Rad Women Writers You Should Be Reading Now, Part 1: Experimental Prose
Last weekend I was hanging out with the ladies, trudging from one bar to another arm in arm like a miniature dyke march, when I was reminded of something I hadn’t really thought about since college. I was talking with them about one or another book I was reading and somebody said to me “you seem to read a lot of women writers. I’d really like to get some recommendations from you, I feel like all I read is dudes and I’d really like to change that but I don’t know where to start.”
I was surprised. Even these awesome, queer, feminist ladies in the Bay Area feel out of touch with the massive body of women-authored literature! It is, of course, due to many reasons outside of their control—the inequality in publishing and advertising of works by women, the pathetic amount of women writers included in curricula and anthologies, the perpetuation of the fallacy that male written experience is somehow more universal and more valuable than female written experience. I could go on indefinitely.
But instead of going on indefinitely, I’ve decided the more helpful thing to do is to actually offer those recommendations that my friends asked for. I don’t pretend to be the expert on woman-authored literature, and I certainly don’t pretend that woman-authored is a genre in and of itself, or that there’s something inherent in/essential to all writing by women. I just believe that reading things from diverse perspectives is crucial to being a well-rounded reader and a well-rounded person, and that you all want to be those things, right?
So, with all that in mind: This here is the first post in what will be a series called “Rad Women Writers You Should Be Reading Now,” a series in which I will offer short lists of author recommendations for your cultural enlightenment. Today we’ll be starting in the genre of experimental prose, because that’s what I’ve been reading a lot of recently, and because what’s more accessible than experimental writing?
So I know it’s a little ridiculous that I’ve already talked about Eileen Myles two times on this site, and that I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. But here’s the thing: I’m not actually sorry, because she’s such a good writer that I’ll continue shilling for her as long as anyone will listen to me.
She has been called “one of the savviest and most restless intellects in contemporary literature” by Dennis Cooper and “the rockstar of modern poetry” by BUST magazine. She grew up working-class and has been a vocal proponent of the notion of the working-class artist, insisting that what artists do is actually work. She ran for President of the United States on a write-in campaign as an “openly female” candidate in 1991-92, which is amazing. An accurate count of how many votes she got was never made.
By her own telling, Myles moved to New York City in 1974 to become a poet. Since then she has produced batches of books, essays, poems, plays, libretti, and even a political sestina for kicks. The two books by her that I have read are Sorry, Tree—a recent collection of poetry, and The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays In Art (the latter of which I reviewed here). Both are great, but I’ll side with the critics and say that Iceland is perfect, a totally perfect book. Her essays and lectures are, I would argue, more poetic than her poems. Read them if you think that arresting beauty can be expressed in simple, colloquial words.
Ok, more into the realm of fiction we go. Renee Gladman has a style that is sometimes a little hard to follow until you realize that that’s kind of her point. Her plots are mostly about the difficulty of communication, the confusion and alienation present in any human relationship or community. About paranoia, uncertainty, obscurity—and how all of these interact with our relationship to security. The Activist, her 2003 novel, alternately follows a journalist and a group of activists who may or may not have blown up a bridge. The activists, though they care for each other and share common principles, struggle to find the language to communicate their ideas to each other and their plans are frequently quashed before they can really get off the ground because of some small misunderstanding or inconvenience. I recommend this one to all of my activists friends, because that struggle is so real.
These same themes are present in The Event Factory, the first in Gladman’s science fiction series about the city of Ravicka and its citizens. The main character, a “linguist-traveler,” comes to Ravicka to learn about its culture and language, but discovers that people are fleeing the city for unknown—or at least unspoken—reasons. It is only by joining an underground group on the outskirts of town that she begins to learn the truth about the city—that it’s been falling apart for a long time, but nobody wants to admit it. This is the most interesting sci-fi I’ve read in years. And it manages to be tragic and strange and, somehow, painfully funny all at the same time.
Clarice Lispector is perhaps the oddest bird on this list, stylistically. She was born Chaya Lispector to a Jewish family in Ukraine in 1920, but adopted the name Clarice when her family emigrated to Brazil when she was just a year old. She is widely thought of as Brazil’s most revolutionary author.
Agua Viva is considered Lispector’s most known work. It is an interior monologue directed at an anonymous “you” and an experiment at making writing as close to pure, undiluted thought as possible. An attempt at making language do what only non-language can. In her own words, “what I say is pure present and this book is a straight line in space.” The book is difficult to define, a plotless, formless exploration of an individual’s wandering mind. But it is an incredibly meaningful work that pushes the boundaries of genre and form, and expands the scope of what writing can do.
Unfortunately, the first thing anybody learns about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha when they want to learn anything about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is that she was brutally murdered when she was only 31, by a stranger on the streets of New York, a week after her masterpiece, Dictee, was published in 1982. The artists and writers of New York felt her absence and mourned her tragic death with a memorial in the gallery space that was supposed to have an exhibit of the work she was making at the time of her death, and the readers of Dictee mourned that they couldn’t dialogue with the genius who created this beautiful and moving book.
Dictee is a book about colonialism, language, and alienation. The title, which literally means ‘dictation’ or ‘spelling test,’ alludes to the unnamed narrator/main character’s struggles in learning French, and how the words feel alien and violating in her Korean mouth. Throughout several narratives in the book, Cha dialogues with her mother and with other cultural mother-figures (Joan of Arc makes an appearance) about the historical feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, being an immigrant in a land that demands her to assimilate. Although she is the one who is ‘alien’ (an immigrant) in the foreign land, it is that colonial culture that pushes at and pierces her personal borders, that seeps in through her ears and mouth and eyes. It is an upsetting and deeply haunting book, and such an important look at how colonialism is still alive and well in Western culture.
In the middle of working on this list I picked up Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, because a friend had recommended it to me. I then proceeded to read the entire book in one sitting, spellbound.
A professor of Classics and a respected translator of Ancient Greek, Anne Carson has won the literary world’s great admiration—and a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and countless other literary awards. Although she has historically been cagey about applying the title ‘poet’ to herself, (and indeed, some critics have struggled to call her work ‘poetry,’ as it mostly has the paragraph format of prose) Carson’s writing mirrors Ancient Greek verse and its mythological themes of desire, obsession, and monstrosity. In Autobiography of Red, for example, the main character Geryon—a gay and sensitive young boy growing up in a rural town—portrays himself in his own internal, reality-bending story as a red monster with six hands, six feet, and wings. It’s a tragic and beautiful coming-of-age story that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Although all unconventional in their own ways, I promise that each of the texts mentioned here is also incredibly accessible. And even if they weren’t: you’re not afraid to expand your reading horizons, right? Expanding horizons is what it’s all about. Stay tuned for the next in this series, where I’ll talk about more obscure women writers that you need to add to your ‘to-read’ stack!