A review of My Little Red Book, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.
There is always a story in your first, though most of my firsts however longed for, seemed to come upon me not only unexpectedly but also to feel marred by their ordinariness. I had wished I could do them over again, make them more worthy of ‘first times’. First kiss. First period. First bra. First sexual encounter. I’ve forgotten much of the specifics of them, except it seems for those elements which embarrassed me.
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s My Little Red Book is a collection of first period stories from women – most of them American but a handful of them from other parts of the world including Australia, China, France, Turkey, Ghana and Kenya and spanning a broad range of ages. The author has collected a remarkable list of contributing writers, all the more admirable because she herself is only eighteen years old. Nalebuff started working on this book while she was still at high school!
Reading My Little Red Book not only brought back memories of my own but encouraged me to let go of residual awkwardness around my first period – to understand that the ordinariness and the silliness were all parts of the experience. It was special enough simply for being my first period. The achievement of books like My Little Red Book is not just that other girls somewhere have inevitably had more embarrassing menstrual experiences than you, it is that when talked about collectively they are no longer even all that embarrassing. Anthologies like these reinforce the need to celebrate and demystify the experiences of girls, especially when rituals of transition are otherwise so lacking for them. And as it should be for a book about a rite of passage a number of the stories are impressively stirring – from the black mother who explains to her daughter the dreadful significance of a girl’s first period in the era of slavery, to the sensory recollections of a woman who is blind, to the daughter who fakes her first period for the sake of her mother’s tenuous sense of accomplishment as a parent (her mother was absent for the real first period due to a stay in a psychiatric hospital).
Many of the stories are much less unusual and my own unexceptional experience at age twelve coming home from school is not out of place. Like me, everyone seems to have read Judy Blume’s 1970 novel, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret as a teenager. Various rituals are also referred to in the book, none more fascinating than those described in Shobha Sharma’s Locked in a Room with Dosai (set in India). Generally taboos from countries other than your own appear entirely alien but the confusion and shame around one’s first period seems to be sadly universal as an experience for girls. You’re just as likely to encounter blatant misogyny about periods in Australia as you are in Kenya or Canada.
Not all the stories are literary pieces, but each of them is charming. And they’re short. These stories can be read a couple at a time if you’re so inclined, but they’re also absorbing enough to be read all in one sitting. Ink Blots and Milk Spots by Krista Madsen was a favourite of mine, Memory: Day 1 by Abegunde is beautifully spare and Bernadette Murphy’s My Second First Period is quite brilliant. The Simple Vase series written by a mother and daughter about the daughter’s first period is also a memorable stand out, particularly as I hope one day to create a celebration of my daughter’s first period when the time comes. To give my daughter, without too much intrusion, the specialness mine lacked. In The Simple Vase series a mother describes her desire to make her daughter’s first period a celebration, only to have to quickly revise her ideas in the face of an even stronger desire from her daughter for privacy. The now adult daughter responds to her mother’s piece with her own recollections of that time, and in the end it appears her mother achieved exactly what she had set out to do – to give her daughter a sense of pride in her coming maturity. Likewise, Simple As Salt was both nicely written and also valuable for ideas for mothers and their daughters.
Reading the stories I eventually found myself grouping them into categories according to who girls chose to, or were forced to share their first period with – their mothers (most often), their fathers, their grandparents, teachers, sisters and surprisingly infrequently their best friends.. and still some chose to go it completely alone. Who told them how to use a pad or a tampon and how specific were they in their instructions? Delightfully, some mothers or big sisters sat outside bathroom doors and coached them calmly through their first experience. The saddest stories were those girls who were completely unprepared for the event, those who assumed they were dying or had done some terrible injury to themselves. But some experiences of first periods were joyful and it was these girls’ memories and their families’ roles in that outcome that I read with particular keenness as a mother.
You can read more here if you’re interested as the author has a website for the book. My Little Red Book is now available from Amazon and royalties from the book are being donated to charities promoting women’s health and education. But…the publisher, Hachette Book Group also has five copies of this book to give away to blue milk readers residing in the US or Canada. (I know, what about Australia?) Be the first five to leave a comment below and I’ll contact you to arrange your prize. The publisher has also requested no PO Boxes for postal addresses. Picky, picky.