04 October 2008

101st blog post/My Iron Spine and feminism/biography binge

This is my 101st blog post. Wow. I feel like I ought to perhaps have fireworks – or probably that should have been for my 100th post, which passed by without me noticing. Anyway, to the real point of this post…

Over on his blog, Harvey Molloy has written a really thoughtful response to My Iron Spine – the lovely man. And the rest of this post is basically a reworking and expansion of my comment that I posted about his post (how circular!). Anyway…

It’s really interesting hearing others’ views on one’s own work, because they come at it from different angles, and often see things that you hadn’t deliberately meant, or emphasise different things. But they’re all true and valid (well, maybe not all…).

When I was writing My Iron Spine, I didn’t set out to write something feminist/political, or at least much less so even than my first book – or rather parts of my first book. I was writing about the lives of people who interested me, and it turned out that they were women (mostly) so I went with that. Not to say that I’m not interested in men – some of my heroes are men, and I’m extremely fond of a large number of real-life men. I was talking to a friend yesterday about this, and she said that growing up most of her heroes were men, because they seemed more active. I said I always tended to seek out women in literature and biographies, and I think that is probably because it was easier for me to relate to someone else if they were female – turning them into little mirrors.

But anyway, reading Harvey’s review of my book has made me realise that in fact it is inevitably feminist, because those women were all constricted by things that did (generally/always?) relate to their gender. And many of them are not as well-remembered as they ought to be simply because of their gender, I think. I certainly didn’t seem to make them out to be victims – in fact the opposite – nor did I mean to make the men in their lives out to be evil (though a couple of them kind of were). But he’s totally right, cumulatively it all adds up to a statement.

I’ve been sick all week – nasty cold – and, in between doing some work work (I can edit so much faster at home!), I’ve been on a biography binge – reading some that have been lying around the house for a while. I started on Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), a South African writer, best-known for The Story of an African Farm, but also the author of Women and Labour, which is about socialism, gender-equality and work. Then I read a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), best-known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and now I’m reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), who I really only know as F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, but she was also a writer and painter.

I haven’t got very far with Zelda yet, I think she’s only about 18 at the moment, but what has struck me with all three of them is that they were all trying to not be bound by what convention said women should be, or how society said people should act. The other thing that’s struck me, once again, is that simple linear progress in most things is a myth – it’s all swings and roundabouts – and in the place of women in society, it’s the same. Mary Wollstonecraft managed about 100 years before Olive Schreiner to earn her own living for most of her life, something Schreiner thought women should do, but didn’t quite manage herself. Wollstonecraft, if she lived now, would still be considered brave and often shocking, I think.

In contrast with all these strong, independent women who were fighting for the rights of women to be seen as the equals of men, I caught a little bit of The Flavor of Love on TV. This is a reality show where a bunch of women compete to ‘be with’ (I don’t even know what that means – it’s not like he’s actually going to marry them) rapper (and narcissist) Flavor Flav. How far we’ve come! Sigh…


Mary McCallum said...

'...what has struck me with all three of them is that they were all trying to not be bound by what convention said women should be, or how society said people should act...'

Add Rita Angus to that list. The self-portraits say it all - the strong, unselfconscious gaze of an independent woman artist. (And she talked too of the need for women artists to work alone.) If you haven't seen the exhibition at Te Papa it closes on Sunday. Highly recommended.

Interesting discussion on feminist writing, Helen, and Harvey's points are interesting too. There is a 'feminist' approach to writing, I gather, which isn't at all political but is about the care taken to (as I understand it) illuminate women's often hidden lives, but also (and I might have this wrong) to illuminate all lives - male or female. One of the early readers of my novel The Blue applied it to the way I wrote my characters - which flummoxed me at first.

Here's a random thing I found on the net describing a course in feminism at a US university somewhere:

'We will examine how the feminist approach to writing biographies has utterly changed the historical craft of biography. In writing forgotten or unknown women back into history we demonstrate how women’s history can and does profoundly change the nature of history.'

Sounds like what you've been doing.

Mary McCallum said...

Oops no - it wasn't a US university is was University College Dublin!

CM said...

Have you read 'A Return To Modesty; Rediscovering The Lost Virtue' by Wendy Shalit? If not, you may find it very intriguing.