In the Blog
Chelsea Martin’s Caca Dolce: Essays for a Shitty Era
Earlier this year, a New Yorker article called “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over” sparked a heated debate on the truth of its title’s claim. In short, the author, Jia Tolentino, argued that personal essays, the kind written mostly by women, often young women, often writers who are just starting out and who do not get paid much for the online publication of said personal essay, and whose said personal essay focuses on the deeply, often shockingly, personal (Tolentino gives the example of an essay published by Jezebel about a tampon lost inside the author’s body), are a thing of the past.
The nail in the genre’s coffin, Tolentino says, was the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the political mess that followed. Post-Trump, “navel-gazing” writing is simply no longer in demand because, as Tolentino claims, “the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was.”
It’s this claim—the personal is no longer political—that seems to have ignited the widest response. Articles followed decrying the idea that the personal essay impugned by Tolentino (which, as Zoë Bossiere helpfully points out in her article, is actually a subgenre of the personal essay called the confessional essay) is somehow irrelevant, unconnected, or even antithetical to the political. As a genre that is increasingly populated with women’s very personal experiences, as well as the very personal experiences of POC writers and of LGBTQ writers, the confessional essay is in fact extremely political when we consider that these very voices are being undermined with a new vehemence post-2016.
It was in this climate of debate that I read Chelsea Martin’s Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life (Soft Skull Press, 2017). The seeming lightness of its title (even to those unversed in Italian, like me, clearly something along the lines of “beautiful poo”) and the wonderfully irreverent, self-consciously “ugly” cover are enough to lend support to someone on Tolentino’s side of the debate: beautiful poo can’t possibly be of use, not at this shitty moment in history.
Martin’s essays, however, are a perfect example of the pointedly dual nature of the confessional essay. Martin begins her collection describing an early experience of having her cousin lie on top of her when they were kids, and her resulting fear that this was sex. The essay ends on Martin confessing to her mother that she’d had sex, and her mother, “trying not to laugh,” setting her straight. Martin ends the collection with an essay in which, now in her twenties, she tries to evade her estranged father’s annoyingly persistent e-mails from ever new Hotmail and Gmail accounts he creates after she blocks him (i.e., “StopBeingInsaneChelsea@hotmail.com”). The personal, anecdotal nature of the events described, and their moments of humour, cannot be denied. But the serious implications of even the lightest of the described experiences are clear. And this is what gives the weight and, yes, political quality to these confessional works.
In “Child’s Play,” after the six-year-old Martin tells her mother about how she’d been forced to have “sex” with her cousin, her mom responds: “Next time just say you don’t want to do that.” The complexities surrounding women and girls’ struggle to fend off unwanted sexual advances, to have their “I don’t want to do that” understood, and whether this is as uncomplicated as the mom’s comment suggests it is, is a topic whose urgency and political currency needs no elaboration. And if elaboration is needed, 14 essays later, in “Zeitgeist,” Martin describes an experience of a job interview where the male recruiter eventually leads Martin to his apartment and attempts to sexually assault her. Martin questions whether she was complicit in the near-assault. After all, she allowed herself to drink too much, she went to his apartment—the kinds of actions that women are persistently told somehow undermine their “I don’t want to do that.”
The e-mail addresses Martin’s father creates in “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” may be funny and the struggle of trying to successfully ignore a father’s attempts at reaching out uniquely personal, but Martin again touches on a subject whose political currency is all too pressing. A desperate Martin contemplates getting a restraining order. Looking into what the process involves, she finds that her only option is to seek a domestic violence order. The name “domestic violence,” however, makes Martin feel she is being “overdramatic,” and the idea of having to go before a judge makes her ultimately shy away from the process. It’s telling that Martin feels there is no state-sanctioned box to check off that matches the harassment she’s experiencing. The result makes her feel she’s being unreasonable in feeling harassed. And even when her father says that he will “hunt [her] down,” his threat is somehow excused. In the end, however, the experience of helplessness makes Martin realize she has certain powers. She has, for starters, the power over her artistic output. She can write essays about her father and his behaviour towards her if she wants to, and he has no power to stop her.
This note is an appropriate one on which to end the collection. Martin’s essays are confessional. And they are political. In writing them, in deciding to tell her story, on her terms and in her voice, the author has exerted her power—even as she writes about so many instances of powerlessness, often a powerlessness unique to being a woman. To say that this collection of confessional essays has no currency in our shitty times would be to completely overlook everything it conveys, cover to ugly cover.