Playwright Arlitia Jones and Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month.

And Alaska playwright and poet Arlitia Jones is celebrating in a unique way.

Jones, who has penned such productions as Tornado, Come to Me, Leopards and Rush at Everlasting, is running blog posts highlighting lesser-known-yet-highly-significant women for each day of the month.

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Alaska poet and playwright Arlitia Jones.

It’s a fascinating project about fascinating and memorable woman, from mapmakers to poets, mountain climbers to sculptors and, get this, even pirates (you go, gals!).

The photographs are almost as powerful as the stories.

I was lucky enough to snag Jones for an interview. So grab a chair, cozy up and get ready to meet some kick-ass women.

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Kei Taniguchi, one of the world’s best female mountain climbers, died last year on the descent of Mount Kurodake, Japan.

Q: I love what you’re doing on your blog for Women’s History Month. How did you come up with the idea?

A: A friend of mine, Kara Lee Corthron, a playwright from New York, gave me the idea. This year she spent the month of February blogging each day about a different African American for Black History Month. I didn’t get to read all of her profiles, but she introduced me to a lot of new people—Mae Jemison, Marsha P. Johnson, Canada Lee, etc. These were quick reads, meant to whet our appetite and give Corthron a chance to delve into a life she wasn’t that familiar with. She posted them on Facebook and every day I would see them in my feed. Two things would hit me, every time I saw one: 1. I’d think, wow, there’s another amazing person I’ve never heard of before, and 2. I’d think, wow, Kara said she was going to introduce us to someone new every day, and she’s doing it! It made me happy every time I saw her post. I decided I would do the same thing for Women’s History Month.

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Edmonia Lewis, the first African American/Native American professional sculptor gained international fame with her art.

Q: You’ve highlighted women that most of us have heard little to nothing about. How do you pick them, or do some of them pick you?

A: I don’t really know how I pick them. Maybe it’s something in my memory that suddenly surfaces, or I let myself cast about thinking about all kinds of areas of human endeavors, for instance flying jet planes—jet planes are cool! I wonder what woman’s story this is to tell involving jet planes. That’s how I found Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier and the most decorated pilot in aviation history.

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Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier, was, at the time of her death, the most decorated pilot, male or female in the world.

Q: A month-long project is a huge commitment. How do you maintain your enthusiasm? And do you write the posts individually or in spurts?

A: Well, I haven’t made it all the way through the month yet! But seriously, writing these posts are the fun part of my day. They are a time commitment, and for me, a “sometime” blogger at best, it can get a bit dicey, if I’m going to get them done each day. So far–so good. I am really enjoying the moment of discovery when I go digging for something and uncover the name of a woman. These stories are fascinating! And there are so many of them! That’s what keeps me going. That, and the fact that focusing on these posts is an antidote to the hate and vitriol flying in our national discourse right now. It’s so disheartening to see your fellow countryman espouse racism and hatred and ignorance. Yeah, I said ignorance. Own it, America. Instead of waking up to the morning paper, I wake up to a woman’s name and a feminine history I am a descended from. I write the posts one at a time, each day because I really like the idea of waiting to see what I find each particular day.

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Sinrock Mary, Queen of the Reindeer.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of women writers honoring other women writers?

A: It’s so important we see ourselves in the books we read. By the same token it is so important to read the lives of women who are so dissimilar to us. It broadens our idea of what is “Woman.” What are her struggles? What are her accomplishments? I’m never going to fly a jet plane like Jackie Cochran, but it makes me feel a zap of adrenaline to imagine myself with her—or even as her—in the cockpit punching the throttle. (I don’t know if “punching throttles” is how you make jets go faster. Maybe it’s more of an afterburner affair? I really don’t know, but isn’t it fun to cast about in new lingo!)

And for me, our history as women is larger than women writers following women writers, of course. It’s women anything honoring all of our sisters who came before. I don’t tend to focus on women writers too much because I always feel they are writing their stories for themselves, but it’s interesting in researching these women to find out how many of them have written down their stories in books or journals, even though they don’t consider themselves a woman writer. I think that’s terrific.

I was never taught or encouraged to do this until well into my adult life. It was so strange. Women all around were doing incredible things, but we didn’t talk about it. Who would be interested in that? But let one man build a spice rack and the whole world would come tilting to a halt in gasp of exultation. These days, we’re all getting our recognition and everyone is richer because of it. For the record, I really love spice racks.

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Gertrude Ederle, covered in grease, wades into the waters of the English Channel for her historic swim from France to England, in Aug. 6, 1926.

Q: Women’s voices have been silenced and neglected throughout history and are still partly ignored by our male dominated world. What do you hope to accomplish through your blog posts, and your writing?

A: First and foremost, I’m writing these posts for my own benefit, to learn more about the women I share the planet with. Writing about them in a blog post adds a layer of permanence to the experience. Years from now, when I come across the name Hilma af Klint I have a better chance of remembering her and her paintings.

This is my contribution to “The Conversation”—you know that mass of words flying around the world every day as we humans love to communicate with one another. These posts are not long or in-depth. Not scholarly at all, they offer a moment of exploration as I read about the women. That’s huge in a day that is usually filled with a rote, uninteresting job. As far as any one else who may happen to read these posts—and let’s be real, I don’t have a huge following—I’m hoping something about these women will strike them and give them pause. Maybe they’ll read the post. Maybe they’ll investigate further. Maybe they’ll decide to do blog posts of their own and I can read those in my spare minutes.

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Mai Bhago, a Sikh woman, led 40 men in battle against the Mughals in 1705.

Q: What tips would you give other writers wishing to attempt long and extended projects? What has worked for you? What hasn’t?

A: I try to get the posts done as early in the day as possible. I can then go on with my ordinary day and the post is “on time to work,” so to speak. It has all day to do its job in the world before people scroll over to the next day. Besides, if I try to write them in the evening I tend to get short simple sentences and monosyllabic words and the whole thing sounds tired because I’m tired. Plus, when I get them done early in the day, I find the woman I wrote about tends to stick with me all day, almost as if I were her tour guide or colleague and I imagine how she would respond to things.

I will say, doing these posts this month has earned me some new followers on my blog, and a lot of interaction I wasn’t expecting. While it is gratifying, it also puts the pressure on to keep producing!

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Sampat Pal, second from the left, is the leader of Gulabi Gang, a brigade of women that has grown from a handful of members to over 400,000 now working to empower women.

Q: You’re bringing women’s voices to light. I’m wondering how this has impacted your daily life, and also your writing? What have you learned? What emotions has it stirred?

A: I am daily surprised, amazed, enraged, and proud of the stories I find with these women. I also feel a real sense of connection with my friend Kara Corthoron who started something with February, that I took up in March that maybe somebody else will take up in April… etc. I feel a connection with the women I’m writing about, and this extends to my readers, even though I don’t know who they are besides on-line avatars. I feel there is a little bridge that goes from my subject through me to the reader and beyond to the far horizon.

Also, like I said before, there is so much darkness and hate in the world right now, I get scared and belligerent. Yet when I spend time in the lives of these women and our collective past I can’t help but take heart. These women faced some tough times, horrible times, some gave their lives for what they believe, but their story and their spirit survives, so I think we’re going to be ok.

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Wangari Maathai of Kenya won the 2004 Nobel Prize for her conservation efforts and tree planting in Africa.

Q: Do you have a favorite woman among those you’ve featured, someone you identify, someone you’d like to have tea with?

A: I would love to meet Phyllis Pearsall, founder of the A to Z Maps in Britain. She mapped her world using her know how, notebooks and her own two feet walking thousands of miles through London to catalogue its locations. What an endeavor! What commitment! She took what she learned and put it on paper for others to find their way. I love the way her accomplishment relied on her intellect and skill as well as a pretty hefty amount of physical exertion. That’s the perfect combination for any project in my mind. Writing can be a whole lot about sitting on your butt futzing words. I try to write about things that get  me up and out for research, engage my body in some way. I recently wrote about a group of people experiencing the miseries of starvation. I decided to fast for a few days to see what it felt like. It felt really bad. I only lasted a day and a half and I had so much compassion for my characters, even the evil ones.

I would love to ask Pearsall about her wanderings and mapping journeys. I  wonder how much more there is to tell about her walkabouts that didn’t go on the map. I can’t have tea with her since she’s now passed, but I did order her autobiography off Amazon. That’s the beauty of a woman writer, she always leaves a trail of her words for us to follow.

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Phyllis Pearsall, showing Brits how to get from here to there since 1936.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m currently working on revisions of plays that will be moving into production this next year. I don’t know what the “new” work is going to be yet, but I have laid the welcome mat for it.

Q: Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.

A: Often times when I go to a new city, I get lost on purpose. It drives my husband nuts because he’s usually counting on me for directions. It’s a kind of freedom. Even if I have my cell phone and someone calls to find out where I am, I can tell them I don’t know. I’m unretrievable for the time being. I love the challenge of having to find my way back. I love having to walk it out. And eventually, if I were hopelessly lost, I would use Pearsall’s A to Z.

Wanna hear more?

Visit Arlitia Jones at her Website, Facebook page and on Twitter.  P.S. She says that “people should follow me because I tweet pictures of homemade pies frequently.” Yum-yum.

And, last but not least, my favorites of Jones’ Women’s History Month collection: Two pirates who kicked some serious ass back in the early 1700s. Oh, my!

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Fearsome pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read terrorized the high seas with guns, with swords, and, according to this statue, with breasts. Lawful citizens quaked with fear.

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone.

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2 thoughts on “Playwright Arlitia Jones and Women’s History Month

    1. I know! Isn’t it intriguing and yet also maddening, all of these talented and ambitious and courageous women doing so much to change the world, and yet we rarely hear about them. Big, big kudos to Arlitia for putting women, and Women’s History Month, first.

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