Every once in a very long time, a debut novel appears that carries such literary and emotional power that the reader loses herself utterly in its glorious, painful, mesmerizing pages. The Iron Horse
by Dawn Erin is just such a book.
A full-blown heroin addict by her late teens, Dawn Erin was on a path of self-destruction that more often than not leads to death or imprisonment. But Erin not only lived to tell the fictionalized tale of her misguided youth, she tells it with the grace and insight of a truly great writer. This makes Dawn Erin one of those rarest of creatures -- someone who has not only experienced the depths of human degradation, but has the ability to turn that experience into deeply moving and intensely entertaining literature.
Erin's genre-defying autobiographical novel tells the story of protagonist Sunny Quinn. The genius of The Iron Horse
lies in Sunny's agonizingly detailed transformation from a steadfast, horse-crazy New England Catholic school girl to a hardcore heroin addict who will do what ever it takes to acquire a fix to stave off the sickness of withdrawal.
The novel begins with Sunny as a young girl falling in love with the world of American Saddlebred show horses. Sunny's mother and slave-driving stepfather refuse to pay for such an expensive hobby flat out, instead choosing to "loan" young Sunny the money for riding lessons with the understanding that every penny must be paid back through her work in the family's catering business. But hardworking Sunny's natural talents on horseback are stymied by the fact that she'll never be able to wash enough dishes or muck enough stalls to truly afford this hobby of the very rich.
While Sunny works endlessly to pay back her parents, her mother and stepfather begin to profit from their business. But their growing income doesn't inspire them to assist with young Sunny's passion. And when Sunny's desire to please her domineering riding trainer Elizabeth backfires, Sunny suddenly loses the world of horses that has both sheltered and tormented her.
Part 1 of The Iron Horse
reads like a love letter to the American Saddlebred, but as the first section of the book comes to an end with Sunny exiled forever from the haven of the Barn, the reader is reminded of a sentence in the novel's prologue: This is not a story about a girl who loves horses.
Without horses to give her life meaning, Sunny slogs through the endless piles of dirty pans and dishes generated by her family's business, goes to Catholic high school during the day, and works an office job in the evening for the local newspaper. This mind-numbing, and never ending cycle of work that Sunny thinks of as the "Treadmill" suddenly becomes even darker and more miserable when she begins to suffer from an undiagnosed burning in her bladder. After rounds of tests for infections, and endless unhelpful doses of antibiotics, Sunny is finally diagnosed with a chronic, incurable bladder diseased called Interstitial Cystitis. The disease makes daily life an agony and -- Sunny finds when she finally loses her virginity -- sex a torment.
When Sunny is accepted to the expensive and prestigious Emerson College, her mother rejoices, pressures Sunny to go, and hands her the enormous monthly bill for tuition. And so Sunny's seemingly endless toil continues, but now with a daily commute to college, lots of homework, and ridiculously high tuition and fees added to the grind.
And then Sunny meets Nate, a sexy British guitar player who loves the blues and whisks her to his sweet and drunken parents' trailer in a low-rent community Sunny thinks of simply as "the Park." Sunny falls hard and fast for Nate, feeling for him the all-encompassing passion of a true first love. And through him and his family, she glimpses the possibility of a gentle and kind, if tipsy family life. Nate -- who lives for pleasure and a good time and worries little about the future -- shows Sunny how to blessedly step off of the Treadmill of ceaseless work and enjoy life.
But between visits to the Park to see Nate, Sunny still struggles with her two jobs, tuition, school, and the maddening burning in her bladder caused by Interstitial Cystitis, which keeps her from being able to enjoy physical intimacy with her beloved. When Sunny inevitably starts dabbling in marijuana and cocaine with Nate, the rush dulls the physical pain a bit and blunts Sunny's awareness of the burden she shoulders in her daily life. Desperate enough to do anything to relieve her pain, it's not long before Sunny suggests to Nate that they try heroin.
The testament to Erin's writing comes when Sunny snorts her first line of heroin and, moments later, realizes that the pain that has plagued her for years has disappeared. Sunny melts into the glorious feeling the heroin brings, as she rejoices she's finally sampled the greatest painkiller known to man. And even the most sensible reader finds herself cheering Sunny on, feeling that finally, finally this loveable, long-suffering protagonist has found the relief she deserves -- even if the reader, like Sunny, knows snorting heroin cannot be a good idea and that the ecstasy and escape provided by the drug will certainly come with a cost.
From there, Sunny's slide into the shady and increasingly seedy world of heroin addiction begins. Erin's prose illuminates every step of Sunny's dark journey, allowing the reader to watch and empathize every time Sunny falls a little further from grace.
This complicated, sweeping coming-of-age novel tells the story of profound first love and addiction. From heartbreakingly wholesome, to shockingly seedy, The Iron Horse
remains at its core a brilliant tale of how a spiral into depravity can be a necessary part of the path to redemption. It gives readers a new kind of heroine, one who is raw and real, and who seems to know instinctively that any hope of salvation will come, not from the man she loves, but from within herself. And it firmly positions Dawn Erin as a stunning and important new voice in fiction. The Iron Horse is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Authorhouse.com.
In my late teens, I listened with devotion to the song "Alien She" by the punk band, Bikini Kill, which was released on their 1993 album Pussy Whipped.
In the song, Bikini Kill's lead singerKathleen Hanna sings about the part of herself, which she calls the "alien she," that wants to be a girly girl and fit into the media-driven stereotypes of beauty and femininity.
While the song speaks of Hanna's hatred for this "alien she" inside of her who calls Hanna names ("feminist, dyke, whore)," wants her to "go to the mall," and "put the pretty, pretty lipstick on," Hanna also recognizes that this "alien she" is an integral part of herself. In fact, she says that she is her siamese twin, and that killing off the "alien she" would perhaps kill Hanna as well.
She is me/I am her/Siamese twins connected at the c*nt/ heartbrainheartbrainheartbrainlunggut/I want to kill her/ But I'm afraid it might kill me/feminist dyke whore/I'm so pretty/alien
I played the song "Alien She" over and over, as it spoke to me about the internal conflict I suffered between my everyday tough girl tomboy side and the part of me that longed to be pretty and fashionable; a conflict exacerbated by the way young women are objectified in our society.
Though I wanted to be seen as attractive as much as the next girl, I found this sort of unwanted attention tiresome. Often enough, it made me feel a certain seething something in my chest. An unspoken rage at being objectified by strangers.
Sure, at times I enjoyed the attention. By age fifteen I was heading down to the Black Cat Lounge on 6th Street, mostly to enjoy the local music and the company of my best friend Melissa, but flirtations with boys were part of the fun. What wasn't part of the fun was dealing with creepy drunk men staggering towards us with their "Hey babies, where you going?" as we walked back to our car. Sometimes we were followed by some weirdo and ended up scurrying together to lock ourselves in the safety of Melissa's big old diesel Mercedes.
Long summer afternoons lifeguarding or hanging out at Barton Springs Pool held the same mixed bag. Hot sun, cold water, cute boys -- and often, leering men. It's a story most women could tell.
Co-existing with my desire to be girly and pretty was my wish to shed the restrictions of being a woman at all. I wanted to run -- unworried -- through night streets, walk to clubs from my car without fear, pump and pay for gas without being subjected to a once-over from scary or just plain lame men.
For me, catering to the "alien she" and dressing "like a girl" resulted in a dramatic increase in this male attention that was sometimes pleasing, but more frequently unwanted. Stares and comments from lecherous men who spanned the range from annoying to potentially dangerous were bothersome enough that my anger towards them spilled over into my internal response towards probably well-meaning dudes just trying to check out some eye candy. The attention that came with wearing heels, a dress and a little makeup engendered in me an anger (what the f*ck are you looking at?) that I never expressed.
Bikini Kill and the other bands in the Riot Grrrl movement expressed what I was feeling, speaking out against sexism in punk rock, and in American society in general. I listened with devotion to their music -- loud, fast, angry, fun. Kathleen Hanna screamed the things I felt but would never say for fear of being thought angry or aggressive or out of control. But I was thrilled Bikini Kill and other Riot Grrrl bands didn't share my inhibitions and I listened over and over to songs like "Rebel Girl," "Suck My Left One" and "Jigsaw Youth."
Unintentionally, I learned that the path to escaping unwanted attention from men lay in letting the grubby tomboy half of my internal Siamese twin have her way with my appearance.
I first wore the cloak of invisibility -- a combination of man clothes and filth -- when I was a forest firefighter. Wearing gloves, fire boots and a hard hat, my face covered in ash, doing the hard work of men who came to know me as one of them, I slipped -- temporarily -- from the bondage of moving through the world as a woman.
And when I did walk through a fire camp of hundreds of firefighters, the stares I received were not ones in which my beauty was assessed so much as my toughness. Those looks I welcomed. I could return the men's gaze with my own look that said, "Yes, I can do the job just fine."
When I started working construction in Durango, Colorado, the level of invisibility became more profound. Fighting fire, I always had a long blonde braid hanging down my back, which identified me as a woman. But working construction I found that sawdust sucks the moisture out of hair, frying it faster than cheap bleach. So my hair disappeared under knit caps to protect it from the grit that covered me as soon as I started sanding or ripping boards on the table saw. The rest of me disappeared under Carharts and a tool belt.
When I returned to Austin, though I no longer did manual labor, I still wore baggy clothes, little makeup and a messy head of hair. It wasn't that I didn't like to scrub up at times -- I always loved a little sundress at a barbecue -- but it definitely wasn't my usual attire.
And as the years passed and I mellowed out a bit, I didn't think often of my tomboy clothes in terms of invisibility or anger -- I told myself I'd rather put my time and energy into things other than smoke and mirrors. I'd prefer to spend the early morning before work writing a novel or going for a run than blowing my hair dry or putting on makeup. And evenings or weekends, I'd rather do just about anything but shop for clothes.
But neglecting my "alien she" for years didn't mean she went away. I still found myself watching my friends' makeup, hair, clothes and heels, and listening in when they discussed mysterious new items purchased to enhance their beauty. (One of my friends once returned from a quick trip to Sephora with a new "leg shine," a small deodorant-like apparatus that you rub on your legs to make them, yes, shiny. I was fascinated.)
These days, I've begun to make friends with my "alien she." Like Kathleen Hanna, I realize she's an integral part of myself. And if she hasn't died from neglect by now, she's not going anywhere. Sure I still do lots of pushups, wear skate shoes with dresses and sometimes fail to brush my hair for days at a time. But recently, I've been wearing skirts more often, painting the old fingernails and putting "the pretty, pretty lipstick on."
I've been having fun doing these things; it's a kick to cultivate the girly side a little bit. The looks from men that come with dressing up I either appreciate or ignore, depending on how I feel. And it feels good to to know I can take the "alien she" for a walk on a more regular basis without falling slave to her or to the makeup and fashion industries.
And when I fold a little bit to the "alien she's" whims and desires, I find she's more apt to accept the messy, tough grrrl side of me without criticisms or slurs. And then my internal Siamese twins are finally practically at peace.
Alien She Lyrics
She is me
I am her
She is me
I am her
Siamese twins connected at the c*nt
I want to kill her
But I'm afraid it might kill me
I'm so pretty
She wants me to got to the mall
She wants me
To put the pretty, pretty lipstick on
She wants me to be like her
She wants me to be like her
I want to kill her
But I'm afraid it might kill me
And all I really wanted to know
Who was me and who is she
I guess I'll never know
Amanda Hocking, self-published, prolific author of young adult paranormal novels, recently became the 14th writer to join the "Kindle Million Club," having sold over one million copies of her ebooks in the Amazon.com Kindle Store.
Hocking is seen as a trailblazer and inspiration for struggling writers unable to acquire book deals with traditional publishing companies.
After Hawking sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her self-published ebooks, the same New York publishing companies that had originally rejected her joined in a "heated auction" to purchase her next series, which eventually sold to St. Martin's last March for over $2 million.
Hocking explained her decision to sell her work to a traditional publisher on her <a href="http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/" target="_hplink">blog</a> (which itself has received 1,724,535 page views).
"I want to be a writer," she said. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."
Hocking doesn't see herself as enemy #1 of traditional publishing houses, which have brought her the work of most of her favorite writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, and Jane Austen. She doesn't believe her stunning success sounds the death knell of the publishing industry, either.
On her blog she writes, "Ebooks will continue to gain ground, but I would say that we have at least 5-10 years before ebooks make up the majority. And all ebooks aren't self-published. Even if ebooks end up being 80% of the market, at least half of those sales will probably come from traditionally published ebooks. So publishers will still control the majority of the market."
While this may be true, Hocking's stunning Do-It-Yourself success--which involved years of writing and countless hours marketing her work--makes it clearer than ever that the introduction of e-readers is changing the publishing industry radically and forever.
Hocking writes, "Here's another thing I don't understand: The way people keep throwing my name around and saying publishers are 'terrified' of me and that I really showed them."
Perhaps what "terrifies" publishers about Hocking is what she represents: a future in publishing in which writers have more agency over their work; and agents and editors no longer stand as gatekeepers between books and their audiences.
The A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign
(launched in 1938 by Harry Oppenheimer and the president of N.W. Ayer & Son, Gerold M. Lauck) successfully brainwashed a nation into believing that a diamond represents lasting romantic love; and even that the gift of a diamond ring at the time of engagement will help such love to endure the inevitable trials of a couple’s married life.
Women have been trained by ubiquitous advertising–on billboards, in magazines, and on television–to long for a man to give her a diamond ring, an expensive symbol that his unswerving devotion will last a lifetime.
Newly engaged women show off their sparkling diamond rings to oohing and aahing friends. The ring speaks loudly for the woman who wears it, saying: I am loved; I have been chosen; I am not alone.
As aware as I am of the history of the A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign and its impact on our perception of diamond rings, I myself–a happily never-married woman–find that my first thought upon seeing a pretty diamond on a woman’s ring finger is: Someone loves her enough to have bought her that ring.
Now I am the first to rejoice for loving partnerships and happy marriages; I also admire the wedding aesthetics of white dresses, diamond rings and elegant bouquets. Yet I feel it’s important to be aware of the way the A Diamond is Forever ad campaign
–the most successful ad campaign in history–has shaped our thinking about this symbol of romantic love, which has too often also become a symbol of class, status, “worth,” and heteronormativity.
So it was with delight that as I was going through the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day, I noticed that the young woman bagging my groceries wore a gigantic faux diamond on the middle finger of her right hand. The diamond dazzled; it was ostentatiously huge, clearly fake, and super duper pretty.
“I like your ring,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. And then she added, a little sheepishly, “I bought it for myself at the mall for seven bucks.”
“Wow,” I said. “It turns out none of us have to wait around for a man to buy us a gigantic diamond ring. We can just go get ourselves one at Claire’s.”
Both the young woman bagging groceries and the female cashier laughed as if they understood exactly what I meant, which was that we as women no longer need a man to marry us in order to feel validated, successful and worthy of approval. And yet we still, in some dark corner of our hearts, long for the sparkle and shine of the stone that speaks of everlasting love.
So if you have always secretly wanted a giant diamond, but:
1) don’t have a partner who wants to buy you one; and/or
2) don’t have a partner who can afford to buy you one; and/or
3) aren’t into funding the diamond trade,
take yourself to the mall, or hop on Amazon or Ebay and buy yourself an inexpensive and satisfyingly sparkly reminder that you are worthy, beautiful and loved.
After all, you can rest assured that even if that cheap piece of crap ring falls apart in two weeks, your relationship with yourself will certainly endure until you take your very last breath.
My eight years working full-time in the movement to end violence against women have left me a little jaded. I realized this a few days ago when, at a team meeting, some of my colleagues were discussing The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s new name: Futures Without Violence.
“Ugh,” I said. “Who do they thing they’re kidding?”
My colleagues laughed.
“Better turn on your light box today, Mary,” one of my colleagues quipped.
So it was with mixed feelings that I prepared to travel to San Francisco to attend the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence’s (APIIDV) 2011 National Summit entitled: From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy. What Will It Take? A snarky voice in my head said: “From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy? Good luck with that one, ladies.”
My tenure as an advocate in a domestic violence shelter followed by years working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, followed by my current work as a Public Policy Analyst at the Texas Council on Family Violence have left me with a keen awareness of the overwhelming problem of violence against women, a problem that I believe to be rooted in patriarchy and gender oppression and inequity.
While working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, I answered over 25,000 calls from domestic violence victims and their friends and families, and in doing so I developed what I consider to be an extensive anecdotal understanding of the triumvirate of race, class and gender oppression in America. Take for instance, a call I received from a Mexican immigrant woman whose physically and sexually abusive husband had left her alone with her two children and no income. She’d been pounding the pavement for weeks looking for work, but because she had no work permit she had not been able to secure employment. And because she was a monolingual spanish speaker without state identification, she had been unable to find and access a local food bank.
“My teenager understands why we don’t have food,” she told me. “But I’ve had nothing for my two year-old to eat for three days except sugar water, and she doesn’t understand why she is hungry.”
Because of the secondary trauma and sadness that the heightened awareness of gender violence has brought about in me, I had a hard time believing that attending APIIDV’s 2 ½ day summit would truly energize me to continue my work to cut through the barriers to services for all victims of gender violence, or allow me to believe that this cause for which I have worked for so long is not painfully, terribly hopeless.
But Helen Zia, the summit’s first speaker, changed all that for me. Zia, a long-time activist, author and former editor of Ms. Magazine, took the stage and immediately addressed this issue with which I had been grappling.
Zia spoke on the title of the summit, saying that when she thinks about moving towards the goal of gender democracy she is reminded of how she, as a lesbian, used to feel about the Gay Rights Movement’s fight for legal marriage for gays and lesbians.
Zia said, “I had to ask myself, is this worth fighting for? Because:
a) It will never happen anyway, so what’s the point; and
b) What’s so great about marriage anyway?”
The audience laughed; and I realized that I had found an iconoclastic activist with a sense of humor dark enough even for me. Zia went on to say that in the 1950s, African-Americans had to sit at the back of the bus; they had to drink water from separate fountains. And when they were finally allowed to sit at the front of the bus, they found the front of the bus was cleaner. And when they were finally allowed to drink from the forbidden fountains, they found that the water was sweeter.
Zia said that when she and her wife Lia legally married in California, they found that the water they had finally been allowed to drink was indeed sweeter. Her marriage brought about unexpected and beautiful things; because Zia and her wife had finally wed, the members of their two families began to consider themselves to be truly related, and made overtures to spend more time together and develop relationships with each other. As a result of their marriage, the two women’s families changed and grew closer. This was a wonderful benefit of marriage that Zia had not been able to anticipate or imagine. Zia used this personal experience to illuminate the title of the summit. “If we assume that gender violence will always be there,” she said, “then we will not bother to envision a world without violence. Thinking that way will ensure that a world without violence won’t happen, exactly because it will keep us from working towards it.”
Like Helen Zia, who did not know what it would be like to be married because she had never experienced it, none of us know what it will be like to experience a gender democracy because “we haven’t been there. But we are going to create it.”
Zia went on to say, “We can’t imagine what a gender democracy will be like. But we can know gender democracy will be better for women and girls who will be able to go to school or to the corner store without being snatched and trafficked," will be able to walk across university campuses without being sexually assaulted, will be able to live safely in their own homes without fear of being abused by their intimate partners. "In a gender democracy, abusers will not be protected, no matter how rich and powerful they are.”
Zia’s powerful speech stripped away my feelings of hopelessness created by my hyper-awareness that gender oppression has both a long history and deep roots in our current society. Zia reminded me that it is possible to keep the snarky, dark humor that gets me through while maintaining an optimism and commitment to my work to bring an end to violence against women.
Helen Zia’s book “Asian American Dreams: the Emergence of An American People” is available for sale on Amazon.
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