The Lefty Directory

Monday, September 23, 2002

The Lefty Interview: Jeanne D'Arc

One of the reasons for starting the Lefty Directory was to enable myself to more easily discover new liberal blogs. As a result, the first new blog to become a daily read for me was Body and Soul by the pseudonymous Jeanne D'Arc. I noticed this wonderful blog quickly popping up on blogrolls and posts throughout the blogosphere, seemingly admired by both lefties and righties, and eliciting an exceptional amount of praise.

If you've been enjoying Body and Soul, you will find the new Lefty Interview fascinating.

How would you describe your political orientation?

The last of the Bobby Kennedy Democrats. The first political thing I ever did was hand out campaign literature for Kennedy when I was a freshman in high school. I was extremely shy, so it was painful to knock on doors and talk to strangers, but the possibility of having a president who understood the needs of poor and powerless people pushed me to do something I wasn't comfortable doing. It astounds me that more than thirty years later, we've never had another serious candidate for president who would put himself unequivocally on the side of welfare mothers and farm workers, and who would give a speech to a group of doctors, and tell them -- as Kennedy once did -- that the country had given them so many opportunities that it was time they gave something back. Can you imagine a presidential candidate today saying to potential donors that they owed something to the country that helped them prosper? Talk about politically incorrect!

I still have a vivid memory of waking up in the middle of the night and finding my mother in a fetal curl on the couch, in the fluttery light of the TV screen, crying, watching Kennedy's biography/obituary run on television. I've never invested that kind of hope and faith in the political system since, although I still manage a cautious optimism now and then.

After Kennedy was murdered, I became more radical, but stayed pretty much in the Catholic social justice tradition. I just moved from Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day to Dan and Phil Berrigan. But that's really more a change of style than substance.

I started college in 1971, so I hit the tail end of the antiwar movement, and found myself working with wide varieties of people on the left -- from liberation theology priests and Vietnam Veterans Against the War to some of the loonier leftists. Also, my freshman year of college, the non-teaching employees went on strike, and I was very involved with students supporting them. Ironically, that turned out to be a lifesaver for me, because I'd come to college as this dirt poor, fatherless kid who'd never known anybody (except my teachers) who'd gone to college, and found myself surrounded by the children of doctors and lawyers. I didn't fit in at all. I was much more comfortable with cafeteria workers and dorm maids. Even though they were much older than I was, I had more in common with them than with other students. The experience taught me a lot about the relevance of class. My best memory of that time is of one middle-aged woman I was on a picket line with. She had a huge, grating voice and one time I saw a truck driver cringe and sink down in his seat in embarrassment when she screamed "Scab!" at him. I have a tiny voice. My greatest ambition in life is to learn how to scream in a way that can make truck drivers cringe.

I also became more of a feminist in college, which was another life-saver. I grew up in an abusive home and hit adolescence thinking women's main purpose was to shut up and get hit. The radical feminism of the seventies gave me a way to express anger that had built up for years. I actually belonged to a group called The Radical Feminist Collective. Civil discourse has become more important to me as I've gotten older, but I'm pretty tolerant of radical, angry language, as long as I don't perceive it as phony and manipulative (which a lot of right-wing "anger" is) because I know from experience that sometimes you have to pass through that before you arrive at civil discourse.

I've softened my feminist rhetoric over the years, but I still believe that women have a harder time than men being heard and taken seriously, that the position of women in a society reflects its level of justice, and that the best way to insure social justice is to invest in women. Invest in them -- not just kick out a repressive government and glibly announce that the women are all free now.

What is your educational/professional background?

My first twelve years of school were weird. My mom and I spent a lot of time trying to get away from my father, and then yo-yoing back again, so I kept moving from school to school, most of them Catholic schools. My record was four different schools in third grade. I was never really educated at all. I wasn't in any one place long enough to learn anything. I'm a semi-ignorant autodidact. I always loved to read, but there are huge holes in my education.

I can't quite explain it, but despite my haphazard education, I ended up at Berkeley. I never would have applied except that my mom sent for an application and kept sticking it in my face until I finally filled it out just to get her off my case. I told her I didn't have a chance and she kept saying, "Why not? You're smarter than any of those la-di-da rich brats." (My mom got pretty feisty after she left my dad.) My grades were not remotely good enough, so I don't know why they took a chance on me, but I'm grateful because I adored the place. I went from getting C's in high school to A's at Berkeley because I just soaked everything up. It was the first time I'd ever been around people who thought ideas were important -- and that was paradise. Except that the whole time I was there, I kept waiting for someone to realize they'd made a mistake and kick me out.

Unfortunately, my junior year, my mom got very sick and I had to go back down to LA to take care of her for a year. After that I went back and finished my final year at UCLA, with a double major in English and Italian. From there I went on to grad school in comparative literature, taught composition and world literature as a T.A., but dropped out, got married, and moved to central California, one class short of my M.A. I hated teaching. Reading freshman writing was torture.

While I was in grad school, I started taking creative writing classes with a wonderful Irish novelist, Brian Moore. I'd been writing stories and poetry since I was a child, but he got me to take it seriously, to believe I could do it. He wrote one of the best novels by a male writer from a woman's point of view that I've ever read, by the way. "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne." He was very big on writing outside the limitations of your own life. Write from the inside of characters of different genders, ages, classes, races, places of birth. It's risky and hard, but it's not impossible to find a connection that lets you "experience" someone else's life. Well, I think it's hard. Brian seemed to think it was quite easy. Although weirdly, I remember him saying it was utterly impossible to write from inside a character of a different religion than yours, that religion separated people more than race or class or gender. That idea has always nagged at me.

After I got married and had my son, I became a full-time mother. Since I never had a real family, I wanted a second chance, which is why I've always stayed home with my kids. I'm not convinced they need it, but I do. But I also did a lot of writing -- although it would be years before I got up the nerve to try to publish anything. I've had easier choices than a lot of women (and men, for that matter). I can stay at home and still do the work I love.

I've also done all the "mommy" stuff -- PTA and book fairs, classroom volunteer, field trips, library helper. I was on the board of our local children's museum when my son was in elementary school, and that was a full time job. I sometimes put in 12-hour days on it. I chaired the exhibit committee, and learned a lot about hands-on education, and more than I want to know about writing grant proposals, running meetings, dealing with school bureaucracies, and facilitating corporate sponsorships. You don't want to get me started on the subject of what corporations expect for their "donations."

What inspired you to start blogging?

Pure whim. There were several blogs I read regularly, and one day I clicked on the flashing Blogger ad that used to be at the top of Eschaton. I was just curious about what it was. I found out it was a lot easier than I expected. I thought that either I'd find out it was harder than I thought, or I'd get bored with it quickly, but neither of those turned out to be true.

I've been writing in journals for decades, playing with ideas and anecdotes that eventually work their way into stories and poetry. Sometimes just venting. This isn't very different -- just a little more public.

What is your take on pseudonymous blogging?

I couldn't do this without using a pseudonym. Too much of my writing is kind of out-there and personal. I like seeing how thoroughly I can stir personal, political, and spiritual issues together without ending up with New Age mush (always a danger when you live in California). But that leaves me a little exposed. If I put my name on it, I wouldn't feel comfortable revealing as much as I do. It's ironic, but being secretive about my name allows me to be more honest and open than I'd otherwise be.

Why did you choose the name Jeanne D'Arc?

Joan of Arc was the first name that popped into my head. I switched to the French because somehow it sounded just the tiniest bit less stupid to me. But I don't think the name was a whim. Mary Gordon once said that every Catholic girl falls in love with Joan. I'm not sure that's still true, but when Mary Gordon and I were children, she was the only reasonable female hero a Catholic girl had. I mean, the horse, the armor -- she looked much cooler than any of the pastel stiffs on holy cards. Sort of a Catholic Emma Peel (my other childhood hero). But for me there was also the glorious paradox of someone the Church called holy who had made her mark by standing up and talking back to priests. The Church I grew up in wasn't kind to poor, fatherless girls. It pretty much replicated the power structure -- favoring families that had plenty of money and time to give to the Church, for instance, and silencing people outside the golden circle. It was in Catholic school that I noticed that wealth and power often determine what's defined as "moral." (I have a strong sense of identification with boys abused by priests, because I'm so personally aware of the Church's ability to silence powerless people; some of their stories make me sick with memories of my own.) The idea that a woman could hold onto her own vision, even if she had to suffer for it, gave me hope as a child. It still does. I think I'm a bit braver in what I say as "Jeanne" than I would be without borrowing her name.

Why Body and Soul?

I tried out several names, all of them stupid or pretentious. Body and Soul came closest to merging the corporal and the spiritual -- which I do a lot of, exploring the politics of religion, and spiritual and ethical aspects of politics. It's also a great Billie Holiday song, and I adore Billie Holiday.

What mainstream media do you regularly use?

On weekdays, I just read the LA Times and my local Knight-Ridder rag. I get the NY Times on Sundays, although I look at it on the Web every day. We get more magazines than I can keep up with: Time, The Nation, Atlantic, Harper's, Mother Jones, The New Yorker, Book, Poets & Writers, and an absurd number of literary magazines. Writers for little magazines often get paid in subscriptions, so they keep coming in and piling up. The ones I really read are Georgia Review, Missouri Review, and a feminist journal called Calyx.

What e-resources do you favor?

There are print media that I only read online, especially the British press. But, for purely online stuff? Salon and Arts and Letters Daily I never miss -- although I read less and less of Salon each day. Slate, Alternet, Working for Change, Pacific News Service -- I read those less often, but I often find interesting things there. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is the best source I know for religion news, although I've discovered a few more sources lately that I'll probably add to my links. Beliefnet also has some good stuff -- but you have to read around the junk to get to it. I've recently gotten interested in alt.muslim, which lets me hear some diverse Muslim voices. They're occasionally even funny, which surprises me. I never think of Muslims as having a sense of humor. But I like people who mess with my stereotypes and prejudices.

Civil liberties, feminism, and religion are clearly favorite topics of yours. Why such emphasis, and what other subjects may we expect to see covered in the future?

I'm not sure about civil liberties. Not that I don't think they're important. I'm just out of my depth in talking about them. Human rights, definitely, and social justice. And to me those are intimately bound up with religion and feminism. Religion at its heart is all about justice, no matter how many people try to drag it through swamps of injustice and intolerance, and the state of women's rights is one of the clearest indicators of injustice.

Probably because I spent my first thirteen years of life being unusually vulnerable, I identify with powerless people. In some weird way, speaking up for women in Afghanistan or farm workers in the Central Valley is like going back and speaking up for my mother as an abused wife and myself as a battered kid. It's all the same struggle.

I'm surprised I haven't written more about children and education, which is probably what I know best. And immigration. My husband is an immigrant and he teaches at a community college where a large percentage of the students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, so those are important issues for me as well. But that has to do with vulnerable people too, doesn't it?

What non-political, non-blog things interest you? Music? Art? Literature?

If you walked into my house, the first thing you'd notice is that I have way too many books and CDs (and let's not even talk about the shelves of old vinyl albums -- I still have the copy of "Introducing The Beatles" that I got for my eleventh birthday).

Lately I've been reading more nonfiction than fiction, mostly connected to religion -- Karen Armstrong, Jack Miles, James Carroll, Garry Wills -- but fiction is my first love. If there's a pattern to the kind of fiction I like, I don't see it. Thomas Hardy. Dickens. The Brontes. Italo Calvino. Margaret Atwood. Chinua Achebe. Toni Morrison. Russell Banks. Roddy Doyle. Jane Hamilton. Octavia Butler. Louise Erdrich. Alice Munro. And scores of younger writers. I like Sherman Alexie a lot, especially his short stories. Sandra Cisneros has a novel coming out next week that I'm dying to read. I read more current literature than older works, but from time to time I develop passions for Victorian novels or American regional fiction or other things.

When it comes to music, I'm really promiscuous -- I love almost everything. My son plays trumpet (among other instruments) and he's gotten me into jazz, which I know nothing about -- other than Billie Holiday -- but I like the things he's discovered, including big band music, which I never thought I'd like. I've paid him back by getting him into Jimi Hendrix, Tower of Power, and Bob Marley -- although he hates blues. My big failure in life -- I've never been able to get my son to appreciate Muddy Waters. I especially love old R&B, blues, and gospel. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama have not been off the CD changer in ages, along with some early Sam Cooke (with The Soul Stirrers), Nina Simone, Van Morrison's latest, and Lila Downs (I have no idea how Lila Downs got in there -- but she seems to fit, in some inexplicable way). But I find that the older I get, the more kinds of music I like. I thought it was supposed to be the opposite. I'm just starting to admit that I like country music. For years I've said I hate the stuff, except for Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Iris Dement, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings: and as the list kept getting longer and longer, I finally had to break down and admit I like it.

I'm also a movie nut -- usually something old, something odd, or something with subtitles.

I'd like to write more about all those things, but right now I can screw up badly enough writing about politics and religion. I'm not sure I need more subjects to reveal my ignorance.

What has been the reaction to your blog from family and friends? Other bloggers? Your readers?

For a month, my husband was probably my only reader. I think he kept reading every day because he felt sorry for me. But once other people started reading it, his sense of obligation ended. I don't think he's even looked at it in months. He knows all my opinions anyway. My son helped me with the HTML when I first started, but then lost interest. Oh, and he gave Margaret Dumont her speech bubble. I wouldn't have the vaguest idea how to do that.

The best thing is hearing from readers and other bloggers. There are people I've exchanged so many letters with that I think of them as friends, even though I've never met them. Sometimes people send me long, discursive e-mails where they pick up on an idea I threw out and run with it. I love those. For years I've written in notebooks where I begin with an idea and let it go off in a hundred crazy directions. I call it "spinning" (which has no connection to political spinning -- in fact, it's the opposite, because you give control to the idea itself). It's fun to see people begin with some thread I tossed out and spin it in their own unique ways. It's amazing how many people have thought seriously and well about the subject of forgiveness, for instance. I thought it was my own private obsession.

I also like getting supportive e-mails, especially when I've written something that feels different. Sometimes I put odd, meditative posts out there and think maybe they're too strange, and I should stop doing this now, because the Web is not a good place for my meandering style. It belongs in the cozy little haven of a lit mag. Having people tell me they like what I do is really helpful at those times. Especially because I can always count on less perceptive people to read those posts and completely miss the point.

What don’t you like about blogging?

People who try to start fights (especially people who e-mail me to let me know they've started a fight -- that's so weird and pathetic I almost feel sorry for them). Condescending male bloggers who don't know how to read anything but their own argumentative style of writing, and therefore don't have a clue when it comes to understanding anything I write (and yet are so very certain they do understand). I keep running into descriptions of what I wrote that bear no relationship to anything I actually wrote, along with dismissive noises full of female stereotypes that tell you more about the writer than they do about me. I'm often tempted to correct them and point out that we may have some functional illiteracy issues here (not to mention a cartload of sexism -- not a word I throw out casually anymore), but generally I don't think those people are worth bothering with. I respond to people who've said something interesting, something that makes me think, whether I agree with them or not. People trolling for visitors never have anything intriguing to say, and when you straighten out trash, it's still trash.

What is your take on the increasing influence of liberal blogs?

There are more of us lately. I'm not sure that means we have influence. The more intellectual blogs, like Talk Left, Brad DeLong and MaxSpeak, have potential to disseminate information that those of us without expertise can fall back on. And the more entertaining and dramatic voices -- like Counterspin and Eschaton -- are great at rallying the faithful. Reading Atrios is like dropping by a community hangout. He reads everybody and everybody reads him, and that keeps us all connected and aware. But I don't think of blogging as an opportunity to have influence. It's a chance to share ideas with people who have similar values.

Which five blogs are your essential daily reads?

It changes from week to week, because we all have ups and downs, and depending on what's going on in the world, I become more or less interested in writers with different areas of expertise.

Alas, a blog brings knowledge and depth to the things he writes about. And it's wonderful and rare to find a man who understands feminist issues. And the cartoons are great.

Sisyphus Shrugged is another daily read. She can be both smart and smartass, moving and incisive -- and those aren't easy combinations. Most people who attempt it fail miserably.

Slactivist, because I need to remind myself that there are other liberals who take religion seriously, and he's a first-rate writer.

I think Kevin at Lean Left is consistently the person most likely to choose the most important stories to write about on any given day, and to write about them in the most calm and reasonable way.

And Matthew Yglesias -- who I probably disagree with more often than any of the other people on my list, but he's a much sharper thinker than I am, and I almost always find his opinions interesting and well-reasoned.

Which five blog personalities would you pick for your desert island?

The same people I just mentioned if the idea is to stay entertained and alert. Mad Kane and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (pardon my capitals) and Andrew Northrup would be good, too, because they all crack me up. But on a desert island I'd take someone with survival skills over someone who could entertain me. If anyone's written about hunting and shelter-building, I missed it. Boat-making skills would be nice, too.

Who do you wish would start a blog?

Among well-known people, no contest -- Molly Ivins. Her wit and knowledge and integrity never cease to inspire me. But the people I'd most appreciate reading are people who aren't known, people who don't have a forum. I have a quote from Margaret Atwood over my desk: "A word after a word after a word is power." Everyone talks about blogs as the voice of "ordinary" people, but by definition, we're people with computers, middle and upper middle class people for the most part. Writers do plenty of outreach to schools, community centers, senior citizen centers, prisons, everywhere, teaching people to get their stories on paper, because we know that telling your story and expressing your opinion is an act of empowerment. Middle-class Americans, for the most part, have no idea how hard it can be for powerless people to take their own lives and thoughts seriously. It was something I realized when I went to college and dealt with upper middle class people for the first time. They believe in the significance of their own experiences in a way someone like my mother, or most of my friends from high school, couldn't even begin to imagine doing.

When I no longer have high-maintenance children in the house, I'd like to get involved in a community writing program. I know a lot about triggers and cues that help people reveal the truths in their lives. But I'd love to see writing programs stretched so that you see more senior citizen writing, or prison writing, immigrant writing, or factory worker writing, for that matter, on the Web. I'm not sure exactly how yet, but I'd love to see the format used to get out more stories that normally stay silenced.

[note: links added by the editor]

Thanks to Jeanne for taking the time to grant the interview. Check her out daily at Body and Soul.