October 24th, 2012 / 11:20 am
Author Spotlight & Contests

More Heroine Talk, Plus Book Giveaway!

I recently interviewed Kate Zambreno about her new book Heroines (Semiotext(e) Active Agents, Nov. 1st) for The Paris Review Daily; but before we got to the conversational style of that interview, we began our discourse differently: more theoretically, I guess you could say. After the jump you can read this earlier version of the interview. In addition, Kate has generously offered to give away one of her author copies of Heroines to one lucky person who answers the question at the end of the interview.

(And for those of you in Philly, Kate will be reading at Penn Feminism/s November 1, and then in New York sponsored by The New Inquiry at BookCourt November 2 and Segue series November 3, Meghan Lamb’s reading series with Suzanne Scanlon November 4, and many other readings you can find out about on her website katezambreno.com)

Ready, set, go…

CH:  In one of my all-time favorite essays, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous argues, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing…Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.”  I find a strong affinity between Cixous’s battlecry and Heroines.  Does this comparison resonate for you as well?

KZ: Absolutely. I’ve thought of Heroines as a vulgar, angry, American sister to her “Laugh of the Medusa.” Cixous is extremely important to me, especially her work as a performative & experimental philosopher. In Heroines, I wrangle with how she valorizes Freud’s hysterics as heroines, which is perhaps similar to what I’ve done for the modernist women I am  writing about.  And especially urgent to me is how she talks about “coming to writing” as being a vital stage of identity-formation and dawning of political consciousness for a woman, which means writing is not only about crafting texts, but it’s also an attempt to write back at a culture, to reclaim the voices that have been muted, including one’s own. Heroines is a small attempt at this “archaelogy of silence,” to quote Foucault on the history of madness.

CH:  There’s a passage early on in the book where you write, “This idea that one must control oneself and stop being so FULL of self remains a dominating theory around mental illness, and, perhaps tellingly, around other patriarchal laws and narratives, including the ones governing and disciplining literature.”  Could you say more about how you approach the relationship between writing about the self, or memoir, and the writing of criticism?

KZ:  One of the main philosophical currents in the book is how historically people have been trained to discipline themselves (their behaviors, their bodies) to pare away the emotional or excessive. I connect these moral attitudes to the dawn of modern literature, and the theories espoused by the men writing this literature. Flaubert and Eliot were both suffering nervous men, who cultivated their hysteria in their  amazing works  (Madame Bovary and “The Waste Land”), all while writing theories that great literature should be impersonal, transcendent.  They punished the women in their lives for being so excessive (Flaubert patronizing his mistress Louise Colet for her operatic emotions, Eliot’s disgust of his first wife’s undisciplined moods and body), while channeling and fetishizing their muses’ hysteria.

Zelda Fitzgerald explicitly drew from her own autobiography for her first novel, and it’s been historically regarded as unliterary, for being too  “confessional,” “naked,” “indulgent,” also too “messy,” “untrained,” pathologized for flowing out of her too fast, all of which is still language to dismiss women writing, still ways women censor themselves, for fear of policing, in its many forms. Something about the female first-person is still seen as dangerous in our culture especially if written from a site of oversized emotions. This has been allowed in literature often when the great men write it—Henry Miller’s work, Fitzgerald’s totally emo “Crack-Up” essays, Bataille’s spiritual memoirs—I mean, they were still given a hard time in their contemporary (Dos Passos and the rest wanted to have the bro-genius equivalent of an intervention with Fitzgerald for  publishing such oozey breakdown pieces, Sartre deplored Bataille’s Guilty for being too “fleshly”) but their more memoiristic works are now regarded as great literature. Somehow more taboo when women have written the fleshly, confessional, oozy, sickly self. I guess in some ways I’m writing a criticism borrowing from the aesthetic of blogging—the diaristic, the daily, the diarrhea, a mixture of the banal and profound.

CH:  Combining the aesthetics of blogging with the historical tradition of literary criticism seems very provocative at a time when the boundary between those two forms is so hotly contested, but the way you describe it makes the combination seem both familiar and fruitful.  Could you say more about this formal choice and perhaps a word or two about other texts you see as being in conversation with Heroines on a formal level?

KZ: Well, I wasn’t really aware of blogging while working on the project that became Heroines for many years, that was originally a novel called Mad Wife. I began a blog only months before Chris Kraus approached me about writing about my meditations with these wives of modernism that I was incubating online. In the process of rewrites, I became more aware of looking at blogging as a contemporary aesthetic which borrows from the notebook, as well as having as its ancestry automatic writing. I remember a review of Maggie Nelson’s recent book on cruelty critiqued the book for reading too much like a Tumblr—and even though it was meant as a dismissal I read it the opposite way. I thought instead of potential for a new criticism, one that’s as associative and playful with theory and autobiography as so many of the feminist Tumblrs that I have recently been reading.

Free Book Giveaway: For a chance to win a copy of Heroines, tell us in the comment section below, “Who is your favorite literary heroine, and why?”  Kate will pick her favorite by Friday at midnight, and will send the book directly to the winner.

UPDATE: Semiotext(e) has graciously offered to sweeten the pot by offering 3 copies of Heroines…so now there’ll be three winners!

UPDATE – WINNERS: from Kate: These were all so so good! I really wished I could have given each of you a copy of Heroines! It was a really hard call – but can Ellie (for Ida Bauer/Dora), ags (for that short sweet Emma B. answer), and Grant M. (for that wonderful May Sarton consideration, who I have not read and I want to) email me your addresses at francesfarmerismysister@gmail.com?


  1. Marc Rattay

      Aomame from 1Q84 seems to be a really thorough badass who still believes in something. I can admire that.

  2. Grant Maierhofer

      Probably May Sarton, in all of May Sarton’s journals, if you can consider that a sort of meta-heroine. She was writing against the odds from the get go being a lesbian-in-public in a time when that sort of thing really wasn’t happening much and yet she didn’t shove it down anyone’s throat, but simply wrote her heart out and loved her birds and her neighbors and lately I find myself referring to these journals more than anything when I feel like hearing an author discuss process or the daily requirements of getting books out consistently and the results of that. Each of them–my favorites are Journal of a Solitude and The House By the Sea–is perfectly minimal regarding prose and yet steeped in an honesty you don’t much get from serious poets/fiction writers when they sit down for a work of nonfiction.

  3. mimi

      Happy to say i can think of Not Just One but Many –

      here are Three –

      Anne Sexton
      the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper
      Sybil in A Perfect Day for Bananafish

  4. CJ Rice

      M.F.K. Fisher, she broke away yet lived long, and alone and lusciously. And well fed. She made good food and good sentences.

  5. Jonathan Mayhew

      Irma from the Balcony, i dont know why and thats the way i like it : )
      also realised i need to read more books with female leads…

  6. Jos Charles

      GH from The Passion According to GH. Because of all the reasons.

  7. Oona

      Bertha Antoinetta Mason–both as the feminist “madness” at the heart of _Jane Eyre_, and as the reclaimed heroine of Jean Rhys’ _Wide Sargasso Sea_.

  8. Michael Fischer

      It’s unclear here (and elsewhere) how Zambreno feels about mental illness, but sometimes I wonder if she believes that mental illness itself is a farce. Perhaps she can return to the comments section and elaborate.

      Historically, “madness” has obviously been gendered, but at the same time, “outsized emotions” are often symptoms of mental illness, and it does no good to pretend like such emotions are always mere emotions and not possible manifestations of disease. Doing so has the ironic effect of rendering the mentally ill invisible, to pretend as if their “emotions” aren’t at all symptomatic of disorders located in the brain. The more important question, then, is advocating for the acceptance of “outsized emotions” as both different and normal at the same time.

  9. Carol Berg

      Sylvia Plath. Her raw yet still disciplined poetry. She used her life for her material and organized it for her own meaning. Ted still tried to rearrange and alter perception of it after she was dead. Luckily, it’s been reformed.

  10. Patrick James Dunagan

      Alice Notley— for alweez writing unlike anybody else, including herself

  11. CJ Rice

      And Colette of course, for THE PURE AND THE UNPURE. Never read anything like it.

  12. Juliette Kelley

      It would have to be a literary arm wrestle between Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein. I love them both for taking language to another place and letting us catch up with them. Djuna knew the substance of isolation and the fire that comes of it but nothing can cheer me like an hour curled up with Tender Buttons. I love them both and I am so grateful that they revealed the power and the strength in words…..

  13. Annie L

      Christina Goering- She is a serious lady

  14. Annie L

      a calamity jane who got to the heart of things

  15. Kate Z

      I would not say that I think mental illness is a farce – I think mental struggle, suffering, etc. is quite quite real. And I think that’s quite apparent in the book. But I am critical of the medical model of mental illness – critical of it, and suspicious of an overly diagnostic culture, and suspicious of the relationship, of say, the DSM to big pharm. I am interested in a genealogical perspective of the history of madness (Foucault, Showalter) and am somewhat informed by, say, Marcia Angell’s recent pieces in the NYRB. I do agree that outsized emotions can be a sign of mental distress, certainly, and like this idea of accepting them as both different and normal, as you say. This is not what happened in modernism.

  16. Michael Fischer

      Okay, thanks for clarifying. I understand that you wrote a book about Modernism. As someone with Bipolar who spent two years in a state hospital, though, I take issue with language like “mental distress.” I have a disease. It’s not mere “distress.” It’s an illness and should be called what it is. I oppose the tendency to conflate mental illness with softer language like mental “health” and “distress.” Your points are certainly relevant when discussing Modernism and literary “madness”–definitely–but (if I may?) they could be updated with more contemporary discourses on disability/disability studies (to be fair, I haven’t read your book). Contemporary discourses on mental illness move against the tendency to reduce madness or mental illness to “representation” and “social construction.” Mental illness is unique in the sense that its sufferers are liberated more by arguments that seek to show its biological basis rather than reduce it entirely to its social constructionist basis, which is the opposite way people discuss race and gender (obviously, as an attempt to move from biological racism and sexism). This is one reason why so many folks in the humanities still have a difficult time discussing mental illness & identity–they’re more comfortable with arguments about representation.

      Big pharm is too complex to address here, so I’ll leave that one alone.

  17. badaude

      Duras! “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line… I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing for those people was still something moral… Sometimes I realise that if writing isn’t all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing.” (The Lover)

  18. ags

      Emma Bovary – for rolling in all that moss

  19. Kate Z

      We have a difference of perspective-certainly not the only two who do in terms of discussions of mental illness. I am not anti–psychiatry, I am critical of it, as are many others who have had a range of experiences with psychiatry. I don’t think the discussion of our current diagnostic codes can be really considered outside of big pharma or insurance companies. I have of course read contemporary discourse-which in no ways monolithic in perspective. I currently embody the intellectual (and emotional stance) of hopefull validating people’s experiences with mental illness, while being critical, like many others, of the strictly biological model which discounts the discursive. I also don’t occupy a positivist idea of the history of mental illness-in that I think the skeptical eye towards modernism is just as valid today.

      There’s nothing more I can say about it here.

  20. Michael Fischer

      I wasn’t suggesting that contemporary discourse on mental illness is “monolithic,” nor was I discounting the discursive, but it’s an undeniable fact that deinstitutionalization’s fallout (homelessness, lack of adequate care, imprisonment as opposed to hospitalization) is partly the fault of “discursive” anti-psych arguments from people who would claim not to be anti-psych (not saying you are). There are class implications, too: like how much of the criticism of Big Pharm ignores the daily realities of poor people who can’t even afford medication in the first place (medication that they need). Many of these people also need beds, but the beds are no longer available because of this idea that mental institutions are always oppressive places (they are not). The softening of language contributes to a middlebrow, bourgie discursive climate that doesn’t address or help those living with severe mental illnesses.

  21. juniorcakes

      Any of Scarlett Thomas’ fabulously badass drunk academic-lady-detective heroines. I love them.

  22. Kate Z

      Yes, I think class implications with all of this is very crucial to consider. I think though we have a difference in perspective, both I’m sure backed by lots of reading on the matter. I don’t agree (or haven’t thought of it with that perspective before) that the anti-psych argument (Laing and the rest) is necessarily what has led to deinstitutionalization or its fallout that you bring up, especially since a lot of those thinkers were actually for institutionalizing, or at least longterm care. I have always been under the perspective that insurance companies and psychopharmacology has been extremely influential in making longterm care a lot less approachable (ie insurance companies would rather not pay for a long stay or longterm therapy). To me that’s a different angle on the class issue you bring up, which I agree is important. I mean, to me, this is obviously a problem with our health care system. Our health care system should pay for beds if people need it, should pay for medicine if people need it, should pay for longterm therapy if people need it. And I don’t disagree that people live with severe mental illness – I have known these people, in many stages of my life. But I also think that many of these people could also use therapy, and ways of coping – and this is not paid for (enough) or addressed often, and I sometimes worry that the biological model, if its absolute, can distance from therapy being necessary along with other treatments, or looking at social causes (especially when dealing with the effects of abject poverty or alienation, how these contribute to mental illness). I am all for, absolutely, medicine if it is helpful, therapy if it is helpful, having a longterm place to stay if it is helpful, I have known those who all three of these were extremely helpful, I have known those who were diagnosed as ill when they were just going through crisis. I might be critical of anti-psychiatry, but I am in no way in disagreement that people suffer from both mental unwellness and mental struggle and mental illness, that there is a spectrum of this, that some people greatly need medicine, while others would benefit more from therapy.

      And really that’s all I can say now! Because this is pretty far away from Heroines! Have you read Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces? It’s a really beautiful text, and I think brings up people on the margins in a really urgent way.

  23. Michael Fischer
  24. Megan McShea

      Jane Bowles’ two serious ladies. they are so strange, so they always stay in a place just outside the text, always more than or other than the text, but only imaginable through the text. it’s a great magic trick.

  25. WB

      Leonora Carrington, the Surrealist painter and writer, who, inspired by Herbert Read’s book on Surrealism (given to her by her mother, ironically) fled England and her family for France and a life with the Surrealists. She was institutionalized and wrote beautifully and harrowingly about her experience and then later moved to Mexico and concentrated mostly on painting for the rest of her long life (though I love her short stories and wish she had written more of them).

      I work on modernism, too, Kate, and your book sounds wonderful. Great interview. Loved hearing your thoughts on Cixous.

  26. Don

      Anne Carson because she is both an amazing poet and an extraordinary classicist & translator. The combination of scholarship and artistic creation is so rare. Her Sappho translations alone make her a literary heroine, but that is only the tip of the iceberg… Nox, Autobiography of Red, the Euripides translations, the Sophokles translation… As a student of the classics and a lover of poetry, there is no one I look up to more.

  27. Josh Orr

      amelia bedelia never let the dullards force metaphor upon her.

  28. Madalaine McCabe

      Just realised that by ‘Literary Heroine’ you mean the author or women who influenced authors so I shall post again!

      A favourite of mine is Angela Carter. Through her stories she challeneged specific socio-cultural agendas and ideas, in particular the portrayal and objectification of women in fairy tales. Carter’s stories left me with many questions about what it means to be a woman and a woman writer. Carter believed that, ‘a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself’.

  29. Elisa Gabbert

      Scarlett O’Hara xoxo

  30. Katrina Zaat

      Characters? Hm – Teresa Hawkins, from Christina Stead’s _For Love Alone_ – artist, idealist, prickly, principled (“‘You offend my honour! I would kill anyone who offends my honour!’ ‘A woman’s honour means something different than you imagine,’ said her father, laughing secretively.”)

      The Paperbag Princess (“Ronald, you are a toad!”)

      I also love the unwieldy sincerity of Portia Quayne, but I think you were just talking about _Death of the Heart_ on your blog, so that feels like cheating…

      Writers? Dickinson, certainly. Woolf. Carson. Alice Oswald. They see in thunderclaps, and they let us – they MAKE us – do likewise.

  31. Ellie

      I’m not sure if this counts (but also, who really cares if it counts because she’s too important to not be mentioned), but I would select Ida Bauer, also known as Dora from Freud’s case studies. Though she is no wife or mistress of a modernist, as a muse and tool for Freud she haunts modernist thought. We can’t really encounter her outside of Freud, but the gaps in his writing suggest so much (there is a wonderful analysis of this by Michael Billig in his book Freudian Repression). Clearly, many people (including the lovely Helene Cixous!) have grappled with her legacy directly, but what I find most interesting is how the specter of Dora refuses to fade from culture.

  32. Frances Uku

      Characters: Lady M (as in Macbeth), and the wife Mr. Rochester kept shuttered away in the attic (Jane Eyre). Both, because I’ve an interest in (and experience of) women who are “off”, “touched”, or “wild”.

      Writer: Alice Munro.

      I also hereby invoke my (wo)manly right to be variable, and later amend these answers :P

  33. Quincy Rhoads

      Frances from Carson McCullers’ short story “Wunderkind.” There’s something about the hopelessness she realizes is in her life that transcends gender and haunts the reader day in and day out.

  34. Quincy Rhoads

      In terms of real people, Hadley Hemingway takes my heart.

  35. A_Witt

      Diane Di Prima, because (among many
      other wonderful things) she wrote this poem:


Song for Baby-O, Unborn




when you break thru


you’ll find

      a poet here


not quite what one would choose.


I won’t promise


you’ll never go hungry


or that you won’t be sad


on this gutted





      but I can show you




enough to love


to break your heart





I read this poem to my own babies before they were born, and reading it again now takes me back to those days of fear, anticipation, and realizing a love unlike anything else.
      Thank you Diane, and thank you Kate for what you are doing.

  36. Jason

      My favorite literary heroine is Ursula Branwen from Lawrence’s “The Rainbow.” She’s smart, uninhibited, passionate, sensitive, and imaginative. More importantly, she’s not afraid to follow her heart’s desires, especially in regards to the crush she had on her teacher.

  37. Aurelio Giardini

      Literary heroines… The list is long, and undoubtedly outnumbers the list of literary heros, so choosing one is tough.

      Though my impulse is to go with someone more outspoken, more angry, more willing to fight for a place within literary conversations, I’ll say Lorine Niedecker. The only woman typically listed as an Objectivist poet (though why Mary Oppen and Celia Zukofsky are ignored is beyond me), she managed to produce an incredible body of work, though geographically isolated from any poetic hub. She never completed college, but through insistent research, and long-lasting correspondence with other poets, filled her poems with scholarly material. Though she had Louis Zukofsky’s admiration, it seems he treated her quite terribly. Basil Bunting and Cid Corman perhaps provided more constant support, though from a distance.

      Her Collected Works is incredible; one of the gems of twentieth-century poetry. There are many wonderful poems throughout, but lately, this has been a favourite:


      Tell em to take my bare walls down
      My cement abutments
      Their parties thereof
      And clause of claws

      Leave me the land
      Scratch out: the land

      May prose and property both die out
      And leave me peace

      – Joseph

  38. Kate Z

      These were all so so good! I really wished I could have given each of you a copy of Heroines! It was a really hard call – but can Ellie (for Ida Bauer/Dora), ags (for that short sweet Emma B. answer), and Grant M. (for that wonderful May Sarton consideration, who I have not read and I want to) email me your addresses at francesfarmerismysister@gmail.com?

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