Memoirs of Womanhood by Emily Ratajkowski, Toufah Jallow and N. West Moss

By Melissa Febos

MY BODY
Essays
By Emily Ratajkowski
237 pp. Metropolitan Books. $26.

My introduction to Ratajkowski was her affecting essay in The Cut, “Buying Myself Back,” but you more likely first met her image. In the 2012 music video for Maroon 5’s “Love Somebody,” Adam Levine smears gray paint over Ratajkowski’s body, which is rendered into space by his touch like a cringy interpretation of “Pygmalion.” The following year, the model appeared in Robin Thicke’s notorious video for “Blurred Lines.” I watched these while reading her aptly titled debut collection, frustrated to see the author cast as a mannequin to be used by these painfully less interesting men.

The shock of the misogyny and abuse Ratajkowski details over the course of her career is not dulled by its predictability. Partly this is due to her engaging narrative voice, its humor and sincerity. As a well-known model, actor and entrepreneur, Ratajkowski often worries about her own participation in harmful systems. “Money means power,” she ponders while on a sponsored luxury vacation in the Maldives. “And by capitalizing on my sexuality I have money.” Her interest in this complicity seems genuine, and the question she returns to, though timeworn, has no easy answer: How do we thrive — ethically — in a society that runs on exploitation? The book feels like an awakening-in-progress, and she acknowledges that: “The purpose of this book is not to arrive at answers, but to honestly explore ideas I can’t help but return to.”

“My Body” succeeds at this. It offers a lucid examination of the mirrors in which its author has seen herself, and her indoctrination into the cult of beauty as defined by powerful men. In one of its more transcendent passages, she compares the 2007 paparazzi photo of Britney Spears with a newly shaved head to Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” “She’s pulled back from the mirror, not looking at us but past us,” Ratajkowski writes. “But whereas the girl in the painting has a turban covering her head, Britney’s hair is gone and in its place is her shockingly naked scalp. It surprises you. It feels violent, a warning.” In such ruminations, the author steps beyond the reach of any “Pygmalion” and becomes a more dangerous kind of beautiful. She becomes a kind of god in her own right: an artist.

TOUFAH
The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement
By Toufah Jallow With Kim Pittaway
Illustrated. 310 pp. Truth to Power. Paper, $16.95.

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    In this riveting autobiography, Jallow details how at 18 she won a pageant sponsored by Yahya Jammeh, the then-president of Gambia. A university scholarship was promised as the prize, but what she got instead was a series of gifts and grooming visits from the president that culminated in a marriage proposal. After the teenager refused, an enraged Jammeh drugged and brutally raped her. “There is no word for rape in the Fula language,” Jallow explains, not because it doesn’t happen, but “because we are supposed to believe it is so rare that no word is necessary for it.” Understanding the danger to herself and her family, Jallow fled her native country into neighboring Senegal, eventually locating sympathetic authorities who helped her secure refugee status in Canada.

    The tale of Jallow’s escape is harrowing and propulsive. While her trauma is extreme, the real story takes place in its aftermath, in the ways it defined the victim’s life. Reluctant to tell fellow refugees her back story and fearful that local Gambians had heard slandering media reports about her, Jallow sank into depression and isolation. When she finally breached her silence to a friend and then a therapist, the mantle lifted to reveal a molten determination.

    In 2016, Jammeh lost re-election but refused to concede. Only after the United Nations Security Council denounced him, and the Gambian Embassy in Senegal swore in Adama Barrow as president, did Jammeh flee the country. Despite the risks, Jallow decided to testify at the hearings that followed. “As I shared the details of the night I was raped,” she recounts, “I knew I was doing something shocking, something Gambians had not seen.” In her rousing final remarks, she invokes the national custom of apologizing for one’s testimony: “It offends men like Yahya Jammeh. It offends men who want to sympathize with perpetrators. And to those people: I am not sorry.”

    It takes extraordinary courage and vision to induce social change in a single lifetime, and Jallow has done just that. Now 25, she lives in Toronto, where she’s studying to become a counselor for assaulted women and children. By the end, her work has had an impact at home, too — her baby sister marching around repeating her words: “I. Am. Not. Sorry!”

    FLESH & BLOOD
    Reflections on Infertility, Family, and
    Creating a Bountiful Life
    By N. West Moss
    307 pp. Algonquin. $25.95.

    “I’ve come to understand that there is a kind of storing up of beauty, an accumulation of memory,” Moss writes near the end of her first book of nonfiction (after a story collection, “The Subway Stops at Bryant Park”). Across 82 short chapters, it meanders through the author’s life, musing on a treasured relationship with her grandmother, her father’s death, a happy marriage and the grief of multiple miscarriages. Moss interlaces episodes from the past with a present timeline in which she is suffering from a mysterious and bloody medical condition whose eventual diagnosis necessitates a hysterectomy, followed by a complicated recovery. It is an intimate and ruminative portrait of life in an aging body, the hardships of navigating medical crises and the importance of loving care.

    Throughout, Moss’s voice is conversational, punctuated with frequent ellipses and colloquialisms: “Oh well.” “Shoot.” “Jesus.” Its narration unspools to reveal the movement of her mind behind the prose, and at times Moss’s candor makes this discursive style effective, like when she laments the impending loss of “the silky, slippery nose of my cervix, who never did anything to anyone.” At other times, however, it becomes tediously self-conscious, laden with superfluous details, more stream of consciousness than story. And yet, there is often meaning and depth to be found in the miscellany of life. Especially, perhaps, in the life of a middle-aged woman, a demographic whose interior and corporeal narratives are so often dismissed by a patriarchal, youth-obsessed culture.

    The memoir genre has a long and valuable tradition of chronicling such ordinary, older lives that demonstrate how to find meaning in our own. There is beauty to be found in the transcription of small wonders — in Moss’s case, a praying mantis laying her eggs, a well-made cup of broth, the warmth of a beloved pet at your feet. For many, I trust, this account will provide company and insight into the tragedies and delights of middle age. Who among us doesn’t need a reminder that “it turns out that you can be filled to overflowing with grief and still be happy”?

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