Adrienne Rich, Selfhood and Subjectivity: Alison Bechdel Comes to Yale

Design by Yuen Ning Chang

“Most writers have just one idea that they write about.”

Alison Bechdel stands at the front of the auditorium. There is a sense of reverence in the room bordering on idolatry; it is louder than the sounds of our breaths, of our uninhibited laughter. She is commanding, yes, but she is not performing. 

The first image in her slide deck is an illustration of two nude women, comparing their sexual escapades to those of Odysseus on in his journey home. It is a black and blue line drawing depicting oral sex, but—so, maybe—it is beautiful. This is the illustration which led a North Kansas City school district to ban Bechdel’s book Fun Home last year. 

Bechdel reveals that her one idea, her one subject, is herself. We laugh. She amends that her self is a window to access concepts of the self, selfhood and what it means to have a self, “something elemental about psychology and sex and survival, something to hold on to.” She knows that she would not write about anything else. She can’t. She calls self-liberation “the deepest kind of political act”; for Bechdel, having a strong sense of self is “the opposite of selfishness.”

Through her talk, Bechdel speaks at length about one author who shaped the way she thinks about art, literature, transformation, and the self: Adrienne Rich. Bechdel shows the audience a panel from Fun Home which depicts her reading Of Woman Born with her first girlfriend after coming out in college. Later, she gives us a glimpse of more recent drawings which rework the verse of Rich’s “Transcendental Etude” into her most recent book.

I am carrying a copy of A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, a collection of Rich’s poems written between 1978-1981. It isn’t her most well-known work. Even so, I find myself coming back to it. I am thinking of one of its poems, “What Is Possible”: “If the mind were clear /  and if the mind were simple you could take this mind  / this particular stare and say /  This is how I would live if I could choose: / this is what is possible.”

What isn’t possible for Bechdel? She has made the personal political, the private public. In exploring her father’s life in the closet and his probable suicide in Fun Home, she is able to access a collective queer tragedy; in examining her own experiences with physical fitness in The Secret To Superhuman Strength, she comes to a larger truth about embodiment. She takes the cartoon and makes it an object of rebellion.

“A clear night But the mind / of the woman imagining all this the mind / that allows all this to be possible / is not clear as the night / is never simple.”

Bechdel was rejected from Yale. When she submitted her first-ever personal essay to a lesbian literary review, it too was rejected––by none other than Adrienne Rich herself.

“But the mind / of the woman thinking this is wrapped in battle / is on another mission.”

Bechdel is talking now about an exercise she undertook for her most recent book. She purchased a roll of rice paper. Every day, she unrolled a bit of it and drew a self portrait. She picked up each morning where she had left off the last night, allowing her selves to overlap, bleed into, and roll over each other and themselves. Damn right she was on a mission. 

“Her finger is also tracing / pages of a book / knowing better than the poem she reads / knowing through the poem.” 
I want to ask Bechdel if she’s read this poem, rather, if she, like Rich, knows better than the poem she reads, but I stay silent, and listen.

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