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Hi, it's been a while, & Girlhood
I’ve resumed my practice of sending the rare newsletter, now on a new platform. This email is going to be full of updates and book news, but in the future it will more often consist of brief essays on mostly personal topics—like, say, my beginner guitar lessons, virtual beekeeping, writing challenges, wrestling with the fallout of 2020, and celebrity profiles of the dogs in our neighborhood—that I’ll send only occasionally.
I woke up this morning, as I often do these days, with a touch of shock to find that I am in Iowa City. We moved here in July, when my partner and I both accepted jobs at the University of Iowa, but after 21 years in NYC, I’m still getting used to the infinite number of changes (e.g. driveways, friendly neighbors, enormous grocery stores, lots of tall blond people, terrifying storms, teaching at a huge state university, “hot dish”?).
Moving across the country in a pandemic was about as challenging as you’d imagine, and getting to know a new place without being able to make new friends is a slow process, but all things considered we like it here so far. Especially Chuck, who is no longer menaced on a daily basis by drifting bodega plastic bags, the scream of garbage truck breaks, or having to poop on the sidewalk while big dogs desperately strain toward him as they pass. He doesn’t know yet how cold it’s going to get here, and we haven’t told him.
On March 30, my third book and second essay collection, Girlhood, will be published. If you’re so inclined, I recommend ordering it (or whatever books you buy) through your local independent bookstore, or Bookshop, but you can find it anywhere that books are sold. If you order it through my local bookstore, Prairie Lights, I’ll sign it for you! The early reviews have been very kind and I’ll include some juicy quotes at the end of this letter, like this one from Oprah Magazine:
“Intellectual and erotic, engaging and empowering, Girlhood lays bare the process of unlearning the most deeply ingrained lesson of female adolescence—that we ourselves are not masters of our own domain—and offers us exquisite, ferocious language for embracing self-pleasure and self-love.”
Girlhood is an illuminated manuscript, with a gorgeous original illustration for each essay drawn by the great Forsyth Harmon. Here is one of my favorites:
I’ll be honest: it’s been a brutal year and it feels kind of gross to be promoting anything, but I am proud of this book and I want to share it with you. Like basically everything I’ve ever written, it is full of things I never thought I’d say aloud to anyone. I wrote it as a way of starting a conversation with myself about the very ordinary parts of my own girlhood that once felt unspeakable. That conversation became a series of conversations with folks who shared similar experiences, and I’d love for it to become an even bigger conversation, one that includes you.
Pre-orders of books are instrumental to their success, so if you want to and can afford it, I would greatly appreciate yours. If you have a book club that would like to read it, I’m happy to Zoom in and chat with them. If you have anyone in your life who has a daughter or was a daughter, who identifies as female or ever has, who survived their own girlhood or barely did—it would probably make a thoughtful gift for that person. If you’ve read it, or when you do, Amazon reviews also help a lot. So does adding the book on Goodreads, which you can do here.
I’ve published some excerpts from the book recently: an essay about recovering from addiction and finally learning to take care of my body, called “Les Calanques,” in The Sun; and one about adolescent slut-shaming, The House of Mirth, Lacan, and Darwin, called “The Mirror Test,” in the The Paris Review.
Some other recent publications include: an essay about the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire and my lifelong relationship to lesbian movies, “Art by Women About Women Making Art About Women” in The Believer; an essay about the joys of being alone, “How a Year of Celibacy Prepared Me for Life in Quarantine,” in Vogue; and an essay about how writing better sex scenes might require a new relationship to sex itself, “Mind F*ck,” in Sewanee Review, which is part of a craft book that I’m working on. I’m somewhat decent about updating my publications here.
In April, I’l be going on a virtual tour, hosted by some of my favorite indie bookstores, and reading with some of my favorite writers, starting with the launch on March 30 hosted by Charis Books, where I’ll be joined by my partner, Donika Kelly, as well as Grace Lavery, Melissa Broder, Elissa Washuta, Suleika Jaouad, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and Bassey Ikpi. I’ll also be teaching at some virtual conferences this spring and summer. You can read about all of it here. A virtual tour sounds sort of like reading into the void, so I’d love to see you there, in the void, in any of the scheduled voids.
I think that’s enough from me. If you’re still reading (bless you), I hope your winter is cozy and warm and that you find some space to recover from this year. Here are some very silly pictures of me and Donika—we had planned to have a wedding this past August, but so it goes in a pandemic—that I would have made into holiday cards if I wasn’t busy writing this newsletter, recovering from a nasty bout of sciatica, reading my brilliant new students’ portfolios, and eating jelly beans in a trance while staring out the window:
P.S. I’ve been making weekly donations all year and this week I donated some money to the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter, which I subscribe to and strongly recommend.
P.P.S. Here are some nice things that folks have said about Girlhood:
“Profound and gloriously provocative, this book—a perfect follow-up to her equally visceral previous memoir, Abandon Me (2017)—transforms the wounds and scars of lived female experience into an occasion for self-understanding that is both honest and lyrical. Consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"The prose is restrained but lyrical throughout. Raw and unflinching, this dark coming-of-age story impresses at every turn."
“How do you heal from the pain of growing up? This question, refracted through a feminist lens, lies at the heart of Melissa Febos’s essay collection, Girlhood. With psychological clarity and emotional precision, Febos revisits the past to rewrite the future.”
“One of the hallmarks of Febos’s writing is her ability—and her desire—to expand the lexicons of the female experience and the queer experience. She’s given her readers a vocabulary to apply to situations and emotions that our culture hasn’t necessarily made any room to talk about…These essays are safe spaces, full of both darkness and joy and, most notably, the acute relief that comes from seeing yourself in someone else’s art.”
“In this book, Febos proves herself to be one of the great documenters of the terrible and exquisite depths of girlhood. Here, that terrible and beautiful aeon is dissected, sung over, explored like ancient ruins. These essays are moss and iron—hard and beautiful—and struck through with Febos’ signature brilliance and power and grace. An essential, heartbreaking project."
—Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties and In the Dreamhouse
“Melissa Febos is part poet, part theorist, and all writer. In this lyrical, searching, profound, and personal collection, Febos examines childhood, femaleness, and love in its many forms with a sensuous ferocity that is all her own.”
—Ariel Levy, author of The Rules Do Not Apply
“Melissa Febos just revived me in the most spectacular way. Girlhood blazes through the stories we've been told with a dazzling fury and a brilliant beauty. Whatever we are or were, this is a map to a new becoming. Between the intellect and the body a third term emerges, dissolving binaries and reinventing the space of erotic power and creativity. A fuck-all guide to resilience and reclamation, a breathtaking reimagination of who we might be in spite of what we've been told. Girlhood will bring you back to life.”
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Chronology of Water and The Book of Joan
“Girlhood is an exquisite collection. In lapidary, lucid prose, Melissa Febos dissects the traumas, terrors, and pleasures of the fraught passage from girl to woman. Febos’s insight is devastating, the examinations of her world – from the female body, queerness, consent, slut-shaming, and intimacy – are rigorous and compassionate. This is a book for mothers, daughters, and our deepest selves, a true light in the dark.”
—Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter and Stray
“I could not stop reading Melissa Febos’s lucid and timely GIRLHOOD, which lays bare the invisible scars of coming-of-age alongside a history of a body under-estimated. In precise and lyrical prose, she connects her personal story to those of other women who have faced the incremental violences of patriarchy. Febos’ wit and sincerity push aside tropes of purity to make room for stories of real power and desire. The great surprise of the book is how masterfully she reinvents the path to womanhood, a philosopher’s eye turned protectively towards the tenderest parts of the writer’s former self.”
—Wendy S. Walters, author of Multiply/Divide
"Melissa Febos's GIRLHOOD is a gorgeously written, perfectly calibrated investigation into the traps, paths, and challenges of being female in this world. It's a stunner of a book."
—Jami Attenberg, author of All This Could Be Yours
“American patriarchy teaches so many of us to hate our own bodies and stifle our own desires—to make ourselves smaller in every way. GIRLHOOD is a smart, fierce, gloriously sensual critique of these lessons by a writer who has fought hard to unlearn them. Thank you, Melissa Febos, for charting this magnificent route of queer feminist resistance!”
—Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
“Reading Girlhood felt like having a spell whispered into my ear. You carve yourself, Melissa Febos writes, and the phrase becomes command, elegy, incantation. In these pages she conjures not only the past, but an allegory of experience at once universal and exquisitely personal. Intimate, urgent, and stunningly beautiful, this is a book that will be passed from hand to hand, from heart to heart.”
—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author The Fact of A Body
“At once intimate and didactic, lyric and wise, Girlhood is a must-read hybrid text for women looking to define themselves from the inside. This book is an exorcism of social messaging and external gazes, and Febos is a warm and erudite exorcist.”
—Melissa Broder, author of So Sad Today