Anne-Christine d'Adesky gives vox to pox

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday December 27, 2017
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"I feel a stab of frustration. I want to be writing a different book. Something more... fun. Who's going to care about this wild-ass road-trip-through-history story about a sexually fluid writer?" Thus the author, on page 180 of the 297 total in "The Pox Lover: An Activist's Decade in New York and Paris," pans back from a jet-setting chronicle blurring the boundaries of Paris, New York, Haiti, Amsterdam, and New Orleans, to question her own voice. Content aside, it is this consciousness at odds with itself that is the chief literary quality of journalist Anne-Christine d'Adesky's manic, chatty, sprawling memoir, published this year by University of Wisconsin Press.

I met d'Adesky in 1993 while researching the Lesbian Avengers, a short-lived but stellar model of radical feminist direct action in NYC. Thus it was I partook of the inaugural Dyke March. Like her, I was living the transatlantic life between Europe and the States. She wasn't in love with France the way I was and am, being driven by different demons, but the overlap in our experiences made her stand out in my mind. Reading "Pox" revived my own memories of ex-pat, ex-het displacement, living a double life that never neatly resolves into a unified field, let alone a coherent narrative. Not when chunks of your psyche play tug-o-war. I confess I'm fascinated by this rift in the mind, and by whence it comes.

As a child, d'Adesky had an imaginary friend named Roy, named for her television hero Roy Rogers. Age five, wearing cowboy boots, spurs, and hat, she was annoyed when her mother pretended not to know Roy was in the room. This indulgent, mollifying mother set a place at table for Roy. Viviane of Grenoble, France, was then living with her Belgian-Haitian husband in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This childhood memory comforts the adult d'Adesky, who 30 years later in 1993, is unsettled by an "invasion of an inner voice, separate from me and yet not. It's like I have a parallel soundtrack at all times." This voice begins as a vision:

"A face stares back at me, hard to capture. A level gaze. Not friendly, not hostile. She's spitting on the ground, grinning. A mixed-blood creature with wide, high cheekbones and thick brows knitting together over small eyes. I hear her voice, a sandpaper rasp inside my ear." This universal grandmother, a spirit of the river Seine in Paris, names herself Sel, as in "sel de mer," sea salt, a French homonym for "mother's salt." The venerable hag starts scurrying through the grittier bits of Paris as a personal guide to the dark spots of Paris. "She looks back at me like a mother observes a child." This mirroring and mothering runs like a sewer through d'Adesky's polyvalent musings.

Sel comes and goes, a narrative device exploited for local color then abandoned, as the writer resists subjugation by a fictional entity, rejecting the constraints of traditional, intelligible storytelling. D'Adesky rationalizes the haphazard accumulation that is "Pox" with an anecdote. At a Paris bookshop in 1993, scanning "The Civilizing Seine" in a 1982 National Geographic, she is "tempted to write my comments in the margin for the next reader." She extends this compulsion to us. "Don't hesitate, reader. Take notes, add your own comments. Do your own research and feel free to correct my interpretation of historical events. I'll be all the happier." Generous invitation, or call for unpaid fact-checkers?

The curse of the journalist is ever to comment, never create. "Pox" is a pile of intriguing comments spinning in a literary lettuce centrifuge, teasing the reader with splashes of detailed description, undeveloped potential scenarios, mash-ups of personal fumbles and political agendas. Do not expect formal rigor. Skim for topics of interest. This slapdash compendium of what d'Adesky thinks, hallucinates, or remembers, from 1993-99, covers lesbian longings, friends living with AIDS, French fascism, ACT-UP, Lesbian Avengers, French imperialism, the wound that is Haiti, imperfect girlfriends, Paris landmarks, French tainted-blood, and so much else! Of course there's no index, that would make too much sense.

The only constant in this swirl of shiny diary objects is the multi-faceted narrator, her several personae reflected in kaleidoscopic shards of prose, evading synthesis, avoiding commitment, splitting, dialoguing with self and reader, changing the subject ad infinitum. Blueblood bourgeois bohemian, intellectual and activist, the manly woman d'Adesky is the tormented creature of a torturous lineage. A first-generation American with the heavy karma of Belgian colonials in her veins, she wrestles with her DNA: an "inherited mix of European aristo-cum-Haitian 'blans,' ex-colonials with stripes of color in their blood, and a dubious family notion of noblesse oblige." That is her pox, and activism is her protease inhibitor.