Originally published: 13.02.12
Christine Stark has been a role model of mine since 2004. That was the year she co-edited Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, which immediately soared up my book chart and remains a Berg top five today.
Not For Sale contains my favorite essay on prostitution, but Stark’s direct confrontation with so-called ‘sex radicals’ in the essay “Girls to Boyz: Sex radical women promoting prostitution and pornography” has the most forthright chutzpah of the collection. My admiration for her anti-pornstitution work led me to take special note of her various creative works released through radical feminist and artistic media.
Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation is Stark’s debut novel and it’s a doozy. The freestyle narrative announces itself on the first page through two fairy tales as understood by a small child. Stark plays with linguistic forms to translate the thoughts in a child’s mind, and it’s a testament to her skill that the unconventional style comes off much more genuine than parlor tricky. The punctuation and odd sentence breaks lend a breathless air and the cadence is tricky to catch at first, but much like watching a Scottish film, the initial confusion of familiar words in an unfamiliar dialect soon resolves and you’re hooked into the storyteller’s groove.
The story follows Little Miss So and So from age four through twenty-six. Her stream of consciousness survival of incestuous rape makes the early pages rough reading, so don’t pack Nickels for the beach. Not that there isn’t an inherent entertainment in stories of terrified and tortured children — as the stratospheric popularity of Stephen King proves — it’s just that Nickels is a different kind of horror story.
My fear to face was being forced to remember the powerlessness of childhood. Great literature makes readers see the world through another person’s eyes in a way that connects to their soul. What I saw through Little Miss So and So’s eyes was my world as a child, my own fractured soul trying to make sense of the cowardly cruelty of child abusers. Little Miss So and So was five-years-old when the school nurses saw the bruises and filed a failed lawsuit to remove her from her abusive family. I was six when the same events happened to me. There’s even a scene involving a bite-size apple pie and tears of gratitude for a family member showing kindness that rather eerily echoes an apple pie anecdote from my past. I write a lot, often about violence against women, yet I don’t write about my childhood for reasons I’m still unpacking.
History kept interfering with my reading, a feeling exacerbated by starting the book right before the traditionally family-infected Thanksgiving holiday. I had to keep putting the book down the same way I frequently pause while reading Andrea Dworkin, because the gut-felt truths come fast and tap on spots so sensitive that pushing past the discomfort without consideration feels like a wasted opportunity.
The years in Nickels tick by in five year chunks of time, and in the process my intimate connection to Little Miss So and So faded enough that reading felt less like picking at scabs. Stark’s heroine becomes her own entity and less of the allegory the abstract name evokes. By the time she grows into a young woman I no longer recognized myself in her new pursuits but I liked her just the same. We could be friends, Little Miss So and So and me, though I don’t share her fervor for sports and I’m not a lesbian.
The last two lines of Chris’s biography in Not For Sale are,
“She is a member of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and completing her MFA in Writing from Minnesota State University. Christine is a survivor of incest and a racist prostitution and pornography ring.”
Knowing some pieces of Stark’s past inadvertently made reading a puzzle in which I tried to sort the facts of her life from the fictions of the story. It’s a pointless game and a little unfair to writers who necessarily draw upon what they know to create stories of unreal people. Stark took a formless, nameless girl called Little Miss So and So and fused the tragedy of her lived facts into a useful fiction. Women who can do this, who can write the indescribable violations of girls in authentic words that resonate with survivors, are treasures to feminism and womenkind.
There are more books inside Ms. Christine Stark, more people’s stories to tell. I look forward to meeting them and the pieces of myself I’ll see in them.
JohnStompers My blog neatly collects my published articles about prostitution, porn, and other human trafficking issues into one easily found blog. I don’t twitter much, but I’m fairly active on Facebook as “Samantha Berg” from Portland, Oregon, USA.