My first exposure to Joyce Carol Oates was her novel, Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart. I found the paperback in a cardboard box at a garage sale and found the title unlike anything I was reading at the time. I was twelve, so yes, Oates was very different from what I read at the time. (Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley High.)
I didn’t really understand Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart. The book is about race and class tension between the whites and the blacks in the 1950s-1960s. At my age, in my protected little Chinese bubble, I didn’t get it.
What spoke to me, however, was the main character, Iris, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother. For the first time, I was reading about someone who felt like the outsider and felt like her mother didn’t love her – an experience I had thought was specific to me. Compare this with Sweet Valley High, where the Wakefield twins get into trouble but their parents are always there to bail them out; Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart revolutionized my world.
And though I was twelve, I recognized good writing when I saw it. Oates is a true wordsmith, capable of sentences and paragraphs I would re-read repeatedly for the rhythm and cadence. Just the title alone, still now, takes my breath away. Ten words perfectly describing the agony and ache felt when you are all alone in the world.
Tonight, I was gifted with the opportunity to see Joyce Carol Oates. She appeared at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza, San Francisco, in a tucked away corner of the store invisible at first entrance. Of maybe ten rows of seats only four were left. By the time she stepped out and introduced her latest published work, a memoir titled A Widow’s Story, it was standing room only. She read excerpts of her book, stopping to comment and to explain when she felt it was necessary, providing insight into an experience I can only imagine and dread: dealing with the death of your long-time partner. The first excerpt focused on the cats she owned with her husband, Raymond Smith. Their eldest cat urinated on a copy of Smith’s death certificate. Despite the pain and the sorrow, Oates chuckled at the memory. She explained the memoir consisted of her journal written during his unexpected passing and aftermath and, because it was a journal, she didn’t feel as if she could revise it. Instead she had italicized passages commenting on the past.
Then she answered questions from the audience. They were mostly about the book (these people had obviously come well-prepared) and then one guy rudely demanding to know why Oates kept talking about her famous friends. A Widow’s Story has sections on Philip Roth, excerpts of emails to people such as Edmund White and Gloria Vanderbilt. Well, of course, Joyce Carol Oates has famous friends. Only so many famous writers exist in this country and they often run in the same social circles.
Those of us who had purchased a Joyce Carol Oates book that day from Books Inc. lined up, after the Q&A, for autographs and a brief moment in her magnificent presence.
I’m pretty sure I made a fool of myself, though the Husband says I was perfectly fine. Oates is, without exaggeration, my literary idol. The best compliment I’ve ever received, the one I hold closest to my heart, is one from a creative writing teacher who said a piece of mine reminded her of Oates. It’s like reaching the zenith of my writing career/life/experience/skill. But when I stepped up to her podium, came face to face with one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, I stumbled over my words, was awkward, was embarrassed to tell her I am a writer when I don’t write anything like her, with her talent and skill.
But still, I am glad to have gone. Joyce Carol Oates is a legend. Tonight, I found out she is also human and funny and real. I stood in the presence of greatness and it has inspired me to do better.