HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Let’s get the ball rolling with Georgia O’Keeffe. She once said that “there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” Does this statement resonate with you as a writer? If so, what in particular?
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: Yep, I’m down with that idea. It’s also one echoed by Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Kathy Acker, Louise Bourgeois, Hélène Cixous, and Marguerite Duras, among others. I do understand there may be a little bit of a Second/Third Wave Feminism divide on questions like this. I’ve noticed women and men in my age group (meaning 40-50) feel more okay about agreeing to this idea than younger women and men, whom seem to feel that it smacks of essentialism. That is, if I understand their objections correctly.
But from my point of view, and I’m not shy about saying this LOUDLY, I think some art, books, music, film, could ONLY be made by women. The exploration, discovery and questions that a woman has, as well as the processes by which she makes art, from my point of view are fundamentally different than non-women modes— with the possible exception of Walt Whitman. Ha.
If we put the question of “essentialism” aside for a moment and just talk about being practicing women artists, I know that the kinds of aesthetic questions I’m interested in and the kinds of characters I create and the kinds of strategies I employ in writing have at their center what used to be called “women’s ways of knowing.” That phrase lost its hipness value over time, but it doesn’t change the importance of the idea.
Another way to look at the question, and one that I take delight in is to ask: Could a man or anything not a woman have written The Lover? Or Frankenstein? Or Empire of the Senseless? Or Zazen? My answer is a big fat no. And those books I listed all have gigantoid HUMANIST plots and questions – not just confessional or pigeonholed “womeny” issues.
The exciting part to me personally about [O’Keefe’s] quote though is not the debate that shoots out of it (and by the way, I’m glad we don’t all AGREE on these topics. how dull and static that would be)… The exciting part is the process of making art— of entering the space and motion of making art as a woman, with my full corporeal truth, not only part of it. I tried to write about that “journey” in an essay called “On Being a Woman Writer.” It’s a real place we go. And we go differently.
Yes, I know many, many, many women writers whom would not agree with that.
When I read Vanessa’s work I don’t think her characters experiences are EXCLUSIVE to women, but I do glory in the wide expanse of her female characters’ traits and experiences. For instance, Della in Zazen is thrilling to me because she is full. Real. Embodied. She is not a wimpy half woman character that sits still and behaves locked in the clean and proper body. That’s why I love her. She’s us.
VANESSA VESELKA: I agree with much of what Lidia said but feel like the idea of female territory quickly becomes too much of a separate sphere. While there are books that could only have been written by a woman, we can also say that there are books that could have only been written by Marguerite Duras with her particular set of experiences, aesthetic sensibilities, sentence rhythms, etc. I think it’s an issue of scale.
The more particular the art, the smaller the egg from which it hatches. So if we see these things as circles within circles, WOMAN is a big damn circle, and if you don’t have that in your canon, you are (we are) missing a huge range of work to describe the human experience.
I do worry about essentialism at the community level, though. I worry that “women’s writing,’ like “literary fiction” is fast becoming a genre, at least at the funding level. Women writing about rape and going back to school after marriage and learning to find themselves within a relationship or to accept life’s challenges through heroic feats of internal growth–these kinds of stories seem to get funded through grants, awards, fellowships while other work by women less so. We seem to have an anxiety about moving away from the more simplistic resistance narratives we inherited. My problem is that each one of these storylines, the rape, the bad marriage, the navigation of a male dominated academic field, they all have too much to do with men. They are the stories left behind by the male experience. And they are important, but I want stories where men may or may not have any critical role to play at all. I want more human.
Trans-literature is raising some really glorious questions about what it is to be a woman, and that will certainly add more breadth, but that too can slip into a more retro-essentialism. I am a women because I like heels and lipstick. I am how I present/ perform. I am how others see me. Personally, I don’t feel like my gender shifts when I where overalls, which I do quite a bit. So if I were Goddess, I would say that while we need those stories that can only be told by women, we also need to let what “woman” is become more nuanced. The specificity is where I believe we’ll find the gold. Not just stories that can only be written by women, but stories that could only be written by this one, particular woman. Frankenstein couldn’t just be written by a woman, or even by a woman on the edge of The Enlightenment with anxiety about transgressing on God. It had to be written by Mary Shelley, daughter of Wolstoncraft, orphan, teen lover, goth.
LY: Yes, that’s the essentialism concern…but I also worry about how much energy and cartwheeling in language we have to do to NOT call women’s writing writing by women…that begins to be silly to me…I think there is an equal danger in erasing gender in discussions of great art and literature that truly itches me.
VV: Yes, you’re right. And it’s easy in a highly nuanced conversation to get contrarian because you’re trying to fine tune a point when the real point (misogyny, patriarchy) is so large that minor calibrations are more like hobbies than real changes to discourse. Regarding the pavilion of Women’s Writing, I feel the need to quote the immortal Dan Aykroyd: “It’s desert wax and a floor topping; it’s a red tent and a banishment.”
But it’s probably more of a red tent.
Still, I wish there was more variety at the level of funding and publication in journals and grants earmarked for women. Sometimes it seems like only our victim stories are welcome. And Lidia, as you know from early reactions around Dora, people are often uncomfortable with violent or aggressive complexity in women narrators, and many of those ‘people’ are women.
But back to Duras, Shelley, and the many others. They don’t just voice different experience; they radically alter “men’s writing,” I.e. the dominant tradition because they usher in unease, almost a sexual ‘uncanny’ to the forms that were missing.
And I do not believe in erasing gender or that it is simple performative. I think we on the west coast are living in a time and place of privilege where those explorations can flourish— and hooray for that— but it is not a privilege enjoyed around the world or even in 99% of this country.
LY: By the way: my definition of “woman” is Vanessa in overalls absolutely…as well as any person who inhabits that wide and wonderful and contradictory territory, with heels, balls, you name it.
VV: I love that! Does that make me a psychological pin-up?
You hit it on the head with “contradictory territory.” I think I’m just arguing for more contradiction and less propaganda. Propaganda in the sense that when we are afraid to write freely, to present complexity because we are afraid that “they” will find an ideological or experiential weakness in our female characters and take away birth control or health care or change rape laws–we are buying in to a legal standard humanity. One flaw in the argument kills the argument. One contradiction in the woman kills the her credibility. We can’t write for credible. And nobody needs another madwoman in the attic. We have to write our way into new vibrancy.
AND I will forever have a soft spot for the straight up no apologies hardline woman identified feminist. It’s the core of what inspires me and I think the great dilemma of 3rd Wave discourse was summed up aptly by Bitch Co-Founder Lisa Jervis when she said: “I have seen the best minds of my generation ogling shoes.”
Nothing against shoes.
LY: Precisely. Preferably wearing overalls…
This “new vibrancy” OUGHT to have all our drives and intensities and contradictions and pleasures and conflicts and violences UP FRONT. One of the reasons I champion your work is that you do that. Without apology. And without slipping into confessional fuzz or caretaker goo.
VV: You’re such a sweet talker, and you know I love your work as well.
LY: Part of the problem is when we refer to women’s writing AS women’s writing, it gets too quickly and easily marginalized by the market and the literary hierarch— both forces of patriarchy and capitalism. That’s bad. Boo. And yet, if we let GO of the power to be self-referential, to say, for instance, “I am a woman writer,” then we leave the terms open to discourse of market and literary establishment— both forces of patriarchy and capitalism. That’s boo too.
Since I believe there are actual artistic and writing practices that are woman-born, which I write about all the time, I’m searching for a space of identity, articulation, and practice where I can say “I am a woman writer” — where than act of enunciation can carry voice and body and art weight— and NOT be subsumed by marginalizations or too-easy essentialisms.
Maybe it’s in the phrasing, Vanessa? “I am a woman writer god damn it loudly without apology in overalls and sometimes lipstick and when I yell or cry or fuck or eat or drink it motherfucking COUNTS. So pay attention while I teach you how to read.”
And another thing: a question, really. Vanessa, given everything we’ve said so far, how can we talk about being women writers and not be subsumed by the various nefarious traps we’ve detailed?
ONE of my answers to that question has always been: write fiction. Make art. I’ve always believed fiction writing to be a radicalized space of creation–I don’t mean what the consumer or markets “do” with fiction, I mean the actual space and process of writing it. More than nonfiction (though people want to shoot me when I say that).
VV: I agree with you 100% about fiction. It is a different mental space. It’s not like a choose your own adventure, it’s more like a hologram–you plug in some basic things and it’s suddenly there in front of you in 3d, a whole world. It is derived from mystery. Period. (Now people can shoot me too). It makes sense that fiction is then, by its nature radical and that women’s fiction would be even more so.
LY: I write a lot about psychological “spaces” (so does Vanessa) and emotional spaces and corporeal spaces and imagination spaces — I do that because they are more real to me a lot of the time than what everybody else seems to think is “real life.” there are territories of being and knowing and feeling that come alive by and through art.
A concrete example that makes people worry about me I know is when I talk about the space of psychosis. when my daughter died I lost my marbles. But I didn’t die. I went away. And the place I went was real, and I write about it all the time. It’s not that different than dreamspace. Now to be honest, I became a writer emergent from that space of grief and psychosis. Literally. I went nutbag, and I wrote. Like I couldn’t stop writing. Like Ted Kaczynski teeny writing pages and pages.
From her death, writing came into my hands. In some ways, it’s that simple.
But I DO NOT want to get trapped into the dreaded Madwoman in the Attic discussion. I’m talking about “spaces” of extreme experience— pleasure, violence, grief, psychosis cusps – as CREATIVE places – places absolutely generative of meaning. And for women and minorities, you know, we are still encouraged to be quiet about those spaces. Clean them up. Hide them or make them pretty. I’m not for that.
I’m for amplifying the places we come from and illuminating how it is that extreme experience in relationship to language and image – in relation to art and making – are creative and radical places to be from, to go to, to leave and return to.
Similarly, when I was a kid, I had an eating disorder called Pica. It’s when you eat non-nutritive things like dirt or paper. Trust me when I say I ate a shitload of dirt, but even more paper.
Before I learned to talk, my sister was trying to help me learn to read, so she’d put all these pieces of paper around the house with words on them to help me learn. Kind of hide-and-seek with paper words. Which is beautiful, right?
Then one day my dad came home, and he thought she’d made a big mess, so he slapped her a red blotchy one. I was so scared (I think I was 4) I hid in a closet and ate most of the pieces of paper with the words on them.
Now on the one hand, that’s a sad as shit story — scared abused girls. But on the other hand, it’s MAGNIFICENT. Look at our imaginations! How brave and cool and strong she was, how filled with delight and adventure I was! Some of the words on paper I ate were him: architect. It was like I was eating language, like Popeye ate spinach. Because I sure as shit emerged from that closet eventually. And I had something he did not.
Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been at various times a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, and a mother. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Tin House, the FSG anthology Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll with work forthcoming in GQ and Zyzzva. Her debut novel, Zazen, is a 2011 finalist for the Ken Kesey Prize in fiction.
Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer. She wrote the memoir The Chronology of Water, and her debut novel Dora: A Headcase is forthcoming September 1, 2012. She’s written a lot of other stuff too.