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The Fascination with Frida Kahlo Endures: Jay Griffiths’ A Love Letter from a Stray Moon

by Estelle Tang , July 19, 20113 Comments

A Love Letter from a Stray Moon is haunted by a ghost book, an ‘intensely autobiographical narrative of emotions’ that Jay Griffiths, after writing, decided was too personal to publish. So while this fictional autobiography of Frida Kahlo ‘tickles the literal’, it uses the character and story of Frida to express the essence of – and, simultaneously, carefully mask – that discarded first draft. It’s an exercise with which Frida would sympathise, I think, given that she constructed masks for herself all her life.

A Love Letter is written as if Frida herself were looking back on her life with both a sense of nostalgia and a big-hearted defiance. What have gone down in history as the defining events of her life are all here: her polio, the bus crash that left her impaled and unable to carry a child to full term, her love for Diego Rivera, her political beliefs, her many operations and constant pain, her grief about being unable to bear children, her suspected suicide. Her love of spectacle and the way she expressed herself through her appearance are also explored, and bubbling throughout the text is an unbridled, infectious feistiness.

It’s an approximation that sometimes slips into rhetoric for Griffiths’ own beliefs, such as those about climate change. Yet it’s mostly an ode to living fiercely and bravely, and can almost be read as a call to arms to do the same. Griffiths’ deep admiration for Frida permeates the pages, and in this way A Love Letter falls firmly within the tradition of feminist writings about her.

The intensity of vision that Frida expressed through her artwork is reflected in Griffiths’ image-rich prose. There is much beauty and innovation here: I particularly enjoyed how Griffiths stretches the language in unexpected places, such as in ‘It jagged her features and jangled her face to a skull’, and the breathless rhythm that Griffiths conjures is both hypnotic and intoxicating. A Love Letter exercises a playfulness with language, a determination to broaden its capacities and to increase its malleability, which is, for me, the principal delight of this book. If sometimes the language tips into slightly overwrought territory, it’s a forgivable consequence of Griffiths’ brave pushing of linguistic boundaries .

The peppering of the prose with Spanish terms helps to evoke a sense of Frida’s milieu, but I was disappointed when these weren’t correct – there are gender and tense issues – and maybe I’m missing something but I can’t work out why one of the chapters is titled ‘Risorgimento’, an Italian term for the Italian unification, when the Spanish ‘Resurgimiento’ would make more sense. Yet while such details reduce the illusion of authenticity for some, many readers will pass over them, and thus the world created by Griffiths will remain intact.

Griffiths returns again and again to metaphors of the moon and of flight. While the evocations of flight are executed with a light touch, those of the moon can feel a little heavy-handed. But Griffiths’ vision is indisputably grand, which is a significant achievement in such a slight book. The best way to do it justice is to end with a taste of it, so listen, for a moment:

Those were the days when everything could fly. The curled leaf in spring is sprung in its flight to sunlight, and kittens, cantering up gardens, dew drops from long grass all over their noses and paws, felt their kitten-hearts bursting with sun and life because they knew they could fly. To me, all words were winged and all flight was minded and, since I lived in overflow, I overflew.

Elizabeth Bryer has an essay on interpreting in Issue 6 of Kill Your Darlings and her online home is Plume of Words. Purchase Issue Six here.

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