October 23, 2011
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a complicated writer, in the best sense, with fingers in many pots. A playwright and novelist, she also edits “Her Kind” at Vida: Women in Literary Arts. She has written extensively about being a Jew of mixed race, and in the anthology Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not, she depicts her love affair with a beautiful and brilliant Muslim woman, exploring the complications of sexual, racial and religious labels in terms of identity formation. Likewise her story in Men Undressed, “Nude Studies on an Affair,” is among the most passionate—if sometimes violent—in the anthology. Amid all this, it isn’t surprising that the intense Ben-Oni takes sex as seriously in “real life” as she does on the page, boldly eschewing the trendiness of casual hyper-sexuality that permeates our culture, and digging for the deeper meaning beneath. I think I’ve developed a bit of a literary crush on her, and I invite you to read along and get your crush on too . . .
TNB: You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view. On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?” In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
RBO: This is already happened. Upon hearing I’d contributed to Men Undressed, a male friend of mine who writes literary criticism lamented that a whole book in which women write from the male POV was a bad idea. When I’d pointed out he’d yet to read it, he admitted that it was “the concept” that bothered him altogether, but never really could explain why. This struck as strange because, again, he hadn’t read a single piece, and that it was not a concept book but one constructed around a theme. While I can’t speak for him, I believe there’s already an assumption the contributors would adopt a sort of “hyper-masculine” persona, imitating voices ranging Tucker Max to Ernest Hemmingway, and that second, women, in order to be sexually powerful, have to assume almost a laughably macho POV. I also believe there’s an underlying assumption that women can only imitate, period, the male POV in general, and that it can never be considered authentic. Quite honestly, I have to laugh and ask: So… who wrote Memoir of a Geisha? I realize there’s a distinction between popular fiction and literary fiction, but if we are going to talk concept, then Memoir of a Geisha is an excellent example of assuming a different racial/social/sexual persona. Throw in gender as well. And for the record, I’m not nervous about the theme itself; I’m nervous about the reviews of the quality of the writing.
TNB: Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together. Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life? Is sex the great equalizer? And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?
RBO: Sex is many things, depending on the circumstances: connection, reconnection, power, subjugation, trust, risk. Writing about sex in 2011 is not the same as writing it in, say, Henry Miller’s time, and yet I don’t think most of the country’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality have changed. We are bombarded with sex and more open depictions of different sexuality, but have attitudes really changed? For instance, you have kids in the suburbs watching Lady Gaga ravish another woman in “Telephone,” but does this really help young gay teenagers in school? It seems quite honestly pop culture has been quite focused not on sex, but garnering strong reactions from it. I think some literary authors avoid it for that reason because they don’t want to distract from the quality of the work. I know that’s been my fear.
TNB: Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom? If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?
RBO: It wasn’t hard for me because I had a specific man in mind that I wanted to write. For him, it’s not the great equalizer at all. It’s release from his own world in which he’s lost, and for the woman as well in her own situation, and yet it does not make them equal. He is a translator of dead languages and English tutor, and she is a foreigner, the bought wife of a wealthy political machine. Their affair also sheds light that neither is free, and that their entanglement is a struggle to hold power over the other. I would certainly not have sex with my protagonist. Not in a million years. I’ve known a lot of men like him, and in retrospect, am very happy– and relieved– that I avoided the advances they made. For me, for better or worse, sex is about profound connection. I know I am quite out of place in the modern world, but I have to be in love and this has cost me personally a lot of relationships. It is hard for me to admit that as a writer because it seems outdated, but at the same time, you can then imagine for me that writing “Nude Studies of an Affair” was quite a challenge for me.
TNB: Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality. Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say. If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?
RBO: Intriguing. I would be interested in reading such an anthology, but curious as to how they would not write as other male writers have in the past. Would you and the other editors set guidelines, or simply choose which pieces you believe provide a fresh outlook?
TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?
RBO: Hands down: Detective Jack Yu in Henry Chang’s Chinatown Trilogy. I don’t usually read mystery novels, but after a recommendation from a friend, I quickly got sucked into the world of his first book Chinatown Beat. Jake Yu has such a strong, singular presence as a man haunted by guilt and many a regret, an outsider caught between two worlds of his Chinatown roots and his duty as a police officer. It’s gritty and real, and Jack Yu comes off both eloquent and unsentimental, which in my eyes makes him all the more sexy.
TNB: Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.” As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively. On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically asexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives! This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me. Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?
RBO: Actually, my first philosophy professor at NYU whose name escapes my mind. She taught the Intro class and I was taken by her from the first day. She was from the U.K., and in her 60s, and wore these black wrap dresses by Diane von Furstenberg (who is also smoking hot). The guys in my class were also nuts about her. She was very reserved, had a perfect silver (and I mean it shone) bob, and spoke carefully and would always turn her body in a way that seemed like she was en pointe. I, um, spent a lot of time in her office discussing The Crito and asking whether I could use Fanon in a paper; I had just started reading Wretched of the Earth and thinking it revolutionary, was trying to impress her. She ended up writing me a recommendation for a fellowship for graduate school some years later, which I received, and we had plans to have dinner to celebrate but then something came up. Another person who is absolutely gorgeous and had a huge influence on my life is the poet Mark Rudman. He’s in his 60s now and I more or less had a crush on him from day one. He caught on, I think, but he didn’t too, if you know what I mean. He ended up also writing me a fantastic recommendation (and more than one at that) and we did have dinner together. I think he thought of me as a kid though. I looked really young at 22, like I was a teenager. Come to think of it, I had a crush on a lot of my professors at NYU both male and female. For better or worse they remained simply that: crushes and the source of much frustration…