I was 24 when my first short story was published: In a stroke of luck, it appeared in the winter 2010 issue of The Paris Review. I was in my first semester as an MFA student in fiction at Columbia, and that story was the first piece I had ever brought into a graduate workshop — a weird and surrealistic narrative with a dollop of dream logic. In my story, which editor Lorin Stein retitled “Fairy Tale,” a female narrator found herself sitting at a table with her parents and a strange man, who she later finds out is her fiancé. As she tries to make sense of her situation, the doorbell starts ringing. Standing outside are men who enter the house one by one and assert their own relationships to her: boyfriend, lover, paramour. Under pressure and surrounded by strange men who claim an intimate relationship to her, my narrator makes a choice almost at random about which one to be with. Her choice turns out to be a bad one.
After the story came out, a male friend asked me incredulously, “Does your life really feel like that?” The answer was, of course, both yes and no. My life follows regular logic, not dream logic, and I’m not an amnesiac. But it’s true that my experience of womanhood has often been strange and self-alienating, and I have often felt as though my body is unavoidably, inescapably open to the world of men around me — to their gaze and questions, to their assumptions that I would like to be approached, propositioned, groped. I was once cornered in an empty restroom by a stranger who I had seen having lunch with his kids a few minutes before. I was once pursued from subway car to subway car by a public masturbator on crutches asking me if I had a boyfriend — and nobody in any car did anything to help me. I felt I dragged my body around behind me like a net, capturing odd and sometimes disturbing interactions by utter accident.
For this reason, I discovered that I loved writing fiction. If my gender sometimes felt foreign and strange to me, I had a voice on paper that could elide it, drifting somewhere in the hazier region where I felt I belonged. When my story first arrived at The Paris Review, forwarded by a professor and accompanied by no mention of my name, age, or gender, I’m told the editor initially thought it was written by a man. I never met Stein until after it was published, but he was always perfectly professional to me. Later on, I heard that Stein had sexual relationships with interns, had slept with writers he edited, had maybe done things more questionable than that. Where before I had felt proud of my work, of being “discovered,” I began to question myself. I wondered whether my work had been seen for itself, or whether some fragment of my gender and the body it implied had somehow been seen during the process, bringing out another new weirdness disguised as a blessing.
It reminds me of another story from a young woman in a writing program: The whole seminar went out for drinks on the last day of class, and she had been seated next to her professor, when she felt a strange hand on her thigh. Wedged in a booth between her professor and the other students, she found it hard to push his hand off or move away. When she did get his hand off her body, he picked up his phone and started typing. A few minutes later she had an email in her inbox from him. It read: “can i come over? hm?” She had never seen a situation like this one play out in front of her, and she had no idea whether she would seem crazy or hysterical if she tried to get out of the situation, tried to move. She had no idea whether she could be punished by him if she ignored him completely: Grades were not yet in, and this professor knew far more people, had far more connections in the world of publishing, than she did. In the end, everyone filed out of the booth and went outside to smoke before going their separate ways home. She stayed out in front of the bar longer than the other students to tell the professor no, and ask whether that would affect her grade. Then she left alone, very weirded out. What surprised her was the day after: She walked into the computer lab to print out a story and found that one of her classmates from the night before wasn’t talking to her. She asked him what was wrong, and he walked out of the room without a word. She later learned through another classmate that he was angry with her. He assumed she had slept with their professor, and was furious at the benefits he imagined she would reap as a result: publication, attention, maybe even a book contract.
Toward the climactic scene in my Paris Review story, as the chosen stranger pursues my narrator through her house, trying to kill her with a wide variety of soft household objects, I quoted the proverb: “Whether the melon falls on the knife or the knife on the melon, the melon suffers.” When a man with power uses that power to turn a professional relationship with a woman sexual, it doesn’t matter whether the attention is wanted or unwanted, or whether anything further even takes place: The woman suffers. The problem is not just that sexual harassment exists in environments that should offer women a safe space to work — it’s that even the looming possibility of sexual favoritism can be enough to raise questions about the merit of a woman’s work, to shift her place in her profession and among her peers, to give a hazy possibility real, perceivable effect. No woman wins when her work is celebrated against a background of intrigue, sexual transgression, and abuse of power.