How to Get Into the Twin Palms
by Karolina Waclawiak
Two Dollar Radio, July 17, 2012
192 pages / $16 Preorder from Two Dollar Radio
When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand feminism and thought feminists were whiny and annoying. I know from teaching freshman undergrads that this is a common way of thinking. We are told we are a progressive society—sexism and racism are things of the past. I grew up in a household with an Italian matriarch grandmother who regularly attacked my grandfather with household kitchenware. My father was a truck driver and my mother had a graduate degree and made all the money, so it seemed to me that the women were the ones with the power. I didn’t notice the rest of what was going on around me. I thought it was normal to stay with abusive men, men who didn’t come home, who had women on the side, who broke plates over your head. I thought that braving through abuse is just what we, as women, must do. If anything goes wrong, it is the woman’s fault, because men will do what they will. The woman’s job is to stay.
When boys bashed my head into the walls at school, they would hold my neck against the cold tile and ask me, “Does it hurt?”
“No.” I’d say. Steely like I didn’t care. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Every so often I will feel a little pool of hunger open up in me, and the only thing that can quell this need are books by women, about women. There is something that is wanting and it has nothing to do with men. I need a safe space where the line between the story and me is permeable. When I am in these moods, I will trust the author more if she is a woman, in the same way I don’t want someone who doesn’t also have curly hair to cut my hair. I want the person who conceives the book to know me, to know what being a woman is. This is not to say that I don’t think men should write books about women or women should write books about men. I think they should and of course I will read them—we all do. The beautiful thing about writing or reading is the discovery of a life other than your own. Sometimes, though, there are pieces of me that need speaking to, and the timbre of the voice comes from the magical synthesis of me, a woman, reading a book by a woman about a woman.
For the last few months I have been insatiably gobbling up these female-centered books, two of which are by debut novelists whom I know personally, Anne-Marie Kinney and Karolina Waclawiak.
I am hungry for books like these, books like me, sex-crazed, surreal, dreamy, violent, escapist, and always searching for some kind of truth.
We meet the narrator of How to Get Into the Twin Palms as she reinvents herself. She gives herself a name: Anya. She is a Polish girl who has spent much of her life trying to pass as American. She has lost her job. It is fire season, and the forests of Los Angeles are burning. Anya is captivated by The Twin Palms, an exclusive Russian club that Anya imagines holds some sort of glamorous secret and she wants to fool the patrons of the Twin Palms into thinking, if only for a fleeting moment, that she is Russian too. At its core this book is about identity and the impossibility of escaping who we are.
How to Get into the Twin Palms is told in short, staccato chapters, the facts laid bare, traumas alluded to, desires fleeting, violence breathing just underneath the page.
We see glimpses of Anya’s childhood and visits to Poland, whose women are “Soviet built and dooming.” In Poland, women don’t leave their men. “They had our family members in pictures lining the walls and watching them. They had chickens in their backyards and mushrooms drying in their cellar.” It is just the way things are.
I think of my grandmother. Women who could live through anything, through wars, through rapes. Her steely I don’t care face is not a façade, it is in the fiber of her being.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand what the feminists were going on about. I didn’t understand that feminism was not the radical stereotype our culture propagates. I didn’t understand that feminism had nothing to do with men, that the word could mean anything, could mean a million different things. Feminism can mean a woman doing the very best she can in the time and place in which she exists. Feminism can mean the options this woman, a woman like my grandmother, didn’t know she had. Feminism can even mean understanding where the women before you came from, it can mean forgiveness, it can mean forging new options.
Anya doesn’t quite know what a woman is supposed to be or how to be a Polish woman or an American woman or whatever kind of woman she is. She does not know what to keep and what to toss, what to accept, what to reject.
The book makes me think of questions I ask myself all the time. How can you separate yourself from the generations of women that have come before you? Is it even possible? Do you like these ancient parts of yourself? Are you proud of them or ashamed?
Anything I say about women can be said of men as well. Men also have expectations heaped onto them, hundreds of years of ‘what makes a man’ that they must live up to.
Why do women read books by men about men? For the reason we read at all. To escape. To see things from another perspective. To insert our brains into plains of existence otherwise inaccessible to us. Why are most men averse to reading books by women about women? I don’t know, but I assume that there is a voice in their head that says this book has nothing to do with me, because I am not a sissy-girl.
As of late, there are real voices in the air attacking women and lawmakers annointing themselves as the purveyors of the insides of women’s bodies. Maybe this is why I have been insatiable in my need to read literary women. In the last few months I’ve read one after the other. Elissa Shappel, Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Gaitskill. Each voice speaks to a different part of me, and something in me is eased with the knowledge that we are forging our way, we are speaking whether we are being listened to or not. And most importantly, these books by women about women are about the interior lives of women and, at the same time, the world in which we all live.
Iris, of Radio Iris lives in a vivid, fascinating and sensual internal world. She is at her most Zen when she is curled up inside herself, with little need for anything from the outside world aside from the simple structure of a job. This structure mysteriously deteriorates almost immediately as Iris begins to spy on an elusive man who moves into the office next door. Somehow, though, Radio Iris is about a young woman who keeps to herself while also being an allegory of the global economic collapse. At the core of the story of our most recent recession is a story of betrayal. The structure of what we once knew is breaking at the seams. There are glints of truth but we don’t want to see it. This novel made me remember other kinds of betrayal, made me remember when I found out a boyfriend had had another girlfriend the entire time we dated. It reminded me of how I unravelled. Radio Iris is about that feeling of dread, that knowledge that nothing will ever be the same, when you begin to notice that things are not what they seem.
But Radio Iris is not about being in love or men and neither is How to Get Into The Twin Palms. By far the most interesting and provocative character in both novels is the narrator, the women from whom we see the world, inner and outer. The men have secrets and allure but we want to know the secrets of these women, their deep, hidden pasts, the contortions of their character, and we want to know what, exactly, are these women capable of?
Iris’s story weaves with her brother Neil’s, so we see glimpses of their childhood, and how events from their past influence the events of the present. We see Iris and Neil’s dreams, haunting and seamless from the larger story. Their dreams are little leaps into everyday inaccessible truths and put you in a surreal space where anything is possible. And really, we do live in a world where anything is possible. Where things of which we are so sure could disappear in front of our eyes, as they do for Iris. Things can leave us and heave us so suddenly we don’t know what to do. We don’t know of what we can be sure, what we can hold onto, what we should grasp so we don’t fly away.
Iris sees the everyday, mundane world through an enviable lens of detail, wonder and even magic. The larger themes of the novel—death, reality, family—are mirrored in the mystery with which she translates the world around her. “She leans against the concrete enclosure and rings her hair out over the edge, hoping to see the water hit the sidewalk, but it gets lost somewhere along the way, caught in the air. She parts her lips slightly and takes a deep breath, but she doesn’t feel like she’s taking anything in.”
The precise and evocative language of both novels is what lets us enter into these women’s minds, their neuroses, and their history. The details of the world in which Iris finds such solace and her story-like dreams are the most telling things about her. For Anya, it is her bodily reaction to the smells around her that holds the answer to what she truly wants and needs; how she feels about the smell of yeast, a man’s sweat on her sheets, homemade chicken soup.
These women, like many of us right now, are at a moment in their lives when their sense of reality is lost, and though they deal with this in vastly different ways, Iris and Anya look for renewal in the wind, in fire, in escape, in fleeting illusions. Where they look, ultimately, isn’t what matters, and is not the source of urgency that keeps us reading. What matters is the relentlessness with which they search for renewal at all. And their search, for now, will be my new definition of feminism.
Sara Finnerty is a writer from Queens, living in Los Angeles. Writings, musings, readings and publications can be found at madwet.com.