1. Chin Up Mary Poppins! Practically perfect in every way? You don’t have to tell me. I’m still waiting for her to show up, call my parents to attention, and order my life. A dear friend has suggested that what I love most about Mary is her dominatrix attitude, perhaps! But I also love what she teaches about how the wind changes and how these changes should be respected. Poppins’ travels in and out of the Banks’ home in the P.L. Travers eight-book Mary Poppins series proves that survivors do not stagnate and they never, ever overstay their welcome.
2. Steal the Scene Amy Hertz is not the lead character in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese but narrator Adam (Paul) can’t forget her and neither can we. She teaches Adam how to “do a number,” numbers largely consisting of subverting the small-town authority that thwarts her individuality, she and Adam share a first kiss, and she shocks him to maturity with lines like, “Look, Ace, don’t let a few farts bother you. It’s all part of nature and being alive.” I can hear Amy saying this to girl survivors in quest of their proficiency badges: “Don’t let having a walk-on stop you from stealing the scene.”
3. Go Undercover Isabelle Eberhardt wrote what she knew, which was how to dress as a man so she could travel through the North African desert alone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She kept journals during her travels and these are collected in The Oblivion Seekers (translated by Paul Bowles for City Lights in the 1970s). In one of the thirteen tales in this collection, Eberhardt fights to spare the life of a man who had attacked her with a sabre and wins. She is one of my truest heroes on the page or off.
4. Rock Just Kids proves that Patti Smith can do any damn thing she likes and that she always knew she could, as evidenced by this quote about her experience of watching the Doors play long before her own music career began: “I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that.” I like to think of Smith as the oblivion-seeking Isabelle Eberhardt’s modern-day counterpart as Smith relives her time in the mirage-filled desert of her youth that is the Chelsea Hotel and shares lessons on rock ‘n’ roll, writing, forgiveness, and DIY haircuts.
5. Riot Every grrrl in Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution is a survivor, and none more than Marcus herself for pulling them all together and reminding us how vital voice is in creating change, whether for one or all. This is especially true during the particularly riot-hungry teen years when community is key. Says Marcus in “I Was Going to Be One of Them,” Girls to the Front’s author’s note, “Maybe being a teenager was always going to be a bloodbath to some extent, but it did not have to be this particular bloodbath.”
6. Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down (Nolite te bastardes carborundorum) Always with one eye on the teetering state of women’s rights, my far-sighted mother gave me Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to read soon after it was first published. I was still in elementary school at the time, but mom was right — protagonist Offred’s example of bravery cannot come too soon, and her experiences of slavery, rape, and the freedoms she finds despite these persecutions should be required reading for all genders.
7. Stray Cheryl Strayed’s Wild , about her largely solitary hike of the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest trail is due out from Knopf in March. Wild is about finding yourself when lost, but Strayed ups the ante in this story by adding a crucial additional ingredient to the lost-and-found recipe: that the losing of one’s self be done on purpose. [Editor’s note: As a bonus, Strayed has also just come out as the author of “Dear Sugar,” The Rumpus‘s very good advice column, wherein she gives many more real world survival tips with humor and aplomb.]
8. Get a Rep On the top of my list of the Criminally Out of Print is Yxta Maya Murray’s second novel What It Takes to Get to Vegas . Y’all publishers, this deserves to live again! Murray’s City of Angels heroine, Rita Zapata, has steadily built her reputation as “Queen of the Streetfighters.” Much like Strayed does to precipitate her journey in Wild, Rita does her worst to herself and those she loves, but in recovering from those choices and their results she finds her own brand of best and a forgiveness that burns her clean. This is how surviving is done.
9. Keep Your Head Can you believe there’s a coloring book of Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland ? The edition I have is nearly two feet tall and pages adorn my writing cubby, reminding me that we all feel the dig of the Duchess’ pointed morality in our shoulder from time to time as she tries to ruin another perfectly insane game of croquet with clichés. We must learn to handle this with composure, as dear Alice does, and be ready at any time to grow to our full height and say, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”
10. Muse Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee takes us down a completely different rabbit hole than Alice’s (or not as different as we’d like to imagine), that of the American Dream. Cha made the most of every second of her abbreviated life, creating gorgeous texts that put readers at the crosshairs of first and second languages, migration, marginalization, and refuge. Cha understands that interrogating structure is necessary to finding one’s place in it, or to accepting that there isn’t one. If you’re new to Cha, lucky you! Dictee is the place to start, then find The Dream of the Audience, a book by University of California Press around her exhibit of the same name, and make it last.