Review: ‘Heroines’ by Kate Zambreno

IMG_20141011_110348I’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.