When he first meets Najwa at a lecture by Siri Hustvedt—whom he’s never read—our hero discovers a whole new world of feminist thought. Determined to impress her, he sets out sincerely on his journey to allyship. His mother confides in him about the dreams she had to sacrifice because of the patriarchy, and he laments the violence and oppression women face. But he can’t help but notice that they’re going about their activism the wrong way…
So our hero does what any good ally should: he gathers the worst of the macho men in town and begins a campaign to provoke the feminists. By “putting them in their place” with this phallic club—pelting demonstrators with raw eggs, posting obscene, threatening manifestos—he’s convinced he can make women understand, and get them to fight harder for the cause.
Following him as his plan spectacularly fails, The Ally mixes humor, clever storytelling, and hard-core feminist theory to lampoon the macho superiority complex and our modern gender wars.
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|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.69(d)|
About the Author
Mara Faye Lethem is an award-winning translator of contemporary Catalan and Spanish prose, and the author of A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small. Her recent translations include books by Patricio Pron, Max Besora, Javier Calvo, Marta Orriols, Toni Sala, Alicia Kopf, and Irene Solà. She is currently translating the collected short stories of Pere Calders.
Read an Excerpt
I’m the most feminist guy you’ll ever meet.
But sure, I have my contradictions. Right now, for example, my five roommates and I are throwing eggs at a group of naked and semi-naked women demonstrating in front of city hall. The first two flew past the mark, but the next ones make a perfect impact on the face and tits of the women holding up the main sign. I see our eggs flying in slow motion, describing a lovely arc from down to up and up to down, until they break and become sticky snot, natural and devoid of beauty, and I think about David’s slingshot and the outline drawn in the air by the stone before it inflamed the flesh and separated the cartilage from Goliath’s bone, and I can’t help but think how right I am when I say that there’s something platonic about violence.
“The one with the waxed pussy is really hot,” says Hugo.
I can’t say exactly what the reason is for the protest, because I’ve been attending these kinds of events for too many weeks now and I confuse the plots, and of course my roommates don’t know either, so I don’t know who or what I’m throwing eggs at. It could be my mother or my girlfriend. Or my sister. One of my grandmothers is dead. The riot police stationed amid the demonstration and the counterdemonstration start getting nervous when three hundred grams of yolk tint a blonde woman’s hair orange, but we’re protected by the crowd and still have a dozen ovoid grenades in our pockets, so we stick to the plan. “We won’t stop until there are none left,” we’d said. I’ll admit throwing eggs isn’t an original idea. Pathetic, even, when compared to other forms of urban guerrilla warfare in vogue at the time, but it’s easy for me to convince the team: eggs are cheap, easy to get and to hide; they aren’t a serious enough offense to get us in real legal trouble; and, above all, they represent male virility, our balls, our huevos. You don’t want balls, right? Well, here are ours, I think I said. Have our huevos. The guys loved that, especially Donovan, whose addiction to anabolic steroids has turned him into a 260-pound boy obsessed with his genitals. Calling him a boy is a private joke: he’s thirty-five years old. But he still lives with his parents.
“The one on the left, with the freckles, is really hot,” says Hugo.
The storm of eggs has raised hackles. Some of the women confront the police and a group of men who were chastising them: cover yourself up, you’re whores, if I was your brother, where are you going with that body, in my day . . . The men [insert any verb conjugated in the third-person plural] things. If I’ve learned anything during these months of continued exposure to the universe of feminist demonstrations, it’s that whatever the protestors are demanding, they can always be upbraided for being women. That might sound grotesque, but it works. It works so well that in the face of a seemingly irreproachable demand like “No more violence against women,” you can hear retorts like “You must have done something,” with no preamble or nuance. Not on social media, of course, where the aggressor is immediately discredited by the social masses who represent the spirit of what’s right, but it works on the street, protected amid many dismayed faces, like at a soccer stadium. These kinds of events are attended by men and women of different ages, classes, and ideologies, and it’s relatively easy to shout out any sort of insult—“Get back in the kitchen,” for example—and shortly after find a friendly face sharing a complicit smile, or a wink. You know the real deal, buddy. That’s how they talk. We guys can show plenty of solidarity too.
“That redhead is really hot,” says Hugo.
The police have pulled out their nightsticks, and people are starting to run. I look at my buddies and confirm we’re out of eggs. Mission accomplished. We’ve come up with a powerful language of gestures to communicate any incident during the battle, so I wordlessly suggest leaving the crowd and going back to the car, before we get hurt from a shift in the running mob or a billy club randomly dancing through the horde. As I quickly flee the area, where two cops are trying to separate some protestors from an older man who’s raising his fist like a teenager, I see that almost all the women are starting to get dressed. They don’t seem satisfied, and their expressions give off a tragic sadness, the pure simplicity of defeat. All except one, who looked young, and was still defiantly naked in a corner. She watches us flee in a way that I recognize, and I signal to her so she’ll notice me. When she does, I lower the handkerchief covering my face, blow her a kiss and give her the middle finger.
“Whore!” I shout at her.
She doesn’t know it yet, but she is about to take the next step.
My yelling “whore” at some stranger who’s defending her rights all started when I first met Najwa at a Siri Hustvedt lecture. Picture the room: packed with people, mostly women, mostly young women. I don’t understand a lot of what’s said, partly because neurobiology is not my field and partly because I haven’t read any of her books, but I have to admit that the subjects put forth by Paul Auster’s wife—as most media outlets refer to her—are interesting, or at least pique my curiosity. The question segment at the end is grotesque, as often happens with such things: people (women) trying to show they know as much or more than the lecturer; people (women) taking advantage of the situation to explain their unresolved personal dramas; people (women) thanking Siri for existing. It seems like an African ceremonial ritual celebrating the arrival of the rainy season. Or the exact opposite: a group of illustrious American citizens shooting at a hurricane to scare it off. Not a single man asks a question, but they don’t shoot either. Of course, I don’t ask anything. Najwa is the only person (woman) who, during the round of questions, asks Siri about her contradictions and pushes her up against the ropes. Maybe I’m exaggerating. She asks a couple of intelligent, complex questions, without putting on professorial airs. It’s fair to point out that Najwa completely looks the part of a highly qualified young woman: in other words, she’s wearing glasses. When the event ends and the audience members go up to the stage so that Mrs. Paul Auster will sign books for them, I notice the girl in glasses heading to the exit, and I cut her off so I can talk to her. That’s what we men do.
“I liked your questions,” I tell her.
She looks at me with scorn in her eyes.
“I’m serious,” I insist. “I’m not trying to hit on you. I didn’t understand much of anything in the lecture, but I understood your questions.”
“You haven’t read her books, have you?”
“No. I don’t think I could get past the foreword. Do you know if there’s a version for kids?”
“I have to go.”
“OK. But recommend a book for me. Sorry. That’s it and I’ll leave you alone.”
“What kind of a book?”
“On feminism. So I can start to understand. I’ll leave the neurobiology for later.”
“Just google ‘feminism.’”
“I’ve done that. Even the Wikipedia entry seems too hard for me. Is there something like Foucault for Dummies, but about this?”
It was the first time I saw her smile. I make a mental note: “Foucault.”
“Do you have somewhere to write it down?” she asks me.
I pull out my cell phone and open the Notes app. She dictates Men Explain Things to Me, by Re- becca Solnit, and Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett. Despite having studied literature, I don’t know who they are.
“Thank you,” I say in parting.
She nods with a half smile, the other side of her mouth obviously weary of me, and she leaves.
I go straight to the library, which closes at ten, to get the books she’d recommended. At the lend-ing desk a woman helps me, and I start feeling a little anxious from what I can only define as excessive environmental estrogens, like the toxic cloud you see in photographs of Mexico City. Siri, her fans, Najwa, the librarian. The feeling is reinforced when my mother calls and details her mother’s latest offense. It seems my one living grandmother was pissed off because her daughter doesn’t visit as often as she should, and meanwhile the librarian comes over with an extraordinary smile and the books. And as I’m leaving I pretend to be listening to my mother and wonder why women smile so much: Why do they smile when it’s almost ten at night and they’re still working, why do they smile when someone chases after them after a lecture, why do they smile when someone says something impertinent to them in front of other people, I don’t know, why do they maintain that unabashed inertia? I try to imagine myself smiling like that, all the time, being complacent with stoic composure, and I don’t feel comfortable. I mean: I couldn’t do it. All that smiling confuses me, and in a synecdoche that would delight a psychoanalyst, I imagine that their vaginas are also always smiling, happy faces, in what seems to be an exhausting muscular effort worthy of an elite gymnast, and it seems stupid. Women’s candid nature is one of their weak points.
When I get home I remember why I went to the lecture.
Subject A: thirtysomething. I don’t know what he does for work. I’ve been living with him for nine months. His favorite tags are “Gangbang” and “Facefucking.” He has an iPhone 7 Plus. On the weekends he races his bike up in the mountains. He hardly drinks alcohol, but he likes marijuana. He never puts down the toilet seat.
Subject B: twentysomething. I don’t know what his job is. I’ve been living with him for six months. His favorite tags are “Anal pain” and “Anal pain teen.” He has a Chinese phone with a great camera. He goes out every night. He’s generous with alcohol and food, but not cocaine. He never cleans up his hair in the shower.
At first it was fun. Three guys on a sofa talking about life, sex, and politics. I don’t talk to them about my work, because it’s not like I have much to say. Cruel jokes are followed by even crueler ones. We subjected every woman on television to an exhaustive analysis of their female attributes. You’re either a tits man or an ass man. We would tell each other things. Like about the first time I heard the word shrimp to refer to an ugly girl, from the mouth of a literature professor, at the age of thirteen: “You throw away the head, but you eat the body.” All the students seemed to find it hilarious. For my fifteenth birthday, my first girlfriend let me touch her tits. I thought I saw her crying, and I remember thinking that I’d squeezed too hard. I was telling my best friend about it five minutes later, after masturbating. The first time I got a blow job, at eighteen, I couldn’t get it up, because of the impact of seeing myself in a situation I’d only seen on a screen before. I told the girl that maybe we could kiss first. She said why, when that was what guys liked. Those kinds of things.
We shared photos of our single female friends. We would spell out the names of porn actresses. We put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door to our room when we had a guest. We would send each other porn videos. We had a typical healthy relationship between adult men.
My inner ally started to writhe when Subject A sent us a video he’d directed himself. It was clearly shot without the consent of the protagonist: the camera was placed in one corner of the room, in a pile of clothes, with little light, and the woman never looks directly into the lens. He does: at time stamp 12:24 he puts her on all fours, with her ass toward the viewer, and before proceeding he turns, winks an eye, and lifts his right thumb to signal his victory. Then he smacks her left butt cheek and she sighs like a happy cat. The entire video lasts 16:45 minutes, HD quality.
That bothered me, and I told him so. At first I tried to seem moderate, reasonable, a good roommate who gets that he has his vices, but also his virtues.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
I argued that taping it was a betrayal of that woman’s trust, but sending it to us was probably a crime.
“I can’t even remember her name, so I’m not worried about betraying her trust. And it’s not a crime if the police don’t find out,” he said.
I argued that he wouldn’t like it if someone did that to his sister. I have a sister. I argued that these things can go viral and end up on the Internet.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he said to me. The discussion changed tone. Subject B took Subject A’s side and I lost my shit. When they knocked down all my explanations—if you consider wielding the counterargument “Are you sure you like ladies?” reasonable in a debate—I got aggressive.
“You guys are bastards,” began my speech.
Et cetera. From that day on we didn’t say a word to each other when we happened to be in the living room or the kitchen at the same time, and obviously they stopped including me in their house gatherings. I didn’t care: I had a solid idea in my head about what was right and what was wrong, and a couple of irresponsible dudes weren’t going to force me to reassess that. I wouldn’t like a casual lover of mine to video-tape us in bed and show it to all her friends, for them to see how I move, what I say, how my face changes at the last minute, how much I pant. For them to see the size of my genitals. For them to watch me in slow motion. For them to add sarcastic subtitles. I can’t breathe, just thinking about it.
Luckily, women aren’t like us.
As the weeks passed and the small domestic disputes started piling up (over washing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, paying the Internet and electricity bills on time), the latent tension gradually turned into a grudge, and the grudge into rage, so instead of calling each other by our names, we used friendly, everyday nouns in the vocative.
“Hey, you, clown.”
“Leave me alone, idiot.”
“Pay what you owe, jerk.”
I never took those insults seriously. Until two months ago, when I found them in the living room, in front of the TV, commenting on a soccer match. When I passed by, ignoring them as elegantly as possible, Subject B said: “Look at the feminist, running scared.”
And when they saw my face, they knew they’d hit the right nerve, the one that goes from my scrotum directly to my brain, and since then they have only referred to me as “the feminist.” I’ll admit it’s surprising, because they take an adjective I’ve always interpreted as positive and use it pejoratively. I can’t say I find it flattering, though. In fact, deep down, for some reason, it really bugs me.
Feminist, my ass, I think. The thought just comes out spontaneously.
But as I think it I see my sister and my mother, and I force myself to remember that, as far as I know, feminism is about equality between men and women, right? Who could criticize that intent? And yet there’s something in the word feminist that I don’t like, that insults my virility, like when you’re a boy and get called “girl” because of the color of some rain boots or some jacket lining, and then I realize that’s inconsistent and I sleep badly, with terrible, frightening dreams that affect my performance the next day. Although at my job, nobody cares about my performance.
My recurring nightmare is that I wake up transformed into a woman.
So that’s why I went to Siri’s lecture today. Because I want to find out where this paradox, this absurd dialectic within myself, comes from. Maybe by immersing myself in that universe in a controlled way, I’ll discover that I have no reason to feel uncomfortable. Or maybe I’ll learn that I should be afraid, because one should fear a monster.
“Good night, feminist,” says Subject A.
I don’t talk to my roommates anymore. The last thing I announced to them, before ending our relationship through a text message, is that they shouldn’t worry. That I had erased the video, but I would never turn them in to the police. That I’m not a traitor.
Feminist, my ass, I think.