Chitra Ramaswamy, Expecting (2016)

chitra ramaswamy, expectingChitra Ramaswamy’s Expecting is, unusually, the memoir of a pregnancy. The book has nine chapters, representing the nine months of pregnancy, taking the reader from the difficulties of morning sickness and secrecy in the first few months right through to childbirth in all its joy and horror. But while many books on expectant motherhood would surely detail the trials and triumphs of a new baby, Ramaswamy ends hers with the birth of her son, focusing purely on the pregnancy; on her “life in tandem” (p. 17). She picks up on this again in her essay for 404 Ink’s 2017 collection Nasty Women, when she notes that her interest purely in pregnancy, rather than motherhood, was seen as “too niche, too risky, too bog-standard, that women are only interested in their pregnancies until the baby comes along, that motherhood eclipses everything, that pregnancy can never be more than a prologue” (p. 166). What these critics of Expecting have failed to comprehend, then, is that pregnancy is surely of interest to everyone, since that is how we all came to be. Furthermore, Ramaswamy makes it very obvious just how little understood pregnancy really is, even by those experiencing it – she feels “estranged from my own body” (p. 28) in the first few months – and therefore is in the same situation as everyone else who doesn’t know what making a child entails. This is a book to tell pregnancy as it is.

Ramaswamy highlights the transferable nature of the experience of pregnancy in Expecting by drawing links between literature and expectant motherhood, looking at everyone from James Joyce and Marcel Proust to Margaret Atwood and Nan Shepherd.  Writers I hadn’t previously heard of are also mentioned by Ramaswamy, such as Kate Clanchy who has written poetry on her own experience of pregnancy. Clanchy’s work is relatable for Ramaswamy, who “saw the world in my womb” (p. 41) just as Clanchy had. Pregnancy as a metaphor for artistic creation is also touched upon, reinforcing that the writing of this memoir required work (labour?) from Chitra Ramaswamy, just as creating her son did.

 

 

 

Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (2015) & Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front (2010)

carrie brownstein hunger makes me a modern girlSleater-Kinney guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein’s 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl only uses the word feminist a few times but it is very clearly the story of Brownstein’s support of women, as well as the story of her own life. She devotes an entire section of the book to the eye-rollingly sexist reviews that Sleater-Kinney have received in the past:

“fortunately their frequent lyrical challenges to gender roles didn’t devolve into rote male-bashing” (p. 170) Washington Post 1998
“chicks” (p. 168) CNN 1999
“boy rock critic’s wet dream” (p. 169) City Pages 2000

Brownstein also brings up an idea that permeates women’s writing, that it must be autobiographical, and describes how this affects songwriters:

“Musicians, especially those who are women, are often dogged by the assumption that they are singing from a personal perspective. Perhaps it is a carelessness on the audience’s part, or an entrenched cultural assumption that the female experience can merely encompass the known, the domestic, the ordinary. When a woman sings a nonpersonal narrative, listeners and watchers must acknowledge that she’s not performing as herself, and if she’s not performing as herself then it’s not her who is wooing us, loving us. We don’t get to have her because we don’t know exactly who she is. An audience doesn’t want female distance, they want female openness and accessibility, familiarity that validates femaleness. Persona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman, more distant and unknowable, and thus threatening.” (pp. 165-166)

Outside of its feminist statements, Brownstein’s memoir is a beautifully written tale of creating a band from a broken relationship. It is wonderfully personal, detailing Brownstein’s battles with mental illness, allergies, and back problems. The ending, a heart-breaking story of a pet’s passing, leaves the reader feeling like they know Brownstein as a friend.

sara marcus girls to the frontOn the theme of 1990s Riot Grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney, I’ve also recently read Girls to the Front, a 2010 memoir of the punk feminist movement by Sara Marcus. It is well-researched and, much like Brownstein’s autobiography, a perfect balance between historical fact and personal anecdote. The book begins with personal account of a threat of sexual harassment and Marcus’s subsequent coming to Riot Grrrl through a newspaper article. In parallel with Brownstein’s comments on the subject, Marcus notes how Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill also worried about her work being assumed to be autobiographical:

“Kathleen didn’t want Bikini Kill to be about what she had or hadn’t overcome. People were always treating the work of women artists as autobiography, conflating female artists’ personas with their personal lives.” (p. 254)

Marcus ends with a call for readers to voice their own stories, something which the Riot Grrrl movement also encouraged with its focus on DIY zines:

“I hope with all my heart that readers will tell their own stories. Tell what I left out.” (p. 329)

Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (1997)

Chris Kraus I Love DickThe subject of this blog post is a little different from those that have gone before, and from what I anticipated writing about. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick was first published in 1997, although I’ve borrowed the beautiful 2015 edition from my local library. The protagonist is called Chris Kraus, an artist and filmmaker, who is married to Sylvère Lotringer, a cultural theorist. So far, so autobiographical. But while traditional autobiographical fiction makes use of pseudonyms and fictions to mask its proximity to reality, I Love Dick instead feels like a fictional tale made to look real. As Leslie Jameson of the The New Yorker claims, it’s “an experience that can feel like voyeurism but isn’t really voyeurism at all.”

In a 2006 interview with Denise Frimer for The Brooklyn Rail Kraus reinforces the fictionality of the text:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.”

Here Kraus also brings up a recurring theme of this blog: the fictional nature of life writing, that the process of writing down one’s life will always force choices to be made over what is included. Jonathan Gibbs for The Independent calls I Love Dick “both an influential feminist text and a key intervention in the debate over where life-writing ends and fiction begins” which it is, but also so many texts (especially those by women) exist on this line between fiction and autobiography.

I Love Dick is interesting and unusual though. Part epistolary and part confessional diary, half written in first person narrative and half in third, this is most definitely a text on the subject of critical theory. The text itself even ponders on its own writing, and narrative, with Chris questioning her style: “but in order to write 1st Person narrative there needs to be a fixed self or persona and by refusing to believe in this I was merging with the fragmented reality of the time” (I Love Dick, 2015, p. 122). But it’s funny too. The narrator calls Chris and Sylvère’s letter writing to Dick “DICK-tation” (p. 22) and the couple’s frequent bickering about their obsession with Dick is a constant source of humour. The second half of the text sees Chris and Sylvère’s relationship dissolve, in part because of this obsession, and the narrative turns to Chris’s search for who she is as a person and as an artist.

“‘Who’s Chris Kraus?’ she screamed. ‘She’s no one! She’s Sylvère Lotringer’s wife! She’s his “Plus-One”!’ No matter how many films she made or books she edited, she’d always be seen as no one by anyone who mattered as long as she was living with Sylvère.” (p. 100)

The afterword of the 2015 edition by Joan Hawkins discusses the fictional nature of the text, stating that “it’s strange that critics have tended to treat I Love Dick as more of a memoir than fiction” (p. 249) and “it’s difficult to know whether certain things that Kraus describes in the book ever really happened” (p. 254). However, the text can never truly be considered fiction, especially as Kraus continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding it. When questioned in the Brooklyn Rail interview how she first knew she had become a writer, Kraus answered “it was when I started writing those crazy letters to Dick.”

Suffragettes & Satire (2015)

Votes for Women RosetteRecently it has felt as though the suffragettes are everywhere. In Sarah Gavron’s 2015 Suffragette film, marching the streets with Glasgow Women’s Library, even popping up in the BBC’s Sherlock over the festive period – a good critical article on which can be found here, although as always I disagree that Emily Davison definitely committed suicide. However, fashionable as the female campaigners for the vote are right now, their own first-hand stories are sadly missing from the public’s consciousness. Many of the well-known suffragettes and suffragists wrote on their lives and political struggles, including WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story (1914), her daughter Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement (1931), and NUWSS president Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s What I Remember (1925). These accounts are not widely read, and can mostly only be discovered in the history sections of university libraries by students conducting niche research projects. Because these first-person stories of the suffrage campaigners are not readily available, the tale of the campaign for the vote which the average person comes to know is coloured by the dominating sources of negative, derogatory, and incorrect information such as newspapers and satirical publications like Punch (1841-2002). I wish to correct this.

In late 2014 I discovered that the archives of the University of Glasgow, where I’m researching my PhD, hold the unpublished memoir of a Glasgow-born and Edinburgh-based suffragette called Elizabeth Thomson. I had never heard of Thomson but after visiting the archives and reading her autobiography I became obsessed with this amazing woman. Thomson travelled the world with her sister Agnes, working as teachers and missionaries, before they joined the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in their sixties. Thomson’s memoir details her many brushes with the law, her taking part in protests, her prison sentences, her hunger strikes, her arson attempts, and the female solidarity which she felt within the WSPU. I cannot believe that this piece of fascinating life writing, this unbelievable story, can only be read and enjoyed by those who happen upon it in the archives of the University of Glasgow. Even as a figure of the suffrage movement in Scotland, Thomson is not particularly well known, having only been mentioned briefly in Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland (2006) and Leah Leneman’s A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland  (1995) in relation to her part in the arson attempt on Kelso racecourse grandstand. In an attempt to gain Elizabeth Thomson a tiny bit of recognition, I undertook a research project on her life and work for the Hunterian Associates Programme. The culmination of this project is an online magazine about Thomson and other suffrage campaigners, comparing their views to those biased stories from the contemporary press that cloud our view of the women today. The magazine can be viewed as a cool flip book on Anyflip or as a PDF on Dropbox.

Sue Perkins, Spectacles (2015)

Sue Perkins Spectacles Despite being most definitely an autobiography, the comedian (and of course Great British Bake Off presenter) Sue Perkins’ 2015 memoir, Spectacles, begins in much the same way as Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection, Any Other Mouth: with a disclaimer. While Mackintosh gave exact percentages as to how much of her writing was factual, Perkins instead writes:

“Most of this book is true. I have, however, changed a few names to protect the innocent, and the odd location too. I’ve skewed some details for comic effect, swapped timelines and generally embellished and embroidered some of the duller moments in my past. I have sometimes created punchlines where real life failed to provide them, and occasionally invented characters wholesale. I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me. I have hidden the worst of my flaws in an effort to make you like me. I may at one point have pretended to have been an Olympic fencing champion. Other than that, as I say – I’ve told it like it is.” (Spectacles, 2015)

Perkins’ awareness of the fictionalisation of life writing continues throughout her autobiography, including this insightful observation:

“A memoir, after all, is as much about what you don’t shine the light on as what you do. It’s about judicious choices and edited picks. With that much primary and secondary source material, it would feel more like I was writing a biography than an autobiography.” (p. 16)

Discussing her parents’ tendency to hoard items from her childhood (meaning she has been left with a great deal of source material to aid her memoir writing) Perkins here notes the selective nature of life writing. This idea is something which the autobiographer and autobiographical theorist Liz Stanley has discussed in her critical work:

“Auto/biography is not and cannot be referential of a life. Memory is selective: paradoxically, a defining feature of remembering is that most things are forgotten.”
(Liz Stanley, The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography, 1995, p. 128)

It shouldn’t be surprising to discover this intelligence and critical thinking in Perkins’ writing, she did study English at Cambridge after all, but it is an unusual addition to a celebrity comedian’s memoir. In some ways, Spectacles feels like it is not just the story of Perkins’ life, although it is both a very funny and terribly sad autobiography; the letter to her dead dog in particular will bring you to tears. Instead, this is also the story of Perkins becoming a writer, something she notices herself when she once again dwells on the fictionality of autobiography:

“A perfect, full circle, the sort of thing writers write about. And I guess I am a writer now and could write that – I could write the perfect ending.” (p. 245)

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

anneliese mackintosh, any other mouth

Anneliese Mackintosh’s 2014 collection of short stories, connected by a recurring protagonist named Gretchen, are an interesting addition to the genre of semi-autobiographical women’s writing. Mackintosh is easily identifiable in Gretchen, sharing “unusual names […] German; it caught on your tongue like a mouthful of lace” (Any Other Mouth, 2014, p. 213) and yet it is clear that these stories should not be assumed to be autobiographical. Mackintosh prefaces the collection with the statement:

“1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.”

Writing one’s own life presented as fiction is not a new concept, women have been doing this for centuries to avoid the stigma which their stories might bring. Doug Johnstone, reviewing Any Other Mouth for The Independent, notes that “you kind of wish that a smaller percentage really happened because there’s some harrowing stuff in here, including self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental collapse” but that’s surely exactly why the author chose her preface; to protect herself because her (and her protagonist’s) stories are so bleak. Indeed, should the reader even believe those percentages? And does it matter? “I’m not sure that all the things he tells me are true” (p. 187) says Gretchen of a male acquaintance. Indeed.

Nevertheless, Mackintosh beautifully crafts the story of a woman’s life in her book, regardless of just whose story it is or how authentic the tale. The short story format works so well here because it allows Mackintosh to showcase her diverse storytelling abilities, seamlessly flowing from standard first person narrative to second person (Doctors, pp. 101-109) to a parody of a self-help book (A Rough Guide to Grief, pp. 133-139) and everything in between. Not only is Any Other Mouth aware of its semi-autobiographical status, it is also aware of its status as a piece of literature, with the protagonist Gretchen writing the stories which make up the book. This becomes apparent in Borderline (pp. 155-174) when Gretchen asks her boyfriend Simon “‘Do you remember that story?’ […] ‘The one I wrote after we had an argument? That day we listened to the radio play, then we had a row and you went home?'” (p. 164). This story features in the collection, titled If You Drank Coffee (pp. 141-145).

Writing for The Gutter, Departed Cat claims that the semi-autobiographical nature of Mackintosh’s collection mean the reader “can’t help but be seduced to play a game of hide and seek” and as such the stories “function as small pieces in a larger puzzle.” This may be true, especially as the stories are interlinked not only by their shared protagonist but also by their self-referential nature, but the puzzle should not be to discover how much is autobiographical. Instead, the puzzle is that of constructing a woman – Gretchen – through fragments of life; of grief and intense emotion.

Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl (2014)

Lena Dunham Not That Kind of Girl

I was initially sceptical of Lena Dunham’s “memoir-ish” because I had given up on Girls a few seasons in as I found the premise a bit narcissistic. This is probably hypocritical of me since my PhD is on Dorothy Richardson, whose writing Virginia Woolf of all people thought was ruined by “the damned egotistical self” (Diary Vol. 2: 1920-24, 1984, p. 14). However, just a few pages in to Dunham’s book I came across this line, which I’ve been using as the tag line for this blog ever since:

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” (Not That Kind of Girl, 2014, p. xvi)

Dunham was describing her odd fascination with a terrible 1980s self-help title (Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing) but it immediately struck me that Dunham’s book is not just an advice book, as the New York Times named it; nor is it simply a “self-exposing memoir” as the Guardian claims: this is a book about women’s life writing.

Yes, there are a lot of excruciatingly personal details to be found within the pages of Not That Kind of Girl. Details that led to Dunham being accused of sexually abusing her sister (lots of articles on this here) and many, many other private tales. She claims that “sharing is my first instinct” (p. 138) and lives up to this by providing 30+ pages on her irrational fears, therapy sessions, and OCD diagnosis. She spends a chapter discussing the intricacies of her naked body. She writes an anonymised letter to the first boy she ever performed oral sex on, berating him for never calling her back, and then gives his full name in passing just 61 pages later. Although whether or not the name is real is another question entirely, since so much of memoir is fiction (see Liz Stanley’s The Auto/biographical I (1995) for more on this) and Dunham self-consciously calls herself an “unreliable narrator” (p. 51).

However, under this layer of shockingly confessional memoir lies a narrative of encouraging women to tell their own stories and to use their own voices. Dunham was reportedly paid a $3.7m advance to write this book thanks to her fame as a TV writer, director and actor and so it could be easy to dismiss any thoughts she has on the struggle of women’s life writing, her privilege providing her with money and an audience before she had even written a word of the book itself.

What Dunham does well though is to weave the stories of other women’s stories into her own narrative. For example, she tells of a fascination with a writer called Nellie who cannot be tracked down online:

“A Google search of Nellie’s name was unsatisfying. She didn’t have a Twitter, a blog, or any other form of personal Internet expression. A scant web presence is so rare these days, alluring in and of itself. She was telling her story through the ancient medium of theater.” (p. 132)

Here, Dunham acknowledges that Nellie is successfully writing her own life but also that she is doing it in exactly the opposite way from Dunham herself, completely out of the watchful public eye of social media. Later in the book Dunham then talks about her grandmother, who she calls Doad, and her own attempt at autobiography:

“Doad wrote a memoir. […] She did it not glory but for posterity  – spare, practical prose designed simply to get the information out, to prove that she was there and that she is still here.” (p. 232)

I really like this. It’s an acceptance that perhaps her grandmother’s narrative of her life won’t be read widely, certainly nothing like the 300,000+ copies sold of Dunham’s memoir, but that it proves her place in the world nonetheless.

The (Non) End of Autobiographical Fiction

As if to prove that my blog is relevant, The Guardian published an article by Belinda McKeon on the difficulties of autobiographical fiction writing yesterday. I particularly like this idea:

“The problem is with story; with the idea that life is anything like a story. It is not a story; it has been, and hopefully continues to be, a life.”

I’ve come back to this idea a few times in my PhD research on Dorothy Richardson because her autobiographical Pilgrimage novel sequence has pretty much been left unfinished since the last volume was published posthumously. Basically, can autobiography or autobiographical fiction ever have a satisfying ending if the life it’s based on continues?

A Life of One’s Own

Writing Women, which is about women’s life-writing (mostly autobiography, but a bit of fiction too), has various motivations. I was signed up to attend a workshop on academic blogging which required me to have a WordPress to play about with. More than that, though, after six years of studying English Literature I’ve become a bit disheartened with the lack of coverage for female writers, of past and of present.

This idea pops up in the media every now and then, like in this (slightly outdated) article about the Canadian professor David Gilmour who apparently refuses to teach on female writers, and in For Books’ Sake’s #BalanceTheBooks campaign which they ran last year in response to news that with each passing year there are fewer and fewer female writers on the GCSE syllabus. There is also this great blog on how terrible white male authors are. Basically what I’m saying is that the lack of female writers, both inside and outside of academia, isn’t a particularly original complaint.

What I hope is original though is that I’m blogging about women who have dared to write their own lives, and my aim of covering a broad period of time and spectrum of women’s experiences, from slaves to suffragettes, from Virginia Woolf to Lena Dunham. We’ll see how it goes. Suggestions and feedback welcome!