Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak
Reviewed by Karen Burnham
14 November 2012
If you had asked me a week ago whether there had been any women in the surrealist art movement, I'd have searched my brain and then answered, "No, none that I'm aware of." Since picking up Chris Barzak's entry in Aqueduct Press's inestimable Conversation Pieces series, Birds and Birthdays, I know better. Barzak presents us with three short stories based on surrealist paintings by women (one of which, "Birthday," is original to this collection) and an essay on the work and history of three female surrealist painters. In under one hundred pages, this volume delivers a neat package of beauty, information, and interpretation.
Each story is inspired by a particular artist and work. Smartly, the three stories are presented first, without comment or introduction, allowing each to stand on its own. Only in the concluding essay are the artists and works described. "The Creation of Birds" tells the story of the Bird Woman and her rocky relationship with the Star Catcher. She needs starlight to give her birds life, but the Star Catcher has been picking all the stars out of the sky and hoarding them, trying to lure her back with his treasure. She reluctantly goes with him, but eventually uses her birds to steal all the stars back and return them to the sky.
"The Guardian of the Egg" is told by a young boy describing his sister's transformation into (what I tended to think of as) an ent-like creature. In the beginning, it's only the tree that grows out of the top of her head, but she continues growing and growing until she can no longer go to school. The family talks to specialists and has to deal with unwanted media attention. The forest around the town changes too. Eventually the young man helps his sister fulfill her purpose of environmental protection and healing.
"Birthday" is a little bit grittier, a character portrait of a young woman who gets very, very lost in life. She inherits an apartment building from her parents, and begins down the road towards an unremarkable life, with a husband and a baby. She revolts from that life, and begins intertwining herself with her tenants—sneaking into a model's apartment and trying on clothes, moving into a vacant apartment and separating herself from her husband and child, becoming part of the promiscuous night club scene. She takes lovers both female and male, but when one of her lovers paints a very disturbing portrait of her, she realizes just how far she’s gone down a rather nihilist path. She finds an apartment empty aside from a small winged creature and a hallway full of fluttering doors, and eventually begins to take control of her own self and life.
A passage from the opening of "The Creation of Birds" gives a feel for the prose:
The Bird Woman is not a realist. She has no time for that. She believes that sparrows should have fans for tail feathers, that parrots appear more exotic when they hold silence as a virtue, rather than the prattle for which they are known. The one bird her imagination has left untouched is the hummingbird. Who would dare attempt to better such a creature with wings that flutter a hundred times with each beat of its heart? That's art, simple and evocative. It doesn't get better than that. (p. 1)
Though a relatively new writer, prose like that has placed Barzak solidly in the company of writers such as Jeffrey Ford and Theodora Goss, writers for whom the line between prose and poetry is indistinct. Look at the sentences in the above paragraph. The first two are short and to the point, making a nice contrast with the third sentence, which carries its song a little longer, moving on to parrots instead of simply stopping with the sparrows. There's a little alliteration (Sparrows Should, Fans For tail Feathers, Parrots aPPear . . . rather than the Prattle) but nothing heavy-handed. "She has no time for that" gives a sense of practicality, but it turns out that her attention to craft elevates it to art, and the second to last sentence grows naturally from what comes before. There's also a lovely symmetry to the paragraph, where the first two and last two sentences are much shorter than the more fluid middle sentences, giving the whole an interesting rhythmic pattern. The other stories from Barzak that I've read (a few short stories as well as his second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing (2008)) all share that sort of attention to sentence level writing that makes the prose flow easily along.
Towards the end of the concluding essay, Barzak describes how he consciously embarked on a project of ekphrasis:
In poetry, writing the ekphrastic poem is an old tradition. In Greek, the term ekphrasis literally means "to call out," which in literary tradition translates into the act of literary art attempting to represent a work of visual art. The general goal is for the literary work to illuminate or to convey the spirit of what the eye has seen in the visual art. Since I'm also not a poet, my main course for engagement in this process was to write stories and, through that process, to engage with and reflect on Surrealism as an art, as a movement, and as a community that, like all art, all movements, and all communities, contain flaws and absences that are not necessarily visible at first sight. (p. 90)
I would argue about his not being a poet, but I take his point. The stories all share names with specific paintings by the women surrealist artists Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning. None of them are household names the way Dali and Magritte are, and now that I've had a chance to google their paintings, I'd say that's regrettable. (This is probably the place to add that it is a crying shame that there are no reproductions of the specific paintings in the book; I assume that rights issues and cost prevented it. "The Creation of Birds" and "Birthday" are easy to find on Google Images, but I never found an image of "Guardian of the Egg" that gave me all the detail I wanted to see. I strongly recommend looking up all the referenced paintings, as they make Barzak's points much more clear.)
Barzak begins by talking about some of the rather hideously misogynistic images that the male Surrealist painters came up with, focusing on "The Rape" by Magritte, in which the face of a woman is replaced by her torso, such that the nipples take the place of eyes, the navel is her nose, and her mouth is her vagina. Many paintings feature the bodies of women twisted, stretched, or distorted in some dramatic and bizarre ways. Even Dali's "City of Drawers" involves projection onto a woman's body and her apparent suffering. Barzak points out that while these painters thought of themselves as breaking the bounds of their social systems, they swam in an unacknowledged sea of patriarchy, never allowing women to speak for themselves. All three women painters represented here began their association with the Surrealist movement through their involvement with male painters: Leonora Carrington was romantically involved with Max Ernst (whose reputation overshadowed hers for many years), and Remedios Varo and Dorothea Tanning were both involved with Benjamin Peret, a Surrealist poet. Their art, however, never felt the need to do violence to women's bodies the way the male painters' did.
Barzak acknowledges the awkwardness that comes from a male author trying to give voice to these underappreciated women. There is a risk that he may once again substitute a male voice for a female one and thus drown out the women's perspective. He hopes that he has ameliorated this risk by trying to really look at their work and really listen to their voices, particularly by being painstaking in his research. I think he's been successful in his goal, although I'm very glad he took the time to acknowledge the issue explicitly, as it had occurred to me as well. The point about listening is particularly important, since that is the opposite of what happens when people partaking of some flavor of privilege end up drowning out the voices of those that don’t share that privilege (e.g., mansplaining).
This is a lovely volume that is made perfectly coherent by its closing essay. I think it makes a fine addition to the Conversation Pieces library of Aqueduct Press, which has featured such other volumes as Nisi Shawl's Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (2005) and Vandana Singh's novella Distances (2008). If individual judgements are needed, I'd say that "The Creation of Birds" is my favorite story, with its no-nonsense heroine navigating the sincere-but-clueless romantic obsession of the Star Catcher and returning things to their proper course. "The Guardian of the Egg" was beautiful but a bit slight; it didn't stick in my mind the way the previous story did. And I'm afraid that I found it hard to read "Birthday" without judging the protagonist harshly for abandoning her baby and her long-suffering husband—in this I am almost certainly sharing in the tradition of mothers (I have a 14-month-old at the moment) who judge such women harshly specifically because we know just how tempting such a course is, and we feel the need to judge women who take that path as evil simply to convince ourselves that we mustn't do the same. The non-fictional essay really makes the book, as it ties everything together, giving me a lot of information and insight that I hadn't had before, and leaving me with a lot of thought-provoking material.