Jessa Crispin, "The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries" (U Chicago Press, 2015)


Biography is a genre of largely unexamined power: a literary field that preserves stories of lived lives and, through them, perpetuates notions that there are certain ways lives can be lived. This is particularly true of the lives of women, which are often, in biography, confined to the marriage plot and detailed as events in the lives of men. As Jessa Crispin writes in her new book, The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries (University of Chicago Press, 2015), "The important task is to understand and modify the stories that are holding sway." The founder and editor of the recently shuttered lit-blog Bookslut, Crispin spent a year and a half traveling abroad. Her genre-bending book, The Dead Ladies Project, is the legacy of that year and it's a work that goes a long way in modifying the stories we typically tell, not just about women but about human beings- as thinkers, travelers, artists, and individuals. It's a contemplative, wandering work, which captures the disorientations of travel, the anxiety/ecstasy of being alone, the ways in which we carry our pasts with us, and the integral role stories play in our understanding of our possibilities and the ways in which we live our lives."What saves you is a new story to tell yourself about how things could be," Crispin suggests and, as she moves from Berlin, Trieste, Sarajevo, St. Petersburg, contemplating the lives of William James, Nora Barnacle, Rebecca West, and Claude Cahun, she opens up story after story, expanding the narrative possibilities as she goes. Hers is a story which suggests the richness that comes of bouncing our lives off those of others. "It was the dead I wanted to talk to," she writes, as she sets out on her travels. "I'd always been attracted to the unloosed, the wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere. I needed to know how they did it, how they survived." It's an account which suggests the hunger for and value of such stories- the stories of lives which, as Carolyn G. Heilbrun put it, enable us to forge new fictions and new narratives for our own.

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