Halimah Marcus, HORSE GIRLS

Halimah Marcus, HORSE GIRLS

Executive editor of Electric Literature Halimah Marcus joins Zibby to talk about her new anthology, Horse Girls, which was inspired by her lifelong love of horses. The two discuss the unique dynamic that seems to exist between women and horses, how each essay —penned by an impressive roster of writers— captures a piece of this relationship, and what events in Halimah’s personal history have endeared her to loving these animals forever.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Halimah. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond.

Halimah Marcus: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: As a fellow anthology editor, I have a predilection — is that even the right word? — for other anthologies. I love reading essays and books that bring together such interesting voices. I love Courtney Maum, by the way. I’ve had her on my podcast several times. The essays were fantastic. Why don’t you tell everybody a little bit more about Horse Girls and why you were the person to put this collection together?

Halimah: I had ridden as a kid and as a teenager. It was something that was so important to me during that time. I loved it and devoted myself to it kind of at the expense of all else. I always had this little embarrassment or compartmentalization that was going on where I had my riding life and then I had my other life at school. When it came time to go to college, I put it aside and thought I would pursue my grand life as a writer and an artist and felt that there was no possible overlap between that riding life and the intellectual life that I was hoping to pursue. After college, I moved to New York City, started a career as an editor, but always had this niggling feeling about wanting to be around horses. I couldn’t believe that it had followed me and that it was so deep inside. I’d be jogging around Prospect Park and watch the horses go by and just have fantasies that a rider would fall off and someone would say, does anyone know how to ride a horse? I’d jump in.

Zibby: You’re having fantasies about people being completely hurt right in front of you. I won’t even —

Halimah: — Well, maybe they’re not injured.

Zibby: Just incapable of riding.

Halimah: My expertise would be called upon in some way. It just still didn’t fit with anything I was doing. I ended up writing an essay for Amazon Original Stories about my teenage years and how riding was so important in terms of coping with disordered eating as a teenager and my — I had a strict religious upbringing. As I wrote that essay, I saw how every bit — when I got into writing, I just pulled these threads. They led in so many different directions in terms of self-esteem and identity and girlhood and womanhood. Writing the essay really took it out of me. I was like, I actually hate personal writing essays, I realized.

Zibby: Really? Okay.

Halimah: We’ll revisit that. It was an intense experience. I realized that there was so much to say on the topic and that I needed to assemble a group of writers to do that. I had said my peace. I was one limited perspective. I really wanted to get this 360 view of this horse girl stereotype and ask questions like, is there anything here? Is there a connection between women and horses or girls and horses? It is more about external factors? What value does this stereotype have? How is it harmful? How can we expand who might be included in the idea of a rider? That’s where I started.

Zibby: Interesting. You point out early on, the difference between a horse girl and a horse woman. Tell listeners about that.

Halimah: A horse girl is a little bit derogatory. It’s dismissive. They are maybe spoiled or a pigtailed brat. They’re kind of clueless about social mores. They’re wearing pony clothing or horse clothing and not relating to their peers because they’re just so obsessed with horses. That’s some of the horse girl stereotypes. As you get a little older, you might see some sexualization that goes along with that stereotype in terms of a dominatrix with a crop and high boots. Then a horse woman is kind of the equivalent of a cowboy in a lot of ways, really roughshod, tough, riding through injury, no nonsense, tough love, all that, and someone who really has devoted their life to it rather than someone who perhaps is a hobbyist or an after-school kind of rider.

Zibby: When you tried to put down the riding crop, if you will, especially in college when you announce yourself as someone who used to be a rider — some girl who you did not want to be associated with was like, oh, me too. You were like, no, no, no.

Halimah: Right, exactly.

Zibby: What filled that void for you until you started fantasizing about people falling off their horses?

Halimah: College was very exciting. I was one of those people who got to college and was like, oh, my gosh, here’s what I’ve been looking for, in terms of friends to relate to, feeling like a little bit of an outsider in high school, and being interested in things that other people were interested in, and then getting to college and suddenly seeing not only so many people interested in the books and music and movies that I’m interested in, but they can teach me more. I think it took me a little while to miss it because I had been so regimented as a teenager and given up other experiences in order to be able to be competitive in the sport. It was just a buffet of experience when I got to college. Then even after that, I moved back to Philly, I rode a little bit there. It wasn’t really until I got to New York City and had lived there for a few years that I really started to miss it. In New York City, it’s a whole other buffet in terms of working really hard, meeting people, going out, getting involved in the literary world, which was just so exciting to me. Getting to be in rooms with writers who I had admired blew my mind. There was a lot to take part in.

Zibby: I agree. I still feel that way when I’m around — my mind is perpetually blown. It’s amazing to have your books come to life, essentially. Talk about how you got into the literary world after. So many people go to college hoping and wishing. Yet here you are head of Electric Literature and all this stuff. How did that all happen?

Halimah: When I was in undergraduate, I had a professor who said to me, “Are you going to get an MFA?” I was like, “I don’t even know what that means. I’ve never heard those letters in that order. What are you talking about?” I didn’t entertain the idea until a few years after. Then I went to get an MFA at Brooklyn College. The founders of Electric Literature had also gone to Brooklyn College, so I thought I’d like to — I had had other jobs in nonprofits. This was even a different time when the whole internship hamster wheel didn’t exist in the same way. I don’t think I’d even really ever had an internship. I’d had some other full-time jobs. I thought this would be a great way to learn about literary magazine publishing. Joined as an intern and then was soon hired as a managing editor. At the beginning, we were sort of all volunteers, so hired is in air quotes. Over time, the leadership changed. They wanted to work on another project, so I stepped up and eventually moved into the role of executive director and fiction editor. I’ve been there now eleven years. It’s been my one job in literary publishing. The reason that I can stay engaged in that if I get bored — well, it’s always hard, so I’m rarely bored. If I do get bored, I can change it up, stay challenged.

Zibby: Have you discovered authors? At what point do you get all the galleys? At what point are you reading and choosing from — is it from published? Is it prepublication? That was a bad question.

Halimah: We do a mix of excerpts and original. I edit the fiction series, which is a weekly series. We review submissions. This past year we got over five thousand submissions. We have volunteer readers. We select from there. We’re actually quite good about publishing from open submissions. Fifty percent of our original fiction slots went to unsolicited, unagented submissions, which is quite a high percentage for a literary magazine. Then we also are reading forthcoming titles to excerpt. We focus on short story collections. Although, we do, also, novel excerpts as well. My passion is really when I get to work with a writer and edit a story and get into that mind meld. That’s the thing that I live for. Doing that for the anthology was very exciting. I got to call up writers that I perhaps edited their fiction before and talk to them about writing an essay instead.

Zibby: My cofounder of Zibby Books, by the way, Leigh Newman, has a beautiful short story collection coming out in April.

Halimah: I know all about it.

Zibby: You do? Okay.

Halimah: We published one of her stories. Livy and I are actually in a — sorry, I combined. I have a friend named Livy. I combined your names. Leigh and I are in a writing group together, and so we actually know each other well. I have it here somewhere, her book. I’m so excited about it. We published the story about — it’s the historical one set on the Alaskan frontier. It’s called The Great — I forget what it’s called.

Zibby: That’s interesting when you said you went out and talked to fiction writers about writing essays because when I did that for my two anthologies, I was really surprised at how many fiction writers did not want to write essays. I love writing essays, so I thought that would be an easy ask. In truth, no. Did you find the same, or not?

Halimah: Most of the writers in the anthology do books. T Kira Madden had published a memoir. Carmen Maria Machado just published a memoir. Maggie Shipstead, who I worked with on fiction, does travel writing. They were able to switch gears. Rosebud Ben-Oni is primarily a poet. I think that really shows in her prose. There are people that I asked that didn’t want to do it, of course. From this group, they were able to switch back and forth.

Zibby: Did you find any sort of personality trait that predisposed people to be in relationships with horses, if you will? Is there something that draws a person to it? Could you identify it ahead of time? Do you know what I mean?

Halimah: That’s such an interesting question. I sort of ask that question with the project of the book but from a different angle. I asked it more about, what are horses fulfilling in people? rather than, what is the type? I think that there’s a couple different types. I’m hesitant to accidentally construct a stereotype. I think you see a certain kind of whimsical attitude. Carmen Maria Machado talks about that where she says that her alter ego as a kid was fire dolphin or something like that. You see that. There’s a fantasy element. I think there is a kind of daredevil, bravery element. On the flip side of that, you also see fearful people being drawn to it as a kind of antidote or homeopathic type of remedy for — I think you do see a lot of girls who are timid otherwise being drawn to horses because it’s a way to completely get outside of that cage. That’s probably the camp that I fell into more. I was shy and nervous and quiet under many circumstances, but under the right circumstances could be very outgoing and could gallop a horse across a field without thinking twice about it.

Zibby: I was like that too. I was a little shy. I did ride for a while when I was a kid as well, but I was never a riding — I didn’t do any competing or anything.

Halimah: Did you click with it?

Zibby: I liked it, but I never loved it. I did love — they had this one — probably one of those beat-up horses you were talking about that people ride for lessons — named Spots. Spots was, in summer camp, the assigned horse or whatever. I was very attached until I was cleaning his hooves — his, I think — hooves one day. Next thing you know, he kicked me in the thigh. I, like out of a movie, went flying out the stall and landed on my butt a couple feet outside. I had this huge hoofprint on my thigh the rest of the summer.

Halimah: Oh, my gosh. There’s the essay with one of the writers showing off the hoofprint on her hand as a badge of honor.

Zibby: It didn’t feel like a badge of honor. It felt bad. Then I became very allergic to horses, so that seemed like a good time — plus, I feel like my anxiety was just manifesting itself, the fear component of falling or something happening. All of that with the allergies, I was like, all right, I’m going to go back to tennis and stay on land. My sister-in-law is a competitive horseback rider. I watch the way she talks about horses. She recently gave my daughter all her play-horses from when she was a little girl. It was the sweetest thing.

Halimah: The Breyer horses?

Zibby: Yes, oh, my gosh. Now my daughter plays with them.

Halimah: For some people, it does click to that next element or even goes from a like to a love to an obsession. There’s a lot of women in this book negotiating their attitudes towards competition and figuring out how to enjoy it without being competitive and how to take value from something in adulthood as an amateur where they were maybe striving to be the best as a teenager. I think that competition does have its upsides too, that competitive spirit. That’s another common personality trait that you might see, the person that takes a riding lesson and thinks, I want to get good at this. I want the fences to go higher. I want to do all the things that I see that person doing. I do think that the fear factor is in constant negotiation. Maggie Shipstead writes about, even as the jumps were going higher, she always felt afraid, but she still wanted the jumps to go higher. I asked her in edits, “Why do you think that was?” It was even difficult to articulate. Fear is just a part of it, that feeling in your stomach that you just have to push past. You have to control your body, in a way, because it’s true that the horses notice every little thing your body does.

Zibby: It’s like a kid. You can pretend you’re not in a bad mood, but they see right through the fake smile. You can’t hide it. Can we go back to what you said, quickly, about your disordered eating earlier in life? Can you talk about that a little and what that was all about?

Halimah: Sure. That’s why writing that essay, which leveled me — I was kind of revisiting that time. I had an idea for the essay that was very neat and tidy. Then it got messier, but it was a rewarding piece to write, and hopefully to other people. As I also mentioned, I had quite strict parents. I think it kind of began, in some ways, as a form of rebellion, being so controlled and, not to be crass about it, but then being like, well, watch what I can control. I was riding at the time as well. Basically, what got me out of it was that my instructor said to me, “You can be thin, or you can ride.” Whatever else anyone had said to me, which was not much, actually — people were very avoidant of engaging me in the issue. I had gone to my pediatrician about it. I hadn’t gotten actual proper talk therapy or help or anything like that. People were very avoidant of the issue, not wanting to mention it. I was having problems with my horse running away with me because I didn’t have the strength. You talk about, horses know everything about your body. She’s insignificant up there. I can do whatever I want. She said that in front of other people. I think there’s many different ways to read it. It’s that tough love that I’m talking about. That was not kid gloves. That’s laying out, here’s what it is. I thought, I’m not going to be a person that chooses being thin over riding. Is that a choice I’m going to make? Someone’s laying it out to me like a choice. It’s not to say that it was immediately over, but that was a major turning point. That was when I was about sixteen or something.

Zibby: It’s hard to know what to do when you see people struggling, to know how much you should intervene. I know you said people were avoidant. With most complicated things, like loss, a lot of times people just don’t know what to do or what to say. Do you wish more people had said something to you?

Halimah: There’s the people that make comments. Lots of people made comments. That’s different, where people say, oh, I don’t recognize you. Oh, you’re wasting away. You might take it as a compliment. There’s some way in which any attention about your body is negative attention even if it’s a compliment. In that situation, in my own experience, I might have liked that, or not liked it, but fed off it in some perverse way. I think that I wished that my parents had been more equipped to actually have conversations about it. If someone in your life like that is uncomfortable, we’re talking about intuitive reading of people, you internalize that. It’s hard. It’s a hard subject. I’m not sure I would be great at talking to someone about it. If someone has lost a shocking amount of weight, I know I’ve inadvertently blurted something out before. It’s not to say that it’s easy or there’s any kind of simple way to deal with it.

Zibby: Recently, I probably handled this wrong, but somebody I know not even that well, I was like — actually, now I feel like I shouldn’t even admit this because maybe I handled it so badly. I don’t know. I was literally like, “Are you okay? Are you eating? Do you want to talk about it?” Then I left it at that.

Halimah: That might have been the right thing to do. Who knows? There’s probably professionals out there who could advise.

Zibby: I don’t mean to put you in any sort of —

Halimah: — I was a teenager. It comes up in several other essays in the book. C. Morgan Babst writes about it, Allie Rowbottom. I kept encountering all these paradoxes between, why would you want to be so thin and weak when your job is to deal with this extremely powerful, strong animal? Yet there’s these feminizing pressures in terms of wearing the outfits and looking prim and put-together and slim. At the same time that you’re doing these incredible athletic feats, you’re supposed to put your makeup on, do your hair. It was a pattern that I saw across several of the stories here.

Zibby: What is coming next for you now that this is done? By the way, I meant to ask, sorry, earlier, did you ever do an event — maybe you have and I didn’t research properly enough. There’s another author, Sarah Maslin Nir, who wrote a book called Horse Crazy. Did you do an event or anything?

Halimah: Yes, we did. We went to GallopNYC, which is this great nonprofit in Queens. You pass it on the way to LaGuardia, their stables. You wouldn’t see it from the road. It’s back. It’s proper horse stables. They do lessons for kids with disabilities and neighborhood kids. It’s a great nonprofit. Sarah’s on the board. She put together a really nice event there with a couple other authors as well with horse books. She’s been wonderful advising me throughout. She worked so hard to get her book out in the world and gave me some great advice about that as well.

Zibby: Awesome. Then I won’t connect the two of you. Now what’s coming next? Would you want to do another collection like this?

Halimah: I thought about it. You know because you edited an anthology, it’s a lot of work. The spreadsheets alone are just — in terms of the revisions that you go through with each essay, it was very important to me to be the primary point of contact with all the writers for everything. I didn’t want them getting emails from all different people at the publisher. Anytime there was copyedits or proofs, I was sending them out individually. I’m also a runner. Although, I’m a little lapsed during COVID. I had thought about doing a similar anthology about running, writers of all genders on — there’s so many writers who run. Some of have written about it famously like Haruki Murakami, Malcom Gladwell. The question that I have to answer before I would even embark on such a project is, are there enough angles? You can’t have twelve essays where every writer is like, I go running to clear my head, or whatever the thing is. You have to find out, what could be the stories that you could tell through this theme?

Zibby: You know what could be cool with running? To connect the tracks, to connect the paths across states. It’s a location. They’re making progress. Zaina Arafat, for instance, is someone who runs a lot. She did it, I want to say, in Massachusetts or something like that. Then there’s Katie Arnold who wrote a beautiful book on running. She’s in Santa Fe or someplace. If you could somehow make it almost like a travel — like you’re running across —

Halimah: — Running across the country in essays. That would be beautiful. I thought about that for this book too. I wanted the authors to live in different places. That might be a kind of difference in perspective that people don’t notice as much. We have Texas and Pakistan and East Coast, West Coast, just getting the full — we’ll see about that running anthology. I am a fiction writer as well, so trying to find, not time exactly, but headspace for it.

Zibby: Do you do mostly stories?

Halimah: Yeah, mostly stories. I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t know, I never have. I never have the novel idea that I can stick with for long enough. I kind of think in short story length, it seems.

Zibby: Awesome. I love short stories. I like anything I can accomplish. Sometimes in a day, that’s all I can do, is get through an essay or a short story.

Halimah: I read a lot of short stories for work. I write short stories. When I’m reading for true pleasure, nothing is better to me than living inside a juicy novel.

Zibby: Has there been a particularly juicy one lately?

Halimah: I just finished — I was late to read it. Although, we should normalize reading books after the two weeks when they come out. I just finally read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, which was so fantastic and rich and the kind of novel that doesn’t — there’s so many novels these days that I think of as “everything but the kitchen sink” novels where you read the description and there’s just like, there’s a heist and three generations across four continents. You’re just like, oh, my god. Sometimes I like those novels as well. It’s just focus on a certain time period with three or four primary characters, a slow burn, a slow build, and then an ending that is greater than the sum of its parts that makes it all worth it. I found it really thought-provoking.

Zibby: Have you read St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon?

Halimah: No.

Zibby: I think you might like that. It’s very literary. It takes place with just a small cast of characters over a weekend with a surprise ending.

Halimah: Oh, I do like a — it might not be a wedding.

Zibby: It’s not a wedding. It’s called St. Ivo. You should check it out. I have a feeling you’ll like it.

Halimah: Okay, I’ll check it out. I was so excited to get Jane Smiley to contribute.

Zibby: Yeah, that was huge.

Halimah: I just thought of that because A Thousand Acres, to me, is one the greatest novels ever written, a truly traditional novel in the sense of character and story and emotional heft and all that.

Zibby: I haven’t read that lately. When did that come out?

Halimah: In the nineties, I think. It was a while ago.

Zibby: I feel like I read it when it came out.

Halimah: People might overlook it because I think it gets assigned in schools. When people see something, it’s assigned in schools, then they’re like —

Zibby: — They’re like, forget it.

Halimah: That’s for kids. I should just write down that book that you told me.

Zibby: Yeah, write down the book. Thank you so much. This has been great. It was great to meet you.

Halimah: Great to meet you. Tell Leigh I said hello. Actually, that essay I was talking about, the Amazon one, I wrote it at her house.

Zibby: I don’t talk to her about who I’m interviewing. I don’t know who she knows or whatever.

Halimah: Joanna Hershon, and what was the title?

Zibby: St. Ivo, I-V-O.

Halimah: In my introduction, I talk about seeing that graffiti on the rock. That’s from Leigh’s house.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Halimah: I don’t know if she still has it. It was just this tiny, little bungalow that she had in Peekskill that was a little summer cottage. She let me use it to write that essay because I needed to go on lockdown to write it. I saw that message. Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: I’m going to get off and email her right now.

Halimah: Great. Good luck with everything. So great to meet you. Take care.

Zibby: You too. Stay in touch. Buh-bye.

Halimah: Bye.

Halimah Marcus, HORSE GIRLS

HORSE GIRLS by Halimah Marcus

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