To Write As a Woman Is Political
I started writing this on my personal blog but then I decided I would post it here. I got the most gorgeous letter today from someone who read my latest short story, “Strange Gods,” in the current issue of Black Warrior Review. In her letter, she talked about how important the story was to her and things so flattering I kind of choked a little. It was such a, I don’t know what it was, it was something to have a complete stranger I have never interacted with say, “your writing is important; your writing reached me.” She she thanked me for reminding her to fight the good fight. I have a point here that is not self-indulgent, I promise.
I receive the most correspondence about the stories I write about women, stories that are often intense and dark and intimate. Most of these letters come from women who thank me for telling these kinds of stories, for bringing a kind of testimony to certain women’s experiences and when I’m starting to lose faith in my writing, it is really humbling to hear that sort of thing. It reminds me that my stories may not reach everyone but they do reach some people and I think that’s what most of us want, to reach people, to make them feel, to make them bear witness.
There are a wide range of women’s experiences. A woman’s story is not just about violence or rape or the loss of an unborn or barely born child though, admittedly, those themes are the foundation of most of my writing. There are happier stories, painful stories, easier stories, different stories that are just as complex and necessary and important. As far as I’m concerned, any story that speaks to a woman’s experience is important. Now, please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. To affirm one kind of story is not to disaffirm another. Men’s stories are just as important but this not about that.
I look at what’s happening to women in this country right now and my commitment to the stories I write is reaffirmed as is my commitment to the idea that there is such a thing as women’s stories and they matter and to vocalize that is important.
Some Congressmen, elected representatives, tried to redefine rape. They tried to introduce into the lexicon of rape, the term forcible rape, as if there’s some sort of more pleasant alternative like, you know, unforcible rape. I assure you there is not. Some (mostly) men were sitting in a fancy building in their fancy suits in Washington talking about the violation of a woman’s body as if that’s something they have any business discussing and, of course, they were doing this in service of the ongoing, almost evangelical campaign to dismantle a woman’s right to an abortion. They were trying to say that some kinds of rape are worse than others, again, as if they have the right. Those Congressmen are backing down but they’ll be back. The fact that this conversation happened, in Congress, and will happen again, makes me nauseous, literally nauseous. It makes me feel like we, all of us, men and women, should be marching in protest because it is an outrage.
There is a politician in Georgia who wants to legislate women’s bodies and experiences in a different way by investigating all miscarriages to ensure that a given miscarriage was, indeed, spontaneous. He wants to not only violate a woman’s privacy, her confidential medical history, and her body, he always wants to violate what is, for many women, a very painful, personal (and private) experience. He is proposing a law that actually violates federal law. This man is obviously insane but that the thought even crossed someone’s mind is horrifying. I’ll be honest. My first reaction was, “I wish a motherfucker would.” Here’s the bill, in case you were wondering. This insanity has actually gotten that far. It has become codified which only continues to legitimize the notion that women’s bodies are the purview of legislative inquiry, that women’s bodies require a different set of rules, that when you are a woman, your body is not free to fail without interrogation.
I read about these things and work myself into a white hot rage and I start to think maybe these men think this is acceptable because there aren’t enough women’s stories out there.
I am often accused, or labeled as a centrist. I’m actually not. I don’t talk about the issues I care passionately about because they’re personal (and, I suppose, political) and because I cannot have a rational conversation about them. It seems easier to keep quiet and to talk about issues on which I can entertain other perspectives. I cannot be swayed on certain matters or be open to other points of view. I fully acknowledge this flaw in my nature. There are matters about which I’m rabid. I froth at the mouth.
When there are conversations about writing and politics, a lot of writers, myself included, have said, I’m a writer (which, when translated, often means, “I’m a lover, not a fighter”). We say, politics are not my concern. I suppose, as others have noted, politics become a concern for most of us when they encroach upon our lives in such a way that we feel compelled to take action. That’s not ideal, but we’re human and we’re selfish. We cannot fight every fight or always do the right thing or always be the citizens of the world we should be. Still, I thought about Lily Hoang’s recent post about writers and what they were or weren’t saying about Egypt. When I first read her post, I thought, “I’m just not a political writer.” I was not apathetic but I was also, as I commented, hesitant to say anything because I’m not as well versed on Egypt as I feel I needed to be to say anything worth listening to. Where certain political issues are concerned, I care, quietly. I read, watch, listen. Is that the right approach? I do not know. Perhaps action is demanded of all of us whether we feel called to the task or not.
Because I tend to write domestic stories, these claustrophobic stories about the lives of women, I have often had a bit of what I suppose is an inferiority complex, thinking maybe I wasn’t writing “important stories” befitting the imprimatur of political writing. When I think of political writing, I generally think about writing that deals with matters beyond the domestic realm—reporting on the war, for example, or writing about the current state of political uprisings in the Middle East, or human rights violations, or global poverty—these overwhelming issues that affect human lives in ways I can hardly understand most of the time because we’re insulated from certain kinds of crisis in the United States.
These global, overwhelming issues are, indeed, very serious issues that demand serious writing and attention. I do think, however, that I need to stop seeing this as a binary where either you’re writing about the personal and the body, or you’re writing about some of these larger scale issues. The more I think about it, all these stories are about how people wield power over the personal and the body and to what end. Writing about sexual violence or, as Kyle termed it this week, the literature of abortion, or of marital ennui, or the quiet desperation of motherhood or the joy of motherhood or miscarriage, these are stories that are overwhelming and affect human lives too. Perhaps it is simply a matter of scale.
As you can tell, I’m just trying to think through all this and what it means to write politically and what my responsibility as a writer is, if anything, toward writing politically. I started writing about this in my I Know Not of War post, how I generally feel I don’t know enough about some of these global issues to write on them credibly. My thinking here is an extension of that post because I actually did read the comments on that post and have thought about them a great deal. I still don’t know where my responsibility lies but this is something that remains on my mind. For now, though, I guess I would say the female body and its experiences is my war, the war I do know of and the legislative attack on the female body is where I want to start to stand my political ground as a writer. As I look at the ways in which women’s experiences and women’s bodies are being legislated right now and how legislators (often, men) are trying to decide what happens to our bodies and why, how they’re trying to take away our access to affordable gynecological care by defunding Planned Parenthood, how our right to have a legal, safe abortion has consistently been under attack for more years than I care to count, I realize it is impossible, as a woman and as a writer, to be anything BUT political. Anytime I write a story about a women’s experience I am committing a political act. I am trying to say these stories matter, these kinds of people matter, that these stories are as critical and consequential as the kinds of stories more traditionally considered political. I’m a relatively unknown writer. I don’t know how far my voice will ever reach. I don’t know that my words will ever sway a Congressman who thinks he has the right to legislate my body. I do know, however, that my writing reached one girl today and that feels like a good start.