Gender Benders, Gynotopia, and the Grotesque

This summer I aimed to focus more on intersectional feminist novels, narratives examining gender along the lines of race, class, and geography. I journeyed through stories about gender bending, gynotopia, and grotesque dynamics between the sexes. Here are summer 2018’s #notwomensfiction reads!

What I Read

Based on recommendation or random choice, I read the following:

What I Saw

Here are their covers:

  • Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?: Superimposed on a beige background with flourishes of bright purples and reds, Kathleen Collins’s visage is both inviting and challenging. The font and lack of copy on the back cover understate the writer. Her chin is held up high; she looks like she’s unafraid of strife, proud of who she is. Does she know whatever happened to interracial love?
  • Daughter of Fortune: A woman in a delicate lace collar and ruby jewelry poses for a photograph in sepia. Cheeks slightly rouged, her dark eyes stare straight at the audience/reader, serious and slightly defiant. Is she the daughter of fortune? Whose daughter is she?
  • The Gate to Women’s Country: An overlaid image of a cloaked woman in moonlight divides a wood carving of an ancient woman and man. Is this the gate to Women’s Country? Is there a Men’s Country too?
  • Defiance: Another sepia cover, with a blue tone section—two sides of a woman from back to profile. Her eyes aren’t depicted, and we can’t discern her emotions. How does she feel? Is it connected to her wardrobe (dark dress)?

What I Learned

  • Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?: I received this copy on accident at a Yankee swap (at the same time I learned what that was), and I’m glad I did! Although this is Kathleen Collins’s only anthology of short stories (published posthumously), during her lifetime she was known for her film Losing Ground and two plays (In the Midnight Hour and The Brothers). She was a black female intellectual when there were few well-known black women in this field. Written with the eye of a playwright, this collection explores inter-/racial politics and mixed-race identities during the Civil Rights era across her characters’ varied lives. She touches upon feminist themes of male infidelity, emotional/physical violence against women, and woman as object, but fuses these themes with the lived experiences of black people in America and their relationships with white people. Her characters travel from Biloxi to Boston, are broken after broken relationships, are self-actualized and sensual, and both embrace and fear Blackness. Collins’s stories are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes eerie, but are always captivating and revelatory. You can read more about Kathleen Collins and her cultural legacy on her dedicated website, NPR, and Lit Hub. Collins also had two children, Emilio Collins and Nina Lorez Collins; Nina is also a writer and former literary agent.

Questions:

    • How does Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
    • Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is at times reminiscent of White Man Canon literature. The voyeurism and narrator being in love with the family he’s obsessed with in “The Happy Family” reminds me of The Great Gatsby, while the Gothic family romance in “Dead Memories . . . Dead Dreams” feels like it could take place in the House of Usher. How does fiction by and about black women fit into “women’s fiction”? Is this a category dominated by and about white women? How can fiction by women of color be used to counter the White Man Canon?
    • Characters in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are inextricable from their race, class, and gender. Most, if not all, are also involved in or are children of mixed-race relationships. How does intersectionality and interracial identity/ies play a role in women’s fiction?

 

  • Daughter of Fortune: I don’t remember how or when this book fell into my possession, but this particular Oprah’s Book Club copy was surely loved by its previous owners, paperback cover torn and spine lined. Perhaps these readers were just as dazzled by Isabel Allende’s portrait of place and her characters’ complexities, not to mention the sprinkling of magical realism. Eliza Sommers, a Dickensian orphan confined by a stuffy Victorian upbringing, is raised by her English aunt and uncle, as well as the family’s Chilean cook, in Valparaíso during the mid-1800s. This daughter of mysterious fortune is primed to become a lady in an arranged marriage, yet independent Eliza instead falls in love with a revolutionary young Chilean in search of gold. From Chile to California, Allende depicts colonization as both a destructive and creative force, Europeans to South America and Americans westward slaughtering indigenous peoples and erasing their cultures but at the same time producing new democratic societies and opportunities for those oppressed in their own countries. Eliza for the first time experiences true freedom on her misguided voyage to find her lover, riding in pantaloons on horses and reading pornographic stories for money. She also meets a cast of unconventional characters: an aristocrat’s daughter who has more business acumen than her husband, a band of prostitutes led by a lesbian or possibly transgender man aptly named Joe Bonecrusher, a man whose masculinity is more fragile than it appears, and an acupuncturist who combines western medicine with ancient Chinese healing. Although the novel ends with Eliza returning to a more feminine persona (after a quick masturbation sesh!), she persistently refuses to be a ruined and subservient woman; she has a miscarriage after being offered an abortion, learns about performative gender and transgresses female roles, eschews xenophobia, embraces her prostitute friends despite their status as “soiled doves,” is repulsed by her friend’s former fetishization of Chinese “golden lilies” or bound feet, and combats the sex trafficking of young girls. This is also the first book in a loosely connected trilogy; Daughter of Fortune is followed by House of the Spirits and Portrait in Sepia.

Questions:

  • How does Daughter of Fortune reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Since European colonization of South America (and the subsequent racism toward native peoples) is an important theme in this book, Daughter of Fortune might be considered postcolonial. What other works by women explore the intersection of postcolonialism and feminism?
  • Eliza dresses as and is perceived as a man for the majority of the novel, and at points she questions her identity as a woman. What function does crossdressing and gender performance serve in women’s fiction? Is it “women’s fiction” if the protagonists/all characters aren’t always cisgender women?

 

  • The Gate to Women’s Country: My brother gave this pulpy-looking fiction (which might have been as violent but less riveting than Pulp Fiction after reading it for a freshman course collegeonly three years after which and when I was ¾ done he told me it was a gag gift. Thanks, bro! Sheri S. Tepper’s famous dystopian novel creates a society separated by sex, women at the helm of civilization while men are hyper-masculine soldiers living in an adjacent garrison, though there are a few men who choose to coexist with the women as caretakers and advisors (and, spoiler alert, BABY DADDIES!). Women are still expected to rear children, but Women’s Country is a second-wave feminist experiment in the extremes of toxic masculinity and patriarchy in contrast to matriarchy and productive, peaceful sorority. As a former executive director for Planned Parenthood, Tepper also injects some pro-choice rhetoric around reproductive rights; there’s some cool contraceptive technology, like a proto Nexplanon arm implant! There’s also mention of systemic misogyny/violence against womenlike FGM, femicide, and pologyny (where polyandry isn’t even a thought). However, points of contention aside from the giant penis statue are heteronormativity/erasure of anything LGBTQ+ and erasure of non-white characters (the protagonist women’s light eyes and blond hair are always mentioned, and there’s so much weaving of Greek mythology). This book definitely feels dated as a result, though Tepper is considered a legendary female sci-fi writer.
    1. Side note: While reading The Gate to Women’s Country, I also watched a movie and mini-series involving groups of women: Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (yes, that’s the actual title!) and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The former (discovered via Elvira, Mistress of the Dark https://www.elvira.com/) is a campy 80s flick in which a feminist professor investigates a group of women in California who eat men with a side of avocado. The latter, based on a book of the same name, involves a group of teenage girls going missing in Victorian-era Australia. Both were strange and delightful (albeit problematic) and complemented the experience of reading The Gate to Women’s Country.

avocado women 5.png

Stills from Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death © Cult Video.

Questions:

  • How does The Gate to Women’s Country reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • There’s no explicit mention of trans characters or characters of color. In fact, being gay in Women’s Country is briefly alluded to as an aberration. Since the novel explores medical technology as a way to phase out undesired genetic traits (like the desire to fight in men) and correct humanity, what does this erasure say about this type of matriarchal utopia? And what about intersectional feminism?
  • As Mary Shelley is often considered the creator of science fiction, what does the intersection of “women’s fiction” and science fiction unearth? 

 

  • Defiance: Aside from the author using the word “scalloped” excessively (I love scallops, but not when they appear 43 times in 265 pages), Carole Maso writes a compelling profile of woman as prey-cum-predator in today’s sadistic patriarchal society. Anti-heroine Bernadette O’Brien chronicles a traumatic life from her prison cell; we learn of her psycho-sexual slayings as she’s waiting to be executed. In her murdering two young men, she claims male privilege for herself. A child genius who sells sex to pay for Harvard tuition and has several abortions in her teens, she subverts the Madonna/whore archetypes while also embodying the monstrous-feminine. She’s demonized by some, and then revered as an impenetrable feminist Venus in Furs by others. I watched American Horror Story: Cult after reading this novel, which explored the idea of female rage (and “nasty women”!) as absolute power, not to mention its somewhat relevant lesbian death cult that labeled all men as scum and perpetrated serial killings. Her powerher defianceis a violent escape from a cycle of abuse, inflicted by lascivious, dominant men on helpless, dominated women, structures that remain too relevant to America’s current political climate (read: rapists and misogynists in the White House).

Questions:

  • How does Defiance reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Though the protagonist/heroine, Bernadette can also be considered a villain. How does the figure of woman as predator/villain fit into women’s fiction?
  • Hierarchies of gender are replicated (or exacerbated) by class disparities. What’s the role of class in women’s fiction?

 

Each of these novels, all written sometime after the 1960s, depict different moments and thinking about women in the 20th century (and prior). Are there any novels by/about women from this era that you would recommend? Leave your suggestions below!

Also, what should I read in 2019?

Cat background in post header image © Lush Cosmetics.

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