I’m so glad I’ve grown out of being a girl. Am now a woman. Am no longer an object, enchanting or otherwise. Though now I have a daughter, so there is always cause for concern. I say that because there was a time when I was very interested in portrayals of the female body and sexuality, and would have really taken this book, in its rawness and pain and confusion, personally. It’s nice to see beyond the horizon of your body, though I remember not being able to.
Burqa of skin is a posthumous collection of essays by the Francophone Canadian novelist Nelly Arcan, whose first two book titles, Whore and Crazy will give you the idea of how Arcan related to stereotypes about women, the simultaneous frenzy of assumption and rejection with which she took on our historical labels. Whore is autobiographical, as was all of her writing; Arcan worked as an escort as a young woman. She killed herself in 2009 at the age of 36.
I suppose it’s telling that even after reading the book I don’t quite understand what the phrase burqa of skin means. Arcan’s writing is smart, biting, claustrophobic but slightly incoherent. In the essay “The Child in the Mirror” she writes with vivid, visceral horror about her own skin, how it shamed her as a child, how it grew greasy and needed to be chastised, treated and tamed with masks and products. Arcan, like many young women, saw herself as a surface, and felt the alienation between the surface and the interior, the self and the object. Skin, for her, seems to be symbolic of embodiment, in all its horror. (She found it horrifying.) But I can’t find a place in the book where she actually uses burqa of skin. The quote below mentions burqas, but doesn’t entirely shed light on it:
The landscape she saw most often was a vision, blinding and clear, of women veiled in long blue burqas—blue like the low and omnipresent sky of American deserts—slicing the Earth, the golden orange, at full throttle, well over the speed limit, astride Harley Davidson motorcycles on and endless desert highway, someplace like Nebraska.
The burqa here seems freeing. But still, somehow I suspect that Arcan’s burqa of skin is just her own skin, a fabulously distorted and generic garment made of the cultural feminine, which utterly conceals her at the same time as she is naked wearing it.
I’m kind of making that up, but maybe I’m right. These essays are on mothers and daughters, mirrors, speed dating, suicide, with the second half of the book devoted to Arcan’s obsessive musings on a scandalous interview she did on the Canadian television station CBC, in which the male interviewer and other panelists made fun of her cleavage instead of talking about her writing. (It’s painful to watch, here in French.)
I’d sort of like to read Whore. I’m not sure how she stacks up as a cultural philosopher, but she’s very good at writing about the body. Here’s a passage I liked:
If only she weren’t dead, she could date Houellebecq.