CURF and a Search for Kate Braverman

Hi, there! I’m Leah Mensch, a senior at Pitt, pursuing a BA in English Literature and a BPhil in Nonfiction Writing. This fall, I’m conducting a CURF project about Kate Braverman, a once prominent Los Angeles writer who died, last October, with her work almost entirely out of print.

Kate’s writing career spanned more than four decades. Her first book of poetry was published in 1977, and her last book, a collection of short stories, was published in late 2018, about a year before she died. Although she was first a poet, she catalyzed lyric fiction—stories beautiful not as much for structure and plot as they were for images and sounds, meticulously selected language. Braverman’s summers are wounding, a mesa of clouds line her skies, and early adolescence is a stasis of sunlight filtered through venetian blinds. Writing the first English novel with a “heroine on heroin,” she pioneered flawed feminist protagonists—single mothers on the run, cocaine addicts and sexual sadists, anarchist AA members who refused to take their bipolar medication. But they were fierce and intelligent. Braverman’s women didn’t raise men. They left men behind completely. 

She was not an ordinary woman. One summer, she baked three pies a day to perfect the crust. She grew up in an impoverished LA with a criminal mother and a heroin addiction. She ran away at fifteen and later, gave birth to her daughter hiding in the barrios. She was disgusted by much of womanhood—cooking and cleaning and submissiveness. But she never tried to escape it, and instead, grew inside of it and tried to push back against it. All of this appears in Braverman’s writing— mostly autobiographical fiction and always, she said once, a relentless attack on the male dominion of literature. 

She was a difficult woman. She yelled to students that their work was a crime against the page, and she fought back when her editors told her to “tone herself down.” She developed a reputation in the publishing world so brutal, editors suggested she change her name. She was dismissed over and over again, for being angry. For being a psychotic. For writing about drugs and sex. And all of this, combined with her womanhood, pushed her off the literary radar.

When I look at Kate Braverman, I see an angry woman, but also a complicated woman. She loathed capitalism, but she wanted readers to consume her work. She rejected white feminism, but could never quite acknowledge the privilege that came with her own whiteness. I see a woman who never was able to finish saying what she was trying to say. I’m conducting this project because I think Kate Braverman is one of the most brilliant female writers in the past century, but also, because I am a writer, and I am beginning to understand how much the odds were stacked up against her. And, because I want the writers of this generation to be able to put their whole self on the page without consequence.

What I’ll be working on, as I research, is a big critical, creative, and lyric essay on Braverman. This will also be a part of my BPhil thesis, and my MFA creative writing graduate application. There is no significant profiling or biography out on her, and so I’ve had the opportunity to talk with people who knew her, read all 14 of her books, and dig up unpublished poems and about every newspaper article and interview with her out there. She wrote hundreds of beautiful stories. But I’m looking for the ones she didn’t tell.

I’ve been working alongside Jen Lee, my research advisor for this project, for almost two years now. It was Jen herself who introduced me to Kate Braverman’s work, remembering the novel as something she had loved as a graduate student. It’s extra special that I’m getting to work on this project/essay alongside her.

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