Posts Tagged ‘women’s writing’

Writing Women: Women and Literary History

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Welcome back to the Writing Women blog for 2013/4! This time around the course is year long and there are two groups of students participating. In some weeks students will be contributing blogs and I will be humbly commenting upon them.

In this first section of the module we are looking at the following works:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1899) on StudySpace

  1. Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own (1928) on StudySpace
  1. Dale  Spender, ‘’Women and Literary History’’ (on StudySpace)
  2. Mary Eagleton, Feminist Literary Theory:      A Reader, Third Edition, (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2010) All      selections in the first section entitled ‘Finding a Female Literary      Tradition’ pp. 1-56.

Our topic this week is Women and Literary Tradition.

The picture at the top of this blog was the one that came up when I googled “literary history.” Have a look at the names on the spines of these books. Notice anything funny? Thank God for Jane Austen!

Literary tradition not only influences what we read, but also how it is read and with what value it is imbued. While the writers whose works we will examine in this module have been affected artistically by their relations to the literary past, they have been informed politically and ideologically by that past as well. It is these pressures, interacting with each of these artists’ respective creative visions, which produce their written works. Furthermore, such social, political, and cultural forces have power beyond their impact on individual works of art: the same methods of culturally inflected reading have also informed the eventual canonical status of these women authors.

because

While each of the feminist critics whose work we look at this week (Woolf, Spender, and the various critics in the Eagleton text from Elaine Showalter to Anne Ducille, Paul Lauter, Adrienne Rich, Shoshana Felman) propound very different ideas about the relationship between women and literary tradition, there is one concern upon which all of them have, at one point or another, focused: the notion of language as a battleground in which words become weapons of patriarchy. Some thirty years ago, critic Carolyn Burke, in her “Report from Paris,” argued this idea as follows: “the very forms of the dominant mode of discourse show the mark of the dominant masculine ideology. Hence, when a woman writes or speaks herself into existence, she is forced to speak in something like a foreign tongue, a language with which she may be uncomfortable.”

Here, Burke proposes that women writers can and do feel a constrained relation to the texts they compose, if they attempt (as it seems they must) to employ the language of the father/master. Writing herself “into existence,” as Burke suggests, is an exercise in translation for the woman writer. The act of interpretation, of course, is never able to fully recapture the precise meaning of the original. But perhaps it can offer something more. Indeed, the contemporary writer Salman Rushdie suggests just this in his essay “Imaginary Homelands.” There, while discussing the importance of the English language to the British Indian writer, Rushdie argues that translation need not necessarily imply loss: “[i]t is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained” (Rushdie 17). Let us, too, cling to that notion, and find out over the course of this academic year precisely what has been lost, and gained, in the translated and transgressive writing of women in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Iris Murdoch: Under the Net Part II

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Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

 

 

Under the Net (1954) is one of Murdoch’s most self-reflexive novels. Like Murdoch, the central character Jake is an aspiring writer trying to find his feet as a novelist and as a human being after the devastation of War. Two figures are central to his and Murdoch’s development, both French:  Jean Paul Sartre the existentialist philosopher and the writer Raymond Queneau (to whom Under the Net is dedicated).

RaymondQueneau

Raymond Queneau

Thus the major questions of the novel are: ‘in a post-war society that witnessed grave limitations on human existence how free are we – really?’; and, ‘at this stage in human history what are the moral, political and cultural responsibilities of the writer and what kind of novel should s/he write?’. Critics at the time daubed Murdoch as conventional social realist, missing the European influences on her writing and thinking. It’s both significant and unique that a female writer, functioning simultaneously in the role of philosopher and novelist, was demanding so much of the novel and experimenting with its form at this time. Murdoch certainly brings great moral seriousness to the novel – yet has been criticised enduringly by feminists. So for this reason we will look at this novel afresh, trying to rationalise why Murdoch chose in this important debut novel, to adopt the narrative voice of a man.

charlottelaundry

Charlotte Street, London, 1950s

We will also look at the perceptions of femininity and the role of women in society that she explores within it. What conclusions does the book draw about mid twentieth-century gender relations and where they might be heading?. She is not afraid to shirk her responsibilities here; she is telling the truth as she sees it and won’t conform to any preconceived ideas about what a female writer should be writing – and I think this is what many find unpalatable. Do you?

True Confessions: Poems by Jackie Kay, Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath

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This week, students are reading poems by each of these poets:

Jackie Kay (From The Adoption Papers, 1991)

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Sharon Olds: http://ryankamstra.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/sharon-olds-selection-of-poems-online.html

Sharonolds

 

 

 

 

 

Sylvia Plath: http://www.internal.org/Sylvia_Plath

Lois Cucullu, Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy

And “Book Of A Lifetime: The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay” By Patience Agbabi (online) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/book-of-a-lifetime-the-adoption-papers-jackie-kay-814970.html

In her excellent essay “Someone Else’s Misfortune: The Vicarious Pleasures of the Confessional Text,” (which I have placed on Study Space for students) the critic Jo Gill reminds us of James Dickey’s “infamous” remarks about the so-called “confessional” poetry of Anne Sexton. Her poems, Dickey wrote “so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.” As Gill argues, Dickey’s dismissal of the confessional form exemplifies “the very contradictions which ignite and sustain our interest in the genre: the compelling dialectic between fascination and revulsion, sympathy and horror, guilt and relief; the desire to look coupled with the reluctance to know the truth.”

 

Author Rachel Cusk

As we saw two weeks ago, Rachel Cusk noted in an interview with the Guardian following the publication of her memoir Aftermath (2012) that “Writing is a discipline: it’s almost all about holding back.  The memoir is a confessional form, but that doesn’t mean that it is itself a confession.  It isn’t a spewing out of emotion.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/20/rachel-cusk-divorce

So if confessional forms are not confession, what are they?  And what are the “vicarious pleasures” we enjoy while reading them?  For Gill, all such writing is self-reflexive: however much emotion is on offer, it is not “spewed” but carefully such writing is concerned with the processes of its own production – this is writing about writing, poetry about poetry.  And if this is so, why choose the (often suffering) self as a starting point for such literary exercises?  And why, as one of my students asked last week, are contemporary women writers in particular drawn to confessional forms?  Do women have more to confess?  Or is it that the confessional aspect of such texts partly stems from women’s historical exclusion from literary history?  That is, in order for women to be able to write poems about poetry and to have those poems read and heard, must they offer themselves, their life history as a ritual sacrifice? Must they speak as women, of the experiences of (often suffering) women, in order to have their writing read?

 

True Confessions: Persepolis: The Story of An Iranian Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

 

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Week 5: Monday 25 February

 

This week’s topic is Childhood in Contemporary Women’s Fiction and we will be reading:

 

  1. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  2. Babak Elahi, “Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir Author(s).” Melus, Vol. 33, No. 2, Iranian American Literature (Summer, 2008), pp. 37-54.

Trailer for Persepolis

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PXHeKuBzPY

In week three, we discussed the complications of “writing for” or “speaking for” women and minority groups in literary and other forms, and the reading for this week develops that same idea in a number of different directions.  In the first place, 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. As Babak Elahi argues in the essay “Fake Farsi,” along with stories of pre-and post revolutionary Iranian life, escape and exile, such memoirs offer a “defamiliarized relationship to language, a relationship at the heart of the exilic experience.” As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have argued in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, the life writing of exiled women enacts the hyphenated split of their national identities: Iranian-American, Iranian-British, etc.  Such writing therefore, “becomes a site on which cultural ideologies intersect and dissect one another, in contradiction, consonance and adjacency.”

Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis not only confronts the difficulty of the defamiliarized relationship to a new language of which Elahi writes, but also addresses the multiplication of such defamiliarization in communication in the use second and third languages. Through its graphic form, moreover, Persepolis literally illustrates the constraints of using any form of words to communicate the whole story.  In scene after graphic scene, Satrapi reinscribes the power of language to hide, deny, obfuscate and damage both national identity and familial relationships.

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But we must also remember that this is not only a memoir of exile, but also of childhood, and the representation of, or speaking for the experience of a child brings further challenges.  How can one ever capture or evoke the thoughts and language of one’s childhood?  When grown-up writers “represent” their childhood selves in memoirs, are they not in a sense “colonizing,” “speaking for” and “interpreting” the voice of a powerless, voiceless self who cannot speak for herself?  As we will be discussing this week, what are the multiple pressures that are brought to bear on our reading and understanding of a text in which a woman writer writes her child-self?

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Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

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Happily Ever After

 When Cinderella met her prince it was all so

easy.

Family troubles? The text is not

explicit:

how king and queen felt

when golden boy brought home

a cleaner.

Perhaps the mice resented

Being put in her service,

the dog disgruntled playing

footman.

 

Her tiara—paste

Her footwear—unreliable.

 

Still, against

the fairy godmother,

fat sisters, incantations and court champagne,

pumpkin coach, white dress so

becoming, the allure 

of her disappearance:

He never stood a chance.

 

Last night I came home, past midnight.

Unclear what spell

I’d broken:

my magic has never been strong. 

 

I awoke in dusty rags

arms stretched

across my pillow, shoeless

without you.

Charming.

           

 

 

A Woman’s Sentence

Like Emily Dickinson, many other women writers have been concerned with the unspoken – with the silence of women’s voices in literary history.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” for example, we can see Mansfield’s attempt to describe the secret language of, and between generations of women. In the dreams of the story’s central character, Kezia we see surfacing the language of the symbolic and images of plants of birds and of other animals that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. For Kezia and the other women in Mansfield’s story, the symbolic replaces traditional discourse, and is their birthright as women.

The difficulty, both for the characters in Mansfield story and for her readers, is to find meaning in this secret code:  Kezia does not understand the fearful “It” she sees in her dreams – she only knows to be afraid.

Likewise in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There, Woolf discusses the the literal silencing of women’s words, voices and work in the western canon of literature.  In this text, Woolf is concerned with the lack of female “foremothers” upon whom the modern woman writer can rely for inspiration.

Woolf’s argument in this essay is that women writers can and should turn their exclusion to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

Just what might such a sentence might look like? On this topic, Woolf is less than clear, offering Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a Woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

In Woolf’s own fiction, and perhaps most especially in her fictional biography Orlando,  gender and the effect it has upon the mind of the writer is of central importance. But how far might a work like Orlando be said to cross the boundaries into women’s language, reliant as it is upon critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal forms such as the traditional biography, male literary and military history and even the male body? For Woolf and many women writers before and after her, the overwhelming demand to define oneself against what one is not (ie, Orlando may be best defined as “not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man; I know I am a woman because I am not a man, etc.) led to a kind of frustrating cul de sac of expression, but also to new forms of fiction informed by the symbolic, the rhythmic and by making use of silence itself to subvert meaning. But more on that soon….

 

Emily Dickinson: Telling it Slant

The 19th Century American literary man Samuel Bowles, who first published a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, (anonymously and highly edited to remove her dashes, unusual capitalization of words and spelling errors) had this to say about women writers in his magazine THE REPUBLICAN in 1860:

 “There is another kind of writing only too common, appealing to the sympathies of the reader without recommending itself to his judgment. It may be called the literature of misery.  Its writers are chiefly women, gifted women, maybe, full of thought and feeling and fancy, but poor, lonely and unhappy. It may be a valuable discipline in the end but for the time being it too often clouds, withers, distorts.  It is so difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears.”

Contemporary critic Harold Bloom repeats this idea that Dickinson’s poetry makes “the visible a little hard to see,” and indeed, her poetry does tend to approach themes of home, love, sexuality, death and melancholy from “a slant” as Dickinson herself called it.

POEM 258 

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-

 

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the Seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

 Throughout poems such as this one, Dickinson offers challenges to traditional forms of reading and meaning – awkward and highly original comparisons ( (IMPERIAL AFFLICTIONS/ THE HEFT OF CATHEDRAL TUNES /THE LANDSCAPE LISTENS/THE DISTANCE ON THE LOOK OF DEATH)  that appear to take the personal outwards, making the particular and specific universal and significant by looking at it sideways.  And Dickinson’s subversive slant strategy allowed her to infuse poetry that appeared to her contemporaries be full of homespun observations, and, as Bowles suggests

“ thought and feeling and fancy” with her complex contrarian philosophy. Dickinson’s business, as she told us, was not to relate “feelings” or “tears” as Bowles believed, but the revelation of a whole new way of thinking through “Circumference” and telling the truth, but telling it “slant” in order to offer the highest gift any writer can deliver:    

internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-