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WDLT is now on She Writes!

I’m delighted to announce that starting today, WDLT essays will be a weekly feature on She Writes! She Writes, as you probably know, is an online community of women writers, and with over 15000 members from 30 countries, it’s a perfect home for the varied voices of WDLT.  I am very excited by this partnership, and I hope you’ll continue your support for WDLT as we enter this new chapter!

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A brief hiatus–and an exciting new development!

This blog is going on a brief hiatus till June 1, when I’ll have some exciting news to share about WDLT’s new partnership with a great organization. Please stay tuned for more about this development!

Complications of Gender in the World of Children’s Books by Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in northwest New Mexico. She is the author of a retold story collection (The Broken Tusk), picture books (Monsoon, Chachaji’s Cup, and The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story), early readers (Holi, and Yoga Class) and novels for young readers (Naming Maya and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything). In addition to her writing she is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Visit her website at http://www.umakrishnaswami.com/

Note: This piece is cross-posted at Gender across Borders.

“In the world of children’s literature the gender divide is alive and well, but it’s not about the representation of women. Go to any children’s writer’s conference and you’ll find rooms full of women, with the occasional man doing his best not to feel like an affirmative action icon. In YA and illustration circles, you’ll find a few more men. Still, all the way from the days of Ursula Nordstrom and Harper Books for Boys and Girls, this has been a field dominated by women. As in elementary school teaching, and for a similar host of complex reasons, droves of male writers don’t seem to be writing for children.

And then there’s the question of who reads and who does not. The common wisdom holds that girls read. Boys don’t. They won’t at any rate read books with girls on the cover, or books with girls as protagonists, or books with girlish themes (whatever those are). Girls on the other hand (still referring to the common wisdom that gets tossed about with no regard for where it came from or where it’s been) are endlessly forgiving, and will read anything regardless of the genders of characters or whether the covers are pink or blue. Judging by the pinkness of some covers, you’d think the publishers were actively trying to discourage those picky boys.

And here is another thing. No one talks about girls who don’t read. Presumably there are some. Why are we not in a stew about them? And why does everyone talk about boys who don’t read as if they were representative of all boys? It seems a little unfair, but then we who are not men and boys have an unfair advantage over them. We know and have known for several hundred years, that fairness as a concept is mightily flawed.

So since I am not a man but only what Ursula Le Guin once called a “Pretend-a-Him,” I thought I’d go to the source. I asked Greg Leitich Smith, a real live man who writes for real live young readers, for his opinion on this whole complicated muddle of gender in our little universe of children’s books. Here’s Greg’s reply:

“BOYS DON’T READ: As a former boy who read a great deal, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of this statement. It often seems to me we’re lumping “boys” together in some sort of over-generalized anthropological grouping. (I understand why, sometimes, but still.) It would probably be more accurate to say, “some boys don’t read…” Also, when I hear this statement, I’m not sure it’s including boys who read magazines and nonfiction….

BOYS WON’T READ BOOKS WITH GIRL PROTAGONISTS: I think it depends on the book. If, say, the novel is (a) entirely self-reflection, and (sometimes message-y) emoting or (b) exclusively a romance (in which the entire focus of the plot involves  girl A falling in love with both  boy B), then perhaps a boy is less likely to pick it up.   But a girl protagonist per se is not an absolute veto for a boy reader.

WOMEN CAN’T/SHOULDN’T WRITE MALE PROTAGONISTS:  Nonsense.”

Ha! So there. It’s the book that counts, and doesn’t good story still rule in children’s books? Plot matters. Action matters. Children won’t read in the hope of finding some obscure literary affectation that doesn’t show up until page 300, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart and can’t make meaningful connections among texts they read and between life and text. As for the gender of the author–really, I don’t give a chin-hair, and I tend to think I’m not alone.”

Pink Hearts and Mortarboards by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Her academic interests include landlord and tenant and housing law, real property and trusts, as well as feminist approaches to law; she has written and published in those fields. She has also published four novels: More Than Love Letters (2007), Hearts and Minds (2008), Crossed Wires (2009) and The Tapestry of Love (2010).

Visit her site at http://www.rosythornton.com and her faculty webpage at  http://www.law.cam.ac.uk/people/academic/re-thornton/80

“Few things are less remarkable than an academic who has written a novel. Not all of them would readily admit it, perhaps, but you can bet your cap and gown that half my colleagues have a dog-eared manuscript under the bed, or a file tucked away somewhere on their hard disc containing an embryonic work of fiction. Some, I know for a fact, have three or four. But if you going to have the effrontery to go beyond writing for enjoyment, to stick your head above the parapet and actually publish a novel, then you’d better make it a Man Booker contender, a searing essay on the state  of post-9/11 society, experimental in style and construction, darkly abstruse in theme. Or, if you absolutely must write to entertain, then let it be detective fiction; crime novels are the accepted light reading of the don on his day off. What you absolutely must not do, under any circumstances, is write commercial women’s fiction.

At this point I should state emphatically that I make no apology for writing novels primarily for a female audience. It is not necessarily even a conscious choice. It is simply that the issues that preoccupy me tend to be those which twist and wind through women’s lives: romantic love, certainly, but also family, fertility and parenting, female friendships, ageing, illness, bereavement and loss; and beyond that, too, the struggle for a manageable work-life balance, community involvement and political activism, and the quest for self-fulfilment through creativity, or through  work, paid and unpaid. If this makes what I write ‘women’s fiction’ – or if it’s also my own gender which makes it so – then so be it.

Within the academic community, however – as indeed to the broadsheet reviewer – women’s fiction is not a thing to be taken seriously. All women’s fiction must be airport romance or air-headed ‘chick lit’; it’s heaving bosoms or it’s sex and shopping. It is a trinket, a bauble, a thing of no weight or substance, to be smiled over indulgently by colleagues, or joked and teased about. I have learnt, if not to apologise for my novels, then at least to shrug them off with some self-deprecating quip – to dismiss them before they are dismissed.

The pretty pastel covers don’t help. I read with sympathetic recognition Elyse Friedman’s essay here in March this year about the packaging the marketing men had assigned to her dark and edgy novels: pink and princess-y, and even a clothesline! My first novel (working title: Asylum) was published as More Than Love Letters in a baby blue cover, sprinkled liberally with little red hearts. Yes, it has comedic elements, and yes, it contains a love story, but it also addresses wider issues, including (this being an academic interest of mine at the time) whether flight from domestic abuse should be a legitimate ground for political asylum. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse commits suicide in a psychiatric ward on page 242 – but it still has hearts and butterflies on the cover. (That’s right, butterflies – when I’m certain there were none in the book.)

My second novel, Hearts and Minds, is a traditional campus novel. The book is a female twist on what is in the UK traditionally a ‘male’ genre, from C.P. Snow and Lucky Jim to Tom Sharpe and David Lodge; it is set in an all-women’s college, but it is still very much a campus satire, full of committee manoeuvrings and political back-stabbings. The central issue of the book is the morality or otherwise of sacrificing academic integrity in order to accept a financial donation. But the cover is bedecked with hearts and flowers – and cute, white doves bearing academic mortarboards in their beaks.

I work in a highly traditional Law faculty which has only employed women teaching staff for the last thirty of the seven hundred years of its existence, and which appointed its first female full professor in 2005. Already my credibility as a hard-edged academic was undermined in many eyes by the course I run in Women and Law, and by my writing about legal doctrine from an avowedly feminist perspective. Now I have completely blown it: I have lost the last shreds of a serious reputation by publishing novels for ‘girls’.

Let them mock. Let them dish out the Barbara Cartland jibes – I’m impervious to their scorn. I believe in what I write; I believe I have things to say about women’s experience and women’s lives. What is so wrong about writing books that people might actually enjoy reading?”

Not an Expert, Not Oppressed by Medeia Sharif

Medeia Sharif is a Kurdish-American writer who was born in New York City.  She currently lives in Miami Beach, Florida, where she works as a high school English teacher. Her debut novel BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. will be published by Flux in July 2011.

Visit her website at http://www.sharifwrites.com

“When I was in middle and high school, I usually was the only person of Middle Eastern descent in my class. I’ll never forget how certain teachers put me on the spot by asking me questions about the Middle East, as if I was some sort of expert due to my appearance and name. “Medeia, tell us about the agriculture…colleges…city life….” Sometimes I shared things my parents told me—which is far more reliable than anything I have to say about the region since they grew up there—but most of the time I told them the truth. “I’ve never been there.” It’s true, not even for a vacation.

I was born in the United States. I grew up with pop music and fast food. My upbringing doesn’t exactly match my friends’ since I grew up in an immigrant household, but I still consider myself an all-American type of person. So it irked me when people assumed I knew everything about the Middle East. And they also thought I would be oppressed. “You’re allowed to do that?” someone would ask after I talked about doing some mundane, everyday thing. Yes, I led a normal life and I was able to fulfill my goals. In college and as an adult, I didn’t receive this spotlight that my teachers and classmates used to set upon me. Well, actually, there was this one time…

In a critique group years ago one of the members made his distaste towards my writing obvious. After I read a light-hearted, humorous chapter about a Muslim teenager doing teenage-y stuff in Miami he proclaimed that I must change my style completely. He said I should use Leila Ahmed’s A BORDER PASSAGE as a model for my writing. I read that book in college, so I was familiar with it. It’s a memoir of life in Cairo in the 40s and 50s, with the author emigrating to the States in the 60s. My debut novel and a few of my works-in-progress are fictional accounts of American girls of Middle Eastern descent in the modern age. It was like comparing apples and oranges.

My manuscript wasn’t Middle Eastern enough for this person’s liking. He wanted politics, law, history, colonialism, the whole shebang. And from his tone and choice of words, I also had an uneasy feeling—something that was also palpable from the pesky questioners of my school age years—that perhaps he wanted to read about the hardships of being a Muslim woman, that we are all oppressed by our men and religion. Meanwhile, my main characters aren’t oppressed or unhappy. I didn’t match the stereotypes floating in this person’s mind.

I’ve been thinking about this issue as my debut date nears. BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. will be published in July. It may not meet everyone’s expectations. Some people may even have a problem with me, the author. Maybe I’m not knowledgeable enough to have written the novel since—confession time here—I’ve never fasted for Ramadan. I had to do research for this book and my other works because, you guessed it, I’m not an expert on all things Middle Eastern and Muslim. And when there are books out there about oppressed Muslim women—and I don’t deny they exist—I don’t care to write about that side of life. Muslim women are not all unhappy and restricted. I create characters who are jovial and feisty.

Despite people’s expectations of me and my characters, I’m comfortable writing novels about the American-Muslim-Middle-Eastern experience. I may not be an authority figure, but I know I can write about that experience with a vision and authenticity that other writers may not have. Also, I hope that people who read my work will look past any stereotypes and assumptions they have and learn something new about Middle Eastern culture and religion.”

Sometimes a Moment by Lorri Neilsen Glenn

Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a poet and essayist with four collections of poetry, the most recent being Lost Gospels (Brick Books, 2010). She was Poet Laureate for Halifax from 2005-2009, and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Her collection of essays on grief and loss will be published this fall by Hagios Press.

Learn more about her work at http://www.writers.ns.ca/writers/N/neilsenglennlorri.html.  Lorri may be contacted at lorrineilsenglenn(at)gmail(dot)com.

“I can be in the alley of a large urban centre, hiking Signal Hill in Newfoundland, or watching from the windy shore in Valparaiso, turn, and stop: arrested by an image, a landscape that seems true, the sound of a voice, a constellation of color and shape that invites a closer look. Sometimes the moment is unsettling, but always it is compelling.

Stunned, breathless, pierced: such moments, too, can strike me when I am reading other writers. A few pages into poet Bronwen Wallace’s The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, for example, and I was overtaken. It’s not until now, years later, that I realize why.

Wallace was a Canadian poet and short story writer who died in 1989 at the age of 44. The collection of her poetry that moved me so profoundly lights up the stubborn particulars of the here and now – of this, this, and this – in the lives of truck drivers and abused women and teenaged boys, of a parrot in the North or bones upturned in the field, of a woman singing alone in the house on a Saturday afternoon. As an ethnographer, someone who studies cultures, I am curious about meanings we invest in things and places, about the bonds we make. Now, a decade after first reading her work, I see how Bronwen Wallace’s example matters even more in our literary culture: she reminds me how little we celebrate foremothers.

Wallace’s writing was work on the threshold– it collapsed boundaries and borders, created connections in a world in flux, allowed the intimacy of the everyday to slow-dance with philosophy. She was an activist, a tireless political worker for autoworkers and battered women, among others, and her poetry and fiction bring their breath and their voices up close to our ears, alert us to their despair and their hard-won joys, without a hint of preaching.

Several of my Canadian writer friends knew Bronwen Wallace well; a few studied with her, sat around kitchen tables with her. Friends tell me she was complicated, flawed, brilliant, generous, and no-nonsense. When I turned to writing poetry at the late age of 50, I knew little of the literary landscape and its critical shifts. I came to Wallace’s poems without any preconceptions, struck by the generous sweep of thought that curls back to tuck in detail, the lift, sway and propulsion of Wallace’s lines, by a mature conversational voice that belied a fierce intelligence and canny attention to craft. And by her wit– an open-heartedness that allowed the whole world in. Wry, but not ironic. Her work spoke eloquently about who she was in the world, and what mattered to her.

Added to my bookshelf in those early days were the works of Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds—all the poetry I’d read to that point, really, was in the tissue-thin pages of Norton anthologies in survey courses. I’d found few foremothers there, aside from the usual: Emily Dickinson, or if we were lucky, Elizabeth Bishop. I knew nothing. Now, years later I see how Wallace’s work pointed me to the work of other Canadian poets—the widely-anthologized Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwan, yes, but more, so many more whose names weren’t the first to come to the lips of the book-buyers of the world. Poets whose work you might not find in a small library or in an airport bookstore, but whose ideas and voices, like ocean or rock or boreal forest, are the abiding and forceful presences that deliver us and carry us forward.

In Canada, Wallace’s poetry, like Carol Shields’ fiction, brought the complexities of the domestic and the personal to the forefront. Wallace did not shy away from clear-eyed unsentimental stories that might make others squirm; for her, as for Shields, these moments were not ‘merely domestic’ or –worse – ‘solipsistic’ or ‘confessional.’ They were essential, and they were not to be dismissed.

Women tend not to occupy the public sphere, even now in 2011. In large part, we find self-promotion distasteful, feel awkward about trumpeting our prizes or our publications shamelessly on social network sites. When asked to review or respond to others’ work, we prefer to sit with the poems and let them steep, to think about the writer and her winding path into her work, to consider the fresh insights and perspectives she brings to the wider conversation. Because that’s it, after all; in the noisy world of publishing—a world that seems to have become a three-ring circus in Times Square—we long for the silence and the slow grace of word, thought, and human spirit coming together. We long for the resonant connections that drew us to poetry—to any form of writing–in the first place.

Wallace is only one foremother–we each have our own to celebrate in our communities and cultures. I have drawn courage from Wallace’s work, and daily I try to stay open, as she did, to the stubborn particulars of the here and now.

Outside is the barking marketplace, the thrust and parry of gatekeeper battles, the petty jostlings of egos and toxic discourse that find their way into the air we breathe. As Wallace writes, “How can any of us know/what will speak for us or who/will be heard?” Here, now, I am speaking, through Bronwen Wallace’s work, for the gifts of random testimonies and slow discoveries, for essentials of the spirit her work leaves for us, for the grace found in the one and the many. Here, now, I am speaking for our conversations across time with literary foremothers. For testimonies, and those singular, ordinary moments of connection we create now on the trail, in the street, at the door, and at the kitchen table. ”

Note: if you’d like to know more about Wallace, please click here (link via Lorri).

Reading Between the Lines: Women’s Stories, Women’s Lives by Victoria Best

Dr Victoria Best (aka blogger Litlove) is a Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge. She was a lecturer in French at Cambridge for 10 years, and now focuses on study support for the students and on writing. She has published three books of literary criticism: Critical Subjectivities: Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2003) and co-authored with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007), as well as numerous other articles and chapters in books.
Visit her blog Tales from the Reading Room at http://litlove.wordpress.com and email her at litlove1 [at] yahoo.co.uk

“When I was an undergraduate, on the cusp of the nineties, there weren’t that many women in Cambridge and feminism was still big news. There were three men for every woman in my matriculation year, and when I joined my college as a lecturer, I was the ninth woman out of a fellowship of 120 or so. I could feel the change in the tide, the way that women were starting to make inroads into the old institutions, without having altered their fundamental constitution. By my era, feminism was more than a collection of fierce women fuelled by injustice, more than a force for change harnessed to an often flawed but determined game plan. It may have become a piece of political and social history, but it had aims that were still palpable and vital.

One of the more surprising benefits of feminism for me was that it taught me how to read books critically. It had all been a bit hit and miss until I began studying the topic. Sometimes I thought a book spoke to me, sometimes I felt I had some insight into its deeper message, but I spent much of my time confused and disorientated, like a traveller in a foreign land without a map. Once I aligned myself with the cause of the women in the books I read, things began to fall into place. I began to see how literature, in even the most ordinary of ordinary stories, tells us about our lives, our choices, our constraints in a way that crystallises and quietly critiques them. There was Balzac with his huge tomes full of saintly martyred mothers and schemingly shrewd young women, learning instinctually how to exchange their bodies for social advancement or domestic ceasefire. There was poor old Emma Bovary, searching and searching for some adventure, some fun, some vitality beyond her dreary and limited life in the provinces, and finding only humiliating adultery and debt to assuage her tedium. Twenty years later, Emile Zola created Nana, his slovenly, sexy It Girl, the courtesan who rampaged through Parisian society and brought it to its weak, materialistic knees. All of the heroines had to die in the end, as it seemed there was inevitably a price to be exacted for women who challenged the boundaries. A kind of monumental cosmic slap on the wrist, as much to the author for daring to dream them up as to the women for risking their foolish rebellions.

By the time of André Gide and Proust, limp-wristed males fell romantically in love with spiritual, fragile women, pursued them and pestered them, only to turn away from them the better to shape and mould their selfish selves. They claimed to be noble, but the women withered in their shadows and died, just as usual. It was a relief when Colette appeared with a battalion of strong women with good financial heads on their shoulders and a robust appetite for food, for pleasure, for friends. She swapped the roles around, and produced a lot of pretty trinket-like men. Her women fell for them all the same, but at least they had a range of ways to recover when it all went wrong. After that, the disparity of fates at the conclusion began to even out a little. Women still teetered on the brink of emotional or mental disaster, but they held their nerve better, whilst men began to crumble instead. The stories never really stopped proclaiming different trajectories for men and women, but I could see that they did so as much to understand them as to reinforce them; that they reflected back to us a perpetual civil warfare between the genders, fought on the curious battleground of desire and admiration. Love, it seemed, was the great seam that stitched the vast majority of stories together. No matter what else happened, boy met girl, man met woman, and the age-old struggle ensued. What happened to the woman was a delicate and flexible affair, however, that spoke clearly to the deep, disguised heart of a culture’s concerns. The great ideological conflicts of the age seemed always to be played out on the vulnerable, impressionable body of a woman.

That’s why, formally, as a literary critic, and informally, as a blogger, I still keep my eye on what the women are doing in any given book. What it is they want, their horizon of expectations, the demands that are made of them, the opportunities they are permitted. There is no such thing as an innocent story, only a story steeped in an awareness of gender politics that goes beyond what we consciously know.

Writing Our Bodies: Embodiment, Voice, and Literature by Sayantani DasGupta

Sayantani DasGupta is a writer, physician, mother and academic. Originally trained in pediatrics and public health, she now teaches  in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University as well as the Graduate Program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College.  She is the co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Folktales (Interlink, 1995), the author of a memoir, Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor (Ballantine, 1999), and the co-editor of an award-winning collection of women’s illness narratives, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies (KSUP, 2007). She is currently working on a middle grade novel based on Indian folktales, and a YA novel re-imagining some stories from the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

Sayantani was featured a few years ago on the cover of Ms. Magazine with her mother–a ‘feminist mother daughter team’ that is still going strong. Visit her website at www.sayantanidasgupta.com, and her blog at http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com

“What is the connection between voice and the body?

As a daughter of Indian immigrants to the U.S., it was novels, essays, plays and poems – the ‘literary things’ of this blog’s title – which introduced me to myself. I remember reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones for the first time and thinking, “This is what it is to be a young brown girl in America. This is what it is to be me.” Marshall’s words were not my exact experience, to be sure, but they gave me a space, a recognition, a permission to be.

From Rabindranath Tagore to Sharon Olds, from Alice Walker to Salman Rushdie – authors of various personal, political and national bodies all taught me to better understand my own. Like looking in a mirror – or use an image from Rushdie – like peering into a stream of stories, the voices of these writers taught me how to live within my own skin. They introduced me to my own face.

In my academic work – teaching illness and disability memoirs, thinking about the connections between narration, health, and social justice – I often make the connection between voice and body for my students. In particular, I am interested in the political act of speaking from, about and through marginalized bodies. Ill bodies, disabled bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies, bodies of color, working bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies – we are all told to be quiet, and in so doing, uphold the tyranny of the ‘normal’ and ‘normative’. In speaking, writing, and telling, we light the
first spark of our activism. “We are here, we have stories,” we cry. And in that cry we politicize – drawing connections between our stories and those of others, making alliances between our bodies and those around us.

In the words of writer Nancy Mairs, who writes autobiographically about having multiple sclerosis and using a wheelchair,

Paradoxically, losing one sort of nerve has given me another. No one is going to take my breath away. No one is going to leave me speechless. To be silent is to comply with the standard of feminine grace. But my crippled body already violates all notions of feminine grace. What more have I got to lose? … No body, no voice, no voice, no body. That’s what I know in my bones. (Nancy Mairs “Carnal Acts”)

In writing and publishing about her life, Mairs describes drawing others to her; getting phone calls and letters which declare “Me too! Me too!” Says she,

It’s as though the part I thought was a solo has turned out to be a chorus. But none of us was singing loud enough for the others to hear. (Mairs)

When I co-edited a collection of women’s illness narratives called Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies, my aim was to hear this ‘chorus’ of women’s voices telling tales of embodiment. In witnessing these voices, I hoped that readers would be inspired to action and advocacy.

As a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction, I often write about my own embodied experiences of medical training and motherhood. Not just that, I write from and through that embodied experience. As a nursing mother, I long ago perfected the art of typing while nursing – if I sat just so on my bed with my left elbow curling around the baby’s head – I could reach the laptop keyboard with both hands, and clickety-clack away while my infant fed. My words and images competed for time with my babies – but they were all beloved, all of my body – both my flesh-and-blood children and their demanding, insisting-to-be-heard literary siblings.

More recently, I have turned to writing children’s fiction inspired by Indian folktales and mythologies. Pulling back on my medical and academic career to write is a choice not only of fancy, but of necessity. I can write from home, where my now school-age children still need me to be. Like every other working mother, I balance an endless series of part-time professions which, when added together, end up being far greater than one.

But the necessity to write is not solely from the outside, either. It is an embodied necessity, one I feel in my gut – in my bones. I write to remember those stories told to me by grandmothers long gone – whispered like magical mantras under the mosquito net where I would sleep on my vacations to India. I write these fantastical tales of demons and warriors, princesses and ghosts, to remember my foremothers, to introduce my children to their own ancient streams of stories, and ultimately, to narrate (and re-narrate) myself into being.

‘Women Doing Literary Things’ is no less than a radical act. To write. To speak. To Collectivize.

Let the parts we thoughts were solos give rise to a swelling chorus.”

Speaking of Soup and Typewriters By Lilian Nattel

Lilian Nattel is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels The River Midnight (Knopf Canada, 1999) and The Singing Fire (Knopf Canada, 2004). Visit her website at http://liliannattel.com and her blog at http://liliannattel.wordpress.com

“I live in a world of women and gentle men. My husband is one of those, a good guy who won my heart by cooking a nourishing and tasty soup. It was early in our relationship, and he noticed on my fridge a list of foods I was avoiding and foods that were good for me (I was having some stomach trouble at the time). Without saying anything about it, he made the soup with all the good ingredients and none of the bad ones, and brought it to me. All my best fictional men have his shyness, gentleness and consideration. While this is the world that I choose for myself, there are other worlds that intersect and impact mine and they are a part of my universe in life and in literature.

I have had ungentle experiences of men and women which infiltrate my fiction, people who are abusive to children and others in their power. I didn’t decide to write about domestic drama out of an ideological position, but because it was the crucible of my own existence. It fuels my work. It requires a story of me again and again. Why should anyone think that matters less than other subjects? It is the crux of human experience and what is literature if not the expression and the illumination of that? It’s also what I like best in the fiction that I read.

All my publishers, editors and most of my reviewers have been women. I didn’t require it, but that’s how it’s turned out. Based on simple stats, a little under half of them should have been men. According to Publishers Weekly 53% of books read are fiction, and 55% of people who buy fiction are women. Perhaps because my subject is family, friendship, mothers and children, the work they do, the dangers they face, their courage and their secrets, it is relegated to the world of women.

But my favourite review of all time was written by Michael Pakenham for The Baltimore Sun. It begins “From time to time, all too rarely, there comes a novel that so exceeds my expectations of mere excellence that I am tossed into the experience of magic. There is simply no way to explain, in terms of anything I know of conventional criticism, the power of the piece. Such was the impact of reading The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel.” Like my husband’s soup, that gained him a special place in my heart because of its understanding and generosity.

It seems strange to me that the subject of family, which results in the greater happiness or misery of every human being, whatever the circumstance, has less respect than other more remote subjects. I suspect that if women were to stop writing about it completely and were to take up some other genre en masse, let’s say political thrillers, then those would be considered of less worth.

I am reminded of typewriters. Yes—typewriters. Back, oh about 120 years ago, typewriters were considered heavy equipment and therefore inappropriate for women’s use. Being a secretary then was a male occupation. The YWCA held a typing competition for women to demonstrate to the world that women could expertly operate this heavy equipment. The purpose was to open up a white collar job for working women who would otherwise be limited to more dangerous, dirtier work. It worked. And a few decades later, secretarial work was exclusively female, poorly paid, and of low status. In Canada the leading female occupation in 1891 was servant, in 2001 it was clerical worker.

The problem has nothing to do with how well women writers write or what we write about. It is all about how femaleness is regarded in our society. This is changing. Thank God, the universe and everything, it’s changing. My daughters don’t understand why women (as opposed to people) are allowed to get off the bus between stops at night in order to be closer to home. But there’s more to do, much more. Women make 77% as much as men on average in the U.S. In Canada it’s worse—70.5%. In literature the situation is even more dire. The proportion of women reviewing and being reviewed ranges from a pathetically small fraction to a high of about ½ in most large circulation publications. Perhaps this is because prestige is more entrenched and slower to move forward. Then we must push and not be daunted, push together, arms linked.

In Praise of “Domestic Writing” by Brenda Leifso

Brenda Leifso’s first collection of poetry, Daughters of Men, was published by Brick Books in 2008. She is at work on her third manuscript of “domestic writing,” Arsenic Hour. She has won the Bliss Carman Award for Poetry and her work has been published in magazines and anthologies throughout Canada. She also writes and edits through her communications and creative business and teaches communications at Algonquin College in Ottawa, ON.

Visit her website at www.brendaleifso.com

[Update: I just discovered that today is Brenda’s birthday; please join me in wishing her a very happy day!]

“I have a confession to make: I have begun writing about the much maligned or ignored “domestic sphere”– even worse, about motherhood. Worse still, I am going on a campus radio show tonight to talk about my new manuscript. I’m nervous because I anticipate the audience may tune out once my subject matter is introduced; domestic writing and motherhood are not the sexiest topics and have the rep (or even rap) of being solipsistic. Muriel Gray, who judged the 2007 Orange Prize, for instance, wrote in the Guardian that women needed to stop writing “thinly veiled autobiographies on motherhood and boyfriend troubles” – that we needed to use our imaginations more if we wanted to achieve literary heights. Such a view is discouragingly narrow, and the work of many women writers (Carol Shields, Alice Munro) outright refutes it. Writing about mothers and domesticity matters.

In my undergraduate days, I never considered myself a feminist, most likely because I had not experienced enough of the world to grasp the subtle forms gender imbalance takes. Motherhood yanked me out of this ignorance. I was overwhelmed and sometimes appalled by the endless tasks of being wholly responsible for another life (as I write this, I am trying to pump breast milk for babe #2). Many readers and reviewers may come to a full stop at “overwhelm,” “endless tasks,” or “breast milk” (the horror!). How much weight will the literary, critical and broader cultural world give, then, to the actual implications of being wholly responsible for another life? Of the vulnerable positions this places mothers in? Of the lifetime of impossible choices the birth of a child presents?

In full disclosure, I am a white, middle-class and very educated woman who does not directly face the daily challenges of survival and protection that a mother in Haiti, Pakistan, Uganda, and even now Japan, must struggle for. Yet, I would argue that instead of limiting imagination, motherhood can expand its reach through the simultaneous birth of child and empathy. When my first child, a daughter, was born, I could not watch global horrors unfold without thinking what if that was my child? What if I lived with my children in a refugee camp? What if my child died of wholly preventable diarrhea or malaria? Was raped by soldiers? The prospect of any child or mother facing these situations suddenly became much less tolerable. Because women and children are the most vulnerable in the face of war or catastrophe, I also became acutely aware it would take just one event to put my children and me into an equally powerless and impossible position. Consider the story of one mother who survived the 2007 tsunami in Thailand. Holding the hands of both of her children when the waves hit, she had to let the older child go because he had the most chance of survival on his own. Does this story matter less because it is about mothers and children, or more?

People may ask if a middle-class motherhood in North America can really be equated to the struggles poor mothers face the world over. Perhaps not in scale and immediacy, but certainly in potential for violence and tragedy. A quick Google search for “writing and the domestic” brings up hit after hit about report writing concerning domestic assault, a topic which hit uncomfortably close to home just as my family was driving east in a move from Calgary (a city whose mid-2010 domestic assault incidents totalled close to 3,000 – a 14% increase from the previous year). In my old neighbourhood, the news reported, a father had suffered a psychotic break and murdered his tenant, wife and two children. Another child, just one year old, survived alone for twenty four hours before being found. Clearly, the domestic is not a sphere solely concerned with when a child is potty trained or sleeps through the night (though I desperately wish my own baby would). To dismiss writing about the domestic and motherhood is to dismiss their complexities, to dismiss or ignore the position of women and children in society, and, most importantly, to dismiss mothers and children as subjects worth writing and – by extension – caring about.

So what about the every day – the getting the kids ready for school, the toilet cleaning, the grocery shopping and the Sisyphean laundry mountain? Do I, as a mother most times drowning in these tasks myself, want to read about them? Yes, because I know my own thought life does not shut off the minute I pick up a pen to write a grocery list. Because as I fold laundry (again), I am, more often than not, thinking about the evolution of feminism, how I will inspire my daughter and son to be good, strong people who will make change in the world, and how my own writing can do the same. Because in these tasks and the Benedictine work of caring for others, wisdom must be, can be, and is found despite – or even because of – the drudgery. Wise women think all the time, and I want to hear what they have to say.

Tonight, I’m going to go into that interview confident in the value of my hard-won wisdom with, I hope, the wisdom of many other writing mothers behind me.”