Consequences of Colonialism

A new equinox, a new reminder that I’m woefully behind on keeping up with this blog! Before stepping into this summer, I wanted to recap the women’s fiction (intended to be) read summer 2019. 

This particular summer I wanted to revisit my college days of looking at texts via postcolonial theory and read novels by and about women set around the era of Western colonization (that is, between 1500 and 1850). To this day, we can still observe the repercussions of colonialism and its bloody legacy bent on stealing land, killing its Native peoples, and enslaving Africans for financial gain. However, this year’s reading taught me about a type of neocolonialism happening around the world and just in the past century. Whether it was 400 or only 40 years ago, colonialism and its consequences have had an especially oppressive impact on the women involved. 

What I Read

Exploring women’s role in colonialism, I read the following:

What I Saw

Here are their covers:

  • Erased Faces: A soldier whose eyes are uncovered looks directly at the viewer. They hold a military-style gun amid a background of red, superimposed over negatives of the same picture. The soldier appears to be a young woman. Who is the soldier? What are they fighting for and against whom? In reference to the title, how and why are faces being erased (reading this as they are losing their lives or identities)?
  • Wide Sargasso Sea: A family of 3 shadows stands at the center of what appears to be a house. They’re surrounded by splashes of color, perhaps tropical plants. Who are the people? Why are their faces obscured? What are they looking at?
  • A Mercy: We see a naturescape with no one in sight; lush, green land with water, untouched. Is this America before colonists stole and infected it with the plagues of Western religion and greed? Regarding the title, who receives mercy and who gives it?

What I Learned

  • Erased Faces: This book was in a little library that I traded for some time ago. The author’s name sounded familiar, and the back cover summary drew me in. Erased Faces follows two women who have lost their families and find romantic companionship with one another while fighting in the Chiapas rebellion. A prime example of neocolonialism, the book portrays the short-lived yet bloody war between Mexico’s indigenous people and the Mexican government just 26 years ago in 1994. In a struggle for indigenous rights and self-governance, one of the female protagonists Juana is seen being sold off for marriage, surviving domestic abuse, and then becoming a fearless martyr for the cause. Author Graciela Limón, known for her works exploring Mexican identity and Hispanic American literature, places the mythology of the Lacandón people in the modern day to reveal the oppression and violence against women still occurring throughout Mexico. In defending their rights as native people—and perhaps more importantly as women—Limón’s characters fight for their faces to be seen, not to be erased by colonialism.

Questions:

  • The concept of erasure is an especially damaging symptom of colonialism, and the book’s title immediately alludes to an erasure of identities, culture, and even physicalities (i.e., faces). How can women’s fiction undo the effects of colonial erasure and honor the identities lost?
  • Erased Faces details just one example of neocolonialism with its focus on the Chiapas rebellion. What other examples of neocolonialism have disproportionately affected women? Is there women’s fiction written about these events?
  • While lesbian relationships had been honored or considered commonplace in indigenous or non-Western religions, the spread of Christianity and homophobic biblical teachings may have led to the criminalization of such relationships in colonized countries. Now that legalizing gay marriage is at the forefront of human rights activism around the world, how can women’s fiction help to support this cause in conjunction with the continued campaign for women’s rights?

  • Wide Sargasso Sea: After I read Jane Eyre several years ago this retelling/prequel was suggested to me. Although I’m a fan of Victorian Brit lit (especially the Gothic kind!), I thought Jane Eyre dull and its characters gross—with the exception of the crazy woman in the attic. Who was she and why was she there? Jean Rhys must have wondered the same, as her novel explores Charlotte Brontë’s unspoken-for character and gives her a voice and a history. Set in the Victorian era in Jamaica, Antoinette (who becomes Brontë’s mysterious villainess) is a pariah among her peers; a white descendant of slave owners living among a primarily Afro-Caribbean population, she and her family are too Creole to be considered English (read: white) yet at the same time too white to be considered Creole. Madness runs in Antoinette’s family, and her wealth and fallen social status make her a target for the greedy, manipulative, predatory, etc., etc., Mr. Rochester. We know Antoinette’s story doesn’t end well, but Rhys’s interpretation of this character sheds light on the postcolonial politics of Caribbean plantations and the tense race relations across the British empire. Her retelling also counters the patriarchal white hegemony of the classic literary canon (and even enchants it with a little obeah).

Questions:

  • Published in 1847, Jane Eyre is considered one of the first feminist novels in part due to its first-person portrayal of women by a woman writer. However, its treatment of certain female characters (like Bertha Mason) can also be seen as regressive. How can rewriting women’s fiction be a mechanism for giving voices to otherwise voiceless female characters in protofeminist novels? What other retellings like Wide Sargasso Sea have already been written?
  • Similarly, Wide Sargasso Sea rewrites the past by “writing back” at the British Empire, turning the narrative of colonialism on its head against the colonizers. How can writing back be used to undo postcolonialism and empower the colonized?
  • Obeah, a type of magic and spiritualism brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans, plays an important role in the novel and helps to establish a sense of place in stark contrast to England. What can we learn about gender and colonialism from women’s fiction that employs obeah or other forms of magic?

  • A Mercy: I purchased this novel after Toni Morrison passed away last year, but having read several of her books and seen her lecture in person, I had already planned to read this novel. From Beloved to The Bluest Eye to A Mercy, her characters are both heartbreaking and haunting. I will never know first hand what it’s like to be a Black woman in America today, what it was like yesterday, or what it will be like tomorrow, but Morrison’s prose speaking to lived experiences of Black women and race in America is a necessary education. A Mercy explores women’s treatment and identity (or lack, thereof) during colonial settlement. Even with the most well-intentioned patriarch owning Virginia land and supposedly free servants in 1682, Morrison shows there is no such thing⁠⁠—that these merciful men are still slave owners who hunger after wealth at the cost of women’s lives. In highlighting the bonds of mothers and daughters (Florens and her minha mãe, and Sorrow becoming Complete), as well as the trauma caused by severing these bonds, Morrison hints at the additional burden women bore at the hands of slave masters⁠—children conceived through rape—slave breeding https://networks.h-net.org/node/4113/reviews/64746/sears-smithers-slave-breeding-sex-violence-and-memory-african-american being a form of sexual violence enacted on Black people to uphold white supremacy and profit from the slaveholding system. Embodied by the Native American character Lina stripped of language and tribe, Morrison also alludes to America, the motherland, as a victim of colonialism whose people were relocated or removed (i.e., murdered) http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/growth/text7/indianlands.pdf. In this novel, the idea of mercy—who gives it and to whom—is as complicated as its characters.

Questions:

In their depiction of female characters as broken, healed, tamed, wild, victim, and victor, these three novels portray women’s triple oppression https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_oppression (experiencing racism, sexism, classism) as a result of Western colonization. I’ve learned much about these issues via women’s fiction, but I can never learn too much! Are there any other postcolonial books about women that you would recommend? Any fiction or theory is welcome! Leave any comments or suggestions below!

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.

I Know What You Read Last Summer (Super Belated!)

Summer 2017 is further away than summer 2018, yet I still haven’t put fingers to keyboard and typed about the books I read last year. Continuing the spirit of #notwomensfiction, reading books only by and about women from July through September, this post chronicles my literary selections (includes some read before and after summer). I’m writing this 5 months later, so my memory is as fresh as mid-winter grocery produce (read: not at all).

What I Read

I finally got to chip away at the dusty towers of books in my room, reading the following that I’ve neglected for a few years:

(That being said, I’ll aim to actually buy some books and support women writers next year.)

What I Saw

Before reading her novel, I had heard an excerpt of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You when I saw her at a local bookshop in 2015. This was the only book in this summer’s lineup that I was familiar with in terms of content, though I did have expectations of the grim subject matter in Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection having read her previously. The other two I only had a shallow inkling from each front cover image and back cover/jacket synopsis.

Here are their covers:

  • Getting Mother’s Body: The understated, minimalist cover prefaces a book that is anything but. While the Western typography and stars prepared me for a wild ride in a place I used to call home, the coy woman’s face drew me in and beckoned me to hear her story. With flapper curls and a necklace of pearls, she looks like she belongs to a bygone era. Is she the mother? Where is her body and where does it need to go? Why and how are they getting her body?
  • Everything I Never Told You: I love swimming, though I can’t recall any books I’ve read about swimmers. The cover depicts a female swimmer surrounded in an endless blue that matches her bathing suit, with sloppy cursive lettering superimposed on the water. Is this the girl’s handwriting? If so, to whom did she never tell everything?
  • Black Dahlia & White Rose: Dahlias and roses, adorning this purple cover, are two of my favorite flowers, and JCO is one of my favorite (or at least most frequented) writersa winning combination, or so I had thought. The Black Dahlia conjured images of Hollywood noir, so I knew this would include some difficult content around the mutilation of the young Elizabeth Short in 1947. Who or what is the White Rose?
  • Incubus: The title is a *dead* giveaway of the book’s creepy contents. If this were marketed to men, the cover would no doubt resemble a pulp magazine or late night B movie, helpless woman with torn clothes and a buxom body draped over a monster’s arms. Though the cover is quite boring (red-orange hued with a church steeple in the foreground), I appreciate there not being a sexploitation element to attract readers.

What I Learned

  • Getting Mother’s Body: Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’s debut novel conjures women who recklessly follow their own pursuits, defying men, poverty, racism, and whatever else gets in their way. Set mostly in Texas and partly in Arizona in the 1960s, Getting Mother’s Body follows a cast of characters all associated with the titular mother Willa Mae, a cunning,  light-skinned black woman whose memory haunts each. The protagonist Billy Beed, daughter of Willa Maea spunky, stubborn teenager who becomes pregnant and contemplates an abortion despite having no money and having lost her mother to a botched abortionis the epitome of a strong, independent woman. And in Dill Smiles, Willa Mae’s last lover, is defined by her queerness; her peers consider her a man more than a woman. As lyrical as it is heartbreaking, Getting Mother’s Body is an unforgettable ode to the strength, resilience, and cleverness of womenparticularly women of colorin times of adversity.

Questions:
1. How does Getting Mother’s Body reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. Getting Mother’s Body is reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s Sula. How does fiction by and about black women fit into “women’s fiction”? Is this a category dominated by and about white women?
3. Characters in Getting Mother’s Body are inextricable from their race, class, gender, and ability. How does intersectionality play a role in women’s fiction?

  • Everything I Never Told You: A literary whodunit (but not quite) that focuses on the characters’ secret inner lives to unravel the cause of a favorite child’s death, Everything I Never Told You depicts the conflicts and grief an interracial family experiences in 1970s small-town America. Celeste Ng creates layered characters, unmasking an increasingly dysfunctional family throughout the novel. While the death of daughter Lydia Lee is the central question of the novel, Ng probes further into questions of identity and place. Lydia’s mother, a white woman who faces discrimination as a woman in a medical academic program full of men (that she reluctantly leaves and never returns to when she becomes pregnant), is scorned by her mother when she marries a Chinese-American man. Lydia’s father is obsessed with cultural assimilation, ashamed of his heritage when he is also discriminated against for his racial Otherness. And the children, whose lives are tainted by their parents’ insecurities, the shadow of their dead sister, and their own Otherness. Lydia’s death by drowning (hence the swimming girl on the cover), which we find out to be accidental rather than a murder or suicide, is a symbol of the characters’ unfulfilled potential and broken futures. Her death also signals in the end that there is hopethat one day the world will be a more welcoming and inclusive place.

Questions:
1. How does Everything I Never Told You reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I haven’t seen any other explicitly biracial or mixed raced characters in the “women’s fiction” that I’ve read. I would like to read more! Any recommendations?
3. While Lydia is the child everyone is fixated on, the siblings Nath (older brother) and Hannah (younger sister) are integral to the family dynamic and plot. How do different family configurations inform the characters in fiction by and for women?

  • Black Dahlia & White Rose: Though I meant to read full novels for this exploration, I include this unlinked short story collection here. This was probably the most disappointing JCO I’ve read, though the titular story “Black Dahlia & White Rose” was the strongest and most evocative (albeit really dark and disturbing). In this piece I found it fascinating to read about Marilyn Monroe before she became the iconic sex symbol, and her relationship with another Hollywood starlet. Overall this collection touched on themes pertaining to womens lived experiences: broken marriages, violence against women, sexual objectification, absentee fathers and the Electra complex, fat shaming, women’s sexuality, inequity and feelings of inadequacy. I won’t read this again since JCO has much better offerings.

Questions:
1. How does Black Dahlia & White Rose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. There are elements of biography and nonfiction in the titular story about Elizabeth Short (Black Dahlia) and Norma Jeane (Marilyn Monroe/White Rose). How does fact-based information or research inform the fictional elements of “women’s fiction”?
3. How does form (short story, flash, novel) influence content in this genre?

  • Incubus:  I read this book in September/October to prep for Halloween, but this book didn’t give me the titillating chills it promised. TBH the scariest thing about this book was how awful it was, despite it receiving a starred Kirkus review. Yeah, let’s make this narrator woman do even more domestic tasks to ward off an evil sex demon, who has in a way enabled women to fulfill their own marital desires (yay feminism?)! Unfortunately, the narrator’s agency is expressed through housekeeping by the end of the book. There were also pointless subplots and obvious motifs, not to mention xenophobia and ableism. I thought this would be a sexy horror story for bored housewives with vaginas drier than Dry Falls, Maine, (the setting of this terrible book) but Ann Arensberg seems to support sexism rather than subvert it.

Questions:
1. How does Incubus reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I’ve always loved Gothic stories. The common categorizations of the Gothic genre are the Male Gothic and Female Gothic (though that doesn’t incorporate queering of the genre). Does Incubus fit into the Male or Female Gothic tradition? How does Incubus in this genre fit into “women’s fiction”?
3. How does Incubus as horror fit into “women’s fiction”? Is horror for women considered “women’s fiction”? What about horror by but not necessarily for women?

That’s all for now, but I look forward to reading more #notwomensfiction this upcoming summer. I also need to diversify my book choices. Leave your reading suggestions below!

A Summer of #notwomensfiction (Belated)

Fall is here. Has been for about a month now. The air is crisp, cool, and every #basicwhitegirl is coming out of the woodwork for pumpkin spice lattes.

But enough of stereotyping women for their preferred seasonal beverage…I’m the one you should smh at.

Back in June we examined what women’s fiction is as a genre/reading category, how it’s inherently Othered because there is no “men’s fiction,” and how to destroy it with the #notwomensfiction campaign. Summer is passed and past, and I unintentionally took a three-month hiatus from the blog (I’m so sorry!). Though belated, I guess it’s fitting to bookend the expired summer with the results of this reading challenge.

What I Read

In the span of three (or really four at this point) months, I had a terrible run—with only three books read in total. I wanted to read so much more to support women writers, but I was focused on the job search, moved to a new apartment, finished up classes, got lazy, some other weird things…But no excuses! This is what I read:

  1. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, 2015
  2. Cutting Loose by Nadine Dajani, 2008
  3. The Daughters by Adrienne Celt, 2016 (as soon as I went to add this to my Goodreads shelf, an ad for the new book The Mothers bannered across the top of the page. How pleasantly ironic!

the-mothers

Screenshot from Goodreads.

What I Saw

Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the old adage. Yet “women’s fiction” is too often visually coded as less serious than “regular” fiction (or fiction by men). To recap the posts that began this campaign, covers unconsciously factor into the bias against fiction by and about women, especially when their designs feature pastels, stereotypically “girly” things (pumpkin spice latte, anyone?), and/or fonts like  curlz mt.GIF. (And in publishing, covers drive sales, whether or not the author is self-published.)

Here are the covers of the three books:

covers-in-row

Before actually encountering these books in person, I had never heard of them. They were all free (also not supporting these women writers, so I should be ashamed of myself!), floating around campus, in little neighborhood drop-and-swaps, or at publishing conventions. I had no expectations, other than what the covers and back copy visually communicated.

  • Paulina & Fran: Tons of copies were scattered throughout my college program’s department lounge, so I nabbed one. The title indicates the relationship between two women, as does its cover, featuring, presumably, their faces. Who are they? (An alternate 2016 cover removes the sense of sorority that this cover establishes.) Cursive font. Nothing is strikingly feminine about this cover other than the two female faces looking away from each other and the reader—in fact, they may be resisting the male gaze in their lack of sexualization and inattention to the gazer.
  • Cutting Loose: Just from the cover, I know this book isn’t my cup of tea. The three women running toward the reader, splashing along the shore of a beach with their backlit hair blowing in the ocean breeze seems very much “chick lit.” But also interesting starry patterns and palm trees—which make me homesick. Almost curlicue font. Knowing this is a book I would turn away from based on its cover, I needed to give it a chance (or else I would be perpetuating the women’s-fiction-made-even-lesser-because-of-its-cover stigma).
  • The Daughters: Trees (notably bare) and script and deep blue and pale yellow—there’s no overt labeling on this cover. The title hints to matrilineage, yet this is definitely the least gendered of these books’ designs. Trees on covers are common enough, but trees in this book turn out to be where women seduce their prey (i.e., men). Maybe this aspect of nature is hinting to the Mother (Mother Nature)?

Random observation: All of their blurbers are women.

Other random observation: Nobel Prizes don’t have gendered literature categories. Thanks!

What I Learned

Since I had no knowledge of these novels’ plots, no inklings of the writing, and no expectations of either, I tried to go into this campaign as open minded as possible, ready to learn. I wouldn’t say I loved each of these novels, but they definitely weren’t particularly unlikeable solely because they were about women (see “80 Books No Woman Should Read” for writer Rebecca Solnit’s analysis of the persistence of the all-male literary canon).

Behind their covers, each expose different facets of women’s lives. These depictions of womanhood, interior and exterior, surprised me in their depth (that’s terrible of me!). Rather than the endless heteronormative white wet dreams Nicholas Sparks softcore romances offer to mainstream women’s fiction/romance readers, relationships between women and men aren’t the focal point of the fiction I read (spoilers ahead).

  • Paulina & Fran: Raw, witty, and empowering, this more literary work of fiction is an ode to women as friends, enemies, sisters, and lovers. The eponymous protagonists’ relationships are central to the plot, while men—infatuations or gay BFFs—are auxiliary (How auxiliary? “She’d once called James a dildo with eyes.”) distractions from Paulina and Fran’s barely-consummated love; the real romance is the electrifying, yet frustratingly unfulfilled, connection between the narrators. Rachel Glaser’s women are powerful, creative geniuses who reach self-actualization (for the most part) and develop artistic and business acumen that propel them beyond petty flings with college boys. This is probably the first lesbian fiction I’ve read since Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and it’s just as bleak and real.

Here are some questions I had after reading:

  • How does Paulina & Fran reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • To be frank, Paulina is a bitch. Are protagonists in women’s fiction required to be likeable?
  • If romance in traditional women’s fiction is generally populated by heterosexual couples (this is pure observation via Nicholas Sparks), how do (or should) lgbtq+ relationships fit into the women’s fiction category if there’s gay and lesbian fiction as well?
  • Cutting Loose: The cover doesn’t depart too much from the actual contents of the book on the surface—babes on a beach. Yet the characters’ multicultural heritages offer a layer of unexpected complexity. Nadine Dajani’s cast of women is a spectrum of rich/poor, young/old(er), thin/curvy, married/unmarried, virgin/whore, breaking these dichotomies to reveal people and motivations beneath their labels. There’s lots of boring description of clothes and makeup that went over my head, like a Sex and the City on Miami Beach, but these Latina and Muslim WOC bring to the fore issues of colonialism and globalism in American media, and with it intersectional feminism and rebuking the Stepford wife stereotype. Among a cast of chaste brides, rejected playboys, arranged marriages, and gay or abusive husbands, the women band together despite their religious beliefs, political views, cultures, and social classes. This book is all about female liberation, positive sexuality, questioning gender roles, and women’s lived lives. Though the ending is predictably happily ever after with hetero romances, this is what I want “chick lit” to be.
  • How does Cutting Loose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Ranya is like a Disney princess, but is more than the Jasmine that meets the eye. How do gender roles play into “chick lit” and women’s fiction?
  • Is there a multicultural/postcolonial women’s fiction genre?
  • The Daughters: This lyrical literary work is as enveloping as a vagina, with its operatic musical scores and potential Freudian symbolism. As the novel’s title suggests, there are maternal bonds, (umbilical) cords that become tangled, frayed, and broken. Embedding these strands within family lore to develop female relationships fraught with jealousy and postpartum depression, Adrienne Celt explores generations of women as both caregivers and black widows who sacrifice anything—even their husbands/lovers and sons—for their daughters. She is not the Othered half of a heterosexual relationship, but rather her agency (via her daughter) is achieved through exploiting and disposing of men, similar to Paulina & Fran. With absentee mothers and unknown motherlands, WWII and the Holocaust, and gruesome Polish folk tales, this work of “women’s fiction” is as darkly serious as it gets.
  • How does The Daughters reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Anti-Semitism serves as an impetus for the protagonist’s family to move to America. How does fiction by and/or about Jewish women fit into women’s fiction in America? How are Jewish women represented in women’s fiction (as both/either characters or writers)?
  • Motherhood is almost toxic in this novel, and the nuclear family is practically nonexistent. How has women’s fiction evolved over time to reflect woman-as-more-than-mother and the dissolution of the family unit?

#notwomensfiction Online

Clearly men are Othered themselves in these three novels, so why is this genre or category? This campaign made me even more acutely aware of my own bias toward chick lit in particular and women’s fiction in general. To me, this type of reading is like the Lifetime channel of books—awful acting, awful stories, and my mom loves it.

But wait a sec, rebranded Lifetime has some awesome feminist promos now:

lifetime

Photo screenshot from the Fempire Diaries.

I plan to continue this campaign every summer—hopefully reading more! Next year, I aim to read women’s fiction about or by transwomen, multicultural and multiracial women, and women with disabilities (please provide suggestions/recommendations for these or anything else I should read!).

Thank you so much to those who participated in this campaign on Twitter and Instagram.

You’ve brought to my attention some great books by women, about women, not necessarily for women, all while dismantling the literary patriarchy.

Like this:

A photo posted by Shabnam (@dew.drop.diary) on Jun 24, 2016 at 2:12am PDT

And thanks, readers, for your continued support of Things He Says!

Share your thoughts/recommendations below!

A Genre of One’s Own: Why Women’s Fiction?

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf was tasked with speaking on women and fiction. She grappled what that meant in 1928, and invoked the names of literary goddesses Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters (among others) as exemplars of their time. Ultimately concluding the relationship of the two as “unsolved problems,” Woolf questioned the intersection of these concepts:

“The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together.”

Perhaps the convergence of the three culminates in what we call “women’s fiction” today.

Deconstructing Women’s Fiction

What’s women’s fiction?

“Women’s fiction” is a genre (or more of a category/reading interest) that’s as broad as it is disputed, so there’s not one definition.

Rebecca Vnuk, author of reference books on women’s fiction, delineates its thematic elements (and also offers examples here):

  • “The main character (or characters) is a female, and the story is character-driven.
  • The author is female—there are rarely exceptions to this rule.
  • A woman’s relationships are of highest plot importance.
  • The setting is usually contemporary. That isn’t to say that some historical fiction has women’s-fiction appeal, but if you are looking to slot a book into one category or another, historical fiction usually gets higher billing.
  • Love and romance may be present but are not the heart of the story.”

Basically, “A woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot.” These themes hold primarily for mainstream or commercial women’s fiction rather than literary fiction (like your Toni Morrisons), where plots don’t just revolve around women’s relationships and the “reader spends more time admiring the author’s use of language than they do enjoying the story…If the book can be assigned in a college-level English class for a term paper, it’s probably not really women’s fiction.”

…Except when you’re taking a class on contemporary American women’s fiction at a university (like I did, and our curriculum began with Ella Price’s Journal and included Toni Morrison’s Love.

So I’m confused. Could women’s fiction be literary? Could romance (historical, contemporary) or erotica be women’s fiction? What about chick lit (for women in their twenties and thirties, originating with Bridget Jones’s Diary)?

Romance makes just that the central story arc and generally ends in a happily ever after, whereas general women’s fiction doesn’t.

romance
Romance books galore at Barnes & Noble.

But containing such overlapping components across these labels of fiction “means that there will always be arguments for calling one book women’s fiction, while a similar title is considered a romance or literary fiction, and so on.”

If anything is certain with women’s fiction, it’s that the phrase is used to refer to a particular market within the publishing industry, like on Goodreads and Amazon, enabling readers and publishers to more easily find what they’re looking for.

Dismantling Women’s Fiction

Women write and read fiction—and plenty of it. Women read more fiction than men and works by male writers comprise only 20% of the fiction market.

But the literary landscape is still rife with sexism on many counts. Even the way we refer to these novels inherently separates them from the rest of fiction. Notice that while there’s women’s fiction, there’s no equivalently named category of men’s fiction…like “literature is male by default.”

Author (of different types of fiction) Meg Wolitzer questions this gender identifier, stating that “Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women ‘Women’s Fiction,’ as if men should have nothing to do with them.”

Randy Susan Myers (another author of many fictions) shares her stance: “If you want to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a list of wide ranging possibilities that include ten sub-genres of women’s fiction and, zero that are labeled men’s fiction. The message is clear. Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category.” Or, as Woolf put it, “it is the masculine values that prevail.”

This bias toward patriarchal literature echoes what feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir argued about gender relationships in The Second Sex—that woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” This Otherness is the designation of something as different based on dichotomous modes of thought (like the biblical alterity of Eve to Adam, etc). Books by women, about women, and/or for women need to be referred to as women’s fiction because they’re Other, because The Man thinks they’re inferior. Is it women’s fiction just because it gives female characters agency, a voice, power?

Consequently, women’s fiction as a genre is stigmatized. Women’s fiction as Other means covers featuring pink or pastel colors, cursive script, makeup, jewelry, women doing women things, the word “girl” in the title, etc., when fiction by men doesn’t suffer from the same gendered designs. The bias against women’s fiction (whether or not the book is considered “literary”) stems in part from this visual branding, since “packaging literary fiction by women in frivolous-looking covers diminishes its perceived seriousness…Even when their artistic merits are equal, women writers often still lack the cultural authority of their male counterparts, and this rampant trashy branding contributes to that disparity.” The literary canon has long been dominated by white men, and they still reap the benefits in this systemically sexist society, even when women write and read more fiction.

TL; DR: Women’s fiction is belittled as a reading interest, while novels by/about dudes are somehow “superior.”

#notwomensfiction

Just as Woolf was excluded from academic spheres dominated by and only open to men—“This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”—so too are women relegated to the periphery as Other with this labeling of genres. Perhaps it’s a marketing ploy, but the women writers I met at AWP share a dislike for the label since their fiction is about women’s interior lives.

“Fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” and it’s about time we engage with and counter this moniker and what it stands for.

In an era when antiquated occupational identifiers like “authoress” are obsolete—and even sound ridiculous—“We don’t need to call them writer-men and writer-women. We can call them writers. And we can call the novels they write just that. Novels.”

Like author Maureen Johnson called for an end to gendered covers with her “Coverflip,” I say we deconstruct and dismantle women’s fiction.

Since summer is nearly upon us—and that being the most popular time for beach reads (generally considered women’s fiction)—I’m going to read anything I can get my hands on this season that could/would fall under this category (by women, about women, but not necessarily for women), including multicultural, LGBTQIA, and disability narratives.

Women’s fiction is a slippery slope. (Innuendo? Maybe.) Let’s destroy it. Come read #notwomensfiction with me! Tweet @things_he_says_ or mention @things_he_says on Instagram, and use the hashtag #notwomensfiction!

AWP 2016 Recap: Searching for a Feminist Utopia

Last week, from March 31 through April 2, I attended the annual conference presented by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Los Angeles.

Though I was most excited about escaping New England’s frigid winter-spring for warmer climes, I was also eager to attend panels and events integral to the current literary landscape and publishing industry. My first and previous AWP conference was three years ago in Boston (where I took an inverse journey from my last, leaving the humid heat of Florida for snowy scenery during sprang brake). I don’t remember so many panels on women in literature then, so I’m glad to see the conversation has progressed in a relatively short amount of time.

This conference, I attended three panels speaking to social issues in this context (though there were many more!):

  • An Office of One’s Own: Literary Agents on Equality, Gender, and the Business of Creating Books. Four literary agents (Duvall Osteen, Sarah Smith, Monika Woods, Melissa Flashman, and Lisa Lucas, paying homage to Virginia Woolf) shared their perspectives on the current publishing industry as women, critically looking at successful books by women; the literary marketplace; and women’s roles as writers, agents, editors and how they must collaborate with and support each other. What I found interesting and a little misguided was that the panelists’ (all white) conversations were primarily guided by their own experiences, devoid of the issues that women of color face, until the moderator (Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation) addressed this.
  • Guerrilla Girl Marketing. The creators (Katherine Towler, Ann Wertz Garvin, Brandi Granett, Erin Celello, Diane Haeger) of Tall Poppy Writers, a venerable online forum for women writers, spoke about marketing novels and connecting to readers with this marketing collective. From accruing resources to establishing their branded social media presence, the panelists emphasized the importance of working together with women writers to expand the reach of their writing.
  • Visions of a Feminist Utopia: The Feminist Press and the Future. Contributors and editors (Jennifer Baumgardner, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Yumi Sakugawa) of the 2015 anthology The Feminist Utopia Project questioned beyond the publishing climate to women’s lived lives: “What is this future we say we believe in? What does it look like and what are we like within it?” Readings from Nalebuff and Sakugawa opened the floor to issues surrounding feminist theory, like sex work and activism.

Basically, these panels taught me that:

  1. Women need to work together to succeed in a man’s world. The “classic” literary canon has long been dominated by old white males (read: Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.). Women have made strides to be recognized in literature, yet we’re still relegated to the periphery. Even though women read more than men (except in history and biography categories), books written by men receive more reviews and awards than those written by women. As the VIDA count revealed in 2014, men get more ink across the globe: That year the London Review of Books featured 527 male authors but only 151 women, the New York Review of Books had a ratio of 677 men to 242 women, The New York Times book review featured 909 male but 792 women contributors, and The Nation had a ratio of 469 men to 193 women. The words of one panelist stuck with me: as readers, “we have the power here. We should buy books by and about women.” Not to mention, women are also sorely underrepresented in executive positions, though 80% of literary agents are white women and there are more women in editorial positions according to Publishers Weekly. Both on the page and behind the page, women are continuously sidelined.

  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Books written by women are often unjustly branded as “women’s fiction.” With this sexist label comes a stigma about the writer and the work itself. Women’s fiction is chick lit. It’s Nicholas Sparks. It’s beach reads and pink covers. It’s fluffy romances and frilly emotional characters. But books written by (and/or for women) are much more than that. Two of the panels highlighted the negative effects of this umbrella classification, citing “women’s fiction” as an obstacle in being taken seriously in academia or other careers. “Serious novels can have pink jackets and be about women,” said one literary agent. Women authors are writing compelling stories not just for a female market, yet their work is absorbed by that gendered classification. All panelists unanimously called for getting rid of “women’s fiction” or calling books written by men as “men’s fiction.” Now that’s not a genre you see at a bookstore.

Other panels I wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into my schedule included: The Active Politics of Queer/Feminist of Color and Indigenous Feminist Publishing Movements, From the Margins: Literary Magazines Supporting Writers of Color, Women Who Edit: Literary Journals, Diversity Integrated: The Literary Art of Inclusion, Rewriting the Hollywood Gender Gap, Unsung Epics: Women Veterans’ Voices, Two Sides of the Mirror: Writing About Body Image Across Gender, Women Writing Fiction in a Postfeminist Era, When I Was Latina: Navigating Privilege in the Publishing and Writing World, Women’s Caucus, and Women Publishing Women: The (Under)representation of Women in Print and in Publishing.

Overall, these panels were generally focused on women, but I would’ve liked more discussion about how trans*, nonbinary genders/gender nonconforming/genderqueer individuals, as well as people of color, are represented in literature and publishing.

As editor Ron Charles says on VIDA’s website, “we have a long way to go.” The Tall Poppy Writers panel put it well: “The need to support writers cuts across gender lines.” Gender parity is vital if we wish to change the conversation and acknowledge women’s and other’s lives and voices. After all, how are we ever going to progress if we hear the same stories over and over again?

What conferences or talks on social issues have you been to? What books by women writers have you read recently?

Share your thoughts about these topics below!