R. H. LOSSIN
Photography by: Laurel Golio
Rebecca Lossin is The Wing's librarian in residence. Thanks to her expertise, the women's club is outfitted with an incredible range of books authored by women or about women. Rebecca is also a writer living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Politics/Letters, Jacobin Magazine, The Nation, and The Brooklyn Rail. Read on to discover how Rebecca created The Wing's library and how reading women empowers women. In her own very succinct and important words, "We are the rule, not the exception."
GAL: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a life long reader?
RL: I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t love reading and I certainly couldn’t name a first novel that I loved. Novels were just my favorite place to be when I was young. When I could actually read longer books, I would become so absorbed that I would fail to notice things like my entire class leaving for recess. And before I could read to myself, my mother read to me every night as well as providing running criticisms of the stories that she didn’t like (but read to me anyway)—the Berenstain Bears were obnoxious moralists and she hated the illustrations; The Giving Tree was a terrible story about men taking advantage of women; The Little Mermaid was absolutely “sick.”
This was probably a rather typical maternal attempt to instill morality, but it also linked all of these fictions to “real” life and turned stories into a template for understanding the world and my place in it. It also gave me this incredible permission to engage books critically before I could even read them myself. So I learned not to just love books as a pleasant leisure activity or as a form of escapism, but as a way of deciphering my surroundings and, when needed, arguing with them a bit. I think that this is why I am not only a life-long reader, but have made an entire career out of grappling with texts.
I also loved Nancy Drew mysteries and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle—the latter was probably the first book that really blew my mind.
GAL: How under-represented do you think "women" authors are in generic high school and college literature curriculum?
RL: In literature at least, progress on this front is fucking pathetic. I don’t know about high school but I assume it is the same. I went to Bard in the 90s and even there, during the decade of identity politics no less, you still had to take classes about women in order to have more than 10% of your syllabus be anything but white men. And, as I proved to myself during this project for The Wing, there is really no reason why 50% of a literature class couldn’t be novels by women. They aren’t hard to find. And they are good. I think that there are certainly more classes that try to address this, but when it comes to foundations and classics and all those classes that freshman take to teach them what literature is, it looks exactly the same as it did in the 1950s plus Virginia Woolf.
GAL: You're presently working on a doctorate and your subject is sabotage in the labor movement. What three books would you recommend to GAL readers to learn about the huge role women played in the labor movement?
RL: Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left by Helen C. Camp
You can find all of these at The Wing!
GAL: How does it empower women to read books by and about women?
RL: Men inhabit a constant state of validation. They spend their lives bombarded by images of their own success. The characteristics that capitalism requires for success, such as competitiveness and selfishness are masculine qualities so being good at life and being good at being a man are one and the same. They get to get fat and still have acting careers. They go gray and it just makes them more attractive. Marilyn Monroe fucks them because they are smart!
Women don’t have this luxury. We don’t get to take representation for granted. We have to dig around a bit to see the full range of our experiences depicted. Women’s writing is an important source of solidarity in a world that is constantly punishing you economically, symbolically, emotionally, and bodily.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
RL: Most of what I read before college were novels and public school text books. They weren’t necessarily ‘good’ novels—I just grabbed them off of shelves at random. So I read very widely and often ended up with books that went right over my head. But the accumulated effect was a richness of perspective that inflected my own experience and provided a sort of observational and evaluative training. Novels, by their very nature, take everything seriously so your sense of what is important and worth paying attention to is broadened. Good fiction gives you partial access to experiences you might not have, and people that you might totally overlook due to your own upbringing. I am really convinced that only novels (and some short stories) are able to provide the granularity of description that makes the unfamiliar, familiar. Sometimes what is unfamiliar or even alienating is your own experience and a novel can offer you some clarification and self-recognition that is extremely comforting. This is not the only thing that novels do, of course, and there are well-argued criticisms of the type of writing and reading that I am describing here, but I still think that this ability to transcend time, space and experience is one of their most important social functions.
I remember reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It is children’s novel about a black family in the South under Jim Crowe. Of course, as a middle class white kid in Michigan I understood in a vague way what was racism was and that slavery and lynching had happened in the past. But it wasn’t descriptions of horrible violence that evoked empathy and instilled a deep sense of injustice in my young brain. It was the fact that the characters didn’t have their own books in their segregated school and when they finally did get them they had been used so many times that they were falling apart. They were so excited to have these books and when they arrived they were just another reminder of their secondary status.
The novel describes in painful detail that page in the front of textbooks where you list the condition of the book. Apparently there was a separate column for race and so it read “condition good white” and on and on until it said “condition poor colored.” This affected me because I was 10 and I knew exactly what that page in a textbook looked like and it had never occurred to me that a school could exist without books.
That one page gave me an important and lasting dose of reality precisely because it was fiction. I loved those characters. They were very, very real to me and so this discrimination mattered in a way that more abstract descriptions of the reality of structural racism just wouldn’t have at the time. This is something that sociologists and historians cannot accomplish.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to re-read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
The Beauty of the Husband and The Glass Essay by Anne Carson; Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman; The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; just about anything by Jose Saramago; The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.
I also make a point to read feminist theory regularly because I need constant and explicit reminders that misogyny is not something I have made up—that I am not being paranoid and over-reacting when men talk down to me or seem to not understand a word that comes out of my mouth and that I am not being shallow when I think about the “devaluation” of my aging body. This sort of shit is truly debilitating in the absence of a diagnosis.
GAL: That same friend also has a Tedious Testosterone Shelf where she keeps "classic" male authors such as Mailer, Hemingway, Roth, Kerouac, Burroughs, among others. First, what do you think of the concept? Secondly, who would you choose to put on such a shelf?
RL: This is a brilliant idea. It points to a very important and problematic relationship between gender and literary aesthetics. Namely, that great writing is often a matter of content as much as form and this content is decidedly masculine. This sets up a sort of self-propelling logic whereby formal precedents are set by records of male experience and then records of male experience are far more likely to be recognized as formally superior. This is, of course, not only a gender issue. The same types of exclusions occur along racial and class lines as well. But given the level of education achieved by women of privilege, the stubbornness of the literary canon in terms of gender is really astounding.
I would fill it with Henry Miller. I don’t think he is a bad writer, even if I am not particularly dazzled by him, but if a woman wrote Henry Miller novels they would be considered memoirs and this frustrates me to no end. The female equivalent of this writing would be dismissed as trivial and self-indulgent. Imagine the opening scene of Tropic of Cancer with women. If a novel began with two women grooming one another and analyzing the cleanliness of a hotel we would laugh it off of the shelf.
GAL: Please describe how you selected the books for The Wing library. Will you be doing further work at The Wing?
RL: I just started making a list of books by and about women, starting with my own bookshelf and moving on to books I had been meaning to read, and then books about topics that I thought were important and biographies of amazing women. I went through the women’s studies section at the strand as well as their poetry and fiction and really cleaned up in the literary biography section. I also included some books that were important to me when I was young such as Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret and Anne of Green Gables. I really disliked Little Women, but I included that as well as a biography of Louisa May Alcott, who was this bad ass woman who actually supported herself and her mother with her writing.
I tried to make sure that I was attending to different time periods and genres—I have my strengths and weaknesses so earlier than the 19th century and history (embarrassingly) was hard for me. The collection is probably a little bit white to be honest, although I’m aware of that tendency so I tried my best to mitigate it.
I really hope that this library collaboration is on-going. Chiara de Rege, the Wing's designer, took care of a lot of the art books and Audrey got a bunch of donations from Rizzoli and the Wing's members to fill out the collection. The process of selecting these books was really satisfying and it’s a really unique space that I am happy to be a part of.
GAL: How much of a challenge was it to narrow down your selection? Do you usually create libraries for other people?
RL: This is the first time that I have built a library. I have done just about every book related job that you can think of but I normally work as a reference librarian and have had very little to do with acquisitions in my professional life. And as far as narrowing it down, there was a budget and a time constraint and a pretty broad mandate so I tried to make sure that I was paying attention to diversity and tried to maximize the cash I had to work with. Pretty boring and simple.
GAL: What books are you currently reading?
RL: On Violence by Georges Sorel, The Fall of the House of Labor by David Montgomery, 1919 by John Dos Passos, Proletarian Nights by Jacques Ranciere, and (very slowly) Histoire du Sabotage by Sebastien Albertelli and all sorts of book reviews and articles.
See, all men….ufff.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
RL: At this point in my life I have very little say in what I read, but I do try to make time for things that are decidedly not work-related. So that my soul doesn’t die before my body does.
GAL: Do you read poetry and plays, as well as fiction and non-fiction? Do you have a favorite genre?
RL: I don’t have a favorite genre, although good essays make me swoon like nothing else. I read poetry. Not plays.
GAL: If you wrote a memoir, what would you title it?
RL: Polemics in Flannel (title courtesy of Simone Frazier).
GAL:: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
RL: This is arbitrary. There just too many. Here are five. You pick three!
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
Things to do When You are Goth in the Country: A Novel by Chavisa Woods (forthcoming from 7 Stories Press)