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Exploring Womanhood
from the book
"If you have a vagina you know that most of the time it is without sensation. How does your spleen feel? How do your kidneys feel? How does your pancreas feel? Luckily, we have no idea how these things feel. The vagina is mostly like a pancreas and feels nothing. If it feels something, it is either erotically engaged or ill.

All this is obvious if you have one. But half of us don't.

I have one, and something went wrong with it."

Susanna Kaysen -The Camera My Mother Gave Me

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Exploring Womanhood > Interviews

Exploring Womanhood Interviews Susanna Kaysen
Author of
The Camera My Mother Gave Me
Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen is the author of the novels Far Afield and Asa, As I Knew Him and the memoir Girl, Interrupted, and now, The Camera My Mother Gave Me. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visit Exploring Womanhood's review of The Camera My Mother Gave Me.

EW: Hi Susanna, welcome to ExploringWomanhood.com! Thanks for chatting with us about your new book THE CAMERA MY MOTHER GAVE ME. While reading this book, my emotions traveled in quite a few directions. I laughed, I worried, I almost cried, I worried some more, then I laughed at myself for wanting to find you the right doctor, ointment, non irritating brand of tampons, or new boyfriend.

Kaysen: Thanks for having me, Nancy. I'm glad you got a few laughs out of my book. That's the most important thing.

EW: I knew there were several messages one might benefit from in your story. Which was the most important one you wanted to convey?

Kaysen: My most important message (I guess) was that there are some things that can't be fixed and some questions that don't have answers and that we have to live with that.

EW: I had never really thought about how our vaginas usually feel nothing unless we try to use them. And using them includes just about anything. As I type this, I'm not feeling anything unless I pay attention. I decided, after reading your book, that I need to pay closer attention. We take our vaginas for granted. We also need to pay better attention to how others are treating them.

Kaysen: I don't quite know how to respond to this. I guess it does interest me that vaginas are inert fundamentally, that is, without sensation. That that's NEUTRAL for vaginas. That's why I began the book with this point. On the other hand, having noted that, there isn't much more to say about it. As to the way others treat our vaginas--well, most of literature is about that, basically. Right? Love makes the world go round. Or stop spinning. Or whatever.

EW: Tell us about the title of the book. And, were there titles you almost used? I would imagine several would fit!

Kaysen: Yes, I wanted to use the title The Pussy Papers, but there were several reasons not to. One, Martin Amis wrote a book early in his career called The Rachel Papers--though this didn't bother me, since I'm very fond of Martin Amis' books and this would have been a bit of an homage. But more important, I suppose, was the Vagina Monologue problem. I imagine Eve Ensler and I began to think about this around the same time. I am a very slow and lazy worker, though, so she'd finished thinking about it long before I had written even a third of my book. Anyhow, I did not want to seem to be coasting on her coattail, or whatever the expression is. Nor did I want there to be confusion over the two things. This title popped into my mind all of a sudden. It's a reference to a scene in a movie by Luis Buņel, the great Spanish director. There's a group of people having dinner (in fact, these people are arranged in a parody of the Last Supper, by da Vinci, and this scene in Viridiana was what made the Spanish so mad at and disgusted by Buņel that he had to move out of Spain forever) and they want a group picture. They ask a young woman to take a picture, she gets up to do so, and someone calls out, "Hey, where's your camera?" to which she pulls up her skirts, flashes the assembled company, and says, "I'll take it with the camera my mother gave me." She says, "I'll take it with the camera my father gave me," actually, but I didn't remember it that way and I didn't like it that way, so I changed it.

EW: So many women end up on emotional journeys related to their sexual or medical health and experiences. Your story is valuable in that it helps us, as women, realize that the journey may need perseverance, some self-examination, and a good dose of humor. What else is essential in order to understand the pain and then heal?

Kaysen: I don't like to restrict what I'm saying to women. Well, of course, men don't have vaginas, so the particulars don't apply to them. But I don't think this is about the particulars so much. Some, but not all. The point about there being unfixable problems about the decline of sexual energy and sexual appeal, the sorrow when you find part of your self has been compromised because of a change in your physical functioning, because of health, really--these have nothing to do with gender. These are normal human sadnesses and worries.

The end of your question regarding what is essential in order to understand the pain and then heal contains one of the basic flaws in our reasoning, since I don't think everything can be healed. Some things can improve, some things can get stabilized, some things get worse. Some things, of course, do heal. But not all things! I wish we, as Americans, (I feel Americans are particularly hung up on this) could stop with the positive thinking already! I'm more into negative thinking. I think it's more realistic.

EW: I see this story as a monologue or a play, one that adds awareness and empowerment to our exploration into ourselves as sexual beings. Any plans?

Kaysen: You're not the first person to think of this. I didn't. I don't think that way- I mean, I think only in terms of prose on a page. Though I like the dialogue too (I guess that's what they respond to when they say it should be a play). Well, it couldn't be a monologue, it would have to be a multilogue. I'm not the one to do anything about it, though.

EW: You capture human emotion and realities of life in your writings. Women, in the not so distant past, have been quietly dealing with (or not dealing with) so many personal issues that create unhealthy blockages in personal growth, emotional and physical health, and in relationships of any kind. I look forward to reading your next book. Can you share?

Kaysen: Who knows? I don't talk about what I'm not doing. I wouldn't talk about it if I were doing it, either, though. I have no faith in my ability ever to write another word. But I hear that's fairly normal for writers. Let's hope so! The only thing I know is that it will NOT be a memoir. I have finished with that genre. Famous last words, probably. You always do whatever you say you won't do -- that's a pretty good rule of thumb for human behavior.

EW: Thanks for talking with us, Susanna! What other messages might you have for our readers, both male and female?

Kaysen: Here's what for me is an unusually "feminist" statement. I wish women would brag more about their sexual experiences and analyze them and scrutinize them in print the way men do. I wish our sexual experiences could be a filter through which we perceive and comment on the world, the way, say, Philip Roth's sexual experiences have been for him as a writer. I wish we weren't so squeamish about it. But we are. And I don't like this sort of sexuality as woman power stuff, that's not what I'm talking about. Roth and Updike and many other modern male writers (Norman Mailer is a great example) have brought their sexual lives into the stuff of fiction in a natural way -- a way that made it seem obvious that this was a dimension of life worth examining and describing. I wish women could feel this natural about our erotic lives without having to PROVE something about ourselves through our erotic lives. This is probably a few hundred years off in the future, though. If then. If people still write or read a few hundred years into the future, which I often despair of.

To order a copy of The Camera My Mother Gave Me
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