AWP Report (Part 2): This One’s For the Grrls

Continuing my reflections on the AWP 2011 literary conference last month…

Two of the most memorable panels I attended addressed issues of gender and literature. I have never had much use for the head-counting strain of liberalism that correlates diversity with simple demographics. Is there such a thing as a (or worse, THE) “female perspective” and what’s wrong with me if I don’t have it? Thus, I was happy to discover that “The Great Indoors”, Thursday’s panel on women’s under-representation in major magazines and book reviews, also took aim at our assumptions about “women’s subjects” versus “universal subjects” in literature. The panelists were Cate Marvin, Patti Horvath, Mary Cappello, and moderator Randall Mann.

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts was founded in 2009 by award-winning poets Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding women’s work as well as the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture. Their most high-profile project is “The Count”, an annual compilation of statistics comparing the percentages of men and women published in top journals like Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. The ratio is usually one-quarter to one-third women. (Even I have noticed that The Atlantic scarcely ever has women as contributors, except for the lifestyle articles about why the sexual revolution has failed.)

Marvin said that since most of the work in these journals is solicited by the editors, it’s possible they are not working hard enough to reach outside their circle of friends. Women also tend to be less proactive about sending out work. We don’t take ourselves seriously enough as professional writers.

The gender imbalance is even more pronounced in the critics’ reception of women’s work. According to VIDA’s stats, fewer than 25% of the books reviewed in the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books are by women. Since the majority of book buyers are female, why isn’t there more perceived demand for women’s books?

Horvath suggested that critics assume that typically male subject matter (e.g. physical adventures in far-off lands) is universal, more impressive and important, while typically female subject matter (relationships) is special-interest. What makes one topic male and another female? This is where essentialist feminists usually lose my vote, with their sentimental division of the world into gendered skill sets.

But instead, Horvath contended, with great wit and passion, that constraints on women’s physical safety in a patriarchal society steer us towards some topics and away from others. She recalled the time, early in her studies, when a creative writing professor told her that to be a great author, she had to hop on a boxcar and tour the country, hobo-style. Yeah, good luck with that, hope it’s a boxcar full of mace… More recently, she was walking through New York at night with a male friend who pointed out winsome architectural details that she’d never noticed. How had she, a writer, not been more observant? Because, when a woman (but not a man) is walking alone through the city at night, a large share of her attention is devoted to threat perception. She keeps her head down and moves quickly.

As someone whose lifestyle is much closer to Emily Dickinson’s than Jack Kerouac’s, I found this quite validating.

The other panel that made a big impression on me was “Don’t Call Me Mother”, Friday’s panel on women writers who were child-free by choice. For me, being at AWP was a refreshing break from the endlessly frustrating and surreal process of looking for a child to adopt. I was surrounded by women whose identity and community were not dependent on motherhood, whether or not they had children. I saw models for how a woman could still be creative and connected to past and future generations, even in a distinctly female way (if she wanted to be), but outside the family unit. This is important to me because (1) I may never succeed at having children and (2) I never, ever want to put that pressure on my imaginary future scion to be the fulfillment of my life story instead of the protagonist of his/her/hir own.

The organizers of “Don’t Call Me Mother” were pleasantly surprised at the response to this topic. At least 50 women were packed into this small and hard-to-find seminar room in the remotest corner of the hotel. Many were asking for submission guidelines for their proposed anthology, which didn’t even have a website yet. Clearly they’ve touched a nerve.

Panel moderator Ellen Placey Wadey talked about the taboo in our society against women saying they don’t want children. It’s seen as unnatural, perhaps cold-hearted, perhaps threatening to our need to believe in mother-love without regrets. Both motherhood and non-motherhood have costs. All of the women on the panel (Wadey, Miki Howald, Geeta Kothari) decided that their writing and their other interests meant more to them than parenting. There’s not enough energy to “do it all”. On the other hand, how does it impact your own aging, your sense of legacy, when you know there is no next generation to care for you?

This is the ambivalence that I, too, live with. It’s taken me several years of infertility and adoption losses–years that were also outstandingly productive for my growth as a writer–to affirm myself as good enough to be a mother notwithstanding that ambivalence (or maybe even because of it).

Panelists and participants alike expressed frustration at the frequent second-guessing of their choices. As writers, we find it insulting to be told that an important area of human experience will be beyond our understanding unless we personally live through it. But this is what child-free women often hear from doctors, relatives, or friends who are concerned that they’ll have regrets after their biological clock runs out of batteries.

Howald reported that her mother asked, “How will you know how much I love you if you don’t have children of your own?” and “Aren’t you afraid of being alone when you’re old?” However, Howald noted, we are all capable of being abandoned–children grow up and move away, disappoint their parents, die young, etc. In parenting as in writing, every decision forecloses others. We need to have faith and not fear the consequences of following the path that feels true for ourselves.

Both Howald and Kothari observed that parenthood seemed encumbering to their own mothers. Kothari read an excerpt from her nonfiction book-in-progress about her mother, a girl from a traditional Hindu family who left India at 22 to become a U.N. translator in the 1950s, thereby becoming wholly foreign to her family’s culture of early marriage and housewifery. Kothari’s parents’ marriage was difficult, and she wrote about feeling guilty for trapping her mother in a situation she would have left if not for the children.

I can’t imagine a panel like this about non-fatherhood by choice. For these women, and probably many others, the decision against children is not entirely about the children themselves, but about rejecting this role of “mother” which still entails unequal sacrifices based on gender.

Without children to transmit our stories, we have to get creative about our legacy. Who will know or care about the unique memories embedded in the objects we leave behind? Inspired by Sotheby’s auction of Jackie O’s possessions, Wadey is creating an auction of her own: Contact her, get to know her, explain why you’re the right person to have her grandmother’s embroidered tea towels (for example), and she’ll leave them to you in her will. She brought a few of her legacy objects to the reading, including the tea towels, which were decorated with girls doing chores and the names of the days of the week (though a couple of days were missing). The presentation was memorable, amusing, and somewhat sad, at least to me, however much the panel was about putting a bold face on childlessness.

That said…someone who collects Barbies is going to be very happy when I die. (Other people will be happy for other reasons.)

Wadey also read poetry by Jan Beatty , who was scheduled to be on the panel but couldn’t make it. Beatty’s powerful, raw poems delved into the traumas of being an adoptee–the unwanted result of a one-night stand–and losing her uterus to cancer. In place of the power to create new life, her work finds a darker power, the strength of a woman who has survived rejection and incompleteness and lives with those wounds. We are indeed all vulnerable to aging, death, and abandonment, but childless women have to face the truth sooner and
with fewer illusions–which is also the writer’s prophetic burden. As Beatty wrote, “What is a woman without a uterus?…She is the night coming into view.”

Read more reflections on this theme on the Wunderkammer Poetry blog, where Wadey curated a week of “Don’t Call Me Mother” essays in 2009.

12 comments on “AWP Report (Part 2): This One’s For the Grrls

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Ah, the “things” we leave behind; the dear artifacts that were so “us”, but that cannot help but be ignored if we die childless, and misunderstood if we do not.

    For many of us, it is the favorite books and old photographs; maybe the old CDs and vinyl with the music that very much made us what we were – “our” music.

    We all have to make decisions, often hasty ones, about what to keep for a while, and what to toss. Who the hell was John O’Hara? Who are all these funny people – must have been a Halloween party, look at those clothes! Woody Guthrie? Wasn’t he an old Communist?

    I remember doing my mother the favor of going through my father’s clothes, to see what I could use. Well, nothing really, and everything.

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