Defining a Clit Lit Tradition: A Conversation with Elizabeth Hall

Elizabeth Hall

Elizabeth Hall (Via)

We need to start saying “clitoris” more. As Peggy Orenstein’s research in her new book Girls and Sex illustrates, we don’t focus enough in American society on female pleasure. We talk about consent, but not what comes after consent: patience, creativity, communication, orgasms, reciprocity, etc. Cis male pleasure is still prioritized. (Ann Friedman points out, in The Cut, that this isn’t just a young girl problem—it affects women of all ages.) Elizabeth Hall’s nonfiction book, I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, just out from Tarpaulin Sky Press, is an unflinching contribution toward normalizing female pleasure and educating others on the full complexity of the clitoris. I wish I had read this book so much earlier in my life; it’s one of those ideas that seems so simple (a book about the clitoris!) that it’s unbelievable how long it has taken to be born into existence.

Elizabeth Hall uses bullet points to string together bits of information: historical facts, scientific research, female and male literary excerpts on the clit, and occasional first-person anecdotes. This is a slim book, easy to read in one day, though clearly the type of book you return to constantly or lend out to friends. Hall’s writing is smart, engaging, personal, political, and willing to take risks. Hall doesn’t hold back. I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris will give you courage and make you proud to have this complex, tiny nubbin of history, politics, and pleasure between your legs. 

Kristin Sanders: This is your first book, and what an impressive debut! The content seems to be 80% researched information, with about 20% poetic personal anecdotes on sexual experiences, fluidity of sexual orientation, masturbation, eroticism, etc. For example: “Days when even the scent of the rain-slicked sidewalk makes my pussy dewy. Stuck in traffic on the freeway, I can’t be bothered to wait. Sun wet on my thighs: I slide my hand up my skirt, press my legs together, and rub and rub my little roundlet till it succumbs. Because I can” (22). Another great example is when you describe “the first pussy [you] saw up close,” and how you “weren’t sure what to do when [you] pushed her panties to the side, how long to continue” (18). Without these raw, personal descriptions, the book would feel very different: a little safer and much less complex, more like a catalogue of facts. Did you face any fears in writing the more personal parts of the book, or seeing that writing published? And if you did, where did you find courage to write what needed to be written?

Elizabeth Hall: When I began researching the clitoris, I didn’t know what I wanted to say or why. The essay had no through line. I let my interests guide me. Initially I thought I was composing a work of historiography. It took me years to realize I was writing something else. I had never written “essays” before. I was teaching myself how, one sentence at a time.

That said— I’ve written intimately about my personal life online since I was seventeen—first on xanga, then livejournal, and now tumblr. Diaries are my favorite literary genre. I read author notebooks compulsively. I am especially intrigued by writers who challenge what a diary is or can be, such as Roxanne Carter. Although I had no trouble recognizing the merits of other’s diaries, I didn’t necessarily see value in my own. I didn’t know I could write those “raw, personal” bits in an essay.

During my research I read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, which masterfully weaves literary scholarship with memoir. The book proved very generative for me. Which is to say—it gave me permission to write myself into the clit book. Around this time I also discovered Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist. Have you read it? The book literally opens with a physical description of Bellamy’s naked body, mid-fuck, “ass up in the air, cunt pointed towards the ceiling.” Those opening pages were an epiphany.  Bellamy’s joyous blend of sex, humor, feminist critique, and vulnerability continues to inspire me.

Elizabeth Hall I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris

I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris. Image via Tarpaulin Sky

 KS: There’s a long history of feminist artists using their bodies for performative or political reasons, like Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann. In recent years, there seems to be a resurgence of the vulva; I’m thinking of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina and Christen Clifford’s Pussy Bow and The Vagina Monologues, of course. However, few women artists—or at least I don’t know enough—focus specifically on the clitoris. Sophia Wallace’s Cliteracy comes to mind, and I think your book pairs well with her art movement. Did you know her work when you began this book? Were you inspired by any other feminist writers or artists who are prioritizing female pleasure? Do you see your book fitting into, or carrying on, this feminist tradition?

EH: Yes, definitely. Anais Nin was my first literary love. I discovered the clitoris in her diaries. Her writing has always foregrounded female pleasure. I never felt pressure to read the Great White Dudes. I read authors Nin admired: Violette Leduc, Nathalie Sarraute, Djuana Barnes. I soon became obsessed with Leduc’s memoirs La Bâtarde and Mad in Pursuit. Leduc had low self-esteem. She thought she was unattractive, inarticulate. Still, she wrote. Her prose is suffused with joy, shot through with pain. Both Leduc and Nin yoke trauma with pleasure in ways I find very instructive.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of Wallace’s work when I wrote the book. What I love about Cliteracy is that it celebrates the diffuse nature of clitoral pleasure as well as provides a powerful visual component that clearly illustrates how large the clitoris actually is. I think projects such as the Clit Rodeo help people feel comfortable “wrapping their mouths around the word, if not the thing itself” to quote Holly Hughes.

KS: The title of your book comes not from you but from a male writer. Scholar and folklorist Gershon Legman wrote Oragenitalism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation for Gentlemen in 1940 and had an affair with Anais Nin in the same year. You note: “Nin’s biographer, Noel Riley Fitch, claims that, at the age of twenty-three, Legman could be heard saying, “I have devoted my life to the clitoris” (7). I found this fascinating; in a book so focused on female pleasure and understanding the female body, a man is the one to “devote [his] life” to that understanding. Of course, devotion to the clitoris doesn’t have to come just from one gender, or even from a body outside one’s own: a woman could devote her life to her own clitoris, for example, and maybe more women need to commit to that (as Nicki Minaj suggests, “I demand that I climax. I think all women should demand that”). When you decided on this title, did you feel you were taking the words back from this male author? Perhaps I’m just projecting that Legman’s book sounds like mansplaining the clit.

EH: Oooh I like your take on Legman. He writes about cunnilingus from the position of an expert dispensing wisdom, which is always problematic. When I encountered Legman’s research, however, my first reaction was identification. Legman was an autodidact, an academic outsider. I was fascinated by the fact that he seemed to always be where the action was in terms of sex research despite having no formal education and no institutional connections. For instance, he worked with both Robert Latou Dickinson and Alfred Kinsey. He hustled Nin’s and Miller’s erotica. Legman, however, had a shady side. Here is a rumor: The Kinsey Institute fired Legman because he was accused of stealing funds. He was a complex dude.

KS: Did you always envision this book as a series of bulleted paragraphs? This form seems ideal, in that each bullet point, like a clitoris, is multi-faceted, intricate, and joyful.

EH: In the earliest drafts, the bulleted paragraphs were part of a long essay called A Study of Small Things which was meant to provide a cursory history of the clitoris. The essay was but one part of the larger manuscript which also had poems, cut-ups, mini-biographies, and flash fiction. As the text evolved, I gravitated towards the bulleted paragraphs and cut the rest. The long, unyielding essay is what emerged.

KS: In American high school and college English classes, we don’t encourage young people to read a lot of books that convey sex from the female perspective, which can have damaging effects on sexuality. Your book is nonfiction, but topic-wise I’m reminded of Plath’s The Bell Jar, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, or Unica Zurn’s Dark Spring, books that tackle female sexuality in honest, raw ways. But one difference is that your book is sex-positive; I think your refusal of shame is very important. American readers might increasingly be exposed to books positioning the female as the subject rather than object in sexual acts (if readers seek that out; it isn’t yet in our classrooms), but we don’t get to see a lot of books celebrating the female orgasm, the female genitalia, or the pleasures of sex. Do you think of your work as sex-positive? Did you think about your ideal audience while writing this book?

EH: This is a great question. Thank you. I think the book portrays female sexual pleasure, if not always sex itself, in a positive, shame-free way.  Female genitals are still taboo. Narratives that celebrate the complex nature of female sexuality are still needed. As far as I understand it, however, sex positivism is the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and consensual, is a positive thing, which sounds really utopian to me. What does “healthy” even mean within the context of fucking? I also wonder about pleasure. Should mutual pleasure—and not the sex act—be the measure of a “positive” erotic experience? 

More than sex positivism, I’m interested in narratives that highlight sexual variation. To me this was Kinsey’s big breakthrough: human sexuality is inherently diffuse. Sometimes sex positivism can emphasize “good sex” in a way that limits the creative possibilities of fucking. The idea that all consensual sex, regardless of the particulars, is good and healthy seems to be rooted in the fantasy that sex is “natural,” but there’s no natural way to exist as a body in the world.

I’m glad you mentioned Zambreno’s The Green Girl and Berger’s Maidenhead because I think we need portrayals of all kinds of sex. Bad sex. Boring sex. Joyful sex. Sex without orgasms. Narratives about people who don’t want to fuck at all.

KS: Can you talk about your path to writing? Where did you grow up, and what type of impact does that have on your writing and artistic world?

EH: I grew up on an eighteen-acre plot of land in rural Georgia. My parents weren’t artistic. I rode horses, built forts, daydreamed my way through school. I wasn’t interested in reading or writing until I was older. I had learning disabilities and reading was associated with painful memories from childhood. My older sister Carey wrote poetry. When she came home for Christmas break after her first semester of college, she was reading Henry Miller and Anais Nin. I always wanted to do everything my older sister did. I casually picked up her copy of Henry and June. The romance began. Within months I started journaling.

When I moved to Atlanta for college, I lived alone. I had no way to meet writers who shared my aesthetic except through the internet. All I cared about was writing. I skipped class to read all day. I read what my Livejournal friends read: Anna Kavan, Renata Adler, Margurite Duras, Vladmir Nabokov. It was a good education.

Growing up in the country was lovely in many ways but also very isolating. Writing was a way for me to move up and out of my world.

KS: I imagine you spent a long time researching this book; now that your research is finished, what are you reading? Whose writing speaks to you the most?

EH: One of the best books I read in 2015 was Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation. It’s a beautifully rendered memoir that is unapologetic in its exploration of family, memory, abuse, and sexual awakening. When I finished Excavation, I promptly read her second memoir Hollywood Notebook and was not disappointed.

Last year I also discovered Charles Bowden while reading a slew of books about the desert. His memoirs, such as Blue Desert and Desierto, elegantly blend journalism, nature writing, personal anecdote, and history. His many books about the drug and political fueled violence in Mexico and along the US border (see Murder City) are not easy to read, but they are necessary reads. His Torch Song is one my favorite essays.

Feliz Lucia Molina’s Nails Heart Clip and Hair Hearts Flip were published in 2011 and 2013 respectively, but they were new to me in 2015.  Both texts were culled from Molina’s “autobiographical epistolary blog,” or so I read somewhere online. Molina’s prose is exuberant. Very funny and immediate. I’ll pretty much read anything she writes. The same goes for Myriam Gurba. I recently had the pleasure of seeing her read at the AWP off-site event YES FEMMES. She read some of her texts to Gertrude Stein and OMG I want to read them all. 

KS: You’re also in a band! Do you write lyrics? What difference do you see in writing for music and literary writing? And, in the same vein, what is the difference for you in performing a show and giving a reading? I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing you read, but something tells me it would be great.

EH: I had only been playing bass for six months when Pine Family booked its first show at The Prospector in Long Beach.  I had no background in music. For the first year, I felt incredibly vulnerable every time I stepped on stage. Now, shows are fun. Playing music allows me to cruise out. Readings require me to be more present, to perform. I always feel skinned alive when I read. I’m raw, intense.

Sultan Pepper, the tape we’re currently recording, is largely instrumental. As a bassist, I’m all about the ensemble. I’m not afraid to play a simple part if that’s what the song needs. I love playing bass, in part because women have such a long history with the instrument from Carol Kaye to Kim Deal and Paz Lenchantin.

KS: Do you have upcoming readings for I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris? I wish you and Sophia Wallace and whoever else could get on a bus and have a celebratory clitoral tour of America. That would be really great. It could be a whole revolution. Is there anything you’re working on now? Are you planning a revolution?

EH: A clit tour sounds amazing! I wish! I know I myself was fundamentally changed by what I learned in my research. I do think greater awareness about the clitoris, and its unique history, has the power to deeply alter how people perceive sex, which is part of the reason the clit has been suppressed.

I am planning a book tour up the west coast with stops in San Francisco, Eugene, and Portland. I’m camping along the way.

Right now I’m working on a book of essays about family, cults, and California called Heaven Can Wait and a novella that is a modern day noir (complete with a girl PI) set in LA.

*

Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book-length essay, I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016). She lives on a crumbling bluff in San Pedro, California, is the author of the chapbook Two Essays (eohippus labs), and plays bass in the band Pine Family.

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Kristin Sanders is the author of CUNTRY, forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press, and two chapbooks, Orthorexia (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and This is a map of their watching me (BOAAT Press, 2015). She holds an MFA from Louisiana State University and a BA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She is a poetry editor at the New Orleans Review.

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