On Female Pain, Sympathy, and Taking Up Space in Girl, World
I first became aware of Alex Poppe’s searingly honest, painful, and yet, wryly humorous voice when I was reading fiction submissions for our fifth issue, Sanctum. “Refugees Got Talent,” a short story that follows Trahzia, a teenage girl residing in the Arbat Refugee Camp, tells of her hopes of a better life, of travelling through Europe like her father promised, while the boy she loves (who never loved her back) takes her virginity from behind a marketplace. Poppe’s prose is beautifully descriptive and harsh, expertly recoiling a refugee girl’s longings for love and happiness, as well as physical and emotional regret and pain. It was uncomfortable to read, and though “Refugees Got Talent” is a relatively short story, it stuck with me for many weeks after.
It is no wonder then, when I picked up her first full-length collection of short stories, Girl, World (Laughing Fire Press, 2016), that it took me quite some time to make my way through its harrowing stories of silenced, oppressed, and forgotten girls and women that still, always still, glimmer with faint hope. Each story pulses with its own off-centred heartbeat, echoing tales of sorrow and loss and fear and the fight for a life worth living and a world worth belonging in. Although Girl, World is composed of just eight stories, each piece weaves compelling character studies of well-written and flawed women into its narrative. Poppe’s ability to write such characters speaks to both her experiences as a woman and writer—the women in her stories are scared, angry, hurt, vengeful, fearful, and hopeful. They are young, grow old, and fear they will never grow old. They are mature for their age, still little girls inside, forced to act beyond their years, and fighting, always fighting, against the restrictions placed on their gender, be it through culture, religion, the beauty industry, fathers, husbands, men with guns, or ex-lovers.
Perhaps Girl, World’s biggest achievement is its ability to let these women fail; it shows them in all their strengths and weaknesses, their beauty and ugliness, whether or not that makes them “deserving” of our sympathies. There is much to say about the relationship between women’s pain and sympathy, of whether hurt women are “allowed” to be angry at their aggressors, or should be “afforded” pity if they do not perform polite, quiet victimhood. Although not explicitly stated, such questions arise in the portrayals of the women in “Room 308” and “Moxie.” In the former, the narrator is a nurse trainee in a VA hospital, assigned to care for the ex-commanding officer who sexually assaulted her while she was still in infantry, a once imposing man now reduced to a head and torso, having lost both his arms and legs. She is angry at the conditions of the wounded veterans in her care. She is disgusted by the unrelenting parade of pride for the military but not the soldiers themselves. She takes Xanax on the job. She smokes marijuana on her breaks. She is not a star trainee, but she doesn’t have to be. Despite her anger, she treats her ex-commanding officer’s wife with curt kindness. She doesn’t tell her what he did to her. She doesn’t tell her she’d kill him if she could. She lets his wife mourn her once-handsome husband, and leaves.
Jax, the protagonist of “Moxie,” is even more abrasive in her anger. A once-beautiful model (in her own terms), she was a victim of a marketplace bombing during a photoshoot in Marrakesh, half her face so burnt and grotesque others do not dare look at it. She swears too much, is irresponsible, admittedly too immature to take care of a puppy she bought on a whim (the aforementioned Moxie), and unapproachable, injuries or not. But how can one read her story and not feel sympathy? How can one say she does not deserve better just because her language is harsh, or her mannerisms are unrefined, or her anger, especially her anger, takes up as much space as her pain?
Whether at this very moment or in some distant, better time, the women in Girl, World will find their justice. They are human in their faults, and sympathetic in Poppe’s unflinching portrayal of female pain and strength. Yasmeen, the would-be mother in “Ras Al-Amud” who loses a stillborn child, is just as deserving of sympathy as Jax, as the nurse trainee in “Room 308,” as the sex-trafficked girls in “My Mother’s Daughter,” as the nearly-radicalized Sabiha in “V.” She is allowed to be angry, to take up space, to challenge those who say she must be quiet and suffer in silence. She is allowed to make mistakes, she is allowed to fail, she is allowed to pick herself up again and again until she can make herself whole again.
Mostly, she is allowed to be human, no matter how ugly—or beautiful—humanity can sometimes be.
Girl, World is available through Laughing Fire Press and can be purchased as a physical copy or e-book.