Ariel Gore’s fantastical memoir We Were Witches tells the story of a teenage mother and aspiring writer surviving the throws of Bush-era conservatism.
Ariel, a fictionalized version of the author, plays no games with readers. She spells out exactly what she’s working with (and not working with) as she claws, magicks and reads her way out of a hole of poverty, student loans and domestic violence. Guided by witches, goddesses and feminist foremothers—including the likes of Audre Lorde, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa—Ariel breathes new life into herself and her daughter, Maia. During her mainly solitary journey towards adulthood, Ariel is radicalized by her own existence as a new mom and college student.
Having been discounted by a culture that does not deem her story worth telling, Ariel learns to harness her talents—rewriting fairy tales, literary dogma and womanhood for herself and her daughter.
We Were Witches is a novel whose very structure is self-aware in its capacity for feminism. Ariel creates a narrative space in which she can thrive by inverting the phallocentric Freytag’s pyramid she’s taught in class. “Rising action” and “climax” are replaced with the language of her own survival: invocation, depth and resistance. In this way, Gore calls critical attention to traditional literary canon and the ways its form not only reflects male pleasure, but limits those who are excluded from masculinity.
The result is breathtaking: The hybrid form of prose, essay, poetry and almost-flash-fiction work together to create a cohesive whole in which even the punctuation can surprise and captivate. Make no mistake—in taking such a form, Gore’s potent portrayal of the systems working against Ariel is made even more scathing in its intentionality. Yet the delivery is never overwrought, instead serving to electrify Ariel’s story and propel her voice.
Layered on top of Ariel’s narrative are the complex themes of violence and shame. Both are constantly experienced by Ariel, as they act externally on her body—by virtue of unfair welfare policies, a bitter mother, closing institutional doors and the occasional confrontation with the father of her child—and manifest as internalized beliefs on what is “normal.” Towards the novel’s opening, Ariel lists out her woman-shames of the physical body and connects them to what that body produces and experiences: art, sexuality, children, debt, success and failure. After witnessing a male doctor sharply slap the newly-born Maia to hear her first cry, Ariel becomes unrelenting in her commitment to breaking the cycle of shame and violence—to living in defiance of that list.
However, all this is complicated by Gore’s commitment to characters as complicated, fully-fleshed people—both inflicting judgement on Ariel while also offering flashes of support and understanding. The grandmother that is embarrassed for Ariel’s situation is also the family member that loves her best. The flighty ex-girlfriend that visits Ariel also leaves condescending poetry. Ariel is a dedicated mother who chain-smokes around her daughter. Gore’s generosity with every character creates a novel that blooms in a grey area not of moral ambiguity, but of honesty.
Yet for all its ideals and literary revolutions, We Were Witches remains accessible to readers in its total lack of pretension. Fast, funny and raw, this novel’s appeal isn’t made stiffer by its feminism, but rather invigorated by it. The story is spellbinding in its own right, punching readers in the gut with realizations of self and society that are both Ariel’s and their own. It’s a woman-centric narrative that doesn’t shy away from critical reflections on relationships between women (including the queer kind!) or generous observations on masculinity. There’s a millennial savviness to the novel, and the strength of Ariel’s voice shines throughout, easily avoiding the tropes and melodrama often associated with teenage motherhood.
It’s a re-writing of every helpless princess fairy tale and a reclamation of every Scarlet Letter.
We Were Witches is an absolute must read.