Growing up, I often spent summers in Jacksonville, Florida, where my aunt and uncle lived. Their neighbor two houses down was an older, widowed woman named Wyn, who had a spectacular talent for showing off her spectacular talents, and would often clean her house, cook dinner and garden in her backyard nude, her blinds open to the world. It was known to the young men of the neighborhood that Wyn had certain times she'd be putting on shows, and it was known to their wives, mothers and girlfriends as well. As a child, her celebratory nakedness was intriguing, and also dredged up a bit of Catholic guilt for being titillated by it. By being unclothed, she seemed freer than the rest of us.
I thought of Wyn during Friday night's Southern lit-themed Naked Girls Reading event at Quixotic World, which resurrects the idea of the literary salon via five naked women from the burlesque community, and followed up last summer's fairy tale-themed event. Wyn's role was played by The Dirty Blonde, Angi B. Lovely, Courtney Crave, Glam'Amour and "head librarian"/show producer Black Mariah, who explained their definition of what might be considered Southern literature, at least for the night.
The first half featured excerpts from Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton's memoirs, and the piece about Parton exploring her sexuality in the face of a religious upbringing set the tone for the night. An excerpt from Julia Reed's wonderful Queen of the Turtle Derby was included in the second Southern hospitality section, as were selections on how to properly make cornbread, and a recipe for a cake made with Mountain Dew and Twang. (The cake was actually there on Friday, and it was real green.) David Sedaris, Nora Roberts and Flannery O'Connor were also included, and I was pleased to hear an excerpt of O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," which ended with her description of a grandmother's tidy appearance: "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady."
The third and final section of the evening focused on pieces by Mark Twain, and hearing five women read Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," assuming the roles of the men voting on how to democratically eat each other, was my favorite part of the night. Here is where the event started to feel more subversive, reinterpreting political satire at a time when women's reproductive and political rights are in flux. Same goes for their reading of Letters from the Earth, which grounded the evening in a bit of Southern morality.
As a three-act play should, Naked Girls Reading built in dramatic tension, and yet there was still a levity to the night, with the ladies cracking jokes and cheering each other on. However, the show was close to three hours long, a bit of a marathon for an event like this.
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I admit I cringed when I read the series' tagline ("You can't spell literature without T & A"). This certainly wasn't Karen Finley railing, naked, against abuse and the patriarchy on stage, and as much as I would have loved to see them tackle more prickly Southern authors and texts, I don't think NGR's goal is to make a political statement, just to make literature more accessible, to tie it back into the idea of artistic pursuit and pleasure, and to view certain works -- as well as the idea of the "reading" -- in a different context. We all need an elevator pitch to get us interested.