Heroines – Kate Zambreno (more thoughts)

I’ve now had some time to think about Kate Zambreno’s Heroines a bit more and I’d like to add to what I wrote about in my first post. This is definitely the kind of book that stays with you and provokes discussion, from several different angles.

Last week I wrote mostly about my overall response to the book, how it is put together and how its structure affected my reaction to Zambreno’s project. I also summed up what I felt was the main point of the book, and I still believe that this overall point—this idea of women’s literary voices being systematically erased in a very particular way— is really what makes Heroines a fascinating and successful piece of literary history/criticism. Zambreno also writes so compellingly about the women writers and/or spouses of those successful male writers—she gives them histories and bodies, she fleshes out their presence alongside their successful partners, she invites us, as readers, to look backward at the literary canon and start over again, reading forward with a new perspective. We’ve had to do this before and we’ll have to do it again, and it is always an exciting moment.

Today, though, I’d like to write about the more personal reaction I had to Heroines. Obviously, every book elicits a “personal” reaction, so this is a little bit different… and perhaps a little harder to write about. Somehow the nature of Zambreno’s narrative, the way she mixes her own personal memoir into her re-drawing of the “modernist wives” seems, at least to me, to be what is polarizing opinion about the book. And in a way, my reaction to the book—although by the time I turned that last page was almost completely positive—my reaction to the book embodies both extremes.

Zambreno puts a lot of herself into the book, including numerous anecdotes about her private life—her relationship with her partner, her worries as a writer and an academic, interactions she has with other women, and how she felt alienated as a “trailing spouse” as she and her partner moved to different places to follow his work. Most of this information is front-loaded into the book, by around page 100 it drops out significantly and the rest of Heroines focuses almost completely on the women Zambreno is championing.

In those early pages, however, much of her story revolves around a kind of tension between herself and her partner—she puts herself into the role of the erased modernist wife, and so by default her partner must play the role of the oppressive successful man. Zambreno does admit that she makes him into a character, and to some extent she admits that she herself is reveling/wallowing in the role she gives herself. She later calls it a form of “memorializing”—a very interesting idea, but one I’m not quite comfortable with.

While reading those early pages of Heroines, it was hard for me to keep a critical distance as I have lived and continue to live a similar situation. On paper, at least. I’m about her age, I’m a writer, I considered working toward a Phd but decided at the time that it wasn’t right for me. Like Zambreno, who appears ambivalent about her unfinished academic status, this is a decision I still sometimes regret. My husband, however, is an academic (a physicist) and I followed him all the way to Switzerland because his job is more stable, more financially sound. As a writer who happens to be a woman, as a relatively new mom who has found herself without many hours of productive writing/working time, I struggle with many of the issues Zambreno touches on throughout the book.

Despite these similarities, or rather, I think, because of them, I found myself unsettled with the way she puts herself and her partner into the oppressed/oppressor roles. Not because I don’t believe that this can’t happen, but because in Zambreno’s case it felt somehow self-imposed. It felt like she wanted to be in these roles because it brought her closer to the women she so admired and wanted to save. I couldn’t help thinking about how dissimilar her life could have been (or is, I really have no idea), and about how much opportunity she appears to have had. Frankly, I can’t quite think of anything more free, more empowering, than an open schedule and full access to an academic library.

I say this last sentence somewhat flippantly, yet knowing how crippling the self-doubt of a (woman) writer/academic can be, knowing how difficult it is to find your own fictional/critical voice when the models are overwhelmingly male and knowing how enraging the perpetuation of certain gender roles in writing/publishing/academia—I know these things, I don’t want to minimize the issues that must be negotiated.

She addresses this issue of role playing rather quickly and a little obliquely, toward the end of Heroines when she makes a comment about Second Wave feminists and their requirement that women write and be empowered heroines. And there is some idea—which Zambreno mentions in an interview—that I should be reading the book like a novel and not a memoir. So then my quibble is not so much with the “truth” of Zambreno’s story but with the form of the book and this mixture of criticism/biography/memoir. Does her own story inform my understanding and reactions to the stories of the silence modernist wives? I think—and I think this after days of thinking, and rereading—that it does not. Simply because while I found her book incredibly intelligent and her writing and ideas a real pleasure to read, I found myself becoming impatient with the “character” of Kate Zambreno as she was written in Heroines.

But I am still thinking about this… about what my reaction might mean in terms of my own feminism, how I judge other women as they handle the difficulties that all women writers face compared to how I handle them, how I feel about the stereotype of the irrational woman and why I feel that way.

So I am still re-reading, and I am still thinking…

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