My life on the road: the exhilarating experience of travel
By Tiphaine Martin
Researcher at Babel, University of Toulon,
Member of the editorial board of Simone de Beauvoir Studies
and author of a doctoral dissertation about Simone de Beauvoir’s travels
Translated from French by Marine Rouch (under the kind supervision of her dear friend Daniel Sawyer)
I will begin with a brief criticism of the French edition. While the translation is very pleasant and captures Gloria Steinem’s fluidity, humor and appetite for life, there is no translation of the references used by Steinem. There is no systematic translation of English terms (and yet, French equivalents do exist), which slows down the reading since one must refer to footnotes or search for the translation on the Internet (“community organizer”, “roadies”, p. 27 and 267 of the French edition), especially if, like me, one is not perfectly at ease with the language of Virginia Woolf and Angela Davis. The translator hesitated about translating the feminine of some terms: “cheffe” but “auteure“, which is strange and unsettling for reading. There is no table of contents, which makes difficult the journey through the text, especially when one wishes to easily find a theme treated by Steinem and see at a glance the organization of the book. The term “gay community” is used on the back cover, but Steinem speaks mostly about lesbians. This is a surprising editorial choice.
I now come to the heart of the book, namely Steinem’s text, accompanied by a magnificent preface by the former French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira.
In My Life on the Road, white North American feminist Gloria Steinem writes about her different lives: daughter of a father unable to stay anywhere and a mother caught up in the confinement of marriage, even when it is an unconventional union; a young student in India, long before the hippie movement; a reporter covering the struggles of black Americans; a best-selling writer promoting her books; a feminist activist who travels her country and listens to so-called “minorities” (Hispanic, black, Native American, Asian) find strategies to fight against inequality; a passenger in cabs and planes; a campus lecturer; the political activist daughter of a mother who was depressed by injustice; a woman who has been traveling her country for 50 years as a political organizer, as a director of the renowned Ms. magazine and as a feminist activist; an activist for the rights of Amerindian peoples who learnt the importance of gender equality in their contact. And, in conclusion, an individual fulfilled by her existence of a richness that she has created in contact with all the human beings she has met.
Everything is described and analyzed from the point of view of antiracism, feminism (universalist and mixed) and social class. It is a true autobiographical manifesto, intersectional, full of humor, with a distance without cynicism about the experiences that are reported, intelligence and happiness of life. As Taubira writes in her preface :
Gloria fait du voyage un mode de vie qui, presque à son insu, s’est installé comme un art de vivre. Elle y trouve, à bon droit, une harmonie avec l’histoire humaine faite d’un temps de mobilité plus long que le temps de sédentarité. Ses voyages sont horizontaux à travers les espaces, ils sont verticaux à travers l’Histoire, cultures entre les communautés et les traces vives ou souterraines provenant des confrontations autant que des dialogues. (Christine Taubira, « Préface », in Gloria Steinem, Ma vie sur la route, Barcelone, Harper Collins, 2019, s.p.)
What is striking is indeed the joyful serenity with which Steinem tells her life story, without misery. Steinem avoids lamenting her birth as a white petty-bourgeois girl, she does not beat her chest under the pretext of this triple identity, nor does she present herself as a poor victim of the evil PATRIARCHY. She prefers to narrate what she saw and analyze the situations she went through: women in prison, prostitutes, young Puerto Ricans beaten and raped, groups of feminists talking until late at night, white (including herself) and black Americans listening to Martin Luther King in Washington in 1963, bourgeois women pouring their bile on her against Hillary Clinton (who is wrong to be an active woman, successful both in her professional and private life), environmental and pacifist feminist activists, morally and sexually harassed stewardesses, Native Americans who teach her so much, and so many others. On the road, so many people, so many situations, so many existential crossings.
Steinem takes the opportunity to synthesize anti-racism and feminism when she mentions the two former White House candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama:
But to me, their shared content was way more important than different forms. She was a civil rights advocate. He was a feminist. They were a modern-day echo of the abolitionist and suffragist era, when black men, black women, and white women—the groups white male supremacists had worked so hard and cruelly to keep apart—turned this country on its head by working together for universal adult suffrage. (Steinem, Gloria, My Life on the Road, ebook, p. 287.)
Steinem brings together two entities (the white woman and the black man) to get the best and most egalitarian out of her country, while highlighting the responsibility of white racists in the current segregation.
Steinem’s multiple identities blend with those of the people she meets on the road. Far from the haughty machismo of Kerouac’s characters in On the Road (1957), the activist Steinem listens, does not judge, and looks beyond her own experience. Her own existence and her choices are reflected in the lives of others. What is striking is the importance of Steinem’s dialogue and listening, which then makes us listen to the “purple motorcycles” within us (p. 11 English ebook.), to the Spider Woman that slumbers in every aspiring writer (p. 414, English ebook.), to the obligatory smiles that stretch the face and make the body a commodity offered to clients (p. 179, English ebook.), to the regulations of women’s sexuality, the same regardless of skin color and nationality (p. 95, English ebook.). Readers learn a life lesson that is far more energizing than any energy drink, thanks to Steinem’s talent as an author. The autobiography is in fact the memory of America in the second half of the twentieth century, personal history turns into polyphonic memories.
Steinem’s generosity is evident as she recounts her experiences and transports us with her to the cityscapes and expanses of North America. How can we not merge into « the great expanse of ivory-to-beige-to-rose sand, the seeming nothingness that turned out to be a delicate universe of plant life as soon as you looked closer — all this was laid out before us as we rode in the late afternoon light. » (p. 414-415, English ebook), and into the « rainbow [that] stretches from can’t-see to can’t-see, and fields of wet sweet grass become as fragrant as gigantic flowers. » (p. 8, English ebook) ?
I have the desire to peck at a good cactus fruit paste and then lie down in the green grass of Wyoming for a moment, before going to listen to a lecture by Steinem, by starlight, in the company of the colorful North American scarf (Hispanic, black, Native American, Asian, white).
To cite this article: Tiphaine Martin, translated by Marine Rouch, “My life on the road: the exhilarating experience of travel”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, September 2020. URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3301
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