Changing the Narrative: Women and Literature

A five-day excursion to (surprisingly) sunny Seattle with friends and colleagues left me with a myriad of stories. Where do I begin summing up my experience at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference? From my first time in a hostel, to drinking “Unicorn Jizz” at a psychedelic Victorian bar, to witnessing first readings and being surrounded by thousands of people all in a writerly state of mind, it’s hard to pick my favorite part. So instead, I’ll focus on what impacted me the most.

The topics and discussions of women as writers.

I attended quite a few panels at the conference and my top three are as follows:

  • Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion.
  • The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikable Women in Fiction.
  • Lives Not Our Own: The Ethics and Practice of Assuming the Voices of Others.

Sense a theme? As a woman writer attempting to capture the ‘flawed psyche of woman’ through honest explorations of domestic life, marriage, sexual violence, and patriarchal expectations, I can’t help but feel strongly about the cause of women writing literature.

Many are quick to categorize books about women, by women, under the label of “Women’s Fiction”. But, as a white middle-aged man asked me (I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “What is women’s fiction? Is it a small collection of work only allowed for women and the rest of literature is for males only?” At first, I was both frustrated and offended by his blustery statement, mainly because I felt my own work was being cavalierly dismissed. Perhaps it was because of the context of the conversation but, either way, his statement left me thinking. Why should fiction about women, by women, be inaccessible to men? Why should it be, at most, an ambivalent choice for those that don’t identify with gender binaries? Why is it that when I talk about my project, I speak primarily to the women in the room? In essence, most of the time I’m preaching to the choir. But, like the Breaking  Silences panel suggested, maybe that’s because it’s reassuring to know there is a choir when writing about these topics seems particularly isolating and dangerous.

Yes, dangerous. Because I’m speaking out about what I see and feel as a woman in a Western, civilized society after growing up in an Eastern, prohibitive setting. I’m daring to talk about relationships–between men and women, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and women together. I’m choosing to speak out on violence in the household, on gender norms, on inaccessible opportunities and biased standards. All the while, I catch myself worrying: What if people think I’m bitter and crazy. What if people think this is me? It’s not an unfounded fear. I recently shared a copy of my book proposal with my mother. When she was finished reading it, she asked, “How come you’ve killed me off?” She immediately assumed that I was one of my own protagonists. My mother would never judge me, but she was quick to jump to the conclusion of identifying author with character in my work. More importantly, she saw herself within one of my troubled characters without even having read an excerpt. That’s telling of how close to home works like mine may hit for many women.

So what about my audience? What about friends, family, and ex-boyfriends? Would they silence my words with a lofty wave, assuming I was just another woman being overly emotional through prose? Do we all need to be writing about boy wizards and making our names sound masculine in order to be taken seriously?

As women, we are constantly under excessive pressure to be “likable”, to go with the flow, to acknowledge that there are certain topics that men don’t ‘need’ to talk about. A male friend once told me, “It’s not that I wouldn’t read women writers. They just say nothing that interests me. It’s not like they write about war and stuff.” When I continued to push the topic by repeatedly asking “Why do you think that?” his answer boiled down to “I don’t know, most of the time I just don’t care about what they have to say.” Just like that, worth and validity of our words–of my words–is dismissed. I certainly don’t mean to imply that this is the point of view of all men. I am fortunate to know quite a few who wholeheartedly support my project and expose themselves to many female writers. There is, however, an undeniable majority of individuals, both men and women, who hold firm with the stereotypical assumptions.

Maybe we can’t change the minds of those who feel that writing about pressing female issues is banal, or that we incorporate too many emotions and too little worth into what we write. What we can do is change the progression of our own thoughts. Let’s stop worrying about anyone, male or female, who fails to recognize the significance what we have to say as intelligent, empathetic, experienced women and writers. It’s time we all marched into our writing without caring about what the public is going to think of our characters. Write in a bubble of honesty, passion, and–sure–rebellion. We can’t change their minds immediately, but we can certainly change our own narrative.

If we don’t honor ourselves as writers, readers, and supporters of women in literature, our stories will continue to be submissive and barely honest. It’s time to ensure that we’re all just a little braver on paper. Read and write the transgressive, liberating stories that you believe in. Get involved with organizations that support these values. I had the privilege of familiarizing myself with a brilliant organization called A Room of Her Own, a literary organization that supports women writers. I can’t recommend it enough.

I learned substantial lessons at AWP. But the reinforcement of my courage and conviction to wade through the words of the critics and disbelievers and find my own will be the most prominent and valuable memory.

P.S. In case you were wondering, Unicorn Jizz tastes like fizzy Jolly Rancher juice.

Boy, Snow, Bird: Part III

When I started reading Boy, Snow, Bird, I was prepared for a story that turned the trope of wicked stepmother on its head. I expected to read a modernized version of Snow White, from the point of view of the stepmother in order to learn about and possibly even understand the motives behind the notoriously jealous and unforgiving behavior that she embodies. What I got instead was a story about race culture, politics, femininity, and gender blending.

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Boy, Snow, Bird: Part II

We left off at the point where Boy, now married, gave birth to a baby girl named Bird who exposes that Boy’s husband and family are Blacks passing for Whites. Boy sends her stepdaughter, Snow, to live with Snow’s aunt and uncle. Part two of Helen Oyeyemi’s fairy tale masterpiece is where the surreal elements begin to emerge. Bird is now thirteen years old and our narrator for this section, her tale being interspersed with letters from her estranged sister Snow, now twenty-one.

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Boy, Snow, Bird: Part I

I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like without the fairytales I grew up with. It didn’t matter what form they came in: Disney movies, colorful picture books, whispers in the dark as I curled up on my grandmother’s lap. They shaped me to imagine, to fear, to love, to hope, to learn. My first recollection of a fairytale was that of Snow White. To be perfectly honest, if you had asked me then or now, it wasn’t my absolute favorite. A bold, modernist, captivating version written (and soon to be published) by Helen Oyeyemi, entitled Boy, Snow, Bird, has forced me to view this old Grimm’s tale in a whole new light.

This is my first foray into Helen Oyeyemi’s writing and, so far, it lives up to the hype. She’s got the magic and it’s evident with every turn of the page. Please note that I’ve decided to take a new tactic with this review. Boy, Snow, Bird is divided into three parts and, since I have limited pleasure-reading time nowadays, I plan on writing three posts to coincide with them as I keep reading.

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Mrs. Dalloway

Before I begin this post, I should let you all know that I used Grammarly’s free plagiarism checker because, well, I like to watch The Bachelor and write my posts at the same time. Thank goodness for their grammar checks because, whew, there were a couple of embarrassing errors in the first draft. So far I’m using their free trial and it’s great as a second set of eyes for someone who is constantly writing and can’t always get another person to help with the proofreading!

On to the post…

Coming out of class the other day, I texted my friend and said, “Virginia Woolf is a genius. The rest of us should just give up and go home”. I was (half) joking, but the more I learn about her writing, her blending of narratology, her inexplicable penetrating commentary on the structure and workings of society, and her uncanny ability to pinpoint and evoke human emotions, the more I find myself completely enamored. We’re currently tackling Mrs. Dalloway in class, and frankly I can’t see myself making much of a dent in the brilliance of the book unless I spent two or three devoted years of study towards it. That being said, don’t be too intimidated. Mrs. Dalloway is a wild ride and one that every passionate reader should take up at some point.

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The Diversity Problem

If I were making a speech as opposed to writing a blog post in my pjs this morning, I would look around the room somewhat solemnly and say: “Raise your hand if you’re aware that diversity in literature is a problem.” I would expect a few bemused blinks and roughly half the room to raise their hands.

Did you (symbolically, metaphorically, mentally, actually) raise yours?

If I were part of the audience, beneath thoughts of wishing I were still in my pjs, I would dimly recognize, “Yes, of course I know that it’s a problem. Duh. Diversity.” But how much do you or I really get about this? Initially, this blog post was meant to be a discussion of how effective discussions about diversity in literature are, inspired by my friend Leonicka‘s attempts to start a weekly #DiverseCanLit chat . But the more I delved into the topic, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the more I realized how much I wanted to bring this grievous deficiency to light. The first productive step to entering a conversation is to realize that it exists. The second step is to become aware of what you’re talking about. So here goes, my first attempt at true awareness of the lack of diversity in Western literature.  Continue reading

Fight Club

If you haven’t already seen the glorious masterpiece that spliced Brad Pitt (whom I don’t even like…sorry) into a story about split personality disorder, middle-class uprising, entrapment of consumer culture, and the price of mayhem, you are seriously depriving yourself. Fight Club is one of those cinematic moments you’re going to take months to recover from. The best part? It’s completely faithful to the book. Chuck Palahniuk wiled away a boring afternoon at work by writing the ultimate ‘boys club’ short story…

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An underground classic since its first publication in 1996, Fight Club is now recognized as one of the most original and provocative novels published in this decade. Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly funny first novel tells the story of a godforsaken young man who discovers that his rage at living in a world filled with failure and lies cannot be pacified by an empty consumer culture. Relief for him and his disenfranchised peers comes in the form of secret after-hours boxing matches held in the basements of bars. Fight Club is the brainchild of Tyler Durden, who thinks he has found a way for himself and his friends to live beyond their confining and stultifying lives. But in Tyler’s world there are no rules, no limits, no brakes. Continue reading