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When Women Write

November 29, 2012

When Women Write about Women

A shortened version is also posted as a guest blog on Australian Women Writers.

Novels by and about women are being published and recognized in ever increasing numbers.  Are these books significant?  What do these books say about women?  What is traditional and what is new in these books?  Should we consider them feminist writing?  Although I am not a literary scholar or critic and not involved in the publishing industry, I am an avid novel reader.  I care about these questions and wonder what they offer women in a changing world.  I’d like to share my thoughts and possibly start a discussion about them. (I have largely limited myself to discussing the novels I have read and reviewed this year. Additional suggestions are welcome.  Links are to my reviews.)

What strikes me most strongly is the sheer variety of novels by women writers available in bookstores and libraries and online.  Despite booksellers’ desires to market them as “women’s fiction,” the diversity of authors, plots and styles refuses to be ghettoized.  Women’s novels remind us of the problem of lumping all women into any one definition.  Yet as long as we live in a gendered world, most men and most women will reflect a gendered difference in their writing.  All authors write about what they know and gender is part of our experience.  As long as gender is a factor in our societies, both male and female readers need to see the other side.

Whether or not authors express and prioritize their own gender is their choice, not an inevitable result of their gender identity.  Writing styles and subjects of male and female writers overlap.  Some of the best recent writing by women does not reflect gendered sensitivity.  Take, for example, novels by Australian Alexis Wright.  Her Plains of Promise focused on the experience of Indigenous women, but in her epic, Carpentaria, the narrative included some forceful, interesting women characters, but centered on the lives of Indigenous men.

Of course, many women chose to embrace traditional roles and definitions in their plots and characters.  The romance genre is alive and well among writers and readers, sometimes featuring strong women going after the man they wan,t not waiting passively for him.  Novels featuring domestic life are also abundant and popular.  This is as it should be.  I would argue, however,  that the attempts to ghettoize women’s writing in these genres are also misguided and belittling.   Although some of the books in these genres may be simplistic, complex and compelling narratives about domesticity and romance are also being written.  On the other hand, romance novels often look to the past where some, but not all, women could live sheltered by the men they loved.  Such novels do little to challenge the status quo or help women imagine alternatives.  That is fine, but it is not feminism.

I am always hesitant to label novels as feminist.  A basic component of feminism is the realization that private lives are shaped by the public actions which determine economic and social structures. Feminism seeks to help individual women value themselves and consider their own interests; at the same time it pushes for changes that would make the larger world more fair and just for all women.   Novels are great for exploring individual women’s sense of what it means to be a woman.  When they try to analysis and address larger social problems, few succeed.  One that does succeed is Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella.  Here Moorhead deliberately set out to write a feminist novel and to use her many literary talents in the process.  She has created a lesbian novel with deep meaning for all women about the possibilities of growing as individuals at the same time as belonging to a larger community.  Other novels that I would name as feminist are the speculative fiction that critique traditional gender roles and devise alternatives to them.  Some are lesbian novels , like Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.  Others re-order male-female interaction.  My favorites include novels by Octavia Butler, Sheri Tepper, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the later writings of Ursula le Guin.  In Women without Men, Iranian Shahrnush Parsipur  uses the Persian magic to allow women a refuge from oppressive men and a fresh start in life.

The recent novels that interest me most are the ones I believe make a new, important contribution to literature by offering new narratives for women.  I consider these as “women-centered”  novels because of their attempts to explore in new depth and variety what it means to be a woman. These novels are not explicitly feminist, but they do reflect changes and new options for women that have been emerging in the past thirty years.  Their plots vary widely, and they encourage women to examine and value the parts of their lives often outside men’s notice such as their bodies and their relationships with each other.

In 1989, acclaimed feminist scholar, Carolyn Heilburn, wrote a book entitled Writing a Women’s Life.  (A true gem that continues to be relevant today.)  In it she describes how we all live by the stories we tell about ourselves.  She observes that the literary cannon of the English-speaking people is full of plots featuring men engaging in various quests, but woman are limited to romantic plots centering on a man in their lives.  Even fine women authors like Jane Austen and George Elliot do not offer alternatives to such a plot.  Yet we are living at a time when fewer women have that option. Heilburn urged women writers to create new plots that depicted women engaging in their own quests and telling about lives and events that did not depend on men choosing to care for them.

By the time she wrote this book, Heilburn was already acting to correct this situation.  In 1963, she was a non-tenured professor at Columbia University in an English Department not unanimously ready to treat a woman as an intellectual equal.  She also had a husband and three young children.  Writing under the pseudonym,  Amanda Cross, she created a series of detective stories. Her lead character was Kate Fensler, a female professor like herself, but one without children.  Fensler was sharp and witty and anything but nurturing or “womanly.”  And she was extremely popular.

In the fifty years since Heiburn created Kate Fensler, dozens of other women detective novels have followed.  Other female sleuths include women, straight and lesbian, of every imaginable ethnicity, nationality, and class.  Interestingly, some of women struggle to combine their love for a partner and children with their professional ambitions and responsibilities.  Examples include mystery novels by J.A. Jance and Deborah Crombie.  Part of their quests involves finding ways to be successful in what were once defined as the public and private spheres.  Not many of us are going to go out and solve crimes, but their stories resonant with all of us who juggle careers and families.

Not all women’s new writing presents plots that are either quests or romances.  “Coming of age” stories have long been appreciated, such as my old favorite, Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshal.  Newer ones deal more explicitly with girls’ physical changes and growing awareness of sexuality, but not necessarily with marriage. An example is The Last of the Menu Girls by Denise Chavez.   In her Carmelo,  Sandra Cisneros writes about adolesence,calling it ”that bloody Rubicon”  and “that red Rio Bravo you have to carry yourself over.” Other recent books deal with midlife crises which require women to reinvent new life stories for themselves.  Perhaps such books could be classified as “coming of self,” since many women, in life or in novels, only develop as individuals after the loss of a marriage marks the end of their romance plot.s  Other crises can have the same affect.   I am partial to these, since they reflect the beginning of my own quest.  Somewhat similar, novels like Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo, tell the story of the failure of the romance plot.  In this book and others, a women friend or a group of women alternative support.

Another way women writers are expanding our society’s conception of womanhood is the attention given to experiences that are typically those of women but not men.  Traditionally these have been ignored by male writers and by literature in general.  For example, menstruation has been a taboo, and when childbirth was included in a novel, readers have typically viewed it from the perspective of the anxious father in the waiting room.  Today women’s experience of pregnancy and birth is described with relevant complexity.  Since giving birth is a very human event, such accounts are a step toward the inclusion of woman in literature as fully human.  More generally, motherhood is being increasingly described from the perspective of the mother.  Authors are writing about what it is like to raise small children and how the mother-child relationship changes as boys and girls grow up.  Both A Golden Ageby Tahmima Anam and Please Look after Momby Kyung-sook Shin are fine examples of this type of book.  While narratives of mothers and sons have been common in the past, today’s books often feature mother-daughter relations.  My favorite here is Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue, published by the Australian Spinifex Press.  This book is also unique in its inclusion of the physical nature of the relationship, another aspect of how women authors are changing how we think about women.

Sisterhood is another popular new topic.  Clear Light of Day, by Anita Desai, is set in India and features the reunion of two sisters, one who stayed home and one who left. In Half a Yellow Sun by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the major plot involves life during the Nigerian civil war. Each sister has a male partner but the intensity of the anger and love that flows between the sisters is also major theme.  Women’s friendships with each other are also being depicted and treated with dignity.   In lesbian novels, a sexual dimension is also present.

Another change in publishing has been the growing availability of novels by and about women from varied backgrounds.  Thirty years ago, novels in the libraries and bookstores in the United States were routinely by white authors, or occasionally by men of color.  As readers and publishers have realized the quality and significance of women writing globally, books by women of color and other groups silenced in our traditional cultures are relatively easy to find.  They are being reviewed and even awarded major literary prizes.  Recently, a Native American woman, Louise Erdlich, was given the National Book Award in the United States.  Women still are discriminated against in the publishing and reviewing, but the situation is improving.  As more books by women  get read by men and women, some men are also writing with more depth and sensitivity about women.  One example is Thomas King’s treatment of them in his Green Grass, Running Water.

At the forefront of the increased prominence of books by and about diverse women are the feminist presses that specialize in making them available.  I mourn the feminist presses like the Kitchen Table Press which introduced me to the writing of women of color, but are no longer in existence.  In the United States, Feminist Press and Aunt Lute continue this tradition. Feminist Press has expanded its offering to include a large number of novels by women globally.  These often include commentary in which the author or someone knowledgeable about her explains the book’s context.   In Canada ,Inanna Publishing offers a variety of feminist books including those by African Canadian women and women of  the country’s First Nations.  The Spinifex Press in Australia produces a fine array of books, fiction and nonfiction, many of them by global women.

Women writing about what it means to be a woman are offering new stories that move beyond stereotypes which are no longer adequate.  Their novels are varied and significant because they expand  all our understanding of what it means to be human.

To ignore or denigrate novels because they are by and about women is to continue the old assumptions that humanity is synonymous with manhood.   Although not all such novels, many raise awareness of the significance of women’s lives and present them with new plots to imagine.  And this, after all, is a basic goal of feminism which we can all support.

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