Erica Jong – Navigating ‘Fear’ to Always say ‘Yes’ to the World

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By Tommaso Cartia

Erica Jong
Erica Jong – Photo Credit Christian Als

The American novelist, satirist, poetess, and quintessential feminist icon Erica Jong opens the doors of her New York apartment to the Artistic Directors of Creative Pois-On, Daniela Pavan and Tommaso Cartia, for an intimate conversation. The author reflects on her life’s journey, on being a woman in the #metoo times of today, on her creative process and the remarkable impact that her revolutionary masterpiece ‘Fear of Flying’ had and still has on women all over the world. Plus she opens up about her loving relationship with Italy and her latest poetry book: ‘The World Began with Yes.”

Stepping into somebody’s else home can be a surreal experience. Like discovering a virgin territory, entering a new dimension. A home is somehow a sanctuary of our own life, of our own inner being, filled with memorabilia tracking down our personal history, the blueprint of our existential journey. Can we recall what were the very first impressions of a place the very first time we stepped foot into it? I can certainly recall what I felt when I entered Mrs. Jong’s apartment in New York. Overwhelming is the geometry of this sensation; vivid vivaciousness is the colorful pattern of this sensation.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE HERE

As we stepped into the living room, you could immediately sense the density of a life intensely lived, of a writer who is a life’s traveler. A space exuberant with art and exquisite interior design taste – Jong’s mother, Eda Mirsky Mann, was a painter and a designer – artifacts from all over the world, and of course books, a bibliothèque of books, and a writing station that you would guess must be the altar where the ritual of storytelling is performed. 

Erica Jong
Erica Jong

The colors all over the room are bright, luminous and welcoming, and they match the richness of the red floral pattern that blooms on the blouse Mrs. Jong wears, and they match the warm embrace with which she invites us into her world. A poetical world of creativity, intellect, inquisitiveness, empowerment, wittiness, good humor and open-hearted humanity. The world of a dreamer who keeps on writing poetry because: “it keeps me in touch with the unconscious”. Let’s step into Erica Jong’s world together. Ready, set, imagine…

TOMMASO – Today we are going to explore with you what role Love & Erotism play in your narratives, poetical aesthetic, and emotional and intellectual journey as a writer who so fearlessly broke so many taboos that were imprisoning the expression of women, from the 70’s to our ‘times up’ times. Starting from the groundbreaking masterpiece “Fear of Flying”. How did the idea of the book come about?

ERICA JONG — People ask me that question all the time and I don’t really know. I know that I was keeping notebooks throughout my twenties, but I had no idea they would turn into a novel. Then, I went to this conference of psychoanalysts (because at that time I was married to one), and it was so funny and crazy that I thought: “this is the frame for the book; but the book has to go back and forward in time, it can’t just be in one time.” It’s a book about my whole life up to the age of 28 and looking at it, I never thought I would have found a way to tell the story. 

T — So the book is a reflection of yourself as a woman at that moment in time. But was it also inspired by different traits of an ideal woman? 

E — Both I would say. I was noticing that books were missing the interior life of a woman. That was the period where all the novels where about mad housewives. In the 60s/70s, women were just satisfied with their lives, but not knowing where to go. I came to hate these mad housewives’ novels because the end of every novel seemed all so similar to me. I wanted to talk about the interior life of a woman in a different way. 

DANIELA PAVAN — Have you always considered yourself a feminist or was that a label that has been attached to you? And how different it is to be a feminist in the #metoo era? 

E — I have been a feminist my whole life. My mother was a feminist, my grandmother was a feminist… I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I thought that women were completely free to be themselves. It was always a motivation for me to write books about women in which they were both sexual and intellectual. Because in most books about women, either the woman is completely consumed with sexuality or she has no sexuality and she’s just an intellectual and I thought, “it isn’t true. We are both.” 

T — Did you have a perception of the impact that the book would have on women at the time you published it? 

E — I think that you can never imagine that the lightning will strike. Sometimes a book intersects with the time and it suddenly becomes a phenomenon. You can’t control that, and you’d be a terrible egotist to imagine it would happen to your book because it happens very rarely. I remember my American publisher saying: “we’ll publish 5000 copies and we’ll probably have to eat them.” Then, my paperback publisher which at that time had a woman in charge said: “I will not buy the book unless you agree to print 35000 copies, because this book is the story of my life and the story of every woman’s life.” She really enforced it. If the book had not come out in a time when there were women in charge of publishing houses, the whole thing would’ve been different.

Erica Jong – Photo Credit Gianni Franchellucci

The Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy wrote a very influential book where she says, “the Middle East needs a sexual revolution.” Who knows how soon it will come, but allowing women to have sexual desire has been a problem throughout history. I think that it has been because it’s much stronger than masculine sexuality, and people want to control and contain it. There have always been periods where women’s sexuality is alive and then inevitably goes backward.

D — In your opinion, how much is a woman really free to express her sexuality? And how much is she allowed to express her romantic side? Also, do you think that a woman can be driven by a strong male energy and vice versa? 

E — I certainly think a woman can be attracted to that kind of energy, but I wouldn’t call it male. I would call it energy. It takes different forms. There’s no doubt in my mind that sexual energy is related to creativity. As long as women were held down sexually, they’re also not allowed to express their creativity. The two are connected. 

T — Allowing your body and feelings to be naked, exposed and unleashed, can be paralyzing. In March, with Creative Pois-On we are also covering the storytelling of the stage, and we are thinking about this concept that ‘stage fright’ is actually something that we experience on and off a stage when we have to be under the spotlight of our own both professional and personal life. How did you explore the themes of fear and change in your writing?

E — When I’m writing I always tell myself that no one is going to read it and that it’s just for me. When I have to send the book out to my agent and to my publisher, I feel terrified. Always. There’s a moment where I just don’t want to do it. I experience that with every book. I force myself and I’m always sure that nobody will like it. 

D — In the book, Fear of Dying your character experiences the death of her parents and she’s losing her husband too. What advice would you give to women who, in situations of change and dramatic events, think that they are not strong enough to face it? 

E — Life is change. As all the Buddhists say we try to keep life still, but we can’t. Nothing is permanent. We have to accept that and it’s really hard. I’ve just been reading this book by Pema Chödrön “The Buddhist’s Nun”, where she reflects on how to deal with the uncomfortable of life. She says that we fight against change, but change is the nature of life. We are never going to be able to stop change. If we think we can, we’re deluding ourselves. Even when you think things are settled, they’re never settled. I would hope that my books give women (and men) courage. That’s my deepest wish. 

T — Talking about women’s portrayal in contemporary fiction, movies , and TV. Where do you think that the imagery of the woman is going, and what is your take on a phenomenon like The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV show based on Margaret Atwood’s novel? 

Erica Jong

E — Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale 40 years ago. I remember going to the first movie that was made of it because she was somebody I knew, we were poets together and we wrote first novels around the same time. The book starts with the fear that human beings will not be able to reproduce because the planet is dying, which we’re very aware of now. That was really the starting point for the book. We’re still dealing with that — people are afraid of having children in a world where the planet, the animals and the plants are dying. She saw very early what was going on. But it was only the tv-series that made the book so known worldwide. 

D — To stay in the lines of pop culture and current social phenomenon, I’m curious to ask you, what do you think about dating nowadays and the use of the dating apps?

E — I can’t imagine going to Tinder and swiping through faces and profiles. People lie about their age, their pictures. It doesn’t seem like a great idea to me, but I know about a lot of people that have met that way. Every time I’ve been single, dating had changed. 

T — As you may know, we are both Italians, so we can’t miss the chance to ask you about your relationship with Italy and Italian literature. What did it mean to you to win the Fernanda Pivano award and how was it meeting the great Umberto Eco

E — Nanda was lovely to me she took care of me like a mommy almost. One time, when I was going to the Maurizio Costanzo Show, (a popular Italian talk show Ed.) at that time she thought that Maurizio was a bit of a sexist and so she said: “I’m not letting Erica go without me on the show ”. She came to defend me. She was very tender and sweet and every time I was in Italy, I would visit her. I met Umberto Eco here at the Italian Cultural Institute. I was asked to introduce him when his The Name of the Rose came out. We were supposed to have a dialogue, but Umberto, practically, would not let me talk. He just talked over me. I’ve met him a few times, including Stefano his son ( I find him so nice). Umberto was an old-fashioned Italian, with a patriarchal mentality. 

Erica Jong and Fernanda Pivano at the ‘Fernanda Pivano Award’

Why do I love Italy? Italy is the one country in the world where you have permission to be human. You have permission to make mistakes, to laugh at yourself, to fail and recover. What I like about the Italian character is that you’re allowed to be a human being. Americans are so obsessed with success — we’re so afraid of failure and in Italy there’s some kind of humor about people. Not that Italian people aren’t neurotic, but the idea that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re not going to perfect all the time, that’s very deep and in the Italian character. I love that! 

In my Italian language course, we had to read Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. It’s really a book about failure and success, it is so profound. And really, what is Pinocchio’s problem? I want to be a human being. I don’t want to be a puppet. And be able to laugh at yourself. That’s deep in the Italian character. How can you go through life if you can’t laugh at yourself? 

D — What relationship do you have with your imagination? 

E — I’m a big dreamer. I continue to write poetry because it keeps me in touch with the unconscious. I’m very proud that my latest book The World Began with Yes, is published in Italian as well with the title “Il Mondo è Cominciato Con Un Si”, by the Publisher Bompiani, translated by Giovanna Granato with a foreword by Bianca Pitzorno

Italian Book Cover by Bompiani

In this book a wrote a poem that reads (she recites):

The World Began With Yes
One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born – Clarice Lispector

It was always yes, sì, da, yah
The sibilant sound of assent,
The slippery tongue in the mouth
Of the lover, the da dawning.
The yah yelling,
The sì, sì, sì, sugary & sweet…

It is so nice that I got them to do a two languages edition. If you read poems aloud to yourself, it’s so much easier to understand. I’ve always felt that the voice gives life to the poetry. 

T — Talking about reading poems aloud, you do a lot of public speaking, so how do you use your voice and how does your communication change when you are on stage? 

E — I’ve become very comfortable speaking in public. Sometimes I get up on stage with no notes at all and just talk, but it took a long time to get there. Occasionally, I would do that in Italy, but I feel that my Italian is not literary enough. I love the Italian language. First of all, it’s a language for poetry and opera because there are so many rhymes. My very favorite is Don Giovanni. Some of my books I put Don Giovanni and listen to it while writing. 

D — I’d like to know what you think about podcasting? 

E — People go around with their headsets and experience you through your voice. I think it’s a very interesting medium. 

T — Coming towards the end of our conversation, I really want to thank you for the kind generosity with which you shared your story. So now what’s next for you after the publishing of ‘The World Began with Yes? 

E — I’ve just written an autobiography called “Selfie”. It’s like a self-portrait. 

About ‘The World Began with Yes’ – Il mondo è cominciato con un sì

Erica Jong has never stopped writing poetry. It was her first love and it has provided inspiration for all her other books. In a dark time, she celebrates life. Her title comes from the Brazilian genius Clarice Lispector who was deeply in love with life despite many tragedies. Life challenges us to celebrate even when our very existence is threatened. Never have we needed poetry more. Jong believes that the poet sees the world in a grain of sand and eternity in a wildflower—as Blake wrote. Her work has always stressed the importance of the lives of women, women’s creativity, and self-confidence. She sees her role as a writer as inspiring future poets to come. 

For more info on Erica Jong please click here: www.ericajong.com


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