Siân Griffiths's The Sum of Her Parts
Exploring Womanhood: A review of Siân Griffiths's The Sum Of Her Parts by Ayaat Ismail
The Sum of Her Parts by Siân Griffiths (new from the University of Georgia Press) is a collection of essays that probe how women navigate their lived experiences on the page and the repercussions of those lived experiences inside and outside of the text. Griffiths makes us question: What does it a mean to be a woman? How do we write ourselves? How do we bring our experiences to life? How do we navigate the stories and spaces we inhabit? In engaging these issues, Griffiths explores how women are perceived as a sum of parts rather than as a complete person, emphasizing the discord between their bodies and minds. As Griffiths states, “Here I am: a body and a mind, a cunt-centered thing and a series of thoughts about cunt-centered things.”
Siân Griffiths is a professor of English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Booth, and many other publications. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of Borrowed Horses, which was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, the short fiction collection The Heart Keeps Faulty Time, and the novel Scrapple. Read her essay, "Writing Boudica," in Issue 16 of Miracle Monocle.
When I first grabbed this book to write my review, I had no idea what to expect. I skimmed the table of contents and formed an opinion before I started to read, but I quickly realized after the first essay that this work surpassed my already high expectations. Yes, this is a book about being a woman, a mother, a professor, and a writer, but intertwined are stories about more than these complex and multifaceted identities. As we read these personal essays, we endeavor to grasp how Griffiths comes to terms with constructing and deconstructing concepts; she mesmerizes us with narratives of language, humor, resistance, violence, power, forgetting, remembering, and the feminine body.
My interest was sparked by Griffiths's focus on language. The first essay traces the evolution of the word "cunt" from a problematic discussion with a potential graduate student to Hugh Rawson’s Dictionary of Invective to the Oxford English Dictionary. Griffiths then moves toward understanding the word in relation to herself and in relation to other ways the word could be perceived. With the word cunt as a catalyst for many of her other sections, we start to piece together this mosaic of works that aren’t necessarily a perfect fit, and yet they seamlessly fit together to build the image that Griffiths has painted.
We witness her rewriting her image of herself; as she puts it, “I wonder what I would name my parts…I resist it. Trying to determine why, I only arrive at this: I don’t want to part and parcel myself. Where does a cunt end and the rest of a woman’s body begin? The evolution of the word suggests no separation, the cunt eclipsing the woman, the part becoming the whole.” This is also where we see Griffiths resisting a permanent and established definition by reimagining the word and her body through various experiences, conversations, and situations.
In the first essay, Griffiths emphasizes her need to express herself, “I believe in the power of words. I believe language shapes thought and experience, creates beauty and ugliness, and allows understanding and misunderstanding. Words reflect our fundamental beliefs, diminishing or amplifying those beliefs according to the diction that frames them. Words can assault. They can heal.” Griffiths believes that knowing the origins of a term, as well as how it has been used in the past and present, aids her understanding of its nuances and implications, emphasizing the importance of understanding the microaggressions that women face and are not expected to address with these words by men. There are moments when we try to ignore, neglect, or push away these heinous acts of violence against our bodies with a smile, a laugh, or silence. And in those moments of silence, we become complacent, and the cycle begins to repeat itself.
I was excited to see how Griffiths weaves layered storylines of her own and from other women, as well as how they all intertwine in some way to create a collective yet individual experience about women and the many issues they face in a world that is set against them, or at least one that prioritizes their bodies.
One of my favorite pieces is near the end called “Nakedness,” which discusses the nakedness of the page that we write on and the nakedness of our bodies in which we write and compose our words again: “Ultimately, even in my best moments, I am still a body, a female body, tapping away at computer keys, sipping a coffee, and needing to pee. Nothing I can think of lets me forget the basic, corporeal fact of myself.” For Griffiths, nakedness becomes recursive, existing in interconnecting spaces both linguistically in her work and physically around us.
Griffiths explores women's experiences with bra shopping, Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, and a Metallica rockumentary in which women are objectified repeatedly. As she delves into her most private thoughts, she connects them to the larger concepts of words, usage, and meanings, and examines how intricate and nuanced words and tone become as ways for people to express themselves. Those experiences that we've tucked neatly away in the back of our minds as we go about our days are dissected in this book and analyzed through a variety of contexts and subtexts to help us comprehend the many lived experiences of women.