The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Kate Zambreno
Put simply, I’ve had my eye on Kate Zambreno’s electric talent for a long time. She and I have followed strangely similar publishing trajectories, for starters. Both from Chicago (Zambreno grew up in Mount Prospect, a suburb; I’m from the city), her debut novel, O Fallen Angel, came out on Chiasmus Press shortly after my own debut, My Sister’s Continent—both novels also explored the legacy and mythology surrounding female hysteria. Only a few years later, Zambreno’s second novel, Green Girl, was picked up by Emergency Press, which had just published my collection, Slut Lullabies. Already a risqué darling among women bloggers, Zambreno soon began to accumulate serious literary cachet; Bookslut, for example, raved: “What she does—better than anyone I know—is hold the mirror up not only to the green girl, but to all the rest of us, too.”
In her third book, Heroines, a genre-defying battle cry about forgotten and suppressed women in literature (as well as her role in the gendered story of her own life), Zambreno’s mirror is more relentless and reflective than ever. A scholarly treatise for readers who never cared about scholarship, and a memoir for those who have had enough with the insularity of simple confession, Heroines synthesizes the raw passion of a diary with the relevance and scope of nothing less than the history of literature. As 2012 nears a close, I’m hard-pressed to think of a book I’ve read this year that obsessed me more in the moment, rippled out as much into my daily life and conversations, or left more powerful aftershocks.
The Rumpus: My favorite quote, out of a book I marked the living hell out of with a red marker, underlining things on almost every page, is this: “To be a woman, perhaps, is always to be a foreigner.” It’s an incredibly provocative and evocative line. Yet women are fifty-two percent of the human population. How is it possible that, even now, a group that makes up the majority of the species can remain the perpetually foreign Other? Can you walk us through this line, and explain what you mean…which seems, really, to encapsulate much of what the rest of the book, through rigorous scholarship as well as intimately confessional memoir, goes on to interrogate?
Kate Zambreno: I love the idea of your furious marginalia—love the idea of a book being transformed by your own remarks, to become this dialogue. I drop that line, I believe, at the beginning of the work, when I am narrating moving to Akron, Ohio, with my partner John, a rare-books librarian, mostly to detail my voluptuous sense of alienation, and how I explicitly felt marked as an outsider/foreigner, mostly because of my extremely short hair and the fact that my uniform at the time veered into what I might lovingly call butch-witch. So the idea of being stared at, of being aware of myself from the outside, of cultivating that…the concept of the girl or woman as foreigner is basically the main idea of my novel Green Girl, which centers around an American girl in London, based partially on my own feelings of foreignness while living abroad, conflating that as well with what it’s like to be a girl walking down the street. And with all of this I’m engaging directly with Simone de B in The Second Sex, the idea of “Otherness” as a category of human thought, the idea that to be marked as Woman from the outside is a sort of doubled subjectivity, perhaps a way of living in bad faith. One can transcend that state, of being less aware of being looked at, or needing to be witnessed. I think for a woman, getting older can help, through personal experience, although of course older women are then rendered invisible in our society, another existential crisis.
This is not just in gender, of course, this experience of being Othered in a given society; it’s the effect of a way of thought that’s hierarchical and produces strangers and strangeness in those not seen as normative—to be queer, transgendered, non-white, fat, differently-abled, to be anything that’s not marked on the outside as normal. Simone de B and Frantz Fanon both rereading and furiously writing in Sartre’s margins—and asking post-WWII how a white woman or a black man can be differently marked from the outside, viewed by their stereotypes, and how that experience of awareness can produce this sense of doubling, this being hyperaware at times of one’s bodyness, or one’s beauty or ugliness. That’s why I still think there’s a feminine condition to be written about (although of course there’s not one singular female experience, there are a chaotic multiplicity of them, all needing to be told). I think, however, the condition of being a woman, or at least a girl, is being aware how one is viewed from the outside. That John Berger line from Ways of Seeing I quote from in Green Girl—that a girl is always almost hyper-aware of herself, she sees herself weeping at the funeral of her father.
Rumpus: Heroines alternatively seduced me, challenged me, and infuriated me. I was obsessed with it—I e-mailed friends about it and babbled about it on telephone calls. It was, without question, one of the most compelling texts I’ve encountered this year—relentless in its exploration of the ways women have been marginalized in the history of literature, and the social implications of that history. It’s a subject I thought I knew a lot about, and yet there were many things in here I didn’t know. Much of the book grew out of your blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, but did you have to do extensive research once you knew you planned to write this book? Or had you already investigated and unearthed so much about the lost female voices of Modernism—among other things—that you were able to just sit down and let this stuff pour out? The tone of the book feels extremely raw, beautifully fragmented, subversively poetic…it doesn’t read like something that was written in tandem with researching “facts” and then finding ways to get them in there. How long did it take you to write Heroines, and was the process as fast, furious, and raw as it reads?
Zambreno: Wow, thank you. It’s really gratifying, that experience of feeling read, especially when you have been working in a vacuum on a project. The genesis of the book actually began years before I ever started the blog, which I’ve been keeping rather sporadically now for about three years. I started reading for this project about seven to eight years ago, when I began inhaling the work of modernist women writers and, then, their biographies. It began when John and I lived in London, in the first year of our marriage, reading Anna Kavan, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, for the first time, and then continued upon moving back to Chicago, where I began reading the biographies of the wives: Zelda, Vivien(ne), also the biographies of their husbands. It was a complete possession and obsession, which intersected exactly with what Virginia Woolf might call my “apprenticeship” as a writer, which existed in those beginning years in constant journaling.
For years and years I carried these notebooks around with me—I had hundreds of pages of notes, these fragments that consisted of biographical anecdotes, diary passages, critical rants, agitations, scenes of my marriage. At the time, I framed the work as a fictional notebook called Mad Wife, somewhat in the mode of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina or Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, but inspired by the journals of Sylvia Plath, Viv Eliot, Jane Bowles. The notebook authored by an anonymous woman with a husband name John (cue “The Yellow Wallpaper” reference), who feels literally like she’s possessed with the mistresses and madwomen of Modernism. Possessed like Sylvia Plath’s dybbuk, the soul of a former suicide. I began the blog as a way to try to further notebook these ideas, when I began to reread and think about the texts of the male Modernists and how the figure of the hysteric or madwoman was rendered within them.
About two months into writing the blog, Chris Kraus contacted me about writing a book about the women of Modernism for Semiotext(e). She was reacting to these long, vomitous pieces I was writing about Modernism on the blog. I began working on the book that would become Heroines, simultaneously while going through two book tours in two years for my first two novels. The blog changed into more of a diary, a reflection on being a published writer, meditations that formed some of the end of the book. Writing Heroines, writing a book on assignment, was a tormented process for me—I went through at least three major rewrites in two years. It was my consumptive, constant thing I was doing: writing, rewriting, rereading. I mean, the first draft I turned in to Chris, which I worked on for an entire year, was an almost 100,000 word manuscript adapted from these blog posts, that were quite bloggy. That’s what I thought she wanted. It was all quite contemporary and thoroughly a hot, hot mess. I met with Chris during my first rewrite and she wanted me to only keep the first couple of chapters (at the time, there were chapters)—which were taken almost verbatim from this Mad Wife manuscript. Almost the entire Part One of Heroines is based on the frame for the novel, and in a way, is the novel. Part Two, set in the South, and looking at what happens in the Fitzgerald marriage as a central case study, ending with a meditation on the contemporary, is almost all new material I wrote in that solid year I was rewriting for the second and third time. Almost none of it, except for some scenes and lines, originated on the blog.
For the book, for all the manifestations of the book, I read constantly. And by the time of the second-to-last rewrite, shut up in a loft in Durham, North Carolina in January, with no teaching work on the horizon, I read at least one hundred books—theory books, biographies of even marginal figures, I reread everything; I took five legal pads of notes rereading Foucault’s History of Madness, I had one-thousand pages typed of research notes. I mean, I thought for a while, since I was on Semiotext(e), I had to be like Deleuze and Guattari, or at the very least a whipsmart doctoral candidate. Then I realized that I had to keep it vernacular, personal, deeply felt—that this was a weird idiosyncratic form of scholarship. And finally, though, for the desired rhythms, I had to depart from the research and just write, not even referring to notes. Part One was worked on and worked through for so many years that that’s probably why it has that sense of incantation, which was intended, as that section I wanted somewhat modeled on the sense of voices and possession in “The Waste Land.” Part Two, which is more of a collage work, somewhat channeling the spirit of a Tumblr, or a fragmented notebook, was also rewritten over and over. So, I guess, sometimes, if I discovered something through blogging, that made its way into the book, it did feel like that glorious sensation of automatic writing (Feel, then Write, then Push Publish on Blogger). And there are some sections (Chris called them “biographical rants”) where I did feel like I was channeling something. I mean, I think the whole book is about channeling, is about me feeling like I was channeling. But the labor, the labor—was actually quite slow and painful. Any ease is deceptive.
Rumpus: I kind of want to get my only…I guess, “negative” response to the narrative, out of the way, which had to do with a kind of frustration that this was being narrated by such an obviously brilliant woman writer, who had opportunities and privileges that were clearly not afforded to women in the Modernist era, and yet that that narrator—you—seemed to continually walk willingly into situations that clipped your wings, and then express a kind of feminist outrage about it, you know? And maybe some of my response to that had to do with my own experiences as a younger woman/writer, too. Like you, I followed my (male) partner around for his academic career early in the relationship…like you, I lacked a terminal degree and was chronically underemployed, often anxious to the point of debilitation, and spent a lot of time thrashing around in angst rather than actually writing. I mean, I could go on here about similarities, but I guess my point is that sometimes what gets most under our skin in terms of agitation is recognition, and I felt like I recognized my young self in much of your story and was sometimes angry at what I saw. No one had forced me to follow a lover across the country and live in a rural town. No one had forced me not to pursue a degree that would offer me more gainful employment. No one was forcing me not to write more, when in fact I had scads of free time. I had a huge crisis after getting married, where—like you—I had fantasies of running off, being Anaïs Nin so to speak, having affairs…yet no one had forced me to marry, and most of my female friends, in fact, did not marry as young as I did.
I ended up feeling at times, reading your story, as though women like you and I have had opportunities never afforded to the so-called “hysterics” or “madwomen” of Modernism, and ultimately we both have taken those opportunities—but as younger women, it seems we both struggled with a kind of scripted identity as “wives” or as self-destructive Girls, obsessed with the melodrama of our own oppression or ruin. Sometimes I felt it was unfair or wrong to compare women like us to Zelda or Vivien(ne) or Dora or what have you…that it was grandiose to view our choices as similar to their forced institutionalizations or the externally imposed erasure of their stories. So before I even talk about all the things I love about Heroines, I guess what would you say to that kind of skepticism…to the reader who might see your plight as a young woman as just, you know, a privileged white girl with a good education, making excuses? Like, if you want to have your affair, honey, go have it. If you want to leave Akron (or in my case, Hanover, New Hampshire), leave. Fuck all that and write your book. Live free. What’s stopping you?
Zambreno: I really like Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism,” that she sees as an aspect of our national identity—the choosing to stay in a sort of stuckness because we always convince ourselves something is going to change. The state of “cruel optimism” has a personal as well as a gendered slant—I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s why Friedan’s Smith-educated housewives milled in miserabilism and martinis. This is the essence of that old saw, “the woman question”—how is a woman, who has been trained to be self-sacrificing, to lose herself in love, to not want to be alone—how can she shake off the effects of such training and be free? This is the “double bind”—we want to be free, we want to be LOVED. I have sacrificed for love. I have been aware of this sacrifice. I have written a book trying to agitate around and expose these ideas of sacrifice.
But I think the real effects of oppression is silence—is not writing—which I think is a re-occurring theme in Heroines, as I look at the mad wives and mistresses as more contemporary versions of the muted hysterics. I have never been ultimately silenced in my relationship with John. I might complain in the work about not writing, about feeling agonized about not writing, because I cannot deal with isolation, about feeling a sense of block, but obviously, even if you were going to regard Heroines as somewhat fictionalized, the notebook is the work, the writing about not writing is the work. I have been incredibly prolific as a writer in my relationship with John. I was not a novelist before I met John. We encouraged each other, absolutely. For me, encouraging his career meant picking up and moving to where he wanted to go to graduate school, for his first posts after graduate school. These moves were not without some bitterness and reflection to power inequities.
But except for the idea of my mental stability being jeopardized by our constant moves, a pattern we have only just realized, and in our personal life are trying to fix, John has been pretty empowering. He’s theoretically quite feminist, even though it doesn’t always come through in practice (I would also charge myself with that—theory is so different from messy lived-in practice). He has always encouraged me to teach less, to work less, so I could write. My writing has always been considered extremely important, even though I make slim-to-no money at it, and we were broke, living paycheck to paycheck for the majority of our decade together. He always encouraged me to get a terminal degree, if I wanted to. I actually applied to Ph.D. programs two years in a row—I didn’t get in anywhere, but John would have moved with me if I did. Likewise, if I really wanted to go have sex with someone else, John would probably deal with it. We’ve talked about this before. The problem is, with graduate school and affairs, I’m just too lazy. I wish I could be someone that has wild affairs—all of my favorite nonfiction novels are about these wild affairs and postmarital agonistes—but to be honest, I’m someone that doesn’t deal well with instability. All of my wildness is in the writing. I have discovered I have to be orderly and boring in my personal life to be wild in my work, to reword Flaubert. It is only through having a stable loving partnership that I began to feel in control enough to attempt a strict writing discipline, to realize something I always knew was simmering underneath. And the book, the writing, has always been the thing. We have an extraordinarily open relationship. We talk about everything. I wrote this book, which puts him I think somewhat in a vulnerable position—a book that he was the first reader and indefatigable editor on, a book he believes in, and he never told me to change a single thing.
I do say in Heroines that John and I, with our constant moves for academic posts, are more like the generation that came after the Modernists: Mary McCarthy moving to Chicago for the summer so Edmund Wilson could take the temporary post at University of Chicago, Elizabeth Hardwick moving to Iowa for Robert Lowell. I think Heroines is partially about the transatlantic Modernists as a fantasy, a mythology, and moving and the constant strain of moving is a repeated rhythm in the book. I was moving around and giving up jobs for my husband, all while making a living teaching women’s studies. Part of Heroines is exploring this irony, of sometimes feeling like I was playing the self-sacrificial wife role, of choosing to occupy the subaltern, the economies of all of this, while considering Elizabeth Hardwick’s idea that the wife should sacrifice to the literary genius, in her essay on Zelda Fitzgerald. But I do think in terms of mental health, one can compare a wife depressed at home with the hysterics’ and the mad wives’ treatment. I think, in some ways, we are just talking about different levels of confinement. Substitute Xanax cocktails for hydrotherapy and a rhythm of the rest cure. We don’t institutionalize as often anymore, mostly for insurance reasons, but when I had my post-college freakout, my psychiatrist at the time wanted to commit me. I have been on that brink many times, before John. And a lot of the way privileged women who have broken down have been treated, even now, ties into Victorian ideas of moral insanity—that it’s their fault, they need to shake out of it, they need to adjust. I mean, god, if you’re a privileged white girl, why are you so depressed, right? People are depressed for many reasons, one of which I think is how we have been taught to react to trauma, to stress. I go under, I hide, I implode. I always have. I do think this has a gendered component.
Also, to be isolated at home, to be bored, to sometimes forget an identity outside of the daughter/wife role—I think this is definitely what afflicted the wives of the Great Men of their generation, as well as the Viennese dutiful daughters. I am just mirroring this, and in some ways, it’s because of the sense of projection and possession through the process of reading, another concept in the book. I think the hysterics became ill because that was the only socially accepted way to freak out, to rebel, to abandon one’s role. They were also fucking bored. Madame Bovary is one of the major narratives in Heroines that I am sending up and paying tribute to—I imagine the first Mrs. Eliot and Mrs. Fitzgerald as Bovary’s of a sort, suffering from Madame Bovary’s disease (“until other, more ominous ones were diagnosed and even more ominously treated”). And I send myself up rather ridiculously as a Madame Bovary stuck in the provinces in Akron, developing an addiction to historical romance novels. I mean, it’s a frame in the book. But regardless of my fears of passivity, I actively transcend the passive fate of these women (these wives especially who never surrendered their love or sense of sacrifice for their husbands)—my agitation against any accepted written identity through writing the book is my rebellion. An early review of the book really focused on how I kind of luxuriate in the personal narrative—and suggested that I should read a newspaper, because people are more concerned about the economy then these ridiculous concerns as to gender inequity in society, as manifested in marriages, in the mental health system, and then in literature. But to me the book is intensely political, and my rage and sense of alienation as to how women have been written, have allowed themselves to be written, in so many ways, has political roots. Also, I’m questioning what it means to be a woman writer in our society—for I am home because I am a writer, but sometimes, when I’m not productive (productivity: the expectations of capitalism), I feel like a terrible housewife, or a sick person. There’s a sense of play about all this in the book, how it moves and is mired in gender roles.
Rumpus: There’s a moment in the book when your husband John says to you, “I erase you. That’s the worst thing I can do, is erase you.” It was a fascinating moment for me because on the one hand, John seems—in the text and what you’ve just said here—to have been enormously supportive of you, a genuinely great guy and creative collaborator. In other ways, he seems to have been codependent in the way of many young couples, which isn’t unusual…but in that moment, this moment of believing—buying into the belief—that he has the power to erase you…well, I was troubled. I wondered whether sometimes this kind of thinking only serves to make a man feel more powerful than he really is, and whether the belief in their own patriarchal power, while on the surface a shameful and awful thing to a sensitive modern man, ultimately can be ego-stroking and gratifying in some ways. Does that make sense? John wasn’t Fitzgerald or something—he was just a young guy early in his teaching career, living in a small town…did he really have the power to erase you? I mean, wow—what a rush for a man…do you see what I mean? You exist only because of my evolved political consciousness and my choice to hear you rather than erase you. Fuck, what a…creepy turn-on for young men to believe themselves that all-powerful. When really, you don’t seem terribly erasable to me.
Is this kind of thinking—I mean, how does the John of Now see those early dynamics, I wonder? How do you see them? Does every man in a relationship with a woman always need to be…cautious in this way? Is male power always such a given and underlying force in every relationship? Is it our male lovers’ responsibility not to erase us—are they still so goddamn powerful that we have to rely on their magnanimity in order to have our voices heard?
Zambreno: I think you’re being more than a little unfair to John (which might have something to do with how the husband character named John is represented in the book, which is and is not him), although I admire the righteous indignation in your question. To try to answer your question, Heroines is an extremely referential text—it lives on and builds and breathes through so many other literary works—and in Part One I am deliberately playing with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as well as “The Game of Chess” section of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” while also meditating on the editing notes Viv Eliot and Ezra Pound marked on this section. So in the long sections where I flashback to the rather apocalyptic fights John and I had in the early years, I am both borrowing the language of the messy marital feud in “The Game of Chess,” as well as collaging this with a close intimate reading of that section of the epic poem, as well as a fragmented biography of the real-life couple, all mirroring this with our own marriage. The claustrophobic domestic space in “The Game of Chess,” Vivien(ne)’s voice: “My nerves are bad. Yes. Bad. Stay with me.” Etc. That gorgeous repetitive rhythm that builds to hysteria. I am poeticizing, as well as documenting the almost mythic marital feud—how we are setting each other on fire and making everything worse—the roles we play in that. And I am reflecting on, when we had these early fights, how John would become quite masculine, stoic, cold, and that would actually instigate me to become a screaming harpy, throwing things, becoming a demon woman. And I am trying to write to how even though I am exhibiting the obvious violence, the paternalism, the silent treatment, is actually a method of discipline and control, and ultimately its own kind of violence.
Eliot’s original title for “The Waste Land”—“He Do the Police in Different Voices.” But some of that is theatricalizing—I make quite plain in Heroines, that the experience of reading the bios of these subjugated women was becoming a head trip, that I was projecting onto John these domineering qualities. We were playing, in the ways we fought and dealt with conflict, with these mythical roles (which I think are the poison of the gender binary). There’s that line in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a send-up and satirizing of traditional male-female roles in the 19th century: “John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.” I quote from this in Heroines, to describe an accelerating process in our fights (which have become more rare). That is the erasure I’m describing. The immediate intimate erasure of the day, when I am too furious and upset, and I cannot write, while John manages to keep himself. I see this happening in the relationship with the Eliots. Vivien(ne) catalyzed Tom—as Virginia Woolf wrote, he was one of those poets who lived by scratching and she was his itch—she catalyzed this magnificent hysterical work, while he somehow saved himself. She lost herself. She went mad. She was lost.
I think John’s comment about the knowledge that masculine rhetoric and disciplining is a form of erasure (the transcript between the feuding Fitzgeralds) is quite self-aware and empathetic—he’s acknowledging power roles, also acknowledging the effects of violence, his role in it, even though he is often the sober, sane one in our conflicts. The John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” points his finger at his wife and says, “You need to control yourself, you need to behave.” John is recognizing his role, he is trying not to demonize me. When I get too worked up about things I have always escaped into catatonia—which I describe in the book. He’s reacting to that specific, daily erasure. The erasure of depression. The going inwards.
And obviously the difference between me and John and these Modernist marriages is that as opposed to Paul Bowles or Eliot or Fitzgerald making use of the “marriage material,” it is me in Heroines who is making John (with his full collaboration and consent) a character, who is using and analyzing scenes from our marriage to look at the way that masculine rhetoric can be a form of violence. The book is the power. This is the subversion. The narrator in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick sets about to solve heterosexuality. I guess that is part of my project, as well. Or really I’m exposing faultlines, dealing especially with rhetoric. Showing that heterosexuality is a disease, or at least its inheritance.
Rumpus: As you know, my first novel was inspired by Freud’s “Dora” case study, and you have aspects of this in your debut novel—also published by Chiasmus Press, whose co-founder, Lidia Yuknavitch, now has a novel called Dora, too. It would be fair to say that the hysterics have exercised fairly enormous power over the feminist imagination. One of my favorite moments in Heroines is your interrogation as to whether or not Hélène Cixous, who is a kind of foremother of the feminist lens on hysteria, simply “valorizes” Dora and does “not appreciate her suffering,” as the theorist Catherine Clement argues. I see novels like Yuknavitch’s Dora as very much continuing Cixous’ position of asserting that Dora “is the name of a certain force, who makes the little circus not work anymore” and insisting that “Dora broke something.” I think my own work, and yours, perhaps leans more towards Clement’s direction.
You write, “What did these women break except themselves? They who were ultimately contained.” You’re clearly captivated by the significance of the hysterics’ stories, as am I, but you don’t seem to be mythologizing them as revolutionary heroines. I think of the fact that Ida Bauer, the real “Dora,” was, when interviewed years after she terminated her therapy with Freud, proud and boastful of having been one of Freud’s clients, and that she remained afflicted by severe physical ailments, had become deeply embittered, and ultimately died young. Ida’s possible bisexuality or her rejection of Herr K or her refusal to let Freud define her…if these things were acts of rebellion at all, precisely, they did not alter the course of the rest of her life. No patriarchy seems to have been disturbed. It seems, rather, to have been an example of the way female violence is perpetually turned inward, as you discuss elsewhere in Heroines. Given all this, why do you think the hysterics continue to fascinate and compel us? What is it about their truth that remains genuinely important and instructive to young women?
Zambreno: I love everything you say here. I also love Clement and Cixous’s sniping at each other in The Newly Born Woman—it is one of my favorite exchanges ever. I think, like with the narrative of Zelda, our fascination as writers with Freud’s female case studies deals with language. In Heroines I compare the male-authored Modernist novel to the psychoanalytic case study, in both it is his words written about her suffering. She does not get her own narrative. Or if she does, hers is read with suspicion, his is dominant. So perhaps we are always filling in the gaps, trying to imagine her story… I think the experience of madness is a form of revolt. Or it contains this potential. I definitely think it can break something—it disturbs the order of the day, the good daughter becomes wild and angry. But the language of psychiatry immediately contains, takes back up. The Freudian hysterics’ rages, agitating somehow against the oppression of the family, are described as “absences,” that she is absent herself. He takes down her confession—he names and contains her, he wants to place her back in her role in the bourgeois family—this also happened with Zelda: her reeducation training in the Swiss asylum, how to go back to being a good mother and wife. And the experience of madness is not ultimately a successful rebellion, even if can disturb the order, the placid smiling mask ripped off, Frances Farmer kicking and screaming, putting down “Cocksucker” as her career. She is seized. She is medicated. She suffers, intensely.
I think the mad wives and mistresses are my hysterics—even the fictionalized ones. I want to trace how they were silenced, I want to find for them an escape route. When compared to Vivien(ne), Zelda is more of a victor than a victim (to use one of Elizabeth Hardwick’s categories in her case studies/critiques in Seduction and Betrayal). She fought, she used language to insist on her sovereignty as a person and as a writer. She lost, but at least she fought. And the book, Save Me the Waltz still survives, in all of its unedited glory, hurried as if to somewhat avoid the censoring machine that was going to kick in full force later. Vivien(ne) might have fought, but ultimately her whole identity was about being Mrs. Eliot, and she despaired over losing that role.
Rumpus: One fascinating thing about your scholarship and psychological investigation of some of literature’s male pillars concerns a kind of curious chasm or hypocrisy in how male writers like Flaubert and Eliot appropriated emotional excess in their texts, yet believed, at the core, that “art is best if depersonalized.” In some ways this makes little sense, as many of these writers wrote deeply autobiographical work, and most of them were, it seems, every bit as predisposed to excess and instability as their wives and mistresses. Yet they held themselves—and ultimately the women in their lives, who were artists themselves as well as muses—to a kind of impossibly dispassionate standard that caused them to fetishize “hysterical” women in their texts, and draw from such women’s intensity in life, and yet to ultimately marginalize and reject these traits in women as too out-of-control, too unfiltered, and thereby not only dangerous but un-artistic. Can you explain that a bit here…if so many of literature’s Great Men were drunks and bipolars and neurotics, why did they deify the idea of the Dispassionate Artist, and vilify women who suffered from very similar symptoms of “excess” they themselves knew so well?
Zambreno: Yes, it’s a total contradiction, and I really like how you encapsulate it here—I can’t do better—but it’s a huge discovery/movement in the book. If one writes the rules then one can contradict oneself. It’s all about rhetoric, about official narratives. And something I ask in Heroines is—who controls these narratives? Who has historically written the narrative about how someone should behave, the narratives of psychiatry, about how someone should write, the narratives of literature? Eliot’s criticism I think of as defending and controlling how his work was read—his theories regarding how literature should be depersonalized, his condemnation of excessive emotions in literature. This project successfully disciplined and shaped how his work has been read and has also shaped the mainstream literary discourse, even today. It is a preventative measure. “Suppress Everything Suppressible,” he said to his literary executor, about the letters to Emily Hale, about the first marriage—and that I see as such an ethos of literary Modernism. It allows the great male writers to draw from autobiography, such as in Flaubert’s case the details of his love affair with Louise Colet, while distancing the personal, making them seem like genius godheads. I mean, Madame Bovary is one of my favorite works of literature—but why all of this vampirism, this draining of these women’s life stories, while pretending they don’t exist afterwards, these women who also identified as writers? What is the effect of being made a character if you are a writer? (As happened with Zelda, with Jane, with—well, with all of them).
What’s harrowing to me is how endlessly we repeat this demonizing in these biographies that simply repeat past history, and don’t even analyze ideas of mental illness at the time, such as how schizophrenia was such a catch-all for the bad woman, who deviated from her assumed sexuality or wife role, who with her moods or her lack of mores did not behave. Someone who is writing a biography on Fitzgerald wrote me about Zelda: “I mean, though, she was crazy, we can agree on that, can’t we?” It’s amazing. I want every literary biographer to read Foucault on mental illness. And then to read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. So they can stop playing armchair diagnosticians that just send up the already-accepted social order. For, on the whole, most biographies about literary women tend to diagnose them (a big exception is Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf; her chapter on “Illness,” dealing with refusing to use the language of incompetent doctors, is one I read again and again). The biographies of the great men see their excesses as signs of their greatness. But Jean Rhys, in her biography, is read as borderline; Anaïs Nin is borderline; Djuna is borderline; etc. etc. Borderline personality disorder being an overwhelmingly gendered diagnosis. I write in Heroines: “The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize—too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries.”
This all gets at a central inequity in our culture—who has power, who is seen as genius, who gets to name. Also how difficult it was for a woman, once she was named by doctors, to become a writer, because many aspects of her behavior that are accepted in the genius or creative man are regarded as dangerous in the woman. So women in these traditional roles were more oppressed, because their husbands were their fathers and their doctors. But the thing is, women were seen by their very nature as ill. Silas Weir Mitchell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s doctor who popularized the “rest cure,” which her story satirizes, claimed, “The man who does not know sick woman does not know woman.” Intellectual strain was thought to be detrimental to a woman’s nerves; she was encouraged to do nothing, or simply domestic tasks. This was the way they were all framed, once they were taken up. While Eliot could make himself sick over and over again—be put in a sanatorium to deal with nerves, but still allowed to write, because he’s the genius. Eliot and Flaubert were allowed to become geniuses, were considered geniuses by the women in their lives before they actually wrote much, were tended to—treated, yes, but still allowed absolute authority. And freedom. I mean, you write earlier, of John, “He wasn’t Fitzgerald.” But Fitzgerald wasn’t Fitzgerald. He failed a lot before he became Fitzgerald. It was really crucial to these geniuses that their artistic output was considered of primary importance in the family. I think genius can have a lot to do with nerve. And permission.
Rumpus: I was absolutely riveted by the Fitzgeralds as you reveal them. Zelda had her books heavily edited more or less against her will, at Scott’s insistence, because he was threatened by her using any material whatsoever that was similar to his own literary terrain, even though both writers were culling from their own—shared—life, and the material was no less “Zelda’s” than his. He forbids her writing about the Riviera, about psychiatry, about Switzerland. I think about contemporary literary couples—Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer come to mind immediately—where there has been some talk about their material overlapping, and it’s clear that there’s intense literary collaboration and idea-sharing going on behind the scenes, and I feel like—wow, I guess what seems sort of tragic to me is that this driving belief on Scott’s part that a writer had to be a kind of singular Genius sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus…that writing autobiographical material or sharing ideas and art with one’s wife was diminishing, rather than natural and human, and perhaps something that would even add to the reading experience and to the cultural discourse around the books. He believed Zelda sharing any of his material somehow completely discredited him and that she needed to be “stopped,” rather than allowed into the discussion—and it seems to me like much havoc was wrought as a result of the egos and overwhelming insecurity of some of these male writers. Scott says, in a horrifying and mesmerizing transcript of their couples’ therapy, “Her theory is…that a girl has just got to get along, and so she has the right, therefore to destroy me completely in order to satisfy herself.” He views her actions, her art, and her Self as completely about him. He says, “Whether you write or not does not seem to be of any great importance.” It’s harrowing. Doctors and editors agree with him. They not only do, in fact, erase her, but they demand her complicity in her own erasure. Can you talk a bit more about how and why this was possible?
Zambreno: Going back to an earlier question, about excess and the godheads…I mean, the reason they could be excessive while also policing and disciplining and naming the women in their lives as ill is patriarchy. Patriarchy is having the power to name. To put others in the Realm of the Proper, to reword Cixous (I think)—she is my property, she must behave properly. I think of the character of Rochester in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea—he’s raving mad and paranoid, but he names his wife as the ill one, as the immoral one, as the mad one. He has the power to name her, he is the controlling husband; the doctors corroborate, the narratives of mental illness corroborate—these narratives which were so gendered and often about disciplining and punishing those who escaped from their circumscribed role, the laws were not on their side.
So Fitzgerald was able to punish Zelda for veering outside of his preferred territory as muse, confidante, wife, helpmate—his “complementary intelligence,” as he phrased it. All of the institutions of the time were on his side, in terms of what a wife should do, how a woman should act. All those enthralled to the Fitzgerald mythology endlessly repeat that Zelda was schizophrenic, diagnosed by Eugene Bleuler, who coined the term and visited her briefly (Zelda, in turn, called him as an imbecile). Yet Bleuler’s theories tied into all of the 19th century ideas of moral insanity—that Zelda’s “illness” was due to feelings of inferiority and egomania. In order to have a “normal marriage” she needed to give up her “inflated ambitions” and engage in “activities appropriate to her talents and tastes.” And so she is named, she is constantly surveilled, she is warned not to work too much on anything.
I mean, though, you have to wonder, why was he so threatened? It really freaked him out. What was so criminal about Zelda reclaiming her own first-person, taking her own story as her own material? I think she temporarily agitated against the privileged terrain of the novel—the magic of the novelist as spinning narratives and characters out of thin air. For if she was to circle around her same period of breakdown, of being institutionalized in the Swiss asylum—if this was published before Tender, it would somehow ruin the illusion that fiction is not derived from life, the transcendence that Flaubert insisted on (this is what I think finally “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” meant: she was not based on anyone—he created her, she was him, he was possessed by and possessed her). For the female characters in his novels that were based on her, he drew from her diaries, her letters, her spoken language—I think he was terrified of the comparison. He needed to keep her a character, he needed to stay the author. She threatened something. She temporarily disturbed the order of things. He was so jealous of his material—her life. These women are so often written in the legends as vampirizing these husbands—draining them dry. Zelda. The vamp. But I turn it on its head—looking at how they were vampirized, without being immortalized.
Rumpus: You write about Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism of some of the feminist-minded demands or complaints of other women writers of her generation. Hardwick writes about the Twinship of literary couples like Scott and Zelda, yet argues for the necessity of an “amputation,” really. She writes, “Still, only one of the twins is real as an artist, as a person with a special claim upon the world, upon the indulgence of society.” Not only does this seem a bizarre position to me—why couldn’t both be real artists? And why is anyone entitled to a special claim on the world or the indulgence of society?—but it seems a classic example, of course, of members of any oppressed group cannibalizing each other. Often, women—not just in literature but in business, in any field—seemed to believe that only a small handful of “exceptional” women could be granted access to the Boy’s Club, and therefore it was necessary to kick all other women off the ladder and let them fall into the pit…that every woman had to fight for what was perceived as only a few rare spaces at the table. Do you believe this is still happening today? I mean, I think of the way thinkers like Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe seem to have achieved a kind of cultural notoriety for throwing feminism, or women’s issues and women’s writing, under the bus. Is one of the surest ways for a woman to achieve recognition as a serious thinker and writer still to essentially denounce “women” as a group and to seemingly identify more strongly with the myth of the singular male genius?
Zambreno: Elizabeth Hardwick is a major figure I circle around in Part Two, both as a critic and as a writer, twinning her marriage to Robert Lowell with Zelda’s marriage: both of them these Southern women, both who were brilliant writers, who were made into characters (“Lizzie” vampirized as the harridan ex-wife in The Dolphin cycle, her phone conversations and letters taken, unknown to her). I think on some level she’s writing about her former marriage in her essay on the Fitzgeralds, this central relationship in her life. Seduction and Betrayal is a work on literary women and female characters (Sylvia, Zelda, Ibsen’s characters, etc.) that she wrote originally in essays for The New York Review of Books after Lowell had left her for yet another writer, Lady Caroline Blackwood. It is written as all third-person objective, but threaded throughout there’s this covert commentary on her own marriage to a genius. I can’t figure out whether it’s a “tacit act of revenge,” as it’s been characterized, or a tacit acceptance, or maybe more of an ambivalent meditation on literary marriage. It’s such an infuriating yet often brilliant work to me. In it I think maybe she’s accepting that genius is devouring, because Lowell was devouring. But also, Lowell is the mad one, like Zelda (although I think Fitz was equally mad, especially in his breakdown period), so it’s hard to know what she’s really saying. I’ve read the essay countless times. I mean, she was the one who was amputated in her relationship. She was so self-sacrificial in her relationship with Lowell, which was chaotic, sometimes abusive, and often humiliating, especially with his many affairs, a re-occurring sign of his periodic breakdowns. She only wrote her novels before or after her marriage to him. But Sleepless Nights, her novel that she wrote later in life, is one of my favorite works of literature.
Not that she and her contemporary, Mary McCarthy, the brilliant girls, weren’t guilty of girl-on-girl crime. They definitely were. They were murderous to Anaïs Nin, who became too intimate with Edmund Wilson after his divorce from McCarthy. Hardwick’s review of Anaïs Nin’s first, self-published book, that Wilson raved about in The New Yorker, is incinerating. They were also catty towards the mere “wives” of the Partisan Review crowd, like Diana Trilling. They wanted to keep up with the boys. They didn’t want to define themselves as feminists. Well, I think Hardwick did maybe later on in life. But to be a feminist was to complain, to be angry.
That said, I think Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy were absolutely brilliant. I mean, perhaps Hardwick’s sneering ecstatic review of The Second Sex could be seen as the level of reactionary of a Roiphe or a Paglia, but that was an earlier piece she later felt more ambivalent about.
The concept of “girl-on-girl crime” is perplexing to me, and it happens in many ways. There are those, as you said, who refuse to identify with women as a group, preferring the shade of the mythologized men, who want to keep up the status quo. But also, too, in Heroines, I talk about the dismissal of Anaïs Nin and Jean Rhys by many Second Wave feminists, for writing about their selves so nakedly, for writing women that are not entirely empowered. So it’s not only women who proudly don’t identify as feminists who are culpable of this crime (like Mary McCarthy who fumed: “Feminism is ridiculous. Feminists are silly idealists who want to be on top. There is no real equality in sexual relationships—someone always wins”).
Rumpus: It seems to me that we live in a time that’s extremely fragmented on the nature of women’s writing. On the one hand, you write, “Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent,” and you argue—notably from a personal angle when you discuss the reception of (the unnamed) Adam Levin’s debut book contrasted with your own experiences as a writer—that men are still embraced for work that requires ego and ambition, such as a 1,000-page novel, whereas women would likely be castigated and mocked for a similar effort. And yet, that said, while I see truth in that argument, memoir also seems to have become a woman-fueled genre in many ways. Women are the prime readers/purchasers of memoirs, and certainly write many of them, too. Blunt narratives of female sexuality, ranging from Rachel Resnick’s Love Junkie, to Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water seem to pour into the marketplace regularly. I have actually heard male writers remark that if a man wrote an entire book about his sexual excesses, he would be seen as a dull braggart, whereas all a woman has to do to get attention is write about her sex life. (Notably here, I want to say that in my view, male writers like Junot Diaz, Steve Almond and Stephen Elliott are still very much expanding the terrain of male sexuality in literature…but even as a feminist I might agree that a male writer needs to be pretty extraordinarily talented these days to attract an audience for explicitly sexual writing, whereas there is, I think, a certain gawking and fascination whenever women write about sex.) And although I see the recent efforts to pigeonhole so many women writers into the “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction” marketing categories, within the terrain of literary fiction, it’s hard to think of a more ambitious or intellectually challenging trade writer than Jennifer Egan, who ran away with prizes even in a year when she was up against some of the proverbial golden boys of the industry, like Franzen. What do you think about these seeming inconsistencies in the way women are being culturally received right now? Are we in a time of upheaval, in which we seem to be all over the map?
Zambreno: Oh, god Adam Levin. I really have nothing against him. I was so fucking embarrassed when that Bookforum review focused on him like he was an ex-boyfriend of mine—which he is not! He is a peripheral figure I knew from my fuck-up days in Chicago, when we were both starting to be writers. And also the implication that I was, like, so jealous and bitter about his success. That would be inaccurate. Well. Maybe it’s not terribly inaccurate. I don’t think I am. The section when I reference him (without naming him), it’s a woven anecdote in a larger section that’s a meditation on David Foster Wallace’s posthumous treatment in the media, which I view as a canonization, and wondering whether a girl could write and publish a massive book like Infinite Jest. And also thinking about the idea of genius and the canon and how these ideas seem so masculine. In the anecdote, I’m largely sending up and making fun of myself. I find myself boasting to him that I have a novel coming out when I run into him years after knowing him, and he smirks and he’s like, “Yeah, I do too, mine is 10,000 pages,” or however long it is. And mine of course is this eighty-page nervous little novella published by an experimental feminist press. So the section is about ego, and about permission, and about freedom. And I am mirroring myself more with Zelda, who had something approaching the identity of a small-press novelist, versus her husband (Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty). Where I think about the system novels (Pynchon, etc.) that have become so canonized, and that there are few massive literary tomes authored by women that are considered these great genius texts.
I wonder at the sort of permission and ego that’s needed to write that much, and wonder whether women lack that, because of the shame and guilt we are taught to internalize when we write about our own experience, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, we don’t want to be bad—Woolf’s angel in the house, because of the way that we handle rejection. All that nerviness to write a book that fucking size. And to say—I am worthy of being read. I mean, one has to be convinced of one’s genius. I also look at how someone like Fitzgerald reacted to rejection versus Anaïs Nin or Jane Bowles or Vivienne Eliot, who took it so fucking personally—well, because maybe it was personal—and sometimes stopped writing. I don’t think men experience the embargo on channeling the autobiography in their literature. D.F.W. can take the life narratives from those he meets, Fitzgerald can take over his wife’s hospitalization experience as his own material; but they’re almost never accused of not being literary because they’re drawing from real life. Or they pretend it’s all made up from thin air. I find that such a central myth of fiction, that it’s drawn from thin-air—maybe some of the conceptual writers don’t draw from life, but everyone else does. We vampirize others, making others characters, and there’s some responsibility in that.
So I’m asking what prohibits women from writing these massive texts. I also don’t think they are given the freedom—I don’t think these audacious works by women are written, nor are they published. I know for my part Green Girl was certainly not Infinite Jest, but I was rejected from like seventy places and finally was advised to cut the book in half, which I did. No one wanted to publish my big book. I was advised to write more like chick lit, that the work should be short and sweet and manageable. Also, I think with the case of Adam Levin I was analyzing how he was reviewed when his book came out—so much has been written about how women are not reviewed, but less is written about how they are reviewed, what other writers they’re compared to in the bodies of these occasional reviews. Levin was compared to the hyperverbiage of D.F.W., D.F.W. was compared to Melville. I have almost never been compared to male writers in any review. All women. While I’m glad to exist within that tradition, it remains somehow outside of the tradition of the Great Books. Canon, which comes from the Greek for “measuring rod.” It’s all so phallic. These big books.
As for memoir, I think it’s wonderful that there are books like Chronology of Water. I do think it signals a positive upheaval, I do think Lidia is pushing against the memoir form in a powerful way with that book. But I do think that memoirs by women are reviewed differently and considered somewhat outside of the canon. And Lidia’s book was still not published by a trade publication, although published by a good and supportive press. The memoir by women, read by female readers, is considered a market form, not “great literature.” I mean, I view memoir as a marketing category. In Modernism, these genres were more confused. Is Berlin Stories a memoir? Is the entire oeuvre of Henry Miller? The nonfiction novel or literary memoir as authored by women is usually given a much harder time in mainstream criticism—she is reviewed, as opposed to her book being reviewed, often dismissed as being unlikeable (Exhibit A: Sheila Heti; Exhibit B: Chris Kraus). I write in Heroines: “The disgust for Anaïs Nin is the disgust for the girls with their Livejournal.“ I think that still holds true. The existential crisis of Ophelia, as opposed to Hamlet, is not seen as heroic. With fiction, the works of women are often over-interpreted as autobiography, especially when the main character is a woman, especially if she is seen as privileged. With Jennifer Egan, and Zadie Smith, I would counter that they are exceptions, seen as great literature, because they write women and men—they write a panoply of characters, this seemingly entirely fictionalized and androgynous world, which even Woolf held up as the truly transcendent fiction. I think the female first-person is still dismissed, demonized, especially if the book does not end on an empowering note, especially if the main character is perceived as unlikeable, or too privileged.
Rumpus: You write, “The girls I have known whose narratives have never been told—I feel such a responsibility towards them. Towards my former self as well.” I recognize this intense and beautiful sentiment, too. I grew up below the poverty line in urban Chicago and the girls I was raised with—well, there are only two girls I know of from my elementary school class who went to college, and of the entire school there is only one other person I know of from my years there—a guy—who went into any kind of artistic field that would attempt to give expression to our collective experiences. Many of the young women I was raised with were molested, physically abused, raped, introduced to drugs by people far older than themselves—a few OD’d or were murdered while we were all still in our teens. Plenty, of course, also went on to live decent, happy lives, if not lives that exactly encourage them to share their stories of origin with the world. I’ve always felt a great responsibility, and perhaps even what would be called “survivor guilt,” in terms of wanting to explore their stories and voices in my work. And just the other day, I got a piece of fan mail from another writer I know’s mother, who is a high school teacher, and told me that she has been recommending my collection, Slut Lullabies, to the more troubled girls she teaches, and telling them that girls like themselves are the heroines of my stories, and that they have a voice and can tell their own stories, too. It was probably the most gratifying letter I’ve ever received about my writing. Will you talk a little about how you feel your old partner-in-crime, Molly, influenced your writing with her death?
Zambreno: I can imagine how gratifying that letter would be, Gina. I grew up in the much more privileged, lower-middle-class, Catholic, Chicago suburbs, although I always remember my childhood as traumatic, for various reasons; I always felt alienated, outside. After college, where I had a rather spectacular breakdown my senior year, I drifted for years, and identified mostly as a fuck-up. Although I think of this period now as my first training as a writer. Where I met women rather brutalized by life, when I worked on and off at overnight diners, my fellow waitresses supporting countless children; the ones who got abortions and had to go to work the same day; the one who came to work with bruises because her gang-leader boyfriend beat her up; the prostitutes who frequented the diner; the old diabetic ladies who would sit at the counter spooning up their hot chocolate. As well as the string of girlfriends I lived with who identified mostly through being intensely unhappy, like I was, struggling to force ourselves to go to our wage jobs that we felt alienated by, struggling with our toxic love affairs. While knowing, unlike those we worked with at our meaningless jobs with our piggy bosses, we were quite privileged, that we had gone to college, that we could transcend our status, if we could fucking figure out how.
For years I lived rather medicated and muted—I did not possess language to describe my vague feelings of unhappiness, to politicize it, to attempt to transcend it. As I write in Heroines, one of my moments of coming to writing, of needing to write to attempt to create myself, to attempt to absolve and understand my past passivity, came when a girl I loved very much, who I had been estranged from for some time, killed herself. We both went to school together, waited tables together, lived together, diagnosed each other, discussed our various psychotropics, our abnormal psychology (she was a psych major), and did all sorts of drugs together as well. She was so intensely unhappy. I knew this the whole time I knew her. Yet she never communicated it. Not even to me. She was there for everyone else. She was always smiling. She signed her suicide note with a smiley face. This haunted me for years—she was partially the basis for my Dora-daughter, Maggie, in O Fallen Angel, a meditation on female passivity, among other things, the turning violence inwards.
I am writing this other essay now that partially deals with a girl I lived with back in those days who didn’t go to college, who was ten years my senior, a drifter who struggled with mental health issues, as we all did, all mixed up with a twinned obsession with the actress/director Barbara Loden and her film Wanda, and I’m really trying to reckon with ideas of culpability in making someone else a muse. I write in Heroines that making someone else a character can be a way of stealing life from them, but can also be a way of loving, of seeing, of paying tribute. I hope what I do when I draw from other people’s lives is pay tribute. To try to understand what it means in our society to be silenced. To try to understand how class and gender intersect with that. To try to understand how being named and classified within the context of psychiatry can intersect with all that, as well.
Rumpus: I’d like to talk lastly about the blogging community you’ve found, where women encourage and support one another to tell their own truths. You end the book with a battle cry, saying, “If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience…I ask you to fight against your own disappearance. To refuse to self-immolate.” How do you think the next generation of aspiring female writers, growing up with such a vibrant blogging and independent publishing community, will experience their ability to write themselves? Are things deeply improved, or is this still just a tiny corner of the culture, whereas most of what girls are exposed to remains even more hyper-feminized and unrealistically glamorous images of “perfection” than was true for those of us growing up in the 1970s-1990s? What are some of the blogs and books you would recommend for young women who don’t see themselves reflected in the popular culture and are hungry for role models that don’t involve self-immolation?
Zambreno: In terms of reading suggestions, hopefully Heroines serves somewhat as an alternative canon, and I do even have a bibliography in the back of blogs that were in my community while I was incubating the book, like Bhanu Kapil’s blog or Suzanne Scanlon’s blog, whose books I would definitely also recommend. I’ve also since discovered a community of quite brilliant Tumblrs that I would definitely characterize as feminist, often queer but also not entirely empowered, in fact sometimes self-immolating, but circling around this self-immolation. The second part of that quote after self-immolation in Heroines is basically (I don’t have it in front of me)—“or choose to self-immolate, to launch yourself as a glorious spectacle in outer space, to die and resurrect.”
I think the key to writing the truth of our existences, so much of this is being incubated online, is examining the conflicts and the messiness, our sometimes dividedness, dealing with gender and other hierarchies, and also our identities outside of them, deeply personal and yet somehow critical and circumspect. And analyzing our relationship to our bodies and our desires for perfection, how socially circumscribed this perfection is. I mean there’s just a multiplicity of identities online, some anonymous or pseudonymous or heteronymous like Pessoa—a range of genders, posting runway shows while wrangling with queer theory, or grad students writing about depression or shame or issues with eating as well as gorgeous meditations on literature. The hope in literature is that we are allowed to be imperfect, to write of our imperfection, without being overly critiqued for being unlikeable. I think the online space can be a free space, in that we are not reliant online on the publishing industry or readers who just don’t get it. I am curious to see what books will emerge from all this writing online that’s the result of those who grew up pouring their feelings out on Livejournal or Tumblr—excessive, sometimes automatic, sometimes enraged, emotional, while also quite intellectual—or if formal books will emerge at all, if that’s not the point of these unmediated raw spaces. I’m excited by the possibility.