I have just come from a truly remarkable event, an evening program of the IU Writers' Conference featuring Professor Emerita Susan Gubar reading from her new book, "Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer," alongside her oncologist, Romanian poet Daniela Matei, reading from her collection “The Way Back Machine.”
I worked briefly with Susan Gubar on projects that ended abruptly with her cancer diagnosis late in 2008. Since that time I have marveled at her deep humanity and insightfulness (both too often, in my experience, absent in people of great brilliance) and grieved her illness and the devastating experiences it inflicted upon her.
So, both personally, and as a writer and sometime academic, tonight was a joyful occasion, a reading from a searching memoir of cancer treatment into remission, and a celebration of the resilience of a beloved teacher and critic.
Susan Gubar (I understand her students call her, lovingly, “La Gubar”) is as gracious a human being as I have met. She apparently only agreed to appear if her oncologist read alongside her, and Dr. Matei opened the reading. Her long title poem, read in English translation, evoked a nearly medieval childhood in the village of Sibiu under Ceaușescu's Communist dictatorship. Another, “Bloom,” spoke out of the freighted emotional territory of her oncology practice. Later in the program, in response to an audience question about the poetry circle she met with under surveillance at university, she read an arresting poem, “Sex on the Tape Recorder,” narrating the sounds of a sexual encounter in her now-husband’s bugged dorm room under the recorded surveillance of secret police.
Gubar offered a brief meditation on the exigencies of memoir and illness narratives. She questioned the “ethicality” of memoir, focusing on the potential violation of others’ privacy in any narrated event and observing that “certain information is not just only your information.” She was above all concerned with not hurting the feelings of well-intentioned participants in her medical odyssey. She moved on to explore the “constructedness of memoir,” citing the difficulties of conveying the tedium of treatment without replicating it, the challenges of describing physical horrors without horrifying an audience (she took license from Roland Barthes’ quip that "when written, the word shit doesn't smell”), and the demands of trade press publishing and its rigorous privileging of “happily ever after” narratives. Gubar also shared her ideas on the role of art in both memoir and her own grueling experience, as well as her personal and publication-directed struggle for moments of lightening and affirmation in her memoir, as in her life.
For Gubar, reading and writing have been a lifeline in sickness and in treatment; she referenced the art of Frieda Kahlo and the poetry of Emily Dickenson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Philip Larkin as offering incisive explorations of mortality.
A veteran of too many literary departmental and job talks, I was especially gratified by Professor Gubar’s elegant and gracious deflection of the obligatory monologuing, self-referential non-question question posed by an elderly male colleague during the final audience discussion. She was poised, humane, and generous in redirecting the event away from a dreary self-reflexive exercise (an impulse her work and teaching have always modeled constructive alternatives to) toward a well-earned celebration of art and life. As an eternally-recovering English graduate student, a cancer survivor, an admirer of “La Gubar,” and a human being, I can’t get enough of authentic, generous, humane celebrations of art and life.
Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse