Forum for Discussion
In this issue of Samyukta we discuss contemporary women writers
`A woman writer,’ wrote Miles Franklin in the early 1900s, ‘except in rare instances, has no protection such as enjoyed by men who use their wives and mistresses as a marline to save themselves the wear and tear of interruption.’ This comment is still valid today_ Just as the pronouncement made in 1928 by Virginia Woolf that a woman writer needs ‘a room of her own’ and an independent income is still an issue. The fact that so many women have managed to overcome so many obstacles to produce important published works is a great tribute to them.
Many successful contemporary women writers combine their writing careers with marriage, motherhood or committed relationships. They also, more often than not, need to earn an alternative regular income. Which means that even today, many women writers find they need to set the alarm for 4 am to work in uninterrupted peace. Or else stay up late at night writing when the family are asleep. Others manage somehow to write amid the flurry of children, household and career demands. There is a story about a woman writer in Australia whose husband insisted on sole use of the study so that he could write. His wife had to perch her manual typewriter on one end of the kitchen table. Nevertheless, she managed to write several excellent Australian novels as well as children’s books, while keeping an eye on the children and directing the running of the household, cooking meals and the various other demands on her time and energy. Her name is Ruth Park and many of her books, both for adults and children are now considered Australian classics and are still in print and well read in Australia. Her husband’s books, though of literary merit, are not nearly so popular today.
Describing her marriage to Kingsley Amis in her recently published memoir, Slipstream, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard reflects on how little she wrote during those years because she was over-tired and that though Amis was encouraging about her writing, she simply didn’t have time. ‘Sometimes I envied him because he didn’t have to organise the food, or other household matters but that was part of the deal’, Howard wrote. Since this marriage lasted almost twenty years, it poses the question of just how encouraging Amis actually was if he saw nothing wrong with this situation. It was only after she left the marriage that she resumed her career as a novelist.
Writing has always been important to women, as a way of expressing opinions that might otherwise be disregarded or of recording incidents and experiences. These writings are included in diaries, journals and letters between families. Thank goodness women have written in this way, for often it has been the writings of women that have rounded out the perceptions of society, kept the record straight and brought to the surface the other side of stories. Often their writing has taken on the task of interrogating what it means to be a woman. While it means, of course, different things to different women, there are, nevertheless, common threads of experience, emotions and relationships that transcend culture, language and provincial constraints. These common threads, though, are manifested in a multitude of ways in different places and at different times.
In her ‘Feminine Discourse: Letting the Light Shine Through’ Silvia Quezada begins with a quote from Hermàn Cortés, ‘All, women, women! Why Aid Divine Providence give them the superfluous gift of speech?’ She writes about Elena Garro and Josefina Vicens, ‘two radically different writers who nonetheless have been treated by literary criticism with similar approaches, because literary criticism of the 60s produced a formula for talking about literature written by women, illuminating only those aspects that it considered significant to characterise the feminine sex.’ It seems that when it comes to women’s writing, critics have trouble separating the fictional from the autobiographical and make the mistake of assuming that women’s stories are limited to ‘a vehicle for confession’. Other aspects of women’s writing that overly concern critics are ‘the intimate tone’, ‘the simple stories’, ‘the everyday language’, ‘the interior voice’ and of course ‘the domestic’. As Quezada argues, the back cover texts of books by women writers could easily be interchangeable! This would lead us to believe that all women write the same and continues this myth that women do or should write in a certain way.
Margaret Atwood, On Writing Poetry, said that: ‘I had no idea, for instance, that I was about to step into a whole set of preconceptions and social roles which had to do with what poets were like, how they should behave, and what they ought to wear; moreover, I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that “poetess” was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment.’ (Waterstone’s Poetry Lecture Delivered at Hay On Wye, Wales, June 1995).
Criticism that women’s literature concentrates on the domestic and ignores the big picture is to assume that women must write in a certain way to be considered serious writers. It also fails to take into account howl the domestic underpins the big picture, it is in this detail that we find the small cogs and wheels that keep the big machinery turning. While it may make the critic feel self-important and elitist to want the mundane details of life swept away as mere trivia and debris, the one who wields the broom has no such illusions about their role in the order of things. Those who fail to understand that what keeps the machinery running to maintain the necessary order so well that they are able to completely ignore its existence, are themselves missing the whole picture of what the human experience entails. Many women, it seems to me, are far better placed to view not only the whole picture but that which makes it whole.
The legacy of women’s stories is a moving mosaic. Women’s stories have been and continue to be passed from generation to generation, incorporating the mystery, the meaning and the practicalities of life and family lore. Storytelling is nothing new to women, what is novel is having their voice heard and appreciated by a much wider audience; commanding respect for their literary skills and the material from which their stories are drawn and, finally, being acknowledged for their considerable contribution to literature.
Women’s writing may well be markedly different to the male counterpart, which is not to say women can’t or don’t write in the same vein, but that, in the main, women write from a different aspect, as would he expected. This other aspect is necessary to complete the mainstream literature of any society. To deny its existence or to trivialise it because it is not a carbon copy of men’s writing is to miss out on a great deal of the human experience. Moreover it’s a disservice to literature to place preconceived notions and expectations on women’s writing. Women write in many genres and in many voices about a variety of themes. Women have been and are still being persecuted for their writing. There is no shortage of brave women all over the world, such as Nawal El Saadawi and Ebtehal Younes of Egypt, Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh and Maria Elena Cruz Varela of Cuba who have risked everything in order to have their voices heard. Are we to dismiss these, too, as trivial? The International PEN Women Writers committee, created in 1991 to address the special needs of women writers, has been and is still involved in many human rights cases involving women writers.
It is crucial, therefore, to promote women’s literary skills to continue to enable women to have a voice in literature, to tell their own stories and to join in the debate about social constructs. For it is when we read of the experiences of other women in other places and other times in literature that we are given an opportunity to understand and to empathise with their passion and their plight. Fiction is a medium which enables the truths which are otherwise hidden to be exposed, sometimes these truths are wrapped in symbolism, metaphor, magic realism, fairy tales, myths and fables but nevertheless, fiction allows us to reveal the truths which must be told and which otherwise cannot be told. With the emergence of women’s writing into mainstream literature in many societies, women are empowered and armed with a tool to express themselves and their world. Women’s literature is able to cross barriers in a unique way that enables women to contrast and compare their place in the world and what that means to them.
Perhaps one day we will uncover the truth about why women’s literature is still too often not fully embraced, why it engenders such emotional responses in some quarters. Meanwhile, let us grant writers their material, as Helen Garner once pleaded, and let us encourage women to develop literacy and literary skills, to voice their opinion, to analyze their situation and to reveal the hidden truths and lies and, above all, to write marvellous fiction and to celebrate their own lives.
Sylvia Quezada, ‘Feminine Discourse: Letting the Light Shine Through’, Extract from a paper presented at the IPW WC sponsored First Encounter of Latin American Alternative Publishers. in Guadalajara, July 2001).
Martha Cerda, International PEN Women Writers’ Committee Report, http://www.oneworld.org/internatpen/comm/htm
Margaret Atwood, On Writing Poetry, (Waterstone’s Poetry Lecture Delivered at Hay On Wve, Wales, June 1995).
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Bloomsbury Press.
SHARON RUNDLE. Writer, fiction consultant and adult education tutor. Her fiction and non-fiction works have appeared in newspapers, industry publications, magazines, and journals. Recent books include round Table Magic: A Work for Writers Groups (2002) and Changes And Chances – the First Twenty Years of the Central Coast Community Women’s Health Centre, (1997).