Archive for October, 2015

Persepolis: A Childhood


Trailer for Persepolis

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood can be read as one example of a growing number of memoirs written by Iranian women living in exile in a variety of Western countries (including France, America and the UK) that have been published in the past ten years.  Others include Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, by Tara Bahrampour.

But Persepolis is we must also remember that this is not only a memoir of exile, but also of childhood, and a distinctly challenging   childhood framed by a shifting social context in which her gender begins by being of little interest to her, and becomes a key social marker of her value in society and the freedom she longs for in repressive post-revolution Iran turns to loneliness and isolation in the equally alienating world of Vienna.


There is one series of frames which represent Marji being taken to the airport to go to Vienna as a young teenager. Her parents are sending her off on her own, fearful for her safety if she stays in Tehran. In a series of uncomfortable exchanges her nervous parents try to normalise their sending Marji off by telling her “Everything will be fine” and “As soon as you get to Vienna, go and eat a sachertorte. It’s the most delicious chocolate cake.” But beneath these words is another text, one which cannot be said and which Satrapi forces into a box at the bottom of the page. “What I had feared was true. Maybe they’d come to visit, but we’d never live together again.” This shocking realisation of the finality of her exclusion is followed by two more exchanges. “No tears,” he mother says. “You are a big girl,” and her father hugs her with tears in his eyes saying “You’ve got to go now. Don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”


These parental parameters of what it is to be a big girl and what it is to be true to your gender and national identity are the keynotes of debate within the text as a whole. As this scene ends, however, we have only Marji’s careful and loving farewell. “I love you,” she says, waving goodbye. From the other side of the security glass, she shoos them away “Go on, Go on” she thinks, longing to be free. But as she turns around one last time, she is witness to her mother, fainting dramatically and being carried off in the arms of her father.  “It would have been better to just go,” Marji concludes, but the second part of the text challenges that interpretation of her childhood as well. Stay or go, there was no fully safe, free place for Marji – every location involved some degree of suffering, swooning, and struggle against the socially acceptable parameters of gender and culture. And in that sense while this is a book about the particular experience of Satrapi, it is not unlike the female childhoods explored in Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Jackie Kay’s “The Adoption Papers” and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which we will be reading next week.  As we will be discussing this week, there are multiple pressures  brought to bear on our reading and understanding of a text in which a woman writer in a patriarchal culture writes her child-self.


Motherhood and its Aftermath: Images of Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Writing


Rachel Cusk, Aftermath

Lionel Shriver “We Need to Talk about Kevin” film clip

 This week we considering two linked themes in our reading: Writing, Reading and Difference in the works of women writers, and representations of motherhood in the works of two contemporary women writers.  We begin with the first Chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath, a memoir of marriage and separation. We will also be considering a range of reviews of Cusk’s work.

And we will be watching a few clips of the film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk about Kevin:

Images of motherhood in much 19th century literature written by men and women often depicted mothers as “angels in the house” – either figuratively (in the guise of saintly/self-sacrificing mothers like Louise May Alcott’s Marmee in Little Women,  or Ursula in Dinah Craik’s John Halifax Gentleman) or literally (as in she’s dead).  Contemporary women’s writing such as these texts by Cusk and  Shriver, tend toward representations of motherhood as engendering a loss of agency and identity, suffering in silence, depression, lack of fulfilment. Other popular fictions of our times, by contrast, depict mothers as heroic overachievers triumphing against all odds (think Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich).

Such extreme configurations suggest that there is something inherently unrepresentable about motherhood: that it must be portrayed always in extremes to be of interest to any audience. Mothers on television or in films never have normal, long-winded but uneventful pregnancies or deliveries: there is generally a last minute dash to the hospital where the woman gives birth to triplets before dying or is delivered in an elevator of a child she was not expecting and then the child dies. Our appetites for such overwrought stories about maternity veer towards these outlands of experience turning motherhood into an extreme sport which no one can ever win. Moreover, writing about  the experience of motherhood from the inside tends to let loose the the wrath of those harshest of critics: other mothers.  Is motherhood a losing game, rigged from the start? Must stories about it be harsh and infanticidal or self-effacing and heroic to be find an audience? When women write about motherhood what are they saying? And when they read stories about motherhood – what judgements are they passing?

Beloved:Speaking for Women


This week’s topic is “Women’s Voices in the 20th Century”

And the texts we are studying are:

Last week we considered domestic spaces and the representations of all spaces as potentially dangerous for the female characters of Toni Morrison’s prize-winning historical fiction Beloved, , in which she portrays the violent historical past in the lives of runaway, and later, freed slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid to late 19th centuryAnother key subject of debate raised by Beloved  is the manner in which this novel, and other narratives of women’s lives might be seen as acts of ventriloquism in which the novelist and his or her characters are portrayed as “speaking for” women..

Many aspects of Morrison’s novel are drawn from historical sources. The horrific scarring of Sethe’s back for example, tree-shaped and branching out, refers to a famous image of a slave whose name is lost to history.


How, we must ask, can one human being do such a thing to another? Psychologically speaking, it’s quite simple: when we dehumanise other people, call them “cockroaches” rather than “refugees,” shave their heads and starve them and tattoo them with numbers instead of names, or see only one aspect of their person or situation: their colour, sexuality or gender – we have done what Simone de Beauvoir describes in “The Introduction” to “The Second Sex” which we will also be looking at this week: We are constructing ourselves and our experiences as subject, as central, as normative and judging the experiences of those who are not us as separate, different, less than, or in a word “other.”


I wonder then what we think when Morrison gives voice to in her novel to Sethe, whose story is partly based on the real-life tragedy of fugitive slave Margaret Garner, who, like Morrison’s character, kills her child rather than see her returned to slavery? In this act of fictionalisation, what kind of political/social and literary event has taken place? Is Morrison “speaking for” the other? For voiceless figure of Margaret Garner? Or does the intriguing and original narrative form of the narrative enable a different kind of interaction to take place?

Safe Spaces in Women’s Writing? Toni Morrison’s Beloved


Like the novels of so many women writers, Toni Morrison’s Beloved begins with a reference to domestic space. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park begins by introducing us to “Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.” Emily Bronte’s mad novel Wuthering Heights likewise starts with the economics of ownership, with its first pages recounting a new tenant’s negotiations for Thrushcross Grange, while Katherine Mansfield’s reminiscence of her New Zealand childhood, “Prelude,” starts with boxes being packed and moving men arriving. In such company, the domestic setting which opens Toni Morrison’s outstanding novel Beloved is immediately shocking: “124 was spiteful,” Morrison writes, “Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” Here, as throughout this narrative, Morrison appears to be interested not only in domestic spaces, but also in the many nefarious, criminal and violent incursions upon those spaces wrought by American slavery and its aftermath. In Beloved , as in America after the passing of Refugee Slave Act in 1850, no space is safe. (

As Lori Askeland and Cathy Davidson have argued, Beloved is “a remodelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that examines … and revises it in a way that avoids reification of a patriarchal power structure. The parallels in the texts are numerous. Beloved is set in part in the same place and during the same period as UTC: Sweet Home’s northern Kentucky must be near the location of the Shelby plantations, and both novels’ initial action represents a response to the Fugitive Slave Act. Moreover, Beloved’s main action takes place near Cincinnati in 1873, which was the Beecher’s home from 1832-1849.”

African children on Slave Ship
From the start we know that 124 Bluestone is haunted, and in the early chapters the “sweet” “perfumed” boxwood hedge shimmering in “emerald light” in which Denver hides her secrets is also visited by a “chill wind,” foreshadowing the return of the troubled and troubling Beloved. Likewise, the house to which Sethe escapes, and in whose attic rafters she hides is not portrayed as a place of solace or freedom, but a prison in which she is tormented by heat, cold and insects. The irony of the name of the plantation upon which horrific violence is visited upon Sethe and Paul D is too grim to be funny: “Sweet Home.” In the world of Beloved, as in the world of slaves and their descendants, no space, no matter how inviting it may seem, is truly home sweet home. This week as we begin reading Beloved, we will be thinking not only of the domestic and public spaces portrayed by Morrison here, but also of the space which her ground-breaking novel has created in the canon of 20th Century American literature. Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award and Morrison herself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. “Heavy,” Beloved says when she enters 124 for the first time. “This place is heavy.”

Women and Fiction: Virginia Woolf, my students and Me

AROOIn Virginia Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” first published in 1919 she famously wrote:
“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.”
As I begin a new year of teaching my Writing Women module at Kingston University I am reminded of the revolutionary power of these words and the manner in which these words (as Woolf once said of the £500 a year inheritance that allowed her to afford to be a writer) “unveiled the sky to me.” Just as this legacy of Woolf’s “spinster” Aunt Caroline endowed the young Virginia Stephen with a sense of potential and purpose – the ideas Woolf proposes in “Modern Fiction” encouraged a generation of women writers to challenge preconceived notions about what “the proper stuff of fiction” might be. From Katherine Mansfield to Jean Rhys to Daphne DuMaurier, Iris Murdoch, Germaine Greer, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith and more – women’s literature has often rewritten the rules not only about what can be said in fiction, but how it can be said. And not just fiction either. Poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Jackie Kay, bell hooks (again), Sharon Olds and memoirists like Rachel Cusk, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Joan Didion others wrote scorchingly directly about their lives, their bodies, their families: about what a women’s life looked like and felt like and sounded like from a clear-eyed, unsentimental perspective. By doing so, each of these brave writers provided those of us who come after with a tentative roadmap through “varying, unknown and uncircumscribed spirit” of life, forging tiny gaps in “semi-transparent envelope” and letting in a little light.

Woolf concludes “Modern Fiction” by repeating, “’The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.”
As this new teaching year begins, I look forward to the breaking and bullying, honouring and loving of women’s writing to come. As I sharing some of the light of women writers of the past with my students, they in their turn will be contributing to the blog with their own research, reading and unique perspectives on what life looks like to them, renewing and assuring the sovereignty of women’s fiction. I can’t wait.