“What does shame require to stay alive? What is the antidote to shame?”
When Ariel finds herself pregnant at 18, she gets a crash course in shame. Her grandmother tells her she’s irresponsible and her mother lectures her on the dangers of stretch marks. Her neighbors, finding out she’s on food stamps, write violent messages on her door and threaten to tear up her benefits check. When she tries to get a restraining order against her abusive ex, the court grants him partial custody of their daughter Maia because “children need fathers.” Ad campaigns against teen pregnancy plaster images of girls with the words “REJECT,” “DIRTY,” and “LOSER.” The message is clear: Ariel’s job as a teen mother is to be ashamed, and broadcast that shame to the world.
But Ariel isn’t about to succumb to shame that easily, and despite the odds stacked against her, she decides to earn a college education. As she works doggedly toward her goal, racking up student debt along the way, she slowly and hesitantly finds allies in the fringe. A bruja at a botanica teaches her how to cast spells for self-empowerment. The queer punk mom next door guides her through the unforgiving family court system. And through it all, Ariel finds nourishment and wisdom in the writings of Ntozake Shange, Diane di Prima, and other feminist thinkers. We Were Witches is an experimental novel, peppered with subversive fairy tales, musings on feminist theory, and pointed interstitials like Ariel’s terrifying student loan balance, but that experimentation doesn’t come at the expense of an engrossing narrative. Rather, all the pieces of the novel come together to paint a moving portrait of a young mother, student, and writer thriving and growing even as she struggles to survive in a hostile culture.
“I knew we would have to mold ourselves into princesses even though I knew perfectly well we were meant to be witches,” Ariel muses upon reading “Rapunzel” to Maia. As Maia falls asleep, though, Ariel plants the seeds of rebellion, whispering, “Don’t forget when we were witches.”
“We were witches,” Maia whispers back.
Fans of autobiographical feminist novels like Michelle Tea’s Valencia will love Ariel’s journey of self-actualization, at turns magical and cerebral, full of courage and love.