Saturday, March 20, 2010


I discovered Ellen Gilchrist by accident on my parents’ bookshelf when I was ten or so, and promptly had her book taken away from me. After my mother had spluttered her shock and dismay that I was reading something so age-inappropriate, I smuggled “Victory Over Japan” back into my fifth-grade bedroom. It follows that I have somewhat of an attachment to Rhoda and her escapades: a fond memory of illicit reading, done undercover(s) with flashlight in hand.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Gilchrist about her experiences as Tulane’s 20th Zale Writer-in-Residence and Distinguished Tulane Mellon Professor in the Humanities. During her semester at Tulane, she taught once a week, commuting from Ocean Springs, Mississippi and sometimes staying in a “tiny and cute” apartment near campus. The theme of the writers’ symposium which she hosted was “A Sound Mind and a Sound Body” – Gilchrist lived up to this sentiment by inviting her yoga teacher from Ocean Springs to give a group class on Newcomb Quad.

Though the New Orleans weather was unkind at times (“Class was on Thursday,” Gilchrist said, “and it was always raining. The parking lot would always flood”) Gilchrist was enthusiastic about her stay, relating anecdotes of “beautiful parties” thrown for her by President Scott Cowen. She was taught how to use a computer by a “very patient” assistant, who introduced her to the joys of Wikipedia as it was just beginning.

Gilchrist focused on her teaching while at Tulane, preferring to write on the coast or at her home in Fayetteville. She doesn’t underestimate the importance of revision: “Writing is re-writing,” she said, offering her input when I told her I would send her a copy of this post. Her most recent book, a collection of autobiographical essays entitled The Writing Life, promises more of this no-frills advice.

It was comforting to know that even for Gilchrist, the perfect sentence does not always spring fully formed onto the page. Much like her conversation, Gilchrist’s work is honest, and along with this honesty comes a healthy dose of wry humor. One of the aspects I admire most in her writing is its frankness, especially in dialogue. I was enthralled from the very first sentence of Victory Over Japan: “When I was in the third grade I knew a boy who had to have fourteen shots in the stomach as a result of a squirrel bite.” How could you resist a line like that?

Numerous articles have been written about Gilchrist’s work, and even a book, which includes examinations of her female characters. The book’s author, Margaret D. Bauer, suggests that Gilchrist’s best portrayals of women are her 1950s Southern debutantes; after reading about Rhoda, you’ll see her point. Bauer explores the ambition of Gilchrist’s female characters, who, pursuant to social standards of the 1950s, were educated only in order to obtain “that MRS degree,” in other words, to help attract a doctor or lawyer. Bauer posits that women at the time had to fight against society in order to succeed; she notes, however, that Gilchrist’s female characters chiefly face the opposition of their families/male relatives. She cites Gilchrist’s story “Revenge” as an example—while Rhoda seems triumphant at the end of the story, it is really Gilchrist who triumphs in her accurate and moving portrayal of the limitations placed on Rhoda.Gilchrist went on to write even more successful and acclaimed stories about women, including her account of Anna Hand, who defies all female behavioral conventions in The Anna Papers.

Because I didn’t read Ellen Gilchrist’s works when I was ten the way I read now, after almost three years of creative writing education, Bauer’s insights opened up a lot of new connections for me. I’ll definitely be re-reading Victory Over Japan—this time sans flashlight.

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