author – activist – faculty – mom
This week, as I join the crew of The Debutante Ball, a group of debut women novelists, I reflect on my first debut experience…
As I was turning sixteen, I could feel womanhood creeping up behind me. And what the hell did womanhood mean? I was tall—5’9”—and had a curvy, svelte shape. Males from teens to creepy grandpas had a lot to tell me about what they thought womanhood should mean. Yet “sixteen” had all this 1950s style “sweet” attached to it. While other kids convinced their parents to leave the house so they could throw birthday parties where folks tried alcohol or marijuana for the first time, or perhaps lost their virginity, I threw myself a spoof debutante party. I wore fake pearls, pink ribbons, and a pink and white vintage prom dress from the 50s. I painted a refrigerator box pink and had family members carry it into the living room. The front cardboard panel swung open, and I jumped out to greet my guests. I was making fun of the notion of being a debutante, but really I was joking to deal with the anxiety of becoming a woman. I was still a virgin, and didn’t even have words to confront the increasing sexual pressure. Instead, I confronted the outdated image of the young girl presented to society to be courted and married off. With all the haughtiness of an anxious sixteen year old virgin, I scoffed at the ritual of coming out into society, even as I enacted it, spoof or otherwise.
Our culture lacks coming of age rituals. Losing one’s virginity or getting a driver’s license can stand in for an ancient, collective memory of sitting with the elder women of a tribe or village, learning secrets or just female survival skills. What I disliked about the idea of the debutante ritual, is that it wasn’t about me being presented to the world to be appreciated, but rather my ability to look appealing in a narrow set of beauty standards. My ability to behave in a charming and pleasing way. What if my favorite parts of myself were how well I could freestyle rap or kick a soccer ball? Where would those parts of me fit in a debutante ball? Where would they fit in the marriage it would net me?
At sixteen, I could tell that I didn’t want to organize my life around a man or a marriage or a set of circumstances I manifested while being lovely and charming and polite. I wanted to have a deep impact on the world, but I didn’t know yet how to do that. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t yet find the words, or the stories, or the characters to speak for me.
In her lovely essay “The Transormation of Silence into Language and Action’” Audre Lorde asks: “What are the words you do not yet have?” and if/when we find them, and deign to speak, “What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare.” I’ve spent my adult life pondering those questions, and—I hope—taking the challenge. I’ve answered it in essays and poems and spoken word pieces and hip hop theater shows, but all of those were more informal coming out scenarios. None of them had me presented at court. I was a much more DIY artist. I showed up, and the work was good. I hustled up a gig or an audience or a booking agent. But now, with a traditionally published book, I am stepping into the establishment. With a debut novel, I am being presented at court. Yet, I enter unlike real debutantes, who gain the spotlight by virtue of the class position of their family. As a literary debutante, it’s been decades of work and hustle, drafts, and grind. I finally made it.
At sixteen, I didn’t want a tiara for being pretty. Now, in my 40s, I’ll take the pearls and the crown, the cake and the dress. And quickly, please, I have a kid to raise, a job to work, a marriage to maintain, and a book to revise.
Now, decades later, I am fully embracing the label of debutante. As a literary deb, I am truly presenting my interior to the world—the fictional landscape I’ve dreamed up and populated with the fictional people (mostly women) I love. And I want the world to love them, too. I want the world to buy my book. I want the world to be changed as a result of my work. So I put on my author photo lipstick, and I smile for the camera. Here I am, world. I present myself hoping to be chosen, willing to be judged, ready to be seen and known in the world as a woman.