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Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire bring their bestselling Australian literary salon, 'Women of Letters' to New York as a monthly event and celebration of a diverse range of strong female talent.

Blurbs

"Women of Letters offers a joyous bounty of many voices, writing styles, laughs and regrets. Having read this book, I feel as though I know humans and their various conditions much better."

– Weekend Australian

"Gives readers an intimate look into the hearts of some of Australia's finest literary, political and theatrical figures."

– Daily Telegraph

"Readers of all ages will get a glimpse of themselves in this surprising, thoughtful, funny and inspiring book, which deserves to find a place in everyone's home."

– Bookseller + Publisher

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Women of Letters (event)

A Tap on My Shoulder

06/29/15

I confess that I expected 'Women of Letters' to be a scrappy affair held together with enthusiasm and string, because, since both women and the written word are so undervalued, the combination can tend to the homemade. But words and women are also my two favorite things, so off I went. As soon as I got to the performance space, though, I saw that Women of Letters was going to be positively elegant. It was at Joe’s Public in Manhattan: opulent terraced seating, soft banquettes illuminated by candlelight, and servers as languid and chilly as mermaids.

Originated five years ago by co-creators Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, and hosted by the gracious Sofija Stefanovic, Women of Letters’s raison d’etre is to encourage the fading (please let’s not call it lost just yet) art of writing letters. The format is simple, six guests invited to write on a theme, who read their result onstage. This evening’s theme was “A Tap on My Shoulder.”

Beth Hoyt, who acts in and writes for Inside Amy Schumer and co-hosts the comedy show Big Effing Deal, kicked off the letters with the phrase, “Dear Dude.” The dude in question was a stadium-goer at the first Michigan State football game to take place after 9/11 — a man who pierced the highly protracted and reflective silence after the National Anthem by shouting,“boobies!” Piloting narrative hairpin turns with brio and irreverence, Hoyt pulled together tales of economic disparity, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the impossibility of ever saying the right thing into one salty whole, funny as hell.

The sparky tone turned glowy as Anna Holmes, journalist and the founder of Jezebel, read an intimate essay that inquired whether ignoring one’s instincts might be a gendered act. With precision and generosity, Holmes described her aha moment: the realization that constant self-critique is not the same as personal awareness. “The essential mistrust of self exacted a steep personal price.” She spoke of her father’s stories of himself as a young black man — how crucial to his survival had been his ability to sense what he could, and couldn’t, do. “His instincts had served him well,” Holmes concluded, “and they’d serve me well, too, if I’d only fucking listen.”

“Dear Tap,” began Amy Sohn, screenwriter and author of The Actress and Prospect Park West, “I know you want me to pull my head out of my ass, but I’m not ready to get it out of there yet.” Thus began a tragicomic tour de force worthy of Dorothy Parker at the top of her game, getting progressively darker and funnier at each turn until the audience was screaming with horrified laughter.

Sigrid Nunez had exactly the august bearing one might associate with a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as she began a letter to her mother, a coming-of-age story that detailed the moment of individuation between mother and daughter. With deft knowingness, Nunez’s prose, profound yet effervescent, captured essential, monumental issues as though scooping up butterflies in a net. When Chekov’s gun went off – by which point we’d all forgotten it was ever on the mantelpiece to begin with – it brought the house down.

The presence of Megan Abbott, doyenne of noir and author of I Dare You and The Fever, is somehow simultaneously winsome and mysterious, and her letter was too: a sinuous, twisty search for escape from the pain of separation, making fleeting, meaningful contact with pleasure while propelled along by an increasingly frantic desire for escape. It was sharp and heartachey, shot through with weird sweetness.

Molly Crabapple is an artist and journalist who’s done projects in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi's migrant labor camps, and with rebels in Syria; her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Those of us who were comparing our own CV to hers found it encouraging that she addressed her letter to her burnout. It told of her path as an artist, starting as a punk so obsessed with drawing she’d do it until her tendons seized, “punching them until they could curl around a pen again.” She spoke of work functioning as an addiction, until her ability to work deserted her, while burnout stuck around. Of being a journalist, she said, “I had to learn to tell the truth in a world populated entirely by liars – but that wasn’t burnout, that was burned in.”

A panel discussion followed, which is typically when everybody starts shifting in their seats. Not so under Stefanovic’s supple touch. To the first question – about memorable fan mail – Megan Abbott quickly supplied, “Yeah, a woman wrote to me saying ‘I wrote that book you published, and it was weird to see your photo on the book jacket.’” Amy Sohn’s response was so raunchy I can’t, or anyhow won’t, relate it here. Stefanovich asked if anyone had letters they can’t look at — everyone did. (Holmes spoke of “performative” missives written in college). For a recent project, Crabapple had been dispatched to read her own diaries and fact-check her past. “My self-mythologizing bubble burst,” she said. Sohn posed the question: why don’t people throw away letters that reveal secrets? Crabapple, who spent years in correspondence with Guantanamo Bay detainees, pointed out that prisoners are who’s keeping the form alive.

Fortunately there are others in the world who value the form too, and Women of Letters certainly walks the walk: to conclude the evening, Stefanovic directed our attention to the stamped postcard on each table. “Write to someone you love,” she told us. “Everybody’s always happy to get a letter. Go write on your postcard, and mail it. Give them that gift!”

I wrote mine to my sister. Thinking of you, love you. A few days later, I got an email in return. The postcard had arrived on a difficult day; she’d come home and wept, and then read it. Getting that postcard was exactly what I needed, she wrote.

Women of Letters returned to Joe’s Public on June 10th.

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