Lauren Elkin is a writer, translator, critic, academic, and incurable urban wanderer, with an impressive string of past addresses spanning three continents. She is inspiringly prolific, having published one novel, Floating Cities/Une Année à Venise; a number of essays and reviews spanning topics of women’s writing, experimental poetics, life-writing, studies of place, and visual culture; a collaborative book about the Oulipo movement; and her latest book, the nonfiction Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. One of my earliest introductions to her work was the 2012 White Review essay “Barking from the Margins: Écriture Féminine,” which discussed the phenomenon of women shaping their writing to “play by… [male] rules.” “When did we get to be such rule-followers, anyway? […] We’re no longer hiding our manuscripts under our needlepoint. So why, then, would we want to erase our gender as writers? […] What’s wrong with writing like girls?’” Elkin asks, in a series of questions I immediate posted on Tumblr, and later whipped out to serve as the epigraph for an assigned undergraduate essay on the topic. I still return to them today.
Flâneuse builds on Elkin’s interest in women’s experience and on her life-long passion for flânerie, the art of knowing a city through attentive idle urban wandering. Through an impressive and wide-ranging study of various female flâneurs (flâneuses) including, but not limited to, Virginia Woolf, Georges Sand, Jean Rhys, Sophie Calle, and Agnès Varda, she attempts to redress the gender imbalance that has seen the practice labeled as “a man’s work.” Elkin’s recovered flâneuse “is not merely a female flâneur,” but walks with her own gendered experience of the city, exploring not only the urban environment and its liberating potential but what it means to live under, and walk through, the patriarchal gaze. Walking after reading Elkin’s book felt more greatly imbued with both intellectual purpose and gratitude, my own attentiveness to my surroundings heightened. I walked with a better understanding of my place within an intellectual sisterhood of wandering women, flanked by a ghostly girl squad of writers, artists, and creators.
I felt I ought to have walked to meet Lauren for this interview but our urban adventures were taking place in various different cities, mine in Glasgow, hers in New York, Paris, and Liverpool. Instead I strolled around my city’s West End before emailing her these questions, stopping to watch two girls taking pictures of each other in front of its sandstone buildings. It reminded me of Lauren’s book and the 1920s photograph of a woman smoking on the street that serves as its introduction, that particular mix of blending into the urban and advertising oneself against it. Everywhere I turn these days, it seems, there are women showing up and showing off against the city. A beautiful sight indeed.
The Rumpus: One of the first pieces of your work that I encountered was the 2012 essay “Barking from the Margins: Écriture Féminine,” which you open with two anecdotes featuring those who believe the study of women’s writing is “done,” and argue “aggressively” against turning literature into a gender battlefield. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Flâneuse suggests that there is indeed—thankfully—a place for the privileging of women’s experience and the reclamation of our history in the current climate. I wondered, though, if in the process of writing, researching, pitching, and publicizing this book you’ve had any negative reactions, and whether you ever doubted your faith in the project in that regard?
Lauren Elkin: The responses have been very positive! It’s a subject which it turns out a lot of people had been thinking about, but no one had written a general book about it (there is a really great art history essay collection called The Invisible Flâneuse, and also really interesting essays by Janet Wolff, and then two wonderful academic books, Elizabeth Wilson’s Sphinx in the City and Deborah Parsons’s Streetwalking the Metropolis).
Occasionally I’ve been asked what men can take away from the book, and the answer I’ve given is that it’s important for us all—no matter where we operate on the spectrum of gender—to consider our relationship to urban space, and the ways in which space in general is a product of the way we use it and inhabit it and think about it. I deliberately avoided being prescriptive in the book because I don’t think there’s any one way that we “should” be in the city, even for women. We all have diverse ways of being in urban space. I wanted to leave room for that complex feeling of both wanting to be seen and appreciated on the street, but also wanting to remain anonymous, and for the fact that this may change over the years: so many older women have told me they feel invisible in public space. Being torn between wanting to blend into yet and stand out from the crowd is the classic paradox prompted by urban living, and women have experienced this in specific ways, but then so have men, so do we all.
On a couple of occasions male readers have informed me that this openness and refusal to prescribe has been a failing of the book, but I disagree. It’s not for me to say how anyone should live, inside or outside of the city, as long as they’re not hurting, excluding, or discriminating against anyone. I think there’s something gendered about that kind of reception.
Rumpus: Absolutely. I’d like to follow on from this refusal to prescribe and to ask you about the book’s narrative structure. Narratives of flânerie, from Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Woolf’s “Street Haunting” essay, seem to invite the first person. Was the decision to structure the book in this first-person, multi-genre fashion natural for you given the city-walking theme and its precedents? Or was it out of a deliberate desire to avoid a prescriptive style, to acknowledge your subjectivity?
Elkin: I think the first person is incredibly important in all kinds of writing. Who is speaking is one of the first questions I ask my students to ask when they’re reading. Who is this person, where are they coming from, how can we understand what we’re reading through their perspective? When it comes to critical writing this becomes a question of ethics; it seems to me necessary not to pretend omniscience but to acknowledge that histories are constructed through the work of one person (or two, or however many) drawing on a variety of sources. In a sense, all books are written in the first person: you can’t write about things you yourself don’t know. That’s a truism, but some choose to acknowledge it and others pretend it isn’t there. In my case, there was always going to be a first-person voice in the book.
Writing based on creative flânerie, however, cannot be done without acknowledging perspective. You just can’t write about your walk through the city in the third person. I guess you could use the second person but even then you’d be deciding what that person you’re addressing notices. Who else is seeing these things but you? Who else is putting them into context but you?
The first chapter I wrote was the one about Jean Rhys, and the autobiographical material just came really naturally. Rhys is a writer with whom readers tend either to identify really, really strongly, or she puts them off altogether. Perhaps she reminds them of some uncomfortable truth they’d rather not face. So I started writing about precisely that, and tying it into the ways in which I, and then later my students, threw ourselves headlong into Rhys, because she herself threw herself headlong into life, into despair, into heartbreak, and because there’s something really specifically delicious about desperation and heartbreak when experienced in Paris. Then my publisher really liked the way that chapter braided together my own experiences with the biographical and critical writing on Rhys, and asked me to make that chapter the template for all the others.
At first I was wary, because I don’t like the fact that women writers are constantly asked to talk about their own lives, and that work we produce is boiled down to “memoir” while men write “novels.” But I did some writing about my own experiences walking in cities, just to see how it came out, and was happy enough with it to keep doing it. I found if I set a kind of dominant theme or image for each chapter—“obedience” for Venice, “inside” for Tokyo, “revolution” for the Sand chapter—then the disparate materials came together around that idea.
Rumpus: I’ve definitely seen the “memoir” term used in reviews of the book and wondered what you might make of that, though luckily it’s usually combined with history and/or biography in a way that refuses to limit your work and recognizes the skillful blending of styles and content. Sandeep Parmar’s review—perhaps my favorite of all I’ve read—describes your book as “not simply a reclaiming of space, but also of a suppressed intellectual and cultural history.” I know that this has been very important for me and will be for many others. In the book you detail your evolution as a walker of cities, describing your younger self as “a flâneur before I knew what one was.” I’m curious to know what effect discovering the art of flânerie and its academic precedent for your walking habit had on you. How important was it for you to find an intellectual community for what had been until then a personal habit?
Elkin: My discovering that flânerie was a subject that had occasioned much writing—critical and otherwise—coincided with my attempts to figure out what I wanted to write about in my senior thesis. I was casting around for a subject I was drawn to, and it was just always books that were about women and cities, and I really liked the sections where they describe walking around cities. I was slowly learning to read for sentence, rather than story, and realizing how important place was to me both in books and in life.
At the same time I was discovering writers like Colette, Annie Ernaux, or Djuna Barnes, who lived in Paris, and wrote about the city and their emotional and physical engagements with it. I’m not sure what this is about, this interest we develop in people who’ve done the things we’ve done. I wonder a lot, too, about what makes people choose to write about their subjects. So often it seems to come from a place of identification, and then there’s the risk of being too close to a subject, losing critical perspective, or, worse, succumbing to practicing a knee-jerk identity politics (which is the opposite of critical thinking). But at a time when I was very young, and hadn’t read much, and was discovering feminism, and the biggest thing that had happened to me was I had lived in Paris, well, that’s how I ended up being drawn to those writers in particular.
I started looking into the critical literature on flânerie and the flâneuse and discovered it had been pretty well decided that in the nineteenth century, when Baudelaire was codifying the figure of the flâneur (who had been popular in French literature and culture since the 18th century), women did not have the freedom to be flâneurs the way men did. So I gave up the idea of reading the concept together with the literature because I didn’t have the tools at that point to speak back to that perspective. It was only after I finished my PhD that I went back to the idea and saw a way to get around these objections, which seemed to me to be accurate for a particular time, place, and class of women, but limited in terms of the way women wanted to use the city, and frequently did, and increasingly did, as they gained more freedoms within it. I also didn’t want to solidify a teleological reading of the development of women’s access to public space, because for all the social freedoms we’ve gained, women still can’t walk in the city the way men can.
Rumpus: That’s so true. Every woman I know has her own stories of street harassment, and sometimes sharing them doesn’t even incite anger; it’s just paralyzing. I’m reminded of the frustrated, impotent refrain in Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions and Everything, “I’m going to kill a man some day,” spoken repeatedly in response to harassment. (It’s amazing how many men I’ve come across who find that line threatening. All the girls have is words while the men come at them with weapons, and it’s we who are scary.)
There’s a brief discussion of harassment in the book prompted by the Ruth Orkin photograph you include, but I heard you say you’d had to cut a larger section on the subject from the text. Can I ask what you’d included in this section? And if you have any advice about how to balance fearful reactions to intimidation with a refusal to succumb to the fear tactics that have too long kept women off the streets?
Elkin: Ah that’s a great line, I really want to read Sarah Schulman. Laura Maw, who also wrote a great essay on women walking in Hazlitt, turned me on to her. There’s also that section in Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, where she describes the way people “helpfully” try to reconcile her gender with the dangers of walking at night in her neighborhood in San Francisco:
I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils.
I think I’ll still publish the excised section as a standalone essay, but essentially the idea was to confront male readers (who may not be aware) with the very real facts of what women face when they walk down the street, and to allow female readers some reassurance that they’re not alone, that it happens all the time. Because my book is so much about visibility, it was important to me to make visible the kinds of abuse women encounter walking alone in the city. So I made a kind of catalog of the times I myself have been assaulted, and then included the stories my friends have told me. Then I was going to leave a page blank to suggest the list goes on, and will go on, unless we do something to change the way people think about this. Here’s a brief excerpt:
So that time a man came up behind me and put his hand up my skirt between my legs in full daylight on the Rue d’Ulm?
How about the time a man threw a (full) water bottle at me at Bastille?
Or the time a man followed me home from République?
Or the time a twelve-year-old boy pushed me into the hood of a car in Southeast London?
The reason I had to cut the section was that it threatened to take over the book. There’s just so much to say. But it comes down to the fact that we need to cultivate basic human respect for one another so we’re all safe on the city streets, no matter what our gender.
Rumpus: Do you think it’s fair to say that flâneuserie, to use the term you coined in the Paris Review, is more political than traditional/white men’s flânerie? I’ve always been struck by the lengths some flânerie guides go to in order to find ways to make their act subversive. Marginalized groups need only step out of the door.
Elkin: Flânerie is always political, but the flâneuse is more aware of this. She has to be. She’s not allowed not to be. If you’re born into the center of the culture you can fetishize the margins, but if you’re born on the margins you have to do what you can to get along. Woolf, in her 1927 essay “Street Haunting,” attempts to stride right past the issues of gender and claim the street as an anonymous walker. Cléo, in Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, has her horizons widened by her walk through the city, which eventually brings her into contact with a soldier leaving for Algeria. Varda films them in parallel to each other for the rest of the film. His situation is no more politicized than hers because he’s going to war; she’s got to fight a “battle” of her own (to use a metaphor for her cancer; sorry, Susan Sontag).
Rumpus: You write quite early on in the book’s introduction to flâneuse-ing, “Once I began to look for the flâneuse, I spotted her everywhere,” and this has definitely been my experience after reading. Whether I’m looking around me on the streets, or looking through books and films and art, I’m finding examples all over the place, and it’s wonderful. The women you choose to feature in your book clearly have great personal significance and work so well to support the ideas and experiences you raise in the book. I was wondering, though, if are there any flâneuses you left out that are important to you, or any examples you’ve come across since finishing the book that you wished you’d been able to include?
Elkin: I had only read a little of Etel Adnan’s work when I was writing and didn’t have time to get to her books Of Cities and Women and Paris, When It’s Naked, which I’m reading now. I wish I’d been able to write about Hope Mirrlees, who wrote the most amazing poem called “Paris” in 1919, believed by some modernist scholars to have inspired “The Waste Land.” Originally I had a chapter on Nella Larsen planned but once each chapter had to tie in some way into my own walking in cities that chapter had to go. It felt really politically and ethically questionable to be writing about “passing” when as a white women living in the United States and France the only “passing” I’ve ever had to do is try to pass for French. I wanted to write a lot more about the modern girls movement in 1920s Tokyo but that had to go as well.
I had to face the fact that I could only write about so many women in one book. I had only so much time to write it, and readers have only so much time to read it! So I hope that it will spur women in other contexts and situations and cultures to write about flâneuserie and the constraints and freedoms they face in the city.
Rumpus: One of my favorite things about the book—and this goes back to what you said earlier about refusing to pretend omniscience, and to what you’ve just said about deciding not to write about Nella Larsen—was that it did seem aware of its limitations while offering so much. There is a white/Western focus to a lot of the examples you give, but you did leave space to acknowledge the ways in which the study of the flâneuse could, and surely will, progress in different cultural directions. The situation of women further afield in Tehran and Mumbai, for example, and more stories of immigrant experiences. Is there anything in particular you hope to see develop from your project in the future? Are you hoping someone will write that Nella Larsen essay?
Elkin: Oh definitely! Maybe it’s because I’m an academic but I really saw this project as part of a collective attempt to make visible women’s experiences in cities, whatever form they might take. I hope my publishing this book inspires other work in this area, for sure. In my new role at the University of Liverpool I’m putting together some funding bids to encourage not only academic research in this area but public engagement with cities and issues of mobility, the experience of urban space, our everyday roles in creating the cities we want to live in.
Rumpus: That sounds fantastic. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Lauren! I’ll end with a few quick questions, if that’s okay. Who was your favorite flâneuse to write about, or who’s had the most impact on you personally, if there is just one?
Elkin: Martha Gellhorn, for sure. Maybe it’s the time in my life but she’s the one I identify with the most, in terms of her difficulty settling down somewhere and committing to a family life. I was most inspired by her willingness to go anywhere, to write about anything, even when it made her look bad, and by her intense, deep empathy, which led her to write about people and places “from the ground up.” Not talking to the Important People but the everyday people on the street, asking them what their lives were like.
The Rumpus: What projects are next for you?
Elkin: I’ve just finished an odd flâneuse-y book about a year of riding the buses in Paris, and I’m determined to finish my second novel by year’s end. I’m putting together my thoughts for a book about women writing war, which basically emerges from the Gellhorn chapter in Flâneuse. And I’m also translating Michelle Perrot’s History of the Bedroom for Yale UP!
The Rumpus: Fantastic. And, finally, you’ve spent time in some of the world’s most iconic cities. Where would you love to flâneuse in the future?
Elkin: The next cities on my list are Lisbon, and Copenhagen, and Sarajevo, and Tbilisi, and I want to go back to cities I love like Tokyo, Marseille, Naples, Berlin… And I want to spend more time walking in my own cities of Paris and New York. They’re inexhaustible!
Author photograph © Marianne Katser.