(excerpt from novel-in-progress Under the Shadow of My Roof)
i would love to have a drink with jean rhys. she’d have a fine. i don’t know what the fuck that is i think its whisky. i would love to have a drink with old drunken jean rhys, the one who was holed up in cornwall, screaming at her neighbors and picking fights, writing wide sargasso sea for like ever, and everyone thought she was dead. i really identify with this because everyone thinks i’m dead as well since im trapped in the cellar as my father’s whore.
all of a sudden there she is, in the cellar, dressed very properly, with gloves on and everything. she is trembling probably because she needs a drink. so i fix jean rhys a good stiff drink. thank you, my dear, she says. i sit and stare at her. she is such a pretty lady still, even if she’s old, such big childlike eyes, like a lemur. i decide to interview her. like we’re on terry-grossy.
monkey: do you think you’re a masochist?
jeanrhys: i’m not sure i know what you mean.
monkey: i mean all these men treated you like shit!
jeanrhys: a woman needed a man in those days. how else would one live? i never was very good at living.
monkey: wow. i’m glad I live in a really independent age now. women can do anything now! we’ve come a long way, baby.
jeanrhys: oh, I would hate to be an independent woman! (shivers)
monkey: why? you don’t want to be free?
jeanrhys: i like men. i’m not a Lesbian. although i met gertrude stein once.
monkey: but you just let all these men destroy you.
jeanrhys: i always loved so intensely.
monkey: yeah. i get that. so are you saying that the female condition is to be a masochist? cuz we’re all passive and fall in love and let it totally destroy us?
jeanrhys: i don’t know if that’s what i’m saying.
monkey: do you think simone de b is right, we allow ourselves to be completely passive, and are like doomed to immanence?
jeanrhys: you mean the one who fucked sartre?
monkey: yeah you bring up a good point. simone de b allowed herself to be dominated by men as well. so what was it like to fuck ford maddox ford?
jeanrhys: umm. sweaty.
monkey: yeah. that’s what i pictured. were you in love with him?
jeanrhys: i suppose…i suppose i was in love with all of them. i don’t know. what is love? i was always under the wing of some man or another. did i love them or did i convince myself i did because i had no choice?
monkey: everything. you’re. fucking. saying. it’s like an echo in my mind.
jeanrhys: you remind me of the girls i was in the chorus with.
monkey: like in voyage in the dark? (quoting): “i know it's about a tart. i think it's disgusting. i bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another.” fucking love that.
jeanrhys: thank you.
monkey: i like how all your women, well they’re you, aren’t they, i love how they’re all in exile, they’re like gregor samsas with old furs and clown make-up, it’s very, like, existential.
jeanrhys: i just wrote my own truth.
monkey: yeah, but you know what really saves your writing from being total victim-lit, is the absolutely ecstasy of the fucking language...
jeanrhys: i thank you.
monkey: i’m sensing you don’t want to talk about the books.
jeanrhys: they are not the entirety of my life. yes, i wrote them, and they were painful to write, and freeing to write, like an exorcism of a sort understand?
monkey (enthralled): totally.
jeanrhys: although of course i edited. i painstakingly edited. (she holds her glass out, gives it a little shake, monkey refills.)
monkey: i know.
jeanrhys: writing can’t just be excretion.
monkey: yeah. yeah. i know. i know. (defensively) so, um, i’m a writer. (jean rhys’ eyes start to glaze over) no, it’s boring, i don’t want to talk about it, but i want to write at least, and when I read good morning midnight i want to fucking stab myself in the chest over and over again it’s so fucking good.
jeanrhys: i thank you. (stiffly)
monkey: don’t you enjoy being an important writer?
jeanrhys: (shrugs) no one gave a shit about me for years. and then I’m old, and everyone wanted a piece of me to put me on the radio and give me prizes all for the fucking bronte book.
monkey: yeah, that sucks.
jeanrhys: but at the end i did get to go partying in london, with my blue wig and was able to afford the good booze.
monkey: wait are you dead now?
jeanrhys: yes, i suppose so.
monkey: so, like, you’re a zombie?
jeanrhys: I don’t know.
monkey: this is way meta. because the whole idea of the obeah in wide sargasso sea.
jeanrhys: i think i’m more of an apparition of your fantasy life than a zombie.
monkey: (quoting) si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu.
jeanrhys: i like that.
monkey: so did you ever really hook?
jeanrhys: did I...what?
monkey: were you ever a prostitute? did you ever sell yourself, for realz? i mean i know you allude to it.
jeanrhys (stiffly): i did what i had to do to survive.
monkey: sorry don’t get touchy. hey, I’ll paint your nails. i got a pretty red. OPI ladies of the night. pressy for sticking my tongue in my father’s pie-hole.
jeanrhys (eyes brighten): okay.
Kate Zambreno's novel O Fallen Angel won Chiasmus Press' "Undoing the Novel" contest and was published this April. A collection of essays, inspired by her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister (http://francesfarmerismysister.blogspot.com) will be published by Semiotext(e)'s Active Agents series in Fall 2011. She is the prose editor at Nightboat Books.