There is much to say about Kate Braverman. She’s 57 years old and a SF writer who is a self-proclaimed outlaw. She is currently working on a book of poetry in San Francisco. She’s a relevant literary experimentalist who is hell-bent on women having total access to the page, according to an article by San Francisco’s Unscripted. She’s non-canonical a la Kathy Acker. She’s post-modern, post-punk and a product of the 60’s beat poets. She loves Leonard Cohen and William Burroughs. But let’s get down to the nitty gritty. There’s a jarring way Braverman inhabits the female body and this is important to feminist writing today.
In a blog-crazed age where extreme narcissistic celebrity is poisoning the literary world, and the general public would be more inclined to twitter about Britney Spears or Michael Jackson than read a book, Kate Braverman keeps writing on the cultural agenda. She knows that the masses are committed to mediocrity, and she’ll have none of it, especially where her female characters leap the pages of her books.
Braverman creates female characters who are not mere objects of desire, but who have agency and pursue what they want. They are predatory. They are heroic. They have injuries and flaws, even if they are in hospital beds. Braverman creates female characters as intellectual as they are fleshy. She builds women who are beyond spectacle and who surpass femme fatale clichés.
Braverman describes her process best here in Frida Kahlo’s voice:
“All that remains of these chaotic years are my paintings which are not self-portraits. They are imprints of a human woman peeling off her flesh and revealing that which is most vulnerable and resistant to definition.”
Braverman’s brand of feminism inhabits the female body in a way that is desperately human in a language that is hieroglyphic. She makes her female bodies inject Demerol and morphine into collapsed veins, she fucks strangers, dresses like a boy, makes girls cry and gets her pussy shaved by Diego Rivera while anointing her neck with jasmine. Most shocking of all, Braverman inhabits dead bodies and chants from the grave in The Incantation of Frida K.
Of course the book begins with lots of heavy rain. Don’t act surprised. I told you, she loves Leonard Cohen. The book is written in first person past tense, and is a fictional biography or is it? It reads more like a translation of a photograph of Frida Khalo, as if Braverman’s agenda was to take the whisper of the dead Frida Kahlo, and turn up the volume.
Let’s just say, it begins with a scream. The trolley tragedy that disfigured Frida Khalo as a teenager marks her as a wounded woman throughout her life. Then Braverman follows the trajectory of Frida’s relationship to Diego Rivera, which was explosive. In the book, their relationship is described as, “an architecture of carnage.”
The overall tone of the book is poetic and strong with colorful descriptions, straight out of a Frida Kahlo’s painting. The images contain lots of thorns, bloody hearts and medical instruments of torture. The sentences read like the moans of a tortured cripple, who is a prisoner in her own body. The reader is confronted repeatedly with Frida’s physical disfigurement due to the trolley car, which is inescapable. In this sense, the narrative is more nightmare than dreamlike. In typical Braverman fashion, there is lots of yellow and too much water. Braverman likes her readers to drown. She removes the comfort of a third person distant narrative.
Frida is not simply a pained soul withering in a hospital. She preys on strangers, has impulsive sex outside of her marriage, and engages enthusiastically in an S/M relationship with Diego. But her priority is her brilliant paintings. They are her first love.
Braverman holds the reader hostage in Frida Kahlo’s body in an attempt to imprint her body (of work) in history, not as an object, but as the subject. Braverman blurs the boundaries of biography and narrative while spilling the emotional truths of a powerful, wounded woman who existed outside of feminine conventions.
What amazed me throughout The Incantation of Frida K., is Braverman’s expertise in not falling prey to the “fallacy of imitative form” when she writes from the perspective of drugged up characters. The difficult matter of using dialogue and actions in scene where our fictional characters are chemically altered is a constant challenge.
In both form and in content, Braverman challenged me to be fearless in my writing. I’m confronted with what it is to be a woman in the novel I’m writing and to explore the frontier of what breaks our spirit and how we transcend our limits.