Triumph of the Tragedy Queen: Lana, Sylvia Plath, and the Tragic Feminine

Lana and Sylvia

The question is often asked: why is Lana Del Rey so cool? (As the singer-songwriter herself once asked, “Who’s doper than this bitch?”) Father John Misty rightly observed earlier this year that a roomful of top songwriters could work forever and not come up with something as good as “Fucked My Way Up to the Top.”

In all seriousness, this topic has torn the ToM writers’ room apart. People tend to have very strong opinions when it comes to the subject of Lana. The brooding, flame-haired ingenue inspires both intense dislike and slavish adoration. I am well known to be in the pro-Lana camp, for better or worse, finding her Cuisinart approach to American pop cultural mythologies (California, Sunset Boulevard, gangsters and gun molls, Bonnie and Clyde) and her extremely deliberate cultivation of a persona irresistible. She’s like Madonna, but with ideas. (Sorry, Madge. I still love you.) In particular, Lana’s performance of gender and femininity has been consistently fascinating and complex; at one moment she’s a dreamy schoolgirl struck with puppy-dog love, practically out of a 50s doo-wop hit (“my boyfriend’s back, and he’s cooler than ever”), and then she is a defiant bad-bitch who runs everyone around her and gets what she wants (“if I were you, and you were me, I’d get out of my way”). All of this is wrapped up in a Mad Men-era visual aesthetic that’s also steeped in the attitude and sonics of hip-hop.

tragedy queens

Suffice to say that when Eric Newsom — my erstwhile colleague at the Gaston Gazette’s Yo! Page in the 1990s and now a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Central Missouri — tweeted a link to the new book Tragedy Queens, I was over the moon. The book, conceived and edited by writer Leza Cantoral, audaciously brings together original short stories inspired by both Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath. The connection between two truly distinct figures over a huge expanse of space and time, not to mention different genres and sensibilities, had inspired a work as original and unique as the women who spurred it into existence. Both Lana and Plath have embodied longing and pain in ways that resonate with many listeners and readers, but they also are avatars of tremendous strength and resilience as well.

Here in the interview below, we talk to the progenitor of the project, Leza Cantoral, and Monique Quintana, a previous ToM contributor and author of the story “Sad Girl.”

Cantoral is first:

Why Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath?  How did you come up with this idea and/or how did it come to you?

I have been obsessed with Sylvia Plath for years, since I first read Ariel in college. The archetype of the tragic feminine haunts me. I relate all too much to many Lana Del Rey songs. When I first heard her, a few years ago, she became all I listened to for several years, constantly on repeat, as I wrote, cried, or took selfies. She became my dark mirror. When you find artists like these, they give you a safe place to look at your darkness & start to heal. I started following accounts on social media like Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today on Twitter (and then reading the essay collection by the same name). I started listening to Melanie Martinez & her song “Cry Baby” really resonated. I discovered Audrey Woolen, who’s Instagram handle was Tragic Queen. All the things these women were talking about & expressing in their words, songs, & images were resonating with me in a big way.

It felt like an emotional swell of women finally saying, “No, I am not gonna pretend be perfect, I am not gonna slap a smile on my face to make you more comfortable, if I wanna take a crying selfie on Instagram or Tweet about my perpetual neurotic despair I am gonna do it. You can follow me or not.”

I found this very empowering.

I think the first book I read that made me feel this kinship was Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. That is when the bells started going off. Also listening to Hole & Garbage & Fiona Apple & Tori Amos in high school. They were my intro to feminine angst. Courtney Love was my Plath before Plath & Anne Sexton.

I wanted to create an antho that was focused on the female experience, because there is still so much focus on the male experience and POV. I also just love the art of Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath. Their poems, songs & music videos inspire my own writings all the time.

There is this idea that poetry is high art & pop music is low art & I think that is utter nonsense.

How did you go about soliciting authors to contribute?  Were there preexisting groups or communities of discourse that you knew you could go to, or was it a general call for contributions?

The whole spirit of the antho screamed Luna Luna Magazine. So that was the first place I went to share the submission call (in the Luna Luna X Community on Facebook). There were writers whose work I became a fan of who wrote for Luna Luna & you can bet I went after them, including the founder of the magazine, Lisa Marie Basile. I met Monique Quintana because she was writing for Luna as well & I admired her nonfiction voice. There were horror writers whom I was a fan of & I queried them. I’d say the antho is about 50/50 queries & blind submissions. I have met some incredible new talents because of putting out that call, so I am glad I did not just fill it with writers I already knew.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

Anyone who is a fan of Lana Del Rey or Sylvia Plath. People who love noir, horror, ghost stories, rape revenge stories, stories about sad girls & bad girls, bad romance, & surrealist lyrical prose poems. There is no specific genre here. Just amazingly written stories & powerful voices. Emo, trans, LGBTQ & latinx young people looking for voices who speak for those experiences; of falling in love, of finding yourself when you have no one, of becoming something totally unique, despite or perhaps because of the obstacles you face.

What do you see as themes that run through the stories in the book?  Tragedy is obviously a motif, but desire and longing seem to be central as well.  What else?

I think this antho is about women finding themselves in an honest way. Breaking down, looking for love, hating yourself, fighting for yourself, finding your own meaning in life.

The most unusual story in the antho is a trans Lovecraftian love story written by a trans writer named Larissa Glasser. She actually came to my house when I had submissions open, just to hang out, and we got drunk & I played some Lana Del Rey videos for her. “Born to Die” really spoke to her. She even cried. She talked to me about not feeling like she belonged anywhere, how she felt like a freak, how she sometimes thought of ending her own life. We talked all night. We talked about Sylvia Plath, we talked about how hard life is. I told her I would love for her to write me a story. She picked a Plath poem & she wrote this gorgeous freaking story. It is the strangest love story I have ever read. It needed very few edits. It was pretty much good to go. She’s fucking amazing.

This is what inspires me. I want the voices that need to be heard.

This might be a bit of a thorny question, but how do you see this work in relation to fanfic?  The stories in the anthology are clearly not explicitly about the adventures of Lana or Plath per se, but the “inspired by” stories seem to share some cultural DNA with fanfic.  Is that an apt or inapt comparison?

I don’t really know how it would be fan fic if the narrative is completely original. What I did see was people drawing from common themes about mental health struggles, body dysmorphia, sexual identity, self-destruction, coming of age, & toxic relationships. Those are the themes that a lot of women are dealing with in their lives.

Do you see Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath as feminist figures? If so, can you talk about how or why?

The fact that they lay it all out there. The fact that they created art that was honest, brutally so. The illusion that women are these soft, malleable, purely nurturing creatures of self-sacrifice, the emotional caretakers of the fragile male ego, is finally evaporating, thanks to people like Elizabeth Wurtzel, Melissa Broder, Courtney Love, Patti Smith, Anne Sexton, & Frida Kahlo. The list is truly endless of groundbreaking & brave women who live out loud & unfiltered.

Lana Del Rey presents a view of a woman who is not perfect. Her songs are explorations of archetypes from Lolita to the “other woman,” the femme fatale, the Lynchian dark side. She is not trying to be anyone’s idea of perfection. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem “The Munich Mannequins”:

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.

The courage to say that you do not feel good, & might never feel good, but are going to live your life on your own terms, is powerful & empowering to a gender that has been asked to hide their pain for centuries.

The time of hiding is over. Here we are. Take us as we are.


Now, Monique Quintana:

Did the song “Sad Girl” (from Lana’s 2014 album Ultraviolence) directly inspire your story, or was it an idea for a story you already had in mind and then the title “Sad Girl” just seemed like a good fit?

The first draft of the story was a much more literal interpretation of the song, “Sad Girl” and it sort of riffed on Nabokov’s Lolita.  It was about a woman who becomes disillusioned with her relationship with a married man. In hindsight, I realize that the first draft was convoluted because I was writing too much to the conceit of the song, rather than being inspired by the song. The opening scene in the published version was merely a flashback scene in the first draft of the story. My editor, Leza Cantoral, encouraged me to rewrite the story and follow this story of the teenage lovers. The published story is connected to a novella manuscript I’ve been working on. It’s the conception story of one of the novella’s main characters, who’s a teenage brujo living in Parkside Fresno.

I kept the title because I think it still fits the mood of the piece and ultimately, it became about celebrating my brown feminism. I found autonomy in writing this story. For the past few years, I’ve been really interested in exploring the idea of sadness, especially through the lens of Mexicanness and Xicana identity. My father turned me on to Mexican soap operas when I was in my mid-twenties and I’ve been reexamining them again. I love the grotesqueness and decadence of them, especially in the way the characters speak and interact with each other.  Many of the scenes are very dark and feverish and over-the-top.

During my time as a student in Fresno State’s Creative Writing program, I learned about so many “rules” of fiction writing, especially during writing workshops. One of “rules” was that characters shouldn’t cry or lament too much on the page. I really try to fuck with this idea with the “Sad Girl” story and my novella project. I find the image of a lamenting brown woman to be very politicized. Sometimes when women are traumatized by men, they need to acknowledge the trauma before they came let go. La Llorona is a pychopomp that belongs to brown women and I’ve wanted to channel her in my work because she has meant so much to me. Writing this story helped me to tap into all the outrageousness of being a “Sad Girl.”

Your story has a kind of timelessness to it, with only the references to a car’s model year and the Elvis film giving a suggestion of the location in time.  Was it important to keep the historical period vague?  Or is this perhaps a nod to Lana’s own fixation with imagery from 1950s and 1960s popular culture?

The story is set in an alternative 1997 Fresno. Like I mentioned earlier, the story is in the same universe as my novella manuscript. In that Fresno, all the hospitals in the city have been shut down because they’ve become corrupt and they’ve been replaced with mobile clinics, making it difficult for people to take care of their bodies. With these narratives, I imagine that I’ve kept the time hazy to project a sense of disillusionment amongst the characters. Like myself, I think the characters cling to nostalgia and trashy glamor because it makes them it makes them feel good, even if it’s just for a little while. I’ve also been writing to archive the places I loved growing up in Fresno, like the Woodward Drive-In. Many of these places are gone, and I have a lot of nostalgia for them.

I’ve always loved the 50s and 60s and that’s one of the reasons why Lana Del Rey’s aesthetic is so appealing to me. I lived with my grandparents when I was a kid and grew up watching Elvis Presley movies because they idolized him. I found Priscilla Presley’s autobiography when I was twelve and read it in two days and tried to tease my hair with a rattail comb so I could look like her. Of course, I was very naïve then. I didn’t realize that the 50s and 60s were a really rough time for young people of color. Still, it fascinates me how nostalgic my grandparents were for those times. I find the 1950s and 1960s aesthetics to be so beautiful, but very tainted by the toxic façade of Americana.  I’m really into exploring these tensions in my prose.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a story that centers on tattooing, the language in “Sad Girl” has a very real physicality to it, a preoccupation with the body.  Why is meditating on the physical and corporeal important for the story?

I feel that writing stories can become a form of necromancy. There’s a certain danger in writing the body and this can give fiction more gravity and impact. My narrator is talking about her dead lover, and I felt it was important that he be reanimated through her senses. That’s why I chose to write the story in first person. I feel that death is traumatizing because we as humans are mourning the loss of the physical body. I’ve been going through bouts of illness this past year, and I value the body much more than I used to. It’s like when people are evicted from their houses and they are immensely sad. Of course, they’ll have their memories, but there’s something to be said about the physical space and what happens when we begin to lose that space.

It’s also very important to me that I write brown female characters that are very attuned to their sexuality and the way their bodies respond sexually to others. In this story, sexual pleasure is experienced as female pleasure. I’m always frustrated when Madonna/Whore dichotomies are projected on women in fiction. I’m interested in writing in the in-between space of these constructions.

The story plays with a lot of symbolism around gender and sexuality.  How do you think your characters embody gender, and is that related to the way Lana Del Rey constructs femininity and masculinity in her work?

I’m compelled to write about masculine glamor. I was always falling in love with cholos growing up because I think they exude a certain kind of glamor that I find very nostalgic: the cologne, the pomade in their hair, the sunglasses, and their careful attention to the way they dress. I’m always trying to explore machismo and its many manifestations when I write male characters. The teenage boy in “Sad Girl” displays masculinity by tattooing, but he’s also very gentle and affectionate in most of the story, especially the sex scene in the bathroom. His father is very domineering and clearly rules the domestic space at certain points, but he leaves the space when he realizes that he’s gone to far.

The narrator is a sad girl who must learn how to get autonomy at the end of the story. I think this sense of autonomy is similar to what Lana Del Rey does with the female personas she creates. I’ve always been intrigued by the way she plays with gender in her lyrics and music videos. She talks about being the “Bonnie on the side” and has created this persona of a woman who involves herself with older men who have money and can give her things. She leads these men to think they are in power, but in actuality, she’s playing them for fools. I think it’s important not to sanitize women, but show them for all their complexities. The story is sad, but I think the narrator’s able to assert her sexuality with her lover and in turn, he respects her sexuality, which makes their love reciprocal, and that’s the pulse of the story, for me. I’m really trying to write good and beautiful and respectful sexual relationships between brown women and men in my stories because I feel that’s necessary right now.

The story is set in an alternative 1997 Fresno. Like I mentioned earlier, the story is in the same universe as my novella manuscript. In that Fresno, all the hospitals in the city have been shut down because they’ve become corrupt and they’ve been replaced with mobile clinics, making it difficult for people to take care of their bodies. With these narratives, I imagine that I’ve kept the time hazy to project a sense of disillusionment amongst the characters. Like myself, I think the characters cling to nostalgia and trashy glamor because it makes them it makes them feel good, even if it’s just for a little while. I’ve also been writing to archive the places I loved growing up in Fresno, like the Woodward Drive-In. Many of these places are gone, and I have a lot of nostalgia for them.

I’ve always loved the 50s and 60s and that’s one of the reasons why Lana Del Rey’s aesthetic is so appealing to me. I lived with my grandparents when I was a kid and grew up watching Elvis Presley movies because they idolized him. I found Priscilla Presley’s autobiography when I was twelve and read it in two days and tried to tease my hair with a rattail comb so I could look like her. Of course, I was very naïve then. I didn’t realize that the 50s and 60s were a really rough time for young people of color. Still, it fascinates me how nostalgic my grandparents were for those times. I find the 1950s and 1960s aesthetics to be so beautiful, but very tainted by the toxic façade of Americana.  I’m really into exploring these tensions in my prose.

The story plays with a lot of symbolism around gender and sexuality.  How do you think your characters embody gender, and is that related to the way Lana Del Rey constructs femininity and masculinity in her work?

I’m compelled to write about masculine glamor. I was always falling in love with cholos growing up because I think they exude a certain kind of glamor that I find very nostalgic: the cologne, the pomade in their hair, the sunglasses, and their careful attention to the way they dress. I’m always trying to explore machismo and its many manifestations when I write male characters. The teenage boy in “Sad Girl” displays masculinity by tattooing, but he’s also very gentle and affectionate in most of the story, especially the sex scene in the bathroom. His father is very domineering and clearly rules the domestic space at certain points, but he leaves the space when he realizes that he’s gone to far.

The narrator is a sad girl who must learn how to get autonomy at the end of the story. I think this sense of autonomy is similar to what Lana Del Rey does with the female personas she creates. I’ve always been intrigued by the way she plays with gender in her lyrics and music videos. She talks about being the “Bonnie on the side” and has created this persona of a woman who involves herself with older men who have money and can give her things. She leads these men to think they are in power, but in actuality, she’s playing them for fools. I think it’s important not to sanitize women, but show them for all their complexities. The story is sad, but I think the narrator’s able to assert her sexuality with her lover and in turn, he respects her sexuality, which makes their love reciprocal, and that’s the pulse of the story, for me. I’m really trying to write good and beautiful and respectful sexual relationships between brown women and men in my stories because I feel that’s necessary right now.

Leza Cantoral is a Xicana writer & editor who lives on the internet. She is the Editor in Chief of CLASH Books & host of theGet Lit With Leza podcast where she talks to cool ass writers. Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath is a CLASH Books anthology of stories that she edited as a result of being a Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath megafan. You can find her on YouTube at Get Lit With Leza. She blogs at lezacantoral.com. Twitter & Instagram @lezacantoral.
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Monique Quintana is the Senior Beauty and Wellness Editor at Luna Luna Magazine, and her work has appeared in Huizache, Bordersenses, and The Acentos Review, among other publications. She is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Sundress Academy of the Arts and has been nominated for Best of the Net. She blogs about Latinx literature at her site, Blood Moon and is a contributor for Clash Media. You can find her at moniquequintana.com.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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