Posts Tagged ‘women’

Invisible Women

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

I got admitted to grad school in the English Dept despite having essentially no undergrad English classes. To compensate, in addition to the regular Grad classes, I was supposed to take a bunch of undergraduate English to make up the deficit. I did take a few of those classes, but then I got bored and decided to leave more of the units for later in the program. Eventually, they got waived — I think because they wanted me to finish and I was taking forever.

I wrote this essay for one of my undergrad grad classes in 2002. The task was to read a series of articles and compare and contrast two of them. If you’re patient or interested enough to read to the end, it’s still relevant today. Perhaps more than ever, actually.

October 7, 2002

My reading journeys take me down diverse paths. Without question, my world expands with every corner turned. Should I find myself at a literary crossroad, I go where I like, secure in the knowledge that I’ve got the road not taken tucked under my arm. I fondly recall Yama, the Pit which I bought because of the cover, a claw-like grasping red hand on a black background. (It proved to be about life in a Russian brothel.) The Man Who Lived Backward, alas, was not so fruitful as the brothel. The Once and Future King succeeds with the life-in-reverse theme as splendidly as the other fails. I followed a Japanese path for some time and discovered a world where small is immensely large. The Popul Vuh introduced me to an underworld of bats and blood and words that transform the English X into a soft and mysterious shh. “Xibalba” still makes the back of my neck shiver.

So, naturally, when presented with the opportunity to read any two essays from a selection grouped by theme, I did what I do in a used book store. I selected the theme I felt I knew least about. In this case, Race and Ethnicity. What, I thought, would a woman of such pale coloration as myself know about issues of race and ethnicity? After all, many would argue that I have neither.

In doing the reading, I met an old friend, Junichero Tanizaki, and found myself once again floating on images of exquisite shape and infinite depth. I admit to broad holes in my literary portfolio, and Carlos Fuentes is one of them. I’m glad to at last make acquaintance with him. Where Tanizaki is all delicacy and shading, Fuentes feels robust and vigorous, even when he’s confessing to youthful uncertainty. And yet, having read these two essays and adored and admired the words and meaning and presentation, I find myself face-to-face with an irony so profound I hardly have the words to express it. Which sparks another confession; I’ve read ahead and now wonder if I’ve cracked like poor F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tanizaki bemoans in phrases of exquisite shape the loss of what is Japanese. Fuentes grapples with his discovery of what it means to be Mexican. These two brilliant essays, crafted by men of genius, let others see with Japanese eyes or feel with a Mexican spirit. They rail against the West and how its whiteness subverts their native souls. It’s hard not to feel the white man’s guilt since both essays put voice to the voracious destroyer that is Western culture. And yet. Neither writer seems the least aware they share a gobbling hunger of their own.

If Tanizaki has correctly captured the Japanese spirit, then Japan is a country without women, for in this essay, women are, quite literally, disembodied objects to be admired in shadow and light and made love to in the dark. He never wonders whether the woman with black-painted teeth chafes in her box of shadowed sex or whether she might want to make love in the light. Fuentes hardly fares better. Gladys from Guadalajuara is a whore who exists without face or identity and even then only while he has a yen for orgasm. In the anti-climax, Gladys ceases to exist. What happens to her Mexican spirit when the razor cut festers?

With every sentence and word, women were the whiteness of this page, unseen and invisible no matter how loudly we shout, “Here I am!”

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Freedom – Rant Alert

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

I am reading Jonathan Franzen’s already acclaimed novel Freedom. I’m not very far along and perhaps my opinion will change, but I confess, so far I am spitting mad.

I’m reading on my iPhone so I don’t know how far I am in terms of paper pages, but I would estimate about 1/20th of the way through. So, really, plenty of time for me to change my mind and admit, perhaps, that I was snookered by the opening pages and Franzen isn’t really clueless.

For anyone who’s been living under a literary rock, Franzen’s novel is 1) hugely anticipated and 2) the subject of controversy unrelated to its merits. Some female writers have pointed out that the New York Times Review of Books seems to privilege white male writers over women and writers of color. They also pointed out that while the NYTRB has reviewed some genre novels they have been exclusively in genres thought to appeal to men — or to put it another way, the NYTRB only reviews popular fiction that is popular with men (regardless of whether women also read the genre which of course, they do). Those two genres are hard core mysteries and thrillers. Why, these authors pointed out, doesn’t the NYTRB like girl-writers and why do to sneer at books that don’t seem to appeal to men? I’m actually not going to comment much on that because its been covered, recovered and misinterpreted by boy-pundits who from what I’ve seen so far have failed, deliberately or otherwise, to understand the point being made.

Anyway, all the hoopla made me decide I would read the dang book to decide for myself if Franzen is indeed a Major Literary Genius. So, I am doing that. I’ve read a lot of books. I went to grad school to learn more about reading books. I studied books with lots of really, really smart people, so it’s not like I’m a dunce about books. I think I’m at the very least an educated judge of literature. I think I can give a moderately informed opinion.

Here we go!

Of course Franzen can write. Doh. The issues I’m having are not related to craft. The issues I’m having are related to a male writer who, so far, seems to think he has something true to say about the female characters in his story.

I didn’t get very far before he’s describing a college-educated woman who is a housewife (there is NOTHING wrong with that), but what he describes is a woman who feels like a man’s idea of what it’s like to be the primary, if not the sole, caretaker of one’s children and family. Which means, I am sorry to say, that many male writers completely fail to understand. The literary canon is chock full of Important Books By Men that purport to say something about women and in fact say much more about what those writers think or wish about women. Worse, the literary canon is full of books that purport to say something about the human condition and in fact represent only the male position.* Real women are obliterated in the pages of these books. Here’s three examples: Madame Bovary, The Grapes of Wrath, Jude The Obscure.

So far, in Freedom, the same obliteration is taking place. The women on these pages are empty. He’s written all around them, describing, giving details of their lives, doling out vignettes and so far I can only say, over and over, as I read, these are not real women. They are a man’s ideas about women. All the big “female” issues are there so far; marriage, children, violence against women and every single one lacks emotional truth. I am sick and tired of reading stories that purport to depict truth about the lives of women and don’t. There are men who can and do. But so far it’s not Franzen.

Like I said, it’s so early in the book and maybe I’ll find out in a bit that somewhere in there Franzen gets around to depicting women in way that doesn’t, once again, misrepresent what it is to be female.

* It’s like all those drug studies that only included men because, gee, women have all that hormonal stuff going on, how abnormal is that? And hey, oops! That drug has lots of unpleasant and deadly effects on women. Who knew? Too bad 51% of the population isn’t normal.

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