A red line of thread that connects us
My first time hearing fiction writer and essayist Courtney Sender’s short story, “To Do With the Body,” was on the porch of an artist residency. It was dusk, a hot summer. She read it aloud. Her speaking voice reminded me of the way many singers’ voices embody the content of their songs. She delivered the story with evocative vulnerability, brutal honesty, and acknowledgement of the hard truths and uglier emotions that inhabit our bodies and minds when we experience heartbreak. The story is set in a museum of period clothes, a play on words in this case meaning a museum of clothes that have been stained by menstrual blood. The story hit me like a ton of bricks. I ruminated on why. Sometimes we can’t really know why certain art affects us so much, but I think in this case it had a lot to do with its bodiliness. The way it didn’t shy away from the physical experience of people who menstruate in tandem with the universality of heartache and the longing to be loved.
This short story originally appeared in prestigious literary journal, Prairie Schooner, and will be part of Courtney’s debut book, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me (which was just announced this month and will be published in spring 2023), “a series of interlocking suites populated with past lovers who resurface, lost mothers and fathers with secret pasts, ghosts of the Holocaust and messages from the dead, collectively mining themes of isolation, love, loss, and longing.” Courtney’s work has been widely published in literary journals as well as The Atlantic and The New York Times’ “Modern Love.” I called her up recently for a candid conversation on art and the body.
“I love my period.” Courtney laughs. “I totally understand why a lot of people don’t love it, but I do. It makes me feel connected to ancestral knowledge. It’s a red line of thread that connects me to other women.” This connectivity of the self to the body and in turn, other people is a hallmark of Courtney’s work. “It’s interesting,” she says. “If periods and menstruation appear in stories at all, they are often used as plot points, not just as something that’s a normalized part of the character’s experience. There’s the coming-of-age storyline of getting your period or the drama of missing your period, getting pregnant. But that’s not really how we actually experience menstruation in our daily lives. It’s so much more ubiquitous than these singular moments.”
Courtney mentions, off-hand, a quote from Game of Thrones: “Girls see more blood than boys.” She acknowledges that, of course, the experiences of people with vaginas are extremely varied and not everyone gets a period, wants one, or identifies with menstruation, but generally speaking menstruating people experience blood itself in a way that non-menstruating folks don’t. “Game of Thrones is whatever,” Courntey laughs, “but I like that quote because it gets at this notion that for men, blood represents violence or that something is wrong, but for women, a lot of the time it means that things are normal, it means health, it’s life-giving. That’s a very different orientation.”
Along with menstruation, another major element of “To Do With the Body” is heartache, the break-up. “Heartache and conflict within relationships is so interesting to me because it represents a problem of scale,” Courtney says.“We live in a world of enormous tragedies, both present and historical. So there’s this problem of, how do I live this intense personal loss of love that feels like a tragedy, and also know and care about these much bigger political or collective tragedies?” For example, another story that appears in Courtney’s collection is about a girl who gets her period in a German concentration camp. “My family was in the camps,” Courtney says. “I think a lot about normal things–periods, relationships, etc.,–set against that type of large-scale horror. This applies to so many contexts, but it's extremely hard to have a body that’s constantly politically contested when you’re just trying to live in it. I think a lot about the deep discomfort that exists there, the deep discomfort of contrasting scales and trying to exist within both.”
In 2018, Courtney wrote a piece for The New York Times’ “Modern Love” series called “He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost.” It hit a cultural nerve and garnered a lot of attention at the time because it questioned the legalistic orientation that many people take towards consent, rather than it being an act of holistic care for another human being. We got into a conversation about ghosting, rejection, and the body’s role in decision-making. “It does feel like sometimes people are more willing to touch the body than to have an open and honest conversation about the body’s mechanics. Those are different types of intimacy. I’ve been ghosted, I’ve ghosted. People have the right to reject someone–it’s a sacred right, I think, to keep yourself to yourself or to only those you choose–but it's interesting to me that all this care is taken to get physical consent, but the same care is not extended to thinking, well, what kinds of feelings are we are trying to engender in the other person through that asking? Are we trying to leave them feeling respected? Or are we just trying to keep ourselves out of trouble?”
I asked Courtney if in her research on ghosting and literary interest in break-ups she’d ever heard of people breaking-up because their physical biomes were not compatible (I’ve thought about this concept ever since The Cheeky interviewed Stardust period tracking app founder, Rachel Moranis, who had to break up with someone because her vaginal biome was literally rejecting him). “I love that!” Courntey exclaimed. “I mean, I don’t love that, but I love the concept that the body is so much wiser than the conscious mind. We are always trying to assign narratives and reasons to decisions the body has already made.”
Ultimately, what I gleaned from my conversation with Courtney is that in her work, it all has to do with the body. Some of her work is more overt in its exploration of bodies and bodily processes, but all of it is situated in the body and lived experiences of women. “I’m not trying to teach anyone about menstruation or the vagina. I’m writing as if this is an experience we understand. I want to normalize these things in my work because they are normal in my own life.”