Pam Cobrin, Barnard College
I am Pam Cobrin, Director of Writing and Speaking Programs and the Erica Mann Jong Writing Center at Barnard College. And I am honored to introduce Erica Mann Jong.
I spend my days thinking about writing and how to help students engage the world through prose. Erica Mann Jong, a writer who has achieved this ideal, provides a model for my students, and for me, of the power of language and of the interconnected ness between words and body and mind.
How do I introduce a woman, a writer, a poet and a philosopher, whose influence cannot be confined to any era or movement because her voice and her characters, her writing and her lessons move through and help define our cultural landscape. What was born in Fear of Flying has evolved, in Fear of Dying, into a necessary confrontation that engages the literary and the feminist as it is now - in ways that will undoubtedly have an impact far beyond the present moment because of Erica's brute honesty and poetry about what it means to live and be a woman in America in the second decade of the 21st century.
And so, after having said that Erica's influence cannot be confined, I am going to try and pinpoint what Erica brings to table. She shows us with remarkable fluidity the intersections of female intellect, creativity, sexuality, body, citizenship and desire — those features that make us alive and yet are often seen as separate or in opposition to each other for women. How often does the media present a woman who is either intellectual OR sexual, forcing us to choose, as is obvious with Hillary Clinton, only one of two types of power? Through the character of Vanessa, our newest heroine, Erica reminds us how much our culture values a woman's sexual appeal above all else. Through Vanessa, we see how society continually devalues the aging woman as non-sexual and thus, less visible in American culture. Lucky for us, Erica refuses to let the conversation end there — refuses to be invisible.
Erica asks us to look unblinkingly at Vanessa — not so that we may consume her, but rather so that we may be consumed by her and, in the process, heighten our awareness. She forces us to confront what we know to be true but are not supposed to admit — that an aging body is neither unsexual nor unintellectual. Toni Morrison writes that "Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." Through Fear of Dying, we experience Vanessa's life as an ageing woman as it is defined by others. But Erica's writing takes hold of and challenges those definitions — Vanessa, through Erica, becomes both the defined and definer. We (and I am speaking to women), through Erica, are offered the same opportunity to be both the definer and the defined of our existence as fully intellectual, creative, sexual beings living in the second decade of the 21st century.
Photo Credit: Mary Ann Halpin