Today’s guest post is from the wonderful, ELLIS AVERY
In addition to The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012), a new novel inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, Ellis is the author of a first novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006). Set in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan, The Teahouse Fire won Lambda, Ohioana, and American Library Association awards and was translated into five languages. Avery is also the author of The Smoke Week (Gival 2003), an award-winning 9/11 memoir. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.
An Elaine Encomium
My best-dressed professor was named Elaine Hansen. She taught my Fictions of Gender in the Fourteenth Century class, gave excellent lectures, and made sure we all left knowing how to use the MLA Bibliography. All of Old English literature can fit on a shelf, she taught us. All of Middle English can fit in a room. It’s all the more important to read the criticism when you’ve got so few primary texts. I had never written an annotated bibliography until I took her class: attempting my first, on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, I was excited to encounter John Alford’s argument that the Clerk and the Wife of Bath didn’t represent the positions of the misogynist and the economically independent woman, but rather logic and rhetoric. Imagine!
Professor Hansen wore gray wool dresses. Elegant navy and cream-colored silk scarves. Her short hair swept so briskly, so optimistically, up from her forehead that when arthritis meds thinned my chignon years later, I tried to recall—and replicate—her cut. She looked so professional that we thought she dressed like that all the time, until my friends and I saw her at the Borders, standing in the children’s section with two little girls.
“Have you ever seen her off campus?” I whispered.
“Never!” said Chaia.
Meighan stared. “She owns sweatpants?”
I loved Fictions of Gender so much I went ahead and took Professor Hansen’s Contemporary Women Writers class, for which she assigned the first and only lesbian novel I would encounter until graduate school. How did I thank her? It wasn’t her fault that the book was Just Okay, but I was ashamed of the poverty of the literature of my newly-claimed people. I rallied Chaia and Meighan, and we stomped down to her office in our leather jackets and Doc Marten’s to tell her she should have assigned Jeanette Winterson. We couldn’t relate to Evelyn, the divorcee who falls in love with another woman in Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart: she was a space alien. Elaine Hansen politely wrote down the titles we recommended, and just as mildly, just as amenably, demurred, saying, “I didn’t think Evelyn was a space alien.” I think because she let us swagger into her office, blustering, and sat there unruffled, neither cowed nor defensive, she disarmed us: I fell in Teacher Love.
A few weeks later, I invited Professor Hansen to Walter’s Swiss Pastry Shop on Lancaster Avenue. It was closed, so I invited her to the apartment off-campus that I shared with my girlfriend. We had just one chair in our living room, a cat-urine-soaked canvas sling on a metal frame, so Professor Hansen sat beside me on the narrow futon we’d spread on the floor for a couch. While I tried to make popovers, she gallantly scanned the books on our cinderblock shelves until her eyes began to weep from cat allergies. Poor amenable, polite Elaine Hansen!
Mortified, I gave up on the popovers and got ready to walk her out. Not knowing what to say, I pointed at the sun-drenched buildings across the way: “The Realms of Gold,” I said. It was the title of the Margaret Drabble book we’d just discussed in her class. I was hoping for a smile, or rather, the smile-shaped abbreviation of the rich, startling conversation we hadn’t had about books and writing because I had failed, failed at finding the open café or cat-free apartment for us to have it in. I hadn’t fed her or entertained her or made her feel treasured or impressed her with my specialness: “The Realms of Gold,” I said. She sneezed.
In the elevator on the way down, desperate for something to say, I went on to compound the impression I had made by, yes, asking her, if I ever applied to graduate schools, would she consider writing a letter of recommendation for me? And despite the time I now know it takes to write a good one, she answered without hesitation. “I’d be glad to,” she said. “But get your request in to Career Services soon, even before you know whether you’re applying to schools, so that I can write about you now, while you’re fresh in my mind. Do it now.” And I didn’t. I never did.
It takes intellectual courage, and an unfeminine willingness to assert that one has mastered a subject, to claim that that body of knowledge can be contained on a shelf, in a room, in a bibliography. Thinking that I had what it took to set a novel in the tea ceremony world of 1880s Kyoto took a similarly crazy courage, one which Elaine Hansen inspired by example. In 2007, fifteen years after she came to my college apartment, I sent her a copy of that first novel, and received a lovely, warm note in reply. That fall, one of my Columbia students—one of the most talented young writers I’ve ever encountered—introduced herself as Isla Hansen, one of those two little girls my friends and I saw at the Border’s off Lancaster Avenue. Four years later, Isla took one of my adult classes in my home, and this essay came to me as the result of a freewriting exercise from that class. Upon reading a draft of this piece, Isla told me that when she came out to her parents as bisexual one college summer, her mother gave her a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
My own mother, who had the same first name as Dr. Hansen, died this past summer. She wasn’t sick. We had no warning. And because of that shock, I feel impelled to reach out to people I’ve always wanted to tell how much I admired them. Do it now, Elaine Hansen said. I’ll do it now.