If you’re not familiar with the Proust questionnaire, it’s a fun personality interview that Vanity Fair has celebrities and public figures fill out in every issue. (Check out Rachel Maddow’s answers!) This week’s Huddle borrows one of my favorite questions from the PQ, one for which everyone surely has a vastly different answer:
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Heather Hogan: I’m probably a Laura Ingalls Wilder. Just a farm girl who likes farm stuff and animals and reading a million books. No formal writing training at all, but one day I just thought, “Man, I really would love to write.” And I sucked at it, just like ol’ Laura. And then I got a little better, just like ol’ Laura. And then I made a little bit of money off of it, just like ol’ Laura. And people were like, “Laura Ingalls Wilder, stop writing about prairies and farm stuff.” And she was like, “Booo, no! I am a farm girl!” Also, she wore braids into adulthood and I wore braids into adulthood. She ran every single thing through her personal value system and stayed exasperated at the world half the time, and I do that too. But she was chill and needed a lot of alone time and she cared way more about the Human Condition than cold, hard facts, and that’s me as well. “It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good,” she wrote. Just being plain good. I love that.
Grace Chu: Like Dian Fossey I ventured into the wild to study an intriguing species and published my writing based on my research. Whereas Fossey studied gorillas in Rwanda, I focused on the lesbian and queer nightlife scenes in New York City. My subjects can be a little wild. I hope I don’t get assassinated.
Kim Hoffman: So, there’s this home video of me from one of my birthdays as a kid, and we’re all outside by the pool when the radio begins playing “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks. I’m opening up presents from my friends up until that moment—and then I dart up out of my chair and start dancing and singing. Everyone is giggling, but in total retrospect (and by the most serious look on my face in this video) I can tell that no one understood this affinity at age seven. Stevie’s birthday is two days after mine—we’re both Gemini twins.
I never really had a fantasy of getting married and having babies as a kid. I was so focused on my little projects from a young age, be it writing, making made-up magazines, or deeply envisioning the kind of independent career woman I would be. No one has ever made more sense to me in their lyrical and life poetry than Stevie. Recently someone asked me what songs I would bring with me to a deserted island if I could only pick three, and I immediately decided on “Gypsy.” This brings me to the ultimate reason I so identify with the queen of crystal visions and rock ‘n roll—even in moments of fear, she rises to the occasion and pulls through tenfold. For me, those dark moments of reckoning have always produced the most incredible outcomes in my life. Last year I had a moon tattooed on my arm and wasn’t totally sure I was ready for it, but as I got in my car that day, a man came on the radio and said, “If you’re feeling weird today, it’s just that beautiful big full moon out there. Here’s something to please your ears.” And then he played “Rhiannon.” So, I just knew. Kismet I tell you. Always feelin’ that kismet. My partner walks around the apartment calling herself the Gold Dust Woman. (Swoon.) Maybe someday I will get married. Visions can change.
Lucy Hallowell: Jo D’Angelo. I’m not sure if she qualifies as a “historical figure” but, damn, I just can’t get her out of my head. She’s the AAGPBL player who died this year and her obituary mentioned that she was chucked from the league because she was gay. I’ve been reading a bunch about the league and come across a several mentions of her as a player. But none of the books has more about her exit from the league than to note she as released. Without her obituary you might think she was just another player who got hurt, or squabbled with her manager, or got married, or something instead of being sent packing for being gay. She was living an absolute dream, making money doing something she loved, and then poof! it was all over, just like that. She was just a girl who wanted to play ball and for whatever reason, she’s kind of stuck with me.
Ali Davis: The woman from history I really identify with is Jane Austen. I can’t pretend to have her skill as a writer or social critic, but I share those interests and the impulse to laugh while chafing against the people and institutions that make you crazy. She was the one sitting a little off to the side, easy to miss unless you knew to spot how carefully she was watching the rest of the room, and easy to overlook at the party unless you knew to sidle over for some close conversation and a spirited attempt to make you laugh. And always with a project or two hidden under her knitting work that she was hoping would blossom into something bigger. I just hope I can write something half as sharp, funny, and heart-wringing one day.
Elaine Atwell: There is this amazing account on Twitter called Medieval Death Bot, and its sole function is to recount the various ways people died according to medieval coroner’s rolls. I cannot compare myself to any of my favorite heroes of history because, frankly, they were all cleverer and braver than I will ever be. I relate much more strongly to the great mass of humanity who lived anonymous lives and, according to medieval death bot, died fantastically gruesome deaths. So just think of me as “Philip the Young, died 1312, shot with a small arrow by John, son of Alan the Mustardmaker.”
Dana Piccoli: As a young woman, I had a preoccupation with the entertainer and burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. In 7th grade, I did a book report on her biography. God bless my mother for standing by me when my catholic school teachers sincerely objected to the content. Anyway, Gypsy (Louise) spent much of her young life being pushed into a role she was not comfortable in. Girl, I know the feeling. After years of playing on the sidelines, Gypsy created her own image and destiny. She finally had artistic control of her life. She elevated burlesque to an artform. While my own experience in burlesque was brief (there are no photos, so no need to google) I kind of get what she must have felt like, taking a hold of her own sexuality and body image. In recent years, I broke away from some very long held expectations people had of me, not to mention the ones I had of myself. There are many times when I think of Gypsy and how she gave me the strength to be bigger, and bolder than I ever thought I could be.
Valerie Ann: I’m going to go with Louisa May Alcott because she wrote Jo March loosely based on herself and Jo March is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. I like to think I have an adventurous streak, and while I share Louisa’s passion and imagination, her (and thereby Jo) have the kind of outspoken bravery and trail-blazing spirit that I would love to have – and maybe someday will. Plus, we have this in common: “I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
Trish Bendix: I have always felt a pull to Natalie Clifford Barney that I think stems largely from the fact that, outside of our being Francophiles and shared interests in writing, she was fearless about being out. She refused to live in the closet and encouraged the other women she knew not to hide. Instead she threw fabulous salons where they shared their art and and celebrated together, which has inspired me, and continues to. She’s underrated, in my opinion, in her talent and influence, and I appreciate so much of her ambition and ideas. I share her want for community and living so unafraid. “My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.” (We also have an affinity for women in suits and top hats.)
Chloë: Napoleon Bonaparte, a tiny nobody from a crap little town who decided to rule the world.
Eboni Rafus: The two historical figures who immediately come to mind are literary ones: poets Emily Dickinson and Angelina Weld Grimke.
When I was nine years old, my grandmother committed suicide. And because I came from a family that didn’t believe in sheltering children, I heard all the gruesome details. When we traveled to Memphis for the funeral, my siblings and I were even put to bed in the same room where she had taken her life. Perhaps as a result of this, I became fascinated by death. In fifth grade, I discovered Emily Dickinson and became obsessed not just with her work, but with her mythology which included rumors of mental illness and unrequited love. I checked out every book of her poetry from the library. I recited her poems at poetry contests. I tried to emulate her writing. In the sixth grade, my parents were called to the principal’s office because my english teacher was concerned about me due to my morbid poetry.
Angelina Weld Grimke was poet of the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Era who was believed to be a lesbian. She was educated in elite schools where she was frequently the only African-American student before she became a teacher. It is known that she had a close romantic attachment to actress and playwright, Mary (Mamie) Burrill in the mid-1890s when they were classmates. She was very close to her father who raised her but had a falling out with him in 1903 when she told him she was in love. That love affair, which scholars believe to have been with a woman, ended in despair, and as a result Grimke vowed never to marry or have children. Her poetry is so full of longing that anyone who has ever been heartbroken can’t help but relate.
Although my favorite of her poems is “El Beso,” I offer this short but powerful poem as an example:
I’d love to party with all of these women! OK, your turn: What historical figure do you find yourself in (or vice versa)?