Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

by Lisa Wells

I’ve spent the last two weeks with a group of hilarious, mega-bright teenagers at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, an immersive writing camp in Iowa City. The other night, on our floor of the dorm, I listened to a girl’s passionate rant about the pressure to write “cisgender teen romance stories” about vanilla dudes who fall for quirky girls. “That’s how you win the contests,” she said. She wants to write about weirdos via hybrid text, but fears there’s no market for stories like that. It was a lament I’d heard from adult writers on countless occasions, in public and private, only this time it was delivered by a seventeen-year-old girl from New Jersey. I’ll admit, it floored me. She was born in the mid-90s for christ’s sake and already feeling commercial pressures? The limits of her gender? Yes and yes, as it turns out. The naiveté was all mine.

I decided to talk to a few of the girls about their experience of writing and gender on the record. Here’s what they had to say.

BINDU BANSINATH

I’m Bindu, I’m 17. I’m from Princeton, New Jersey.

 

What kind of writing do you do?

I write poetry, prose poems, flash fiction—that kind of thing.

 

How did you become interested in writing?

It’s kind of a strange story. I used to read my sister’s diary when I was very young and I thought it was funny how she would talk about herself. I wanted to keep a diary too, but I felt self-conscious about writing in the first person, so I started to fictionalize events. It stemmed from there. I wrote a lot and then teachers told me I was good at it.

 

Do you think about your gender as a writer?

Absolutely.

I’ve always felt that male writers and female writers write differently. I go to a girls’ school and I think my experiences and the way I observe things are extremely feminine.

 

Did you want to go to an all girls’ school?

I did. I found that sometimes I was intimidated to raise my hand in a co-ed school and now I don’t think that I would have that problem. I definitely think that I have grown.

Like you were liberated by the all girls’ situation?

Yeah. I’d definitely say so.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

Yes I do.

 

What does that mean to you?

It means that if no one else were to stand up for me I’m fine standing up for myself. I want equality, emotionally; I want equality in all ways. And I’ve been denied that so it’s very important to me.

It took me a long time to find my voice.

Do you think there is a perception about what it means to be a female writer as opposed to a male writer?

I appreciate literature; if it’s a good book it’s a good book. Women are acute emotional observers and I think there’s a lot to gain from that. . . . A girl will read a book centered on a male protagonist but it’s rarely ever the opposite and I think that’s a shame because women have a lot to offer.

You don’t feel like men want to read about women?

No.

It’s the same with television shows. I’ve noticed that women, you know, they’re never the main character. Their goals are limited to finding love, and they’re always in the same age bracket of maybe 18 to mid-30s. You never see a show about a woman outside that gap.

I think the experiences of women are not marketable unless they have some kind of sex appeal to them.

 

That’s really depressing.

It’s not just men who discriminate against literature and media about women, it’s also women. The demographic of television watchers is actually more women but it’s always geared towards men. And women tolerate that because it’s the norm.

 

Who are the women in your family?

I have an older sister. My sister is extremely, extremely ambitious. She is studying neuroscience at Cornell. My mother has an interesting story. She grew up in India, she was extremely poor, and she had an arranged marriage. She studied engineering; she was one of three girls in that college, and she was often harassed for it. She was set up in an arranged marriage with my father. He came over on a 15-day vacation from his job at NYU, married her, and left. She stayed with her in-laws for two years waiting to get her visa.

 

Will you be arranged?

No. Slowly my parents have begun to see that if they are going to live in a different country then they have to make sacrifices and I’m pretty grateful for that.

 

Was that ever on the table?

Oh yeah.

 

Do you plan to write? I’m trying to get a sense of how people are feeling about their prospects. Do you feel hopeful?

Not particularly. I attended the Yale Writers Conference and there was much talk with editors of literary journals about the differences in the market between women and men. For example, they talked about how when they send a rejection letter to a man the man will immediately send over another piece of work, whereas if you send a rejection letter to a woman, even if it’s not your standard letter, even if it’s full of comments that mean you were close to publication, they don’t answer—maybe not for six months to a year. Someone from The New Yorker came over and she was talking about how men will say, “Oh yeah, I’ll take that job” or take an article, even if they don’t know anything about it, but a woman wouldn’t do that. So I mean . . . I would like to be hopeful but I’m not, really . . . but I would like to be.

What kind of person is called a bitch?

It can range from any one who is confident in her abilities, or someone who really just knows what she wants, to someone who is genuinely meanI don’t know why it includes ambitious people. I don’t know why it’s derogatory towards people who are really just trying to elevate themselves. I think it’s a method of intimidation.

 

So a woman who tries to elevate her career might be called a bitch? What does that do to her?

I guess it feeds into this whole thing about how younger women shouldn’t want too much or expect too much. It’s a way to put them in their place . . . this domestic secondary place.

Check out Bindu’s TEDx Youth talk on female body image in the context of culture and history.

ELENA SAAVEDRA BUCKLEY

My name is Elena Saavedra Buckley. I’m 17. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Do you have a primary genre?

Poetry definitely. I went to the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop last year, and while we were there we wrote fiction, short stories, flash fiction, poetry—everything. I’m just realizing that my thoughts organize themselves as poetry, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on.

 

Say more about that.

I think I have a brain that likes to spread itself out and pick up little bits of information from a lot of different fields and a lot of different topics, and that just seems to create poetry.

 

You’re taking these disparate elements and finding the connections?

Yeah, exactly. Through my life I’ve been interested in a lot of different things—music and food and art. I’ve been really interested in science recently. I think the world of science intersects in these interesting and condensed moments with the art that I really love.

 

Can you think of any poets that work in the way you describe?

I think Wallace Stevens does that. His poems seem to encompass everything in the world, but they happen to be in the form of language. We just read an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “In the Waiting Room,” and oh, it was like a religious moment reading that poem. It was the intersection between being a person but also knowing about the world, and . . .

She’s looking at a National Geographic. That’s one of the last poems she wrote, right?

Yeah, but it’s from the perspective of when she was seven. Which is also really interesting.

 

And it’s one of the few autobio poems that she wrote. I remember this. There’s something about a confusion of voices—

And she’s with her aunt and there is the suggestion that she’s not really close with her aunt and that they have a weird relationship. It says so much by not saying, by just focusing on one moment.

How did you come to writing?
Since I was really little I’ve liked putting my feelings into words. I used to make a newspaper of my family, when I was six or so, and then I would roll it up and throw it into the room that my family was in and run away. I got really into classical music when I was twelve. I started a blog about classical music. So I was writing essays on classical music and the contemporary classical music world. And that was a really great way to give myself something to do.

 

Who are the women in your family?

My mom is a family practice doctor. My aunt Barbara lives in Berkeley and I’m really similar to her in a lot of ways. In the way that we view the world and spread out our interests. I’m really close with her. She’s a death row lawyer in California. Those are the two strongest women in my life.

I’m curious to know how having accomplished female figures in your life relates to your decisions.

My dad took care of my brother and I; he was sort of the stay-at-home dad when we were little. That was always something that I knew and accepted. I’ve always thought of my mom as a strong leader.

 

When you think about yourself as a writer, do you think about your gender?

I don’t really know . . . actually no. Because the experience that I’ve had being a writer has been at camps like this that have had such a strong female presence. I think I remember Alexa saying that a lot of the strong accomplished writers you see are male, but then it’s really interesting to come to these camps and 70 percent of the attendees are women. So I’m not really sure if this is an evolution or just a disconnect between development and success. My demographic is so dominated by females, I feel very normal being a female poet.

Maybe in your generation there will be more successful female writers?

Yeah, I think so. The percentage of people who go to college is shifting towards females, so yeah.

When I was your age I didn’t really think about gender issues so much . . . I mean I had some awareness but . . . I just wonder have you seen the VIDA count?

I’ve seen statistics released about women in the work place or women going to college, so I’m familiar with things like that.

 

Because as an older woman it’s easy to speculate as to what that might do you to you as a younger woman to see those things. But I don’t know.

Like it would intimidate us to see statistics like that.

I mean do you feel like the world is your oyster or do you feel like your gender is going to bar you from—

—Yeah, I do. I don’t think, “the world is my oyster,” but I feel like someone who can accomplish a lot. Being female, especially in the humanities, doesn’t really intimidate me.

I’m also really interested in astronomy and there are parts of scientific fields that sort of intimidate me because the astronomers—a lot of them have been males. But then again, I think those templates are disintegrating so it’s easier to feel power as a female now because we can see that it’s changing and we know that we are in the current of change.

That’s great. I’m interested in what it takes to be a bitch—what makes someone call another person a bitch. I remember as a kid I was often called a bitch because I would push back against guys in my class who tended to dominate conversation, you know?

That relates to what I was saying about . . . I don’t have to fight as hard because things are changing, and that sounds sort of passive, but I think there is power in recognizing that the fight is being won over a long period of time. Like, I do choose to be a calming presence in a lot of situations—not to be sneaky, I just don’t find that I need to be a bitch or feisty to—

—No, there’s nothing obsequious about you!

But I can see why the quote “feminist bitch” image has developed, because I think it has gotten people to a lot of great places.


ERICA CHANG  (not pictured)

I’m Erica, I’m 16, and I’m from Kansas.

 

What genre do you write in primarily?

I don’t think I’ve figured out what genre I like to write in yet. I write a lot of poetry and prose poetry.

 

Do you think about your writing in terms of your gender?

I do think it’s interesting that I’m not really influenced at all by female writers. I’m not sure why that is. All my influences just happen to be male. But I don’t think I consciously think of gender when I’m writing, more when I think about what’s influenced my writing.

 

Who are your influences, right now?

David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner, Donald Barthelme . . .

 

And what is it you like about them?

That’s a hard question.

I mean, those guys, there are certain neuroses at work. I wonder if that’s not as common in women writers.

Right. I think women tend not to put it out for show as much as men. It seems to be more acceptable for a man to be sort of neurotic, whereas for a woman it looks more like a weakness.

 

What do the women in your family do?

My mom does computer programming, before that she did architecture, but I feel like the women in my family can’t decide what they want to do.

But they have careers. Is it expected that you’ll have one?

Yeah, and a practical career, so probably not writing.

What would happen if you became a writer?

I’m sure if I was a successful writer they would be okay with it, but I think that until I reached that point it would be rough.

 

Were your parents born in the States?

Both my parents are Chinese.

When did they move here?

In their twenties I think.

 

Does that cultural identity find its way into your work?

I think I almost consciously try to reject that. I feel like, especially after Tiger Mom, there’s a stigma against Asian cultures. I don’t know. I think if you’re Asian there’s a stereotype that you just work hard, push hard for everything, and you’re not necessarily talented or trying to make a statement in the world.

So it sounds like that’s more of a concern in terms of how you’re going to be received than your gender?

Right.

Are you pretty high achieving in other areas of your life? Because it’s a big deal to get in here. Do they know that?

I think they had maybe an idea. I think part of the reason they let me come to the program was because they thought it was prestigious, not because of writing.

 

I hope you continue to write. You are a great writer.

Well thanks.

 

So, are you going to take this legal freedom by the horns when you turn 18?

I don’t know; I was always kind of worried that I’d collapse at 18 and not know what I actually wanted to do with myself, with the freedom.

NAOMI DAY

I’m Naomi, I’m 18, and I’m from Massachusetts.

And in the fall you’ll be going to?

Wellesley College.

Did you want to go to an all-women’s school?

I don’t really know how the all-women’s thing happened. In the end, after I got accepted, everything came down to financial aid offers and the sense I got from the campus. I would go to the co-ed schools and I’d stay in a dorm with women, and they were talking about parties or about guys they hooked up with. It was very focused on that . . . which was odd.

 

The fixation was on dudes, rather than education.

Yeah. Then I went to Wellesley. I was traveling a lot and I got sick with a cold right before, so I was doing the salt gargling thing, which is so disgusting but it works. I was in the bathroom at 11:30 at night doing that and a girl came in and she explained the chemistry of how it works—this is really late at night on a school night for her. I was like, “Whoa, okay, that’s pretty cool.”

At Wellesley they talked about academics and what drives them outside of the classroom. It was much more serious and less socially oriented than the other colleges, which I really appreciated.

Tell me about what kind of writing do you do.

I write realistic fiction at this stage in my life.

Recently I’ve been writing from the point of view of a mother who is either abandoning her children or doesn’t want children or somehow has a bad relationship with the idea of having her own, being responsible for loving or caring for a child.

What is it about that relationship that you find compelling?

Family dynamics are interesting to me.

 

What do your parents do?

My mom works at Williams College; she’s a music teacher. A music history teacher. My dad worked there when he was married to her, he taught piano, he still teaches piano. But his main thing is being a drum-circle facilitator, so he takes African drums around to libraries and schools and brings people together.

 

Do you think about your gender and how it might affect your life?

Yeah. I do. My thoughts have changed over the years, because my dad is African American and my mom is white. Growing up in my town, it was mainly white. My brother, who is biracial like me . . . I was watching him because he’s three years older than me. I was watching him deal with being a black man in this super white, pretty liberal, but not particularly accepting or welcoming town. And I was wondering what it was going to be like for me at that age, as a woman. How are guys going to view me, how are other women going to view me?

I see it more as an advantage, because people will look at me differently. For example, with writing, with these assignments where you have to follow people around—if I was a man, if I was my brother who is 6’2, it would be much harder for me to observe people like that.

What I’m hearing is that gender is wrapped up with your biracial experience.

Yeah. For me, growing up, gender was less important than race, just because race was a really obvious thing.

 

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

I don’t think about it very much. Because for me there are a lot of negative connotations associated with that. Like women burning bras for reasons—I don’t really know. There’s the we-hate-men type . . . which I know isn’t what feminism is, but I haven’t done enough research.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience in school? You were saying when you spoke in class, your comments were received differently?

The only class I took this year was an English class and my teacher was a white guy. I like him a lot, he’s been really helpful to me, but he comes from a very different place in the world. There were nine or ten white kids in the class and there was a black girl who came from New York on the ABC program. I don’t know if you know about that, it’s called A Better Chance; it brings inner-city kids out to places like Williamstown to give them a better education. Or, a different one, I think.


Well, that’s got to be weird, to come from an inner-city and to be in a school full of white people.

Yeah. We had some interesting conversations about that. I’m quieter and I have a hard time getting into discussions because I don’t like interrupting people. But in that class it was especially hard because I would start talking and people would jump in and override me. We did this assignment where we had to write a senior speech about anything we wanted, and I wrote about growing up biracial in a white town. It was the first time I ever addressed the issue in public at all, in my school at all, to these people at all. I was talking about how it wasn’t always the most accepting environment, that it was difficult at times, and it’s hard to convey that to people.

After I finished, we were having a discussion and eventually one girl said, “It’s not like Williamstown isn’t friendly to people, we tolerate everybody” and I was kind of like okay, I guess that’s fair. Then I went home and my mom was like, “Tolerating is way different than accepting.” I thought that was a really good point.

A lot of the comments were like, “This isn’t an issue.”

 

Why do you think those were the comments?

Some of it is people not wanting to think about it. I’ve heard the comment that we’re living in a post-racial society, and I’m like “Hmm, no, not really.” It’s one of those issues that have a long, really bad history and people want to say it’s over now, it’s done, we live in a fine town. But it’s not. People don’t want to think about that or talk about that or recognize that.

I think a lot could be said about why people would want to deny your experience, but the fact that you bring in this long traumatic history—which really is not so long ago—is so poignant. There’s this nervous energy covering the silence.

Right…

Well, thanks for talking to me, Naomi. I have no doubt you’ll do amazing things.

Thank you.

ALEXA DERMAN

I’m Alexa Derman and I’m 17 years old. I’m from Jersey.

What kind of writing do you do?

I write fiction, and I’m visiting hybrid text recently.

I read some of your hybrid essay about Ophelia, which was awesome. It seemed like you were drawing on academic sources in that one.

I’m not narcissistic enough to assume that I can analyze Hamlet better than anyone else in the entire world—I felt the need to see what other people had to say so I could get some perspective on it. That’s where I got the whole rue and miscarriage thing, from academia, so that was cool.

Talk about that—

Okay, so in Hamlet, you know in that mad scene when Ophelia is like, “flowers! You get a flower, you get a flower,” and she designates rue for her and Hamlet, and everyone says, “It’s regret, it’s so symbolic.” Someone on the internet was like, “Yo, rue was known as an herb you can use to induce a miscarriage.” I was like Whoa! Really wild . . . .

What writers do you admire?

I really like John Irving because his novels are so bizarre. Like Hotel New Hampshire, it includes incest, people in bear costumes, bombs, prostitutes . . .

Lorrie Moore will always mean so much to me . . . before her, all the short stories I read like “The Lottery,” I read “Harrison Bergeron” . . . .I felt like short fiction had to be truncated sentimental novels or something. And Lorrie Moore’s characters are nasty. People have arm hair, teenage girls are confused so they’re reading Playboy, people are stabbing people, there are people who are overweight, people sweat, they have weird skin conditions, they’re gross people and that was really interesting for me. I felt like I had to write about these pretty people with really pretty, attractive problems. Like too skinny, so innocent, you know like “my character is flawed, she’s overly trusting, and she’s too loveable.” I think nasty people are infinitely more interesting, so I love her.

The other night you were having a sort of epiphany. Something about fairness.

Yeah . . . I won this writing contest with a short story about breast cancer . . . I was like, “This contest is the be all and end all, this is the true definer of who’s a good writer.” And then the next year I didn’t win and I was like, “Shit. Okay. So either I’m the worst person in the entire world now and I have no legitimacy or it was a crap shoot.” And my parents said it was just a crapshoot . . . and I was like, “Wait, that means that when I won it was totally random.”

Especially with the college process, people always say it’s a crapshoot when you don’t get into Yale. When you do get into Yale, it’s never like, “I randomly got into Yale, even though there were 700 qualified people right behind me.”

Right. Or how about, “I can afford to go to Yale.”

Yeah, there’s that.

I think I said something to you like, “Get used to it because this is the life of a writer.”

It’s funny though, because it’s a thing that I thought that I knew.

All the time there are things that I think that I know, and then I find out . . .

I think I realized at 14, “Oh my god, my parents perceive me as their child, that’s why they treat me this way. They don’t think of me as their housemate who happens to be younger than them; they perceive me as their child.” It’s weird.

Can you talk to me about your feminism?

I call myself a feminist but . . . I’m not friends with anyone who isn’t a feminist. I was talking to some guys who said, “This feminist girl at my school…” and I was like, “Are you not feminist?” I don’t get it. How can you not want women to be equal and have the same opportunities as men? How is anyone not a feminist?

I don’t know, I’ve been talking a lot about writing and women and I keep seeing that now . . . every time I go into a bookstore. It keeps bothering me . . .

What do you keep seeing when you go into a bookstore?

I notice that every time a woman writes a book it has a high heel on the cover. Or a beach scene and the title is all in lower case . . .  it’s women’s fiction. But there’s no “men’s fiction,” it doesn’t exist; it’s not a genre, it’s just everyone’s fiction. You know what I’m saying?

Do you think it might be different with your generation?

I don’t know. I think that with big publishers it can’t make that much of a difference. Like I don’t think there’s ever going to be an enormous market for hybrid text about what it means to read a Suzan-Lori Parks play, you know? Likewise, I’m not sure about attitudes about women writers. It’s all about money.

I do feel there might be a shift. Just the fact that you threw down the term ‘cisgender’ the other night. Back in my day, which was not so long ago, it was love sees no color. There was no talk about the gender binary or that people could not identify with a gender, except in the academies and in those marginalized communities, but there was not a lot of fluency around this stuff.

Even in the gay community, like “It Gets Better,” Dan Savage is transphobic, and the Human Rights Campaign has apparently had transphobia scandals in the past. I think It Gets Better and Trevor Project are targeted towards gay white men. The next most socially active people at my school are straight girls who want to feel politically savvy and to have their white male gay best friend who they can go shopping with . . .

You feel like they’re tokenized?

Yeah, they’re also fetishized . . . my gay friends are really uncomfortable with it.

I bet. Are you socially active in your school?

“Feminist” at my school is synonymous with crazy lesbian. So the fact that I’m a lesbian, and if I say I’m a feminist, it’s like “Oh you’re one of those crazy-radical-man-hating lesbians.”

I’m in the GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance). But my GSA at times seems more into making straight people feel good about themselves. We had this whole ally week: “Wear red if you’re an ally, thanks for being an ally; you didn’t kick a gay person today, here’s a cookie.”

So what I’m hearing you say, the subtext is that they’re being phony. What would feel less phony?

I guess my point is, if the GSA could take all this energy spent making straight people feel good about themselves and channel it into writing a letter to Chris Christie to sign that anti-conversion bill that just passed in the Senate, that would be cool.

To me, an ally is someone who uses their position of privilege to help underprivileged people. You don’t get a day for being a decent person.

Can you talk about your privilege?

I’m cisgender, which makes my life super easy. I can go to the bathroom whenever I want, people look at me and don’t feel weirded out. I live in an upper middle class suburban town in New Jersey. I have money for an SAT tutor, I have a college counselor . . . I’m white! Jesus Christ, that’s huge.

I feel like I make an effort to educate myself about my privilege.

Do you think you’ll keep writing? This is what you love?

I mean, this is so pretentious; I was dictating poetry to my mom when I was like four. It’s a huge part of my identity . . . but I do other things. I do theater, I do political stuff. I do a program called Youth and Government which is like a mock legislature. My proposal at the national conference was, if you report a sexual assault they can’t use the content of your report to charge you with prostitution, because only 4 percent of sexual assaults on prostitutes are ever reported to the police compared to a national average of like 46 percent, and that’s mind boggling. . . . But writing is the backbone of my identity. It’s basically all I know how to do.

You might use your writing to further your political aspirations as well?

I feel like I do that by writing stories that have characters who are gay where it’s not the focal point—I just read a story in this Miranda July book called “Something That Needs Nothing,” and there were just lesbians in it. It was so surprising because, especially for teens, every story about gay people is about gay people. Like “oh it’s so hard being gay” or “I’m so bullied,” you know. They’re never just there as people.

Most of the people who will be reading this will be, I think, feminist women aged 20-50, do you have anything to say to them about where you’re coming from?

People think about teenagers . . . “You all have the internet and you text and you have no empathy and you’re all going to be terrible people.” But all this technology also means that I can read Wikipedia articles about the Dancing Plague, that even if I’m in the middle of Ohio I have access to other worldviews, infinite worldviews. I can read about Satanism, I can read about fundamentalist Christians, and I can form opinions based on all of it, and I can communicate with people all over the world who are in completely different situations from me.

Well said.

Thank you.

MADELEINE CRAVENS & ZOË SENISË

I’m Madeleine Cravens, I’m 17, and I hail from Brooklyn, New York.

I’m Zoë Senisë and I also hail from Brooklyn, New York.

You guys seem really bonded.

M: Once, a psychic told us that in another life we were twins.

Z: Yeah, and our auras are crazy compatible . . . and we shared a womb.

Tell me about your writing.

M: I do mostly creative nonfiction. I do some poetry and some fiction, but mostly creative nonfiction.

How did you start writing?

M: I started writing after my parents got divorced when I was thirteen. I was upset all the time, and if I didn’t write it down I’d be yelling at someone. It seemed preferable.

Z: I guess I started writing, well it wasn’t out of angst or emotion. I guess it was from reading. My ideas always seemed to be a little better than my writing. That’s why I come to these programs.

 

Nice plug. So, who do you guys like to read?

M: Whenever I get this question I end up spewing out a long list of middle-aged white men so that makes me feel sort of horrible. I love Dave Eggers, I love Jeffrey Eugenides, I love David Sedaris, I love . . . Haruki Murakami. He’s Asian. But I don’t read enough women. I mean I love Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan.

Z: To add to those lists of female writers I was reminded the other day of Margaret Atwood.

M: She’s f’ing good.

Z: Yeah, she’s f’ing good. Lately I’ve been reading Borges and Julio Cortázar. I like short meta-fiction. I like reading philosophy. Nietzsche and Descartes . . . not to be pretentious.

 

It’s not pretentious. Which female philosophers do you like to read? …Joking!

Z: But there are some.

M: Like Mary Wollstonecraft . . .

 

Would you call yourselves feminists?

Z+M: Yes, of course.

M. Anyone who is not an idiot is a feminist. I hate it when people are like, “I believe that women should be treated in the same way as men, and I believe in trying to close the wage gap. But I’m not a feminist.”

Z: It’s problematic that the word is stigmatized.

M: I feel like it’s especially important for men to claim the term feminist. My dad is really cool; my dad is a feminist. That shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re a decent human being—

Z: –A thinking human being.

M: Yeah.

 

Have you experienced sexism in your life?

M: We’re really privileged. I mean, before we say anything, we’re really lucky to live in America, especially New York City, and be white, and middle class, and go to good schools. So whatever we say is coming from a really narrow perspective of being a girl—because we probably have it the easiest of anyone.

Z: I’ve really started thinking about this in terms of playing music. It’s very different to be a girl with a guitar than a boy with a guitar, it’s more subversive—and it implies this rebellious nature even if you’re not. That’s where I’ve been the most aware of my femininity. When you’re the only girl in the band, you’re the token girl in the band.

M: To take this in a different direction, any girl who’s had a pregnancy scare realizes that her body could ruin her life. The options available to women in New York City are really important and the fact that in Texas they want to have six open clinics in the entire state scares the shit out of me as a teenage girl.

 

Sure. Good point. How does your gender affect your writing, if at all?

M: Almost everything I write has to do with being a girl.

Z: I mean, yeah, everything I write has to do with relationships, so far.

M: It feels like such a cliché.

Z: It is, but at the same time it’s what makes you feel so—

M: I don’t want to write about anything that’s not relevant and fresh and raw inside myself, and right now that’s sex.

Do you plan on becoming writers?

M: I mean it’s terrifying, because writing isn’t like other occupations where the amount of time you put into it equates to how good you are at it. You either have something or you don’t and you can’t move up in the ranks just by sheer willpower. The thought of something where so much of the achievement is out of my hands is just terrifying.

Z: I want writing to be a part of what I do.

 

Do you have an awareness of publishing being imbalanced in terms of women not being published as often as men?

M: Yeah. Just because my mom talks about it a lot.

Z: Mine too.

M: It’s not cool. On the teenage level, there’s a stereotype about girls being so much more into humanities than men, and then you hit a certain age and everything flips. As soon as it becomes a serious field.

You’re way more advanced than I was. What’s so disturbing to me about the VIDA count is—you guys are so smart and talented—I want you to have more than what the pie charts reflect.

M: It makes me so upset.

Why do you think more men get published than women?

M: Because we’re all bad writers.

Oh right, I forgot. One of the things they say is fewer women submit, which may or may not be true, but let’s be honest, editors reach out to authors they admire, it’s not all coming from a slush pile.

M: In school, starting from a really young age, girls are taught to say “I think” whereas boys are taught to say “I know.” It’s totally ingrained. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to connect these two thoughts but the fact that men are entitled to their ideas whereas women have to justify them really connects to every discrepancy we have in terms of occupation.

Is it okay to be angry as a woman? Does it make you a bitch?

M: I want to reclaim the word bitch. I feel like any girl who speaks out is labeled “cunty.”

Z: (Laughter)

M: We were trying to reclaim that word.

Z: And we did.

M: We have a term called cuntroversial. And then to adults we just say “cuntroversial, the philosopher.” And they say, “Oh. Ha ha, okay.”

 

You have a group called the cuntroversials?

M: No, just a few friends. It’s like a few days old.

Like Immanuel Kant?

Z: Yeah, that’s the joke.

You guys are geniuses.

M: Can I talk about how gay rights are women’s rights? The fact that same-sex relationships are so stigmatized stems directly from the fact that women and men are not seen as one and the same. To some extent there are really important differences, but their roles in society, in a utopian society, should be basically the same. Gay people are stigmatized because of the gender binary.

Z: It’s dumb to think of feminism as one gender’s problem, or one gender’s struggle to catch up with the other. I was raised to think of feminism not as a fight but being about love.

M: I’m going to cry.

Z: I do that on purpose.

M: Misandry annoys, misogyny kills. Hate against women kills women. Hate against men is irritating; it’s not killing anyone.

Z: I still wouldn’t encourage it though.

Who are your feminist heroes?

M: Zoë Senisë.

Z: Zoë Senisë.

M: You can’t say yourself!

Z: I’m joking. Madeleine Cravens.

M: Oh god. Kathleen Hanna. Basically anyone from the riot girl movement. That’s really annoying for me to say.

Z: I met Pussy Riot this year.

 

I thought they were in jail.

M: I thought they were in jail, too.

Z: Two of them got out and helped make a documentary—

M: Gloria Steinem, too. You have to say her or you’re a bad feminist. Also, Eve Ensler. Vagina Monologues are pretty fly.

 

Check out Maddie & Zoe’s blog here: http://el-feminista.tumblr.com/

Photo Credits: Julia Whicker

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Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

Foreign Study

by Sara Quinn Rivara

The house in Parchment was the nicest on the street, nicest in the whole neighborhood. White siding, blue shutters, green roof. When we looked at the house, which had been recently rehabbed for a flip, there were toads everywhere in the lawn. There were new fiberboard cabinets, almond ceramic tile, cheap Berber carpet.

It was a billion times better than the house that had no toilet, just a hole in the floor on Howard Street. Or the house made of cinderblocks across the street from the house made of tarpaper and plywood. Or the house in Cooper Township next to the shuttered Congregational Church that had termites crawling over the kitchen floor.

It had a bullet hole in the kitchen window. The neighbors across the street had duct-taped a trailer to the side of their house, cut a hole. An addition.

We paid Cooper taxes, though our address said Parchment. A mile up the hill, gracious homes flanked Kindleberger Park. Even those cost less than 200K. Even those looked down upon the hulking shell of the shuttered paper mill where dozens—maybe hundreds—of turkey buzzards roosted. Where an osprey had made its nest near the river, over the humpback of the toxic landfill. PCBs and sludge. The Kalamazoo River swung slowly past, dammed to an extreme, flat and wide and smelling sour and foaming at the mouth. Cedar waxwings darned the sky above the slow-moving brown water.

We’d been married for two years. I’d been cervical cancer free for a few months. I’d just gotten a tenure-track job at the community college where I’d been teaching for pennies, part time, since I’d quit my job as an assistant librarian at a small town library where everyone had Jesus in their heart. Where women went to college to be kindergarten teachers or to drop out to get married at 20.

I’d gotten married at 24. I’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21.

I called myself a feminist, or had—had grown up in Chicago and had such ambitions! And now I was here. Married, 26, happy to be making 40K a year— tens of thousands less than my male colleagues, I’d learn years later, the college not recognizing my MFA because, Jesus, I’d been so happy to not be making 10K a year and didn’t know to negotiate, didn’t know it was my right.

*

I’d gone to an exclusive private liberal arts college in the Midwest. I’d spent my junior year abroad, I’d lived in the Women’s Resource Center and been a member of the Women’s Equity Coalition, co-founded a feminist theater collective. Taken mostly women’s literature classes, creative writing. I spelled women womyn.

My husband had dropped out of high school. Had told me, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer—which, if you didn’t know, is only the result of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease which I only could have gotten from him, having lost my virginity on Devil’s Night my senior year—didn’t want me to tell anyone. He was ashamed. I should be ashamed: an STD? I was raised a Catholic. I had done everything right: had him tested for HIV, herpes, the lot. And still. Punished. Or whatever.

I had grown up in Chicagoland, gone to school in Michigan, and expected to move, post-graduation, to the Southwest for a gap year with my best friend, before pursuing my MFA in vocal performance or my PhD in literature. I was an honors student in college, second in my graduating class of English majors. I knew I was smart.

And then I was in Kalamazoo, still. My then-husband telling me that my shirt was unbuttoned too much, telling me he liked my body despite my mind. He said it was a joke. Why can’t you take a fucking joke? I knew my body to be a shameful thing.  I was fucked but I learned to leave my body. I began to think I must be a lesbian—please, God, let me be a lesbian—because I couldn’t scare up anything that was attracted to my husband. I wrote poems. I went to graduate school, got my MFA in poetry. I began to publish my poetry in journals. The woman who drove home from work every day transformed herself into something else. She wore only black, blue, brown.

I taught women’s literature. I told my students that I was a feminist.  As if that was something that would save me.

*

At 20, sitting on the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland, I figured my life would be prescribed by travel. A man in every port. I was going to see the fucking world.

At 26, I was pregnant. Married. I hadn’t traveled since I’d graduated from grad school.  The horizons were so small.

No one wants to hear your poems about breastfeeding or bread rising on the counter, a poet (male, prominent, editor of a major literary magazine) had said in a workshop in grad school.

At 27, I was in a hospital room, 26 hours into labor, my then-husband telling me I was overreacting. I pushed my sweet boy into the world, and goddamn, it’s a cliché. But that night, my husband gone home to ‘let out the dogs’ and because he had to work the next day, I held that small boy in my arms and felt something: what was it? I was terrified. I’d never felt it before, and it was overwhelming and I realized holy shit, this is what it is to be in love. And I thought if this boy had my life, would I be okay with that?

And I’ll be honest: if I’m religious it’s an academic pursuit. But there was a voice that rose up in me and it said NO.

*

And there was my life. Blue light flickering beneath the door as the nurses walked past my hospital room, my Bird nursing and my nipples raw and I was crying and I knew:  I have to get out.

It took me almost two years. In those two years, my husband began to sleep on the couch because a crying baby all night made it hard for him to go to his shitty job, my son slept in my bed. I went back to my full load of classes when Jonah was three months old, teaching five courses on 2 hours of sleep a night. My ex called my midwife to tell her I was crazy and needed drugs because I didn’t want sex. Because I thought—he told me—I was frigid. My episiotomy had healed the wrong way. I couldn’t sit or walk comfortably for months. We took a vacation to Munising, Michigan, on Lake Superior. All I wanted was to slip into the crowd with my son, disappear. But I was terrified: if I told my husband I wanted a divorce, that I didn’t love him, never had, that I had stayed out of fear, he would kill me. He would take my son. He would kill himself. And what about the house? The dogs?

And then I got tenure. And then I read every poem I’d written and realized: I’d known all along. I was miserable and couldn’t raise my son to think that was okay.

I told my husband I wanted a divorce. He hacked into my email, accused me of having an affair with a student because I exchanged a list of books. He told me I was a whore. He got his GED, got a Breathalyzer on his car to get his license— which he’d never had—back. He threatened to kill me, chop me into tiny bits. He took every cent we had, and no one would front me the money for a lawyer. He got exactly equal custody because I was terrified he’d take my son from me forever.

At thirty, I was divorced. Tenured. I’d bought and sold a shitty house. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I got a tattoo. I published poems.

But I stayed in Kalamazoo. I desperately love my son. I started to attend writers’ conferences, found my tribe again. Became department chair, union agitator. Published my first collection of poems at 36. Filed with the courts to move across the country with my son. And even all these years later, I am terrified. My son has been with his father for two days; his father won’t allow any contact.  I am still terrified that he can bully me, that crazy always wins. That I am the crazy one, because I’m a woman. And emotional. And admit that I don’t know everything. And am small and female and he could kill me, he could.

How can I be a feminist?  A student asked years ago in my Women’s lit class. It’s easy for you, she said. Assuming, of course, that because I was standing in front of her as a professor that I must have had a different life than hers. I just want my boyfriend to love me.

Don’t write about domestic things, that poet said. Write about what’s important.

Okay.  I will.

Foreign Study