J. Courtney Sullivan is, just like each of her engaging and multifaceted characters in “Commencement," far from two-dimensional. In our conversation, she tells me stories about sending copies of works by feminist activist and scholar Catharine MacKinnon anonymously to boys after a terrible first date, and refers to her expression of newfound political views in her younger years as “really intense.” She also speaks candidly about publishing “Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man,” a self-help book which she says “I don’t know that I can make a feminist argument for,” in 2007, in order to “get my name out there.”
Sullivan is the kind of multiple-selves, self-contradicting yet genuine feminist that the 21st century has borne. So too are Sullivan’s heroines in “Commencement”, Celia, Sally, and Bree, who range from ambivalence about how to apply the lessons of feminist writers they’ve studied at Smith to their own lives, to a simple inability or refusal to relate to issues of women’s inequality. The fourth heroine, April, stands alone as the self-identified radical in the group and the only woman willing to put her own body and life on the line for her values. I was reassured by April’s ability to articulate her convictions, but concerned about how their consequences would be realized in the unfolding plot of this suspenseful novel.
I don’t want to seem as though I’m being hard on Sullivan or her characters: “Commencement”’s politics focus intently on the importance of recognizing women’s inequality locally and throughout the world, and much of April’s activism against underage prostitution and other pressing women’s rights issues in the novel stems from Sullivan’s own work with columnist Bob Herbert at The New York Times. “I’ve been really blessed that I work for a columnist who’s really interested in women’s issues, and so I’ve been able to really sort of dig in to these issues that I’ve always been passionate about,” she says.
If a further stamp of credibility is required, Gloria Steinem called Sullivan personally to offer a blurb, including the consequential line, “‘Commencement’ makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.” “I’ve always worshiped her from afar, of course; I saw her at many panels in my Smith days,” says Sullivan, who graduated in 2003. “But she just called and said, ‘Oh, hi, it’s Gloria Steinem, and I have this blurb for you but I can’t seem to figure out the e-mail so I’m just going to read it to you.’ I’m like, what? I mean, I couldn’t even process what was happening and I was just basically speaking in gibberish and she then just read out the blurb which is the most generous blurb of all time from my complete hero in life, so I was just falling all over myself. I had to write her a note later to say, ‘Sorry I couldn’t get three words out but I was just a little bit in shock!’ So that was pretty cool.”
While the tensions and multiple interpretations of 21st-century feminism feel on one level like the heart of “Commencement”, Sullivan sees her characters and their interwoven stories as the nucleus. “When you’re writing a novel, I feel like you can’t approach it and say, this is a novel about feminism, this is a novel about friendship, this is a novel about—I mean, I certainly had bigger ideas, a sort of sketched-out framework, but it was much more ‘What happens when four friends leave college and want to continue being friends, how does that look? How do they do that?’ And so all these other pieces—feminism or Catholicism or sex or whatever, they just enter in because that’s what there is, that’s what I have in my head.”
Sullivan’s skill as a storyteller is just one of many personal connections to her Irish heritage. She mentions that her parents will be “thrilled” about her appearance in Irish America, saying, “I’m from outside of Boston and in Boston people are so passionate about their Irishness … When I was growing up, for example, everybody on our street was Irish. And all the girls did Irish step dancing, it was pre-‘Lord of the Dance,’ it was before anybody knew what gillys were, but we did, and there was such pride among the members of my family and people I grew up with. Every St. Patrick’s Day in my hometown is such a huge thing. You know, it was like Christmas, but in green. So I went to Smith and I remember waking up on St. Patrick’s Day and going out into the hall, and there was like one person wearing green. Nobody was celebrating. I was like, ‘What is this? Aren’t we going to listen to the Clancy Brothers now? What’s happening?’” She enthuses, “My family comes from County Cork. A couple of years ago, my parents and my sister and I went and did the whole Ring of Kerry thing, which was fantastic, and I think we have family in other places scattered around there as well. I love Ireland.”
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