Report from the Field: The Silence of a Siren
At 8am I have students hunched over their copies of The Aeneid with questions from the night before, clarifications rising like exhalations of vapor in the cold. It’s that moment at the precipice of the day when we’re all still a little sleepy, and I clutch my coffee mug as I sit beside a student to listen to her list of questions. As I open my mouth to answer, a male colleague from across the room answers for me. I sit back in my seat, listening carefully to his answer; suddenly, I’m rendered less a peer than another student in the room.
A couple weeks later, I’m teaching with the same colleague in the classroom. A student raises his hand with a question and before I can open my mouth, my colleague intercepts again. As my students pack up at the end of the period, one casually asks if I mind being interrupted by my colleague. I smile and shake my head. “He has a degree in this subject,” I say cheerfully. “What he has to say is important.”
It’s later (weeks? months?) when I realize the full implication of my response. While I whole-heartedly believe what my colleague has to say is important, I have inadvertently suggested that what I have to say is not. That when he interrupts me or speaks for me, I become nothing more than Echo from the Greek myth, condemned to repeat the last few words of whatever someone else has stated or, in this case, condemned to the endless repetition of “what he said, what he said, what he said.”
For weeks I struggle with how to reconcile my autonomy as a teacher and as a woman who has been silenced through the paternal actions of her colleague. I waver back and forth between acquiescing to the expert or reclaiming my space in the classroom. I resolve the dilemma by reminding myself that I do know the material, I do know my students. I ask questions when I have them. I use the declarative when I am strong in my convictions.
When I send my colleague a rough draft of my final exam, he replies with a thoughtful list of questions. I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m being asked to engage in a dialogue. My voice is not lost. When I email him a slightly revised draft, the response I receive is half the exam crossed out, literally marked through, with his own wording below in red. The line through my words cuts like the binding lashed across Odysseus’ arms and legs when he’s bound to the mast, sailing past the Sirens.
In this moment, in the dark early hours of the morning, no hearts “throb to listen longer” to my words and I, in fact, am no longer sure of my voice. In the negation of my thoughts, my ideas, I no longer trust myself, or, perhaps more aptly put, my articulation of myself. I’ve been corrected, but not constructively. I grasp for a solution, which remains ephemeral as air: I’m Aeneas attempting to embrace Creusa as “her phantom sift[ed] through my fingers” (Fagles 2.983-984); I’m Orpheus looking back too soon.
When I was in college, I took a women’s studies art class. One of the articles we read, “We’re Finally Infiltrating” by Phoebe Hoban, explored three museums incorporating more artwork by women. One photograph featured is that of Ryoko Suzuki entitled “Bind” (2001). A woman’s eyes and mouth are lashed by a rope or vine and it’s a stark photograph of just her face and neck. It’s an erasure of self—anonymity not necessarily desired, but determined without the woman’s consent. In an essay in her collection Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit notes, “Violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you.” This is the fate of Cassandra when she refuses Apollo’s advances, and, thus, she suffers the punishment of being able to see the future without anyone believing her. And while I’m not physically trapped or threatened or left with supernatural powers, the binding I experience is the catch in my throat, my words dissolving like those exhalations in the winter’s cold. I find myself now a part of that “war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence” (Solnit 5) that Solnit so bluntly describes.
This kind of corrective behavior and talking over occurs for most of the year. I chastise myself for turning into the type of woman that Camille Paglia or Katie Roiphe would rebuke for not “taking responsibility for their actions” (Ropihe xiv). I passively condone my colleague’s behavior without asserting myself or respectfully confronting the situation. As actress Rose McGowan noted in her tips for fighting sexism in Hollywood earlier last year, “ If someone yells at you or puts you down, stop them in their tracks. Retrain them…correct bad behavior as it happens.” This is a teaching moment potentially for both my colleague and me. I could start a dialogue. Yet month after month goes by, and I keep my mouth shut.
My painful self-realization is as cringe worthy as Amy Schumer’s sketch of women repeating “I’m sorry” so frequently at a conference that they sabotage themselves and the women around them. The humor of that sketch lies in its familiarity. You recognize aspects of yourself (or at least another woman that you’ve encountered)—and for me that recognition lies in the fact that these characters restrict their own voices from being heard. So blinded are they by the desire to be helpful to others that they can’t help themselves.
In his book On Dialogue, author David Bohm writes,
Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos meaning “the word,” or in our case we would think of “the meaning of the word.” And dia means ‘through’—it doesn’t mean two. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of dialogue is present. The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ which holds people and societies together.
This “stream of meaning,” to which Bohm aptly refers, is part of the joy of teaching—the joy I experience on those mornings when it’s a handful of students situated around the wooden table, each with her or his own preoccupations, intrigues, and queries. And while I want to listen more than I want to speak, I love the “shared meaning” that arises when my students and I form our own dialogue, creating the community in the classroom that is essential to higher learning. Part of the delight in a dialogue is the open invitation to join, until the “invitation to silence” is established when my words are truncated, not even fully formed.
The poet Audre Lorde said, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcome. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” I never confronted my colleague. I left my teaching position to pursue a graduate degree and read and wrote more than I ever had before. My voice, on and off the page, grew stronger—in pitch, in tone, in volume. For those years I was silent, those years ago, I was scared more of my words not being “heard,” rather than being “welcomed.” But what I have realized both at the podium as teacher and in the audience as student is that the best learning occurs when we confront our fears and move through (dia) them. I did not create the learning experience for both my colleague and myself at that time in my life where I experienced a vocal stasis, but I have since recognized that risks are the stuff of which narratives are made. To speak at all, as a woman, is itself a political act, something director Jill Soloway reminded us when she said, “women are so disconnected from their desire in this country because desire is shamed for women, that just women starting to talk about how it feels to be alive and to tell their own stories, to me, that would revolutionize the world.” Better to desire, to speak, in order to assert our humanity, our autonomy, our agency in its unadulterated ardor. Odysseus was on the island with Calypso for seven years, but we meet him in medias res when he’s finally freed. The story can’t begin until he takes the first step forward—until his oar thrusts through surf, bound for home. Homer’s hero cried on the lip of landscape for years, the memory of Ithaca hot in his heart. But we don’t remember his tears—we remember his wile.
When Hillary Clinton was interrupted fifty-one times by Donald Trump in just one of their three presidential debates this fall it was an indelible moment that further etched itself on the female consciousness of every woman who has ever been silenced, mansplained, or made to (re)evaluate the legitimacy of her voice. The familiarity of Trump’s blatant disregard for Clinton’s vocal space stung. In her essay “The Gender of Sound,” Ann Carson notes, “the nymph Echo is described by Sophokles as ‘the girl with no door on her mouth.’ Putting on a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to present day.” Clinton didn’t win the presidential election, but she didn’t close the vocal (or figurative) door. We (women) haven’t let it shut—our voices refuse. The woman Brock Turner raped (re)claimed her voice when she penned the letter detailing her experience. Glamour recently honored Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi (founders of the Black Lives Matter movement) as honorees for the Glamour Women of the Year 2016. Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine were among the 2016 MacArthur Fellows. Michelle Obama in her speech at the Democratic National Convention reminded us all of our shared racial history—and the importance of embodying kindness, dignity, and grace. These women’s voices cut through those that would render them silent.
I, too, am speaking for myself now. I am dialogue, I am future, I am awakened to the reality of our shared existence that is more comfortable with the silence of the siren than the song she sings. The first sentence on this page is my oar striking ink’s oceanic depth. The reader who stays until the end of this piece rides the stream of dialogue born forth among us, between us, through.
HANNAH BONNER’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Oyster Boy Review, The Cellar Door, The Asheville Poetry Review, The Freeman, The North Carolina Literary Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina, So to Speak: A Feminist Journal, and ROAR: A Journal of the Literary Arts by Women.
Her essays and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Asheville Poetry Review, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Weird Sister, The Fbomb, Luna Luna Magazine, Misadventures Magazine, Lumen Magazine, and ROAR Magazine: Reflections on a Revolution.