haunting echoes of her early memories. In The Territory of Men, she brilliantly portrays the way a rootless childhood leads to a restless adulthood, and how a mother’s aimless life serves as a blueprint for her daughter.
"This book doesn't pretend that any individual's life is epic. This book is about the daily revelations, mortifications, and moral quandaries we all endure. Joelle is self-aware, but she's often as puzzled by herself as by others. This book contains many more question marks than exclamation points, and that makes it tender, funny, and true." Sherman Alexie, author of The Toughest Indian in the World
"At times moving, occasionally self-indulgent and ultimately uneven....[Fraser] writes poetically about her earliest years....The typical rites of passage she describes later...are less interesting and the language more cliched....Despite its virtues, Fraser's memoir won't garner favorable comparison to works by writers who have traversed similar territory." Publishers Weekly
"[A] beautifully crafted debut....Ultimately unsatisfying, but a promising introduction to a writer worth keeping an eye on." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Joelle Fraser has an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and is a MacDowell fellow. She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious San Francisco Foundation Award for Nonfiction. The Territory of Men is her first book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
By age six you had sampled pot brownies and loved apricot schnapps. Did you know at the time that you had an unusual upbringing?
No, I wasn't aware that I had an unusual home life until I was about 8, and I began to be around "normal families." That was when I saw what I was missing, a stable mom and dad and a sense of consistency. Up until then, everyone I saw was living the hippie and druggie lifestyle.
Pop culture sentimentalizes the hippie era of free love, but your childhood wasn't exactly all about love and peace.
I grew up in a time and place in which children had so much freedom; we really were treated like small adults in a lot of ways, as if it would have been rude to set boundaries for us, like when we should go to bed, or whether we should wear shoes. I feel really grateful for that in some ways. But there was definitely a price, too, for that freedom. I had very little structure in my life, and as an adult, I am constantly trying to figure out what it means to have that structure, that security.
The title of your memoir is taken from a passage where you discuss your mother's expertise with "the territory of men." What did you learn from your mother going from boyfriend to boyfriend, husband to husband?
I learned that little in life has any permanence, and that ideas like "trust" and "loyalty" were just that, ideas. When it gets rough you move on. I also learned how to adapt and adjust quickly to different father figures, which I brought into my own adult relationships with men. The concept of staying with one relationship for decades is only now becoming something less than outlandish.
With a wry voice you write about your cat crapping on your new cheerleading outfit and your love of Wonderbread because you were fed only organic food spinach pasta, goat's milk at home. Do you laugh now about things like this that were surely painful at the time?
Oh yes, a lot of hilarious things happened that back then were really frustrating and sometimes painful. I mean, it was the 70's when I was a kid I can remember dancing the hustle in our living room, and my Farrah Fawcett hairdos.
You write frankly about your immediate family, particularly your mother's struggle with alcohol and her involvement with many men, good and bad. How does she feel about you publishing this book?
That's been a rollercoaster. My mother has been my biggest supporter, though, despite the rough times. It's excruciating sometimes for her to have her parenting brought up in the public eye. She feels judged, and rightly so. I still don't know how to justify the way I've exposed her in order to write my own story. In some ways I feel as if I'm always apologizing for this book. But it has brought us closer together it was that or rip us apart.
You attended the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. What was that experience like?
I loved it. Iowa City is an oasis in the Midwest, where hundreds of people show up for poetry readings. I kissed Norman Mailer on my birthday. We had wild parties out at this farmhouse, dancing and carrying on in the middle of miles of cornfields. But it also made me very serious about my writing. Part of that was the competitive atmosphere; sometimes, it was hard to sleep at night!
Writing workshops are growing increasingly controversial, as some accuse workshops of producing the same over-critiqued writing from all the students. Do you agree?
I understand the criticism, and I have encountered the dangers of workshops firsthand, many times. But I think MFA programs are beneficial overall, giving people time, real time, to work on their writing, in an environment where you're surrounded by people who actually care about literature. You can't find that anywhere else not for two years at a time.
Who are your favorite writers? What are you reading right now?
I love Cormac McCarthy, early Joan Didion, Barry Hannah, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Andre Dubus. There are also a lot of lesser-known amazing writers out there right now, like Amy Hempel, Pete Rock, and Roy Parvin. At the moment, I'm reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, and it's fabulous.