Here’s a piece I wrote for Gizmodo about the pros and cons (mostly cons) of Apple’s and Facebook’s offer to freeze their female employees eggs, in a misguided attempt to attract more women to their businesses…
I’d been trying to get myself in the mood for this ever since a friend gave it to me for my last birthday. We both refer to ourselves as feminists, but whenever we speak about feminist issues I always feel a little guilty for being too mainstream, too unimaginative, and still unintentionally bogged down in the expectations of my society. I almost rely on her to pick me up on these things, to shame me into thinking less laterally, and I think this is just one example of how infinite and multi-faceted feminist theory is. Every person has a completely unique perspective, as with any area of political theory, entirely dependent upon their individual experiences and backgrounds, whether you are black, white, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, working class, middle class, upper class, Southern, Northern, British, American, Somali, Swedish, male, female, etc etc etc. It is all important, and every person’s perspective can inform any other’s for the better.
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is far more than an inquiry into the shining beginnings and bitter ends of the wives and mistresses of the Great Writers of the modern age. It’s a deeply personal investigation into Zambreno’s own life and role as a writer, as mirrored in the lives of the women whose work was (and often still is) neglected and passed over by critics because of their gender. Their ovaries. Their XX chromosomes. They were considered mad and unstable, and frequently became so as a result of the strange restrictions put upon them. This is Zambreno’s experience of life, which informs her position as a feminist – she has experienced the diagnosis (and mis-diagnosis) of various mental conditions, and has naturally gravitated towards the treatment of mental illness amongst women. The concept of female ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century was a very singular and spectacularly damaging prognosis that could be offered to any woman deemed not quite up to scratch by her peers and men-folk. The origins of the word suggest that the very womb itself is our enemy, a mischief-maker, as well as a burden for any man who dares share a life with one. Zambreno candidly discusses the brutality of menstruation, the pain and mess that women wade through every month, and the abhorrence of the men who witness it. She expresses the disappointment and shame often felt when a male partner is so openly disgusted or bemused by an event that is so intrinsically bound to female life, and while reading her words I could hear myself making the same point in unison.
In Heroines Kate Zambreno examines the turbulent literary experiences of people like Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield (among many others) and their unique, but also tragically commonplace, treatment at the hands of their male competitors. Their key competitors were unfortunately also their husbands and lovers – the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles, and Leonard Woolf – privy to the emotional mechanics of these women and always with a tenacious doctor at hand. Zambreno makes it painfully clear that these men had altogether too much power. She tells us of her Heroines’ stratospheric literary peaks, times in their lives where they could do nothing but write, in stark contrast with their hellish lows, incarcerated, begging for a pen and paper.
Zambreno’s style emulates the modernist prose of the period she writes about, slipping in and out of spleeny automatic writing, the blood and sweat of it, though I sense that this is her usual style. It is not calculated mimicry, but an intimate method used by many women before her to express things that often feel inexpressible. She writes articulately about her own concerns with writing as a profession and how this relates to her fears of falling into the same patterns of her Heroines, as she moves with her husband to parts of the country she has no desire to live in, as witness to his increasing professional success. At times she seems to spiral into an emotional chasm, acutely aware of the sacrifices she has made for him and fearing failure of any flavour. There is something so familiar about her grievances, yet my experiences haven’t been the same, or even comparable. There is just something sort of universal about some of her fears, something inherently reassuring about reading another woman’s voice set completely free.
As a small aside, I can thank Kate Zambreno for reminding me of some of the writers I was so fascinated by several years ago, while I was studying at Goldsmiths. Her occasional references to the work of Kathy Acker, Clarice Lispector and ecriture feminine take me right back to my final year at university, when I took a module titled ‘Writing, Gender & Anxiety’ and wrote my final dissertation about Helene Cixous and Lispector’s seminal Hour of the Star. Thinking of Hour of the Star instantly makes me feel bleak and sort of hollow, because although it’s a masterpiece, it’s just so unbearably sad. It’s also a wrench for me as I no longer have my dissertation anywhere. It’s completely lost, swallowed by my deteriorating laptop a few years ago, so all I have is this fading memory of it, and I genuinely (melodramatically) consider this a personal tragedy.
Although I don’t feel like the sentiments in this book are entirely revelatory, it does feel important, like a milestone. I think it feels important because not enough people write like this, with such fierce candor about how it feels to be a woman caught in the binds of a patriarchy, and with unabashed anger over the treatment of female artists of the past – it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, these wrongs can never be righted. All we can really hope for is that things will improve for future generations. Zambreno thankfully ends on a positive note: an encouraging treatise on the future for literary women. She implores us to write, and write, and write, and write… Because we have plenty to say, and so many women are still fighting to be heard.
Heroines is published by MIT Press and is available from all good bookshops for £12.95.
Check out the short piece I wrote for Gizmodo, covering the latest installation from the arts organisation Measure, here.
This was my first time at the London Art Book Fair – a relatively small but buzzy affair held at the Whitechapel Gallery, populated with the very best in art book publishers and booksellers, and visited by the very best in heartbreakingly trendy art book enthusiasts. My initiation took place when I dragged an arty pal of mine to the opening night (25th September), and the variety of titles on display across the stalls was really overwhelming. The opening night was heaving and it was really starting to feel like I was out of my depth, but I felt a little more anchored when we wandered by the Nobrow stall. Nobrow is my latest obsession, churning out some seriously beautiful titles in inventive formats, and as I scampered over to the table I thrust the mesmerising Worse Things Happen at Sea into my friend’s hands. I have stocked some of their beautiful books in the Royal Museums Greenwich shops, and vow to continue to keep a close eye on them, particularly the children’s imprint Flying Eye – still only holding a small list, but promising great things. There were other larger publishers in attendance like Thames & Hudson and Black Dog, but the really interesting lists came from the smaller presses like bookRoom, and bookshops dealing in specialist art titles and second hand or rare books such as Koenig Books and Luminous Books.
On the Saturday (27th) I went back to the gallery take in a couple of talks. The overall thrust of the fair seemed to concern books as a product, instigator and mediator in the digital revolution (or, as it became clearer throughout the fair, the post-digital revolution). The first of the two talks I went to was CODE X: Paper Pixel and Beyond, a discussion between editor in chief of Neural magazine, Alessandro Ludovico, and Delphine Bedel, Colin Sackett (both contributors to the forthcoming book, Code X) and Emmanuelle Waeckerle of bookRoom. The matter of the hour was the nature and value of the book, in both its physical and digital forms, prompted by the collection of essays in Code X.
There’s something admirable about a book fair that encourages a discussion about what a book really is, what its purpose is and whether there is a better way to consume information in the digital age. Alessandro Ludovico and Delphine Bedel made a series of fascinating points, Bedel often referring to Kant’s writings on ‘the book’. The notion that the book is an object born out of a desire for ownership, but that the story itself is ephemeral and cannot really belong to anyone, catalysed an enlightening tangential discussion – the kind of idea that could feel crushingly relevant to publishers now, as it might well indicate the demise of the physical book.
Convincing arguments notwithstanding, I think the panel landed on the side of the physical book as a mark of grounding stability both philosophically, and in terms of the actual production and digestion of literature, in comparison to the fragility of digital information – its intangibility and reliance upon a fully functioning electrical grid. Our society is currently still firmly rooted in the idea of the physical book, which can be seen in online texts that mimic the turning of a page, through to the bloggers who find success online eventually seeing their creative product bound in a paper book, the latter substantiating their work and bringing a greater degree of kudos. I’m well aware that this is unlikely to always be the case, but as someone who loves to hold a solid book I feel at least momentarily reassured.
I rounded off my adventure amongst the excessively hip with a talk given by Douglas Coupland, well known author of such titles as Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, and also prolific installation artist. His latest offering is a monograph titled Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything, published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. Coupland briefly discussed the idea of literature as art (another prominent theme at the fair) and explained to the audience that his writing is inextricably linked to his visual art, as he is expressing the same ideas but simply using different methods – as he said, ‘Books take place in time, visual art takes place in space, film takes place in both’. Despite this he seemed to feel that the literary world was restrictive, that there are limitations in verbal thinking that don’t exist in visual thinking, and he had no qualms about making the literary world he so often occupies sound pretty drab and frigid – an insight for those on the outside looking in…
Although there was a quiet theme of ‘what has the internet done to us’ running through his talk, Coupland seemed happy to entertain us with anecdotes about his installations, which we were all more than happy to listen to. In person Coupland has a rambling and disarmingly candid tone, he laughs easily and every now and again reveals the ingrained sentimentality that I sadly found hard to get along with when reading Girlfriend in a Coma. His latest work of non-fiction, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is a meditation on the cultural implications of the internet, and he finished his discussion by answering a final question from the audience on his feelings about the digital age. Coupland’s final point really nailed it for me, stating that what will define our current era will be how technology has defined us: whether our progress has increased the power of the individual/individuality, or if it has instead empowered the collective. Nice one, Doug.
I loved the Art Book Fair, and I recommend keeping an eye out for next year’s if you haven’t been before. The Whitechapel Gallery is such a perfect venue and you’re sure to find an illuminating angle on two mediums that sit forever side by side, art and literature.