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.
- 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.