Marge Piercy is a highly celebrated poet, novelist, and social activist. She is the author of seventeen novels, eighteen volumes of poetry, and a critically acclaimed memoir. As an advocate for social change, her work often reflects a feminist ideology, rooted in past and current cultural issues. Her political novel, Vida, first published in 1979, showcases the very complex political and personal struggles in the 1960s antiwar movement.
TCJWW: Your critically acclaimed novel, Vida, was rereleased in 2011. Was this deftly orchestrated or purely coincidental, given the highly charged political atmosphere of recent times? How is this book both insightful and relevant to our current social issues?
Piercy: It was published by PM Press, which does political fiction and nonfiction. They had previously in the last year published another of my overtly political novels, Dance The Eagle to Sleep. They picked out Vida as the second of my older novels they wanted to republish at least a year before it came out – probably a little longer than that. Maybe a year and a half.
The next novel they are republishing with a new introduction I wrote is actually one I urged them to bring into print again because it is so timely, and that’s Braided Lives, which is about life before the second wave of the feminist movement and life when abortion was illegal. I felt strongly it is time for that to get back into print.
TCJWW: How have the dynamics within the feminist movement changed from the ‘60s until now? What can modern feminists prove to learn from Vida and her fighting spirit? What makes her a powerful weapon?
Piercy: Vida herself is not more than somewhat feminist. Natalie is the feminist. Vida finally does learn from her own experiences and from her “sister” that she needs feminism, something she dismissed as trivial before she went underground.
The 2nd wave was very diverse and encompassed many political identifications. The issues that mattered to you might be quite different from the issues that I was most adamant about. Certainly there were a number of disagreements and fights. What was strong was a sense of sisterhood, of trying to work together, of optimism and inventive ways of making our points. We were very militant and out there. The slut walks reminded me of that inventive militancy.
We also valued poetry and fiction far more passionately than anybody seems to now. We came out to each other’s readings in large – very large – numbers and got revved up. Some well publicized women who are labeled or self-labeled as feminists now are unrecognizable to me politically. They seem to think every woman is upper middle class. Their problems are not those of the vast majority of women here or elsewhere in the world. They seem obsessed with self-promoting. I have always been more interested in grassroots organizing than in the media, which are so controlled by immense corporations, they will never give a fair representation of feminism.
TCJWW: How does the existence of an “underground,” as we see in Vida, operate as a clandestine and esoteric space?
Piercy: Being underground as I tried to show in the novel is hardly unrestrained freedom. The lives of people who went underground were difficult, sometimes very difficult. There was constant stress. At first it seemed they could have a great influence politically, but as the novel shows, it became more and more difficult to be relevant from underground.
TCJWW: How much of your past and present personal activism can be seen throughout Vida?
Piercy: Nothing in the present except my feminism. I was extremely active in Students for a Democratic Society until shortly before it imploded. I also was one of the founders of NACLA – North American Congress on Latin America – one of the few New Left organizations still flourishing, still relevant. I knew a number of the people who went underground, both in the Weather Underground and unaffiliated. By the end of SDS, I had begun working only with women, a policy I stuck to for perhaps two decades. I was starting consciousness raising groups, writing feminist articles (like the notorious “The Grand Coolie Damn”). I spoke at rallies and started various groups over the years.
TCJWW: You’ve been quoted as saying, “We seek not rest but transformation. We are dancing through each other as doorways.” As a poetic exposition for our daughters of the future, what do these words profess in terms of interconnected female unity?
Piercy: Poetry isn’t a way of giving a coded message. The metaphor is the poem. Poetry works on many levels, with meaning certainly but just as much or more with rhythms, with webs of sound and silence, with images that speak associatively to the emotions as much as the forebrain.
TCJWW: What insightful piece of advice can you share with young women today who are on their own journeys to discovering their voices and their place within the feminist movement?
Piercy: Work on issues that matter to you. Find what moves you and you will not burn out quickly as can happen when you work on what you think you ought to be excited about or what others find important. Be willing to make alliances but not ones that force you to give up your own politics. Make sure there is pleasure and friendship in your life and you will be effective politically a lot longer than if you let fanaticism or pure ideology govern you. Take care to protect your health. Many of us in the 2nd wave of feminism neglected to do that and have suffered the consequences. Accept your body and make others do so with your confidence. There are many more types of attractiveness that the media shows us. Like yourself and it projects.
Above all, don’t be afraid to be a feminist. It isn’t a prison sentence. Rather it liberates. A strong woman can live a better life than a weak one. She sees far more choices open to her and others.
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