Being a Man Writing About Women’s Books

Diane Shipley asked us last week whether we would consider spending a year reading only books by women. The Year of Reading Women project has become a huge talking point, yet the Vida statistics show that in the accustomed snafu little progress has been made in balancing the media’s gendered coverage of the literary world.

lf3-print-trees(the book I’m currently getting excited about – Roz Morris’ literary dystopia, lifeform three)

For me, it is this that represents the real challenge – the representation of books by women in places like this rather than the actual reading of them. Putting the focus onto reading seems like a rather handy arrogation of responsibility on the media’s part.

I very much believe that where we find discursive barriers we should make ourselves into bulldozers. I have always tried, as a literary organiser and promoter, to create shows and programmes that go beyond the gender-imbalanced norms. On the other hand, the Vida statistics show not only the lack of representation of women’s books, but the lack of women in the media doing the writing about those books.

So, as a male commentator, I feel a natural conflict. Is it my place to write about books by women? Or is it my place to insist I am removed from public spaces and my place taken by a female commentator? I am very aware of the difficult position of “ally” in modern intersectional thought on diversity in all areas (and I’m extremely grateful to the author Christina Springer for sharing this great article. My own experience of being “on the receiving end” of allies comes in the sphere of mental health where I frequently come across organisations box-ticking their engagement duties by enlisting spokespeople to explain things on behalf of those of us who have mental health disabilities. I feel the bristle as they open their mouths and utter something that bears no relation at all to my experience yet leaves everyone seemingly contented that I have been duly “represented” with the result that I’m silenced twice over – by my “ally” and by the fact that their intervention means the space for further discourse is now closed. So I know that whenever I open my keyboard to tap out words on the matter of women in literature I am, at least in some part, not ameliorating but becoming part of the problem.

DesecrationSmall3D(the last book I read that I loved, Desecration by Joanna Penn)

So do I stay silent, or do I speak, or do I just shimmy round the subject and stick to the safer ground of writing about the things I’m expected to write about? The last of these is a non-starter. Experience tells me it’s a simple matter of taste that I prefer books written by women. It would be strange to write about books and omit so many those I love best in the spheres I write about most – the poetry of Vanessa Kisuule, Claire Trevien and Adelle Stripe, the literary fiction of Banana Yoshimoto and Elfriede Jelinek, the self-published surrealities of Lucy Furlong, Penny Goring, and Anna Fennel Hughes, the inspirational blogs and books of Viv Tuffnell, everything to do with the wonderful website For Books’ Sake.

(the brilliant poet, Claire Trevien, with whom I’ll be performing at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival)

What I have done hitherto has been simply to reflect my tastes in my commentaries. I have promoted works I truly believe in by writers I love. I have talked about those works that provide taking off points for the themes and questions that matter to me. I have put on shows featuring performers whose words and style I love.

But Diane’s post has foregrounded a feeling that was always there, an inkling nudging me annoyingly in the shoulder going “oi, oi” and shrugging an “oh you know” every time I dare to shout “What?!” The feeling that I’m doing something political, and that it doesn’t always leave my mouth tasting of honey.

I have always known that what I speak about is political. It’s a choice. A choice made in a highly charged context of cultural discourse. It couldn’t not be political. And yet I have always sided myself loudly and overtly with those marginalised by mental health issues and let that whisper me sweet reassurances that I was doing it OK because mental health disability is an outsiderdom I’m firmly inside.

It’s comforting to construct these narratives for ourselves. If we close our eyes and listen to them (a telling metaphor in all its resonances) we can almost pretend intersectionality doesn’t exist. And yet it does. I am spoken for by those who silence my disability, and yet when I do speak I do so as a white male. When I write about women’s writing, I speak for them as those I resent speak for me. I can no longer pretend to myself that I’m just doing “good politics” and neatly avoiding “bad politics.”

So what’s the answer? I’m sure many readers will be wondering “what, you mean there’s a question?” Questions of intersectionality and allyship usually raise those responses. And they make the first part of my answer simple – if, next time an article like this appears, more people are at least aware that there’s a problem when men write well-meaningly about women and fewer people shrug “what problem?” then I’ll have done something right.

img_0246(Anna Percy, the brilliant poet who co-runs with Rebecca Audra Smith and Sara Ellis Stirred Poetry, Manchester’s fabulous night of pro-women inclusive spoken word)

The real answer, I think, is that just as it is impossible to speak unpolitically so it is impossible to speak from a position that is beyond reproach. We all speak from a privileged position of some kind. Our words will always exert power over someone, muffle the voice of someone. So the answer is not silence, or we would all be silenced. And the answer is not good intentions. Good intentions neither affect power networks nor the impact of our words. As much of an answer as I can give is to be as aware as possible of where we stand in these incalculably complex networks, to make way wherever possible for those voices our own voice silences, to acknowledge those voices that have shaped our own, and to create channels where we can for those voices to speak and be heard. Most of all I think the answer is for us not to believe we have the answer but to listen and learn to have the many possible answers spoken by those in a position to give.

I welcome any suggestions as to further answers to the issues raised. I also welcome any women writers whose works would interest readers of this blog to talk about them here.

Life is not Binary

I don’t do drumrolling announcements, but after a long hiatus, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is available for Kindle again. You will have sensed the soul-searching of the past few months. I am working my way through my books, editing and formatting, and I am very happy to be bringing them back into the world. And am comfortable with them being on Amazon. I may write about this at some stage. I may not. Pdf versions are free to download, but I very much hope that people who can afford to do so will buy them. I am finally in a place where I’m happy to say I am confident they’re worth it.

songswhitebackground-front(the UK link is here, and the US link is here. The book is available in all other places as well. It’s $2.99 or equivalent, and it’s worth every penny)

But this isn’t a sales pitch. I wanted to talk about why I wrote this book, in particular the question of identity, of whether life is constructed between binary choices, between either-ors, or is, instead, a messy, loosely structured woollen vest of a thing. Hint – it’s usually portrayed as the former, but it’s most definitely, for me, the latter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a blog run by the book’s protagonist, Sandrine, a teenager growing up in Hungary in the years after the  fall of the Berlin Wall. She lives with her father and cat in a huge house on the vineyard that’s been in the family for hundreds of years, and dreams of one day escaping, first to the metropolis of Budapest to be an artist, and then to the west, to find the English mother who walked out on her shortly after she was born. In the meanwhile her blog is her window on the world. Through it she gets involved in the wider landscapes of music and politics, forming a friendship with a singer called Michael, who runs a charity website and a band. When Michael asks her to support the band at a concert to celebrate Romania’s accession to the EU, she is caught up in teh middle of a nationalist riot and a single act of violence begins to unravel her life.

As the book opens, Sandrine defines her life in terms of dichotomies. Past/future, East/West, the country and the city, her family and her lover (she has fallen in love, from afar, with Claire, who once visited the vineyard – it is Claire’s death that starts Sandrine’s disintegration, and the book’s central picaresque, as she searches for information about her), her reality and her dream. As the book takes its course, and with the twin guides of her endlessly patient new girlfriend Yang and Michael’s enigmatic and estranged father Peter, Sandrine’s attempts to define herself by a series of clear binary choices begin to break down.

I originally brought the book out in 2009, and had the privilege of speaking about it, and the questions of identity it raises, at events to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I hope to do so again next year, though the 25th anniversary of the wall’s collapse may be eclipsed by an even more numinous European anniversary. I ended up giving three papers, and you can find them in the appendices to the paperback edition (available for £7.98 here).

Since then, it’s something I’ve come to think about even more, and the question of how we define ourselves, where our identity “is” and in what it consists, has come to dominate my work. I have never liked the idea of hierarchies, and binaries lend themselves insidiously well to the creation of hierarchies – “I choose this over that” turns to “I prefer this over that” turns to “I dismiss that as being inferior.” And binaries can never do justice to the simple messiness of life. “I” am not a neatly lined-up set of tick box options and never can be. What I tick in one box radically alters all the other boxes. More than that, what you tick in one box might alter all of my boxes.

I wrote Songs before intersectionality had become such a widespread hot button topic, but ultimately this is a book about intersectionality. Sandrine is female. And she’s gay. But she’s also white and her lover is Chinese. Each of these matters but none of them is a fixed point. “Sandrine” is a fluid thing, a set of messy sensual experiences and perceptions of the world that vary in perspective from minute to minute, place to place, and company to company. Understanding these things is essential to understanding Sandrine, but for Sandrine herself the most important realisation of all is that “understanding” has to take a back seat to “living.”

Anyway, here’s a flavour:

After two large bowls of paprikás and several fistfuls of bread, I kissed Dad on the cheek, washed up our plates and went upstairs. There’s a gap between two of the balustrades on the landing from which you can see the top of the kitchen table. For a moment or two I watched Dad’s back leaning into the struts of his chair as he read the paper. His arms and shoulders were relaxed, all the tension in his posture gone.

Our house was in a natural hollow on a south-facing slope of one of the Tokaj Foothills. It rarely attracted sunlight at ground-level, and the long, low building cast little shadow on the vines that crawled up the hill behind it. Had a large family lived there, as had been the case for most of Szant Gabor Vineyard’s history, the house would have been spacious. For us it was almost unwieldy.

The layout was the traditional wide and shallow of farmhouses and chateaux throughout Europe. It would have made sense to close down the rooms at each extremity, but it suited us to use every last corridor and cupboard.

The western side of the house was effectively mine. I could pad down its stone hallways, over shabby cotton runners, through airy rooms and what was left of the peeling trompe l’oeuil patterns on the walls, and the only company I had was the occasional mouse that had escaped Camus’ clutches.

I didn’t keep anything in these rooms, not even books, which I crammed into my bedroom two or more deep. There was just a breeze that blew through layers of woollens in winter, and dried the sweat on my naked skin in summer.

The last signs of life on the vines had long gone into hiding, so there was little to see from my bedroom window by daylight. At night there was nothing except shifting blue shadows in the moonlight that marked the contours of the hill. But I could still see the exact spot where Claire had stood on the gravel path, on the eighth row of vines from the house.