I remember reading about 18th century Parisian salons as a maudlin teenager and wishing that I had been around to see them. Though I didn’t really understand their full scope (or impact), they seemed like places designed for revolutionary conversations. To a teenage girl obsessed with books and talking, few things were more appealing. In the intervening years, the word ‘salon’ has continued to hold a vague appeal for me and I’ve been drawn repeatedly to the concept.
So when I walked into Joe’s Pub for the Women of Letters event last week, I had an idea of what to expect—a carefully curated literary salon meant to further the dialogue about women’s lives and experiences. And more than that, a passionate attempt at resurrecting letter-writing. I was on board!
Co-created in 2010 by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire in Melbourne, Australia, Women of Letters brings together female writers, artists and entertainers for an evening of letter-reading and discussion. January’s New York salon addressed the theme of ‘stumbling blocks,’ a topic explored by each of the contributors through intensely personal letters. The panel included producer Deborra-Lee Furness, filmmaker Rayya Elias, author Megan Amram, singer-songwriter Melissa Auf Der Maur, comedian Sharon Spell and scientist and writer Maggie Ryan Sandford.
Among the stories told were those of alcoholism, drug addiction, abandonment and insecurity. And though the stumbling blocks themselves were varied, the letter-writers shared a common bond in overcoming these experiences. I don’t mean overcoming in the simple sense of the word, as in the circumstances being fully behind them; I mean overcoming in the sense that they acknowledged the most difficult moments of their lives and worked through them with humor and courage.
The letters were the focal point of the evening, certainly. But the atmosphere in the room was also incredibly unique. In order to protect the privacy of the women involved, Women of Letters has a strict no-recording policy intended to encourage a sense of shared vulnerability among the contributors and audience. An atmosphere that makes the event feel much more powerful than the sum total of the experiences discussed. For me, this served as a reminder of the original appeal of 18th century salons and of the power of discourse. It also made me realize that Women of Letters is just as revolutionary as its predecessors.
The fourth installment of Women of Letters will be held on February 6. Tickets are available through The Public Theater.
Photos by Sarah Rayne