Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘feminism’

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…

Sometime not too long ago, Litlove wrote about a new book called Reading Women: how the great books of feminism changed my life by Stephanie Staal. I was intrigued by the title and the premise, and so ordered a copy and dove right in and am very glad that I did, as this is a book that gave me much to think about (and a nice fat future reading list, as well).

Staal is a journalist, and must be just a few years older than I am. Since much of her book has to do with her (our) generation’s negotiation of historical and modern feminist writings and theories, I felt quite at home within both her personal story (having just had a child myself not too long ago, and still trying to figure out how to juggle career and parenthood) as well as her academic reflections on reading and living feminist principles. The book is a well-combined mix of personal memoir and literary analysis, and Staal is a competent and engaging writer. Despite the intricacy of the subject, the book is a quick and interesting read.

Brief recap of the book’s premise: Staal, an instinctive feminist (I’ll get to that “instinctive” idea in a minute), finds herself adrift after the birth of her child. Unhappy with her negotiation of the equally powerful pulls of motherhood and career, she returns to her undergraduate alma mater to revisit an in-depth list of seminal feminist texts. (a bit off topic, but I think it is kind of funny to write “seminal feminist” …) The book is as much about her daily life as a mom and writer as it is a careful reading of a series of fascinating and provocative voices in debate about a woman’s place in the world.

I consider Staal an instinctive feminist (and it’s a label I’d give myself) for several reasons. The first comes from her background – she was raised by parents who both worked full time, and her mother was a successful scientist. The second is a generational reason – like myself and many other women who came of age in the eighties and nineties, we grew up hearing repeatedly that we could do whatever we wanted. For some reason (and Staal looks into it), the feminist message of my youth was wonderfully simple. It isn’t that we grew up thinking there weren’t still stumbling blocks for women, but I would say that it was implied that the bigger issues had been dealt with by an earlier generation.

In this sense, an instinctive feminist takes it for granted that as long as she works really hard and finds a suitably egalitarian spouse, she’ll be able to live her feminist ideals without compromise. And this is where Staal, and many women of my generation, including myself, find themselves unmoored when all of a sudden our world becomes split between parenthood and career. As Staal passionately explains, she was caught completely by surprise when she found herself struggling with feminist identity issues.

Being a reader myself, I loved Staal’s approach to sorting through this problem. Why not go back and read what other women have said and done when confronted with a similar quandary? She takes us through history, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf, to more contemporary voices like Katie Roiphe. The journey is sufficiently in-depth, for a book of 259 pages, and she includes much of the discussions she listened in on as she audited her Feminist Texts courses. Her reactions to the texts are honest and intelligent, and she is smart enough to admit when she doesn’t understand or agree with a certain way of thinking.

This is a book of discussion, not a book of answers, and I’m very glad that Staal did not try to find some pat resolution for a problem that will require re-negotiation throughout her entire life:

The intrinsic worth in reading and rereading feminist writings is that, in doing so, we are given the precious chance to compare and contrast other women’s lives with our own, to liberate our imaginations from the predictable, the conventional, and thus gain greater insight into the various scripts assigned to us by our particular generation. Feminism gives us room to tell the unexpected story, and this, perhaps, is its greatest gift.

Staal recognizes that this issue of how to be a parent, a spouse and a feminist is not something to solve after class over a cup of coffee, and this recognition is what made Reading Women a very good book.

Having said that, I think that it is sometimes too easy to get caught up in perpetual self-examination: What is the current situation? How does it compare to history? Who’s got it worse? And instead, I wouldn’t have minded a little brainstorming. What are the useful discussions? What are the changes that would help? What kinds of ideas can our societies entertain, that might move us in the right direction? Staal does a little of this, but only a little, and the effect is to leave the reader feeling just a tidge helpless. One of Staal’s points is that some feminist theories pushed women apart, and she rightfully bemoans this. But her book contains an implicit suggestion that solving the problem is a distinctly personal and individual experience, which, by default, does the same thing. In fairness, I suspect Staal doesn’t intend to do this at all, and compared to what the book does achieve, this is quite a small hiccup.

And one final word – I’d be interested to hear what any men have to say about the book. I’ve seen only women’s responses and it strikes me that men, fathers especially, might be interested in what she brings up.