Feb/Mar 2008

Troia: Mexican Memoirs

Ronna Johnson


Women writers have notoriously been absent from the Beat canon. Although memoirs by Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, and Diane di Prima, as well as recent academic studies, have challenged this omission, women have been underrated and underrepresented in the movement’s largely male roster. Reissuing Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs after nearly forty years out of print, the Dalkey Archive Press assists in the recovery of one of these protofeminist writers who depicted women as agents, not objects, of Beat culture. Born Brenda Frazer in Washington, DC, in 1939, Bremser is a second-generation Beat writer; Troia is a lost classic of experimental writing that speaks the movement’s aesthetics and ethos from the vantage of a woman living the “beat” life.

After dropping out of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Bonnie met and married the Beat poet Ray Bremser in 1959, having known him for three weeks. Two years later, they were on the lam in Mexico with their baby, Rachel, fugitives from the New Jersey prison authorities, which were pursuing Ray for violating parole. This flight, the manifest subject of Troia, is recounted in the daily two-page letters Bremser wrote to Ray from March to November 1963, during his second incarceration. She retrospectively details her life of prostitution on the road in Mexico and the couple’s desperate relinquishment of Rachel there. She never planned to publish this material, but Ray gave the letters to the poet Michael Perkins, who edited them for the 1969 Croton Press publication without her oversight. Troia, then, is a book with the mystique of Beat legend and a pedi­gree of appropriation and exploitation.

Bremser’s record of sex, drugs, marriage, maternity, prison, poetry, transcendent vision, and life south of the border demonstrates the foundational aesthetics of Beat writing: road-tale restlessness, confessional openness, uncensored sexual intimacy, stream-of-consciousness narration, epistolary collaboration, and just plain kicks. Troia’s stretched-out, episodic narrative line, sentence spirals, and poignant sketches were inspired by Kerouac, a precursor also apparent in Bremser’s spontaneous writing method and the visionary sweep of her insights. But she used his techniques and genre for the conspicuously deviant empowerment of a female Beat subject. Both protagonist and narrator, Bremser is a sexual adventuress partaking in the descriptive gusto usually reserved in Beat writing for freewheeling masculinity; her confessed inner states provide the text’s gritty, visceral discourse. Merging memoir with road narrative, domesticity with adventure, Troia inscribes a revisionist, hybrid female protagonist.

In this, Frazer converts “beat”—the subcultural ethos that rejected traditional values and inhibitions for nonconformity, self-determination, and existential improvisations—to her own specifically gendered ends. Troia’s sex narrative features both maternity and prostitution, dissolving the received madonna/whore binary by making the matron equally the whore. The word troia derives from negative associations with Helen of Troy and French slang meaning “whore”; like the mythic Helen, Bremser is both wife and courtesan, but unlike her, she’s turned out to prostitution by her husband. (The title of the book’s 1971 British edition, For Love of Ray, marks this.) Yet as the subject-narrator of her Mexican memoir, she transforms troia from denotation of “prostitute” (object) to connotation of “sexually adventurous woman” (agent): “I embrace my prostitution,” Bremser proclaims. Inhabiting this declarative stance, she overcomes constraints of gender to be beat, as Troia, its long season of suppression, anonymity, and unavailability at a close, is restored to Beat literary history.

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