Kate Zambreno’s literary history-memoir Heroines is a work so full of fighting voices and channelled pasts, that to discuss it thoroughly, it seemed one mind would simply not be enough. Over the next several days, we will post an exchange between Jesse Miller (reviews editor), Annie Rebekah Gardner (writer), and Helen Stuhr-Rommereim (contributing editor), discussing the book. Please continue to check back to share in the conversation.
Day 1 of our conversation can be found here.
First, I ought to get my fangirl-ish accolades out of the way: I thought this book was exquisite. I found myself in a bit of a state of ecstasy on first read, and though there are critiques that I agree with — Roxane Gay’s review for the Rumpus notes Heroines‘ “silences, particularly surrounding race and class and heterosexual privilege,” and I won’t refute that, and like Helen I was rather put off by the writer’s anti-Rust Belt Ohio sentiments — the work as a whole to me is a milestone not only in how we can dismantle the canon but in the creative new ways writers are taking on academic texts. I found the entire way that the book was conceived to be very exciting, which led me to be a forgiving reader, and having followed Zambreno’s trajectory of work for a hot minute in both her fiction and her blog, I felt it represented a new facet of her work that as a reader and a fan I’m anxious to see more of. I think it is, as Jesse has just suggested, so much more than a simple thesis about Women and Silence and The Canon.
To address Helen’s discussion of the messiness: I personally enjoy the fact that messy women are finally in a zeitgeist-y limelight, both subjectively — I am easily conceived of as a messy woman, and I have the insurance bills to prove it — and objectively — if an objective critique of messiness even exists. I am grateful to Zambreno for continuing this new tradition, because I think it’s important, even aside from the obvious binary-ish idea that men can be messy and unlikeable, now it’s our turn, etc. It’s interesting too because though Heroines itself is not rigidly structured and plays with genre and form throughout, its backbone is actually in how exactingly thought out it is. Zambreno herself has noted that this has been a project eight years in the making; for a work that “glorifies” messiness (and I’m really not sure that “glorifies” is the right word here; from what I know of Zambreno her aim is not to glorify women’s messiness but to make meaning of it, though she may be of the opinion that there is certainly something glorious in the feminine wreck) it has been extraordinarily crafted and I get the sense that Kate Zambreno could recite this book backwards and forwards if she wished.
I think there is a specific strand of contemporary white liberal feminism that refutes the narrative of the Messy Woman (and ignores the narrative of the Messy Girl altogether) that requires and attempts a narrative (more like a brand, really) of a woman who is strong, successful, business casual, Clintonesque, and though it’s a narrative that is likable enough (Having It All is so appealing for we youth of Late Capitalism) it’s a narrative that is patently untrue and maybe not as aspirational as it claims to be. Zambreno notes that even our feminist foremother Simone de Beauvoir “doesn’t give the silly girl any space to revolt” and I appreciate this deliberate contribution to the growing texts on messy women and their aims for new forms of feminist subjectivity and radical vulnerability. We’re in a pretty interesting and bizarre epoch in terms of messy literary women (cf. Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night-Stand Of A Life, Cat Marnell, Marie Calloway, 90% of Tumblr) and I think that Zambreno does a beautiful job of both interrogating and embracing it. The truth is that while I don’t wish for my own messiness to define me, if I had a choice I would just as soon prefer to let it possess me then to suppress it and lock it away.
I actually love that Jesse has addressed this idea of possession because it was something I hadn’t really thought about, and I think especially the juxtaposition of Zambreno possessing these heroines versus these heroines as their husbands’ possessions is quite purposeful and brilliantly done. This idea of séance, of her invoking and absorbing these past lives in her own affect and appearance speaks to this narrative of witchiness and femininity that we’ve been seeing a lot lately, sort of a feminist communion of lost souls. Because, ethical considerations of who speaks for whom and where and why aside, it turns this originary notion of possession — possession in the sense of being husband’s object — on its head, a repossession of sorts. This is a pretty radical means of critique, and in fact I don’t think Zambreno is desiring to speak for these heroines but rather hoping that they speak through her. Possession in this ghostly, witchy sense is a two-way street. Zambreno herself has mentioned this in other venues as well, alluding to Zelda and Vivien(ne)’s ghostly tutelage, wishing to have a séance with Kathy Acker after a particularly brutal rejection. On more than one occasion, Zambreno has claimed being obsessed with these women’s lives, but obsession shouldn’t be conflated with possession. Obsession appeals to an idea of the girlish, and in Zambreno’s admission of her own writerly obsessions, I’m reminded, fondly, of my obsessions as a 17-year-old, my attempts to actually be my own varying literary heroines: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker. In the early pages of Heroines Zambreno alludes to these women, and others — Cixous, Sontag — as forming an indispensable “invisible community” for her in her own nascent days of writing. What a lovely idea that really gets down to the heart of what we stand to gain from literature in the first place, and why there’s such a need to intervene in the Canon-as-is and repossess it as a (non-)Canon-to-be.
I agree, Annie, that Heroines presents an exciting way of engaging with literature — it works on a level that feels at once very academic in depth, but not at all academic in form. To talk about forgotten and marginalized writers fits pretty comfortably into contemporary literature scholarship. There is certainly plenty of room in academia to reinsert figures into a canon, or to attempt to reconfigure a canon altogether. But what Zambreno’s doing isn’t exactly that.
The term “hybridity” gets used a lot in the context of books like Heroines that pull together a lot of different forms of writing. But what is exciting isn’t the subversion or ignoring of genre, but a kind of freedom of argument-making and storytelling that by necessity cannot fit into any particular genre. I think it’s an important point to make how carefully crafted this book clearly is, which was part of what I was referring to in terms of the massive amount of knowledge Zambreno clearly absorbed in order to write it. I read the introduction to a translation of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Material for a Theory of the Young Girl recently in which the translator, Ariana Reines, talks about her complicated relationship with the text. She says, “although it does not belong to me it did pass through me, and the desire to render it as I might have preferred it, and likewise to love it in spite of myself, were consequences of translation’s strange and painful surrogacy.” Zambreno obviously was not a translator, the situations aren’t perfectly analogous, but I think what we have been discussing, in terms of performance and/or possession, is maybe part of a similar process of passing through. I often have this kind of twisted up relationship with things that I’ve read — a relationship not so much predicated on opinions that can be formed via critical distance, but rather on how the book mixes into my own life. Certainly I feel quite twisted about Heroines. But even the simple process of reading can sometimes feel like a “painful surrogacy.” That intimacy with literature is something Zambreno puts in the forefront of her writing.
People talk about “digesting” texts, often in the sense of having cogitated over, ruminated on, and come to a full understanding of them, but in actual digestion the digester and digested get all mixed up together. This is the part of the process that it seems Zambreno is interested in, and that Heroines really brings to the fore. As Roxanne Gay wrote in the review Annie referred to, “What intrigues me most about Zambreno’s writing is how it so richly embodies the ethos she espouses.” Zambreno herself describes her process as one of having “vomited it all up.” What first jumps out about that statement is the implied speed and automation of it, but maybe the more important part is that there’s a processing through oneself that takes place.
So I guess getting back to Jesse’s question about Zambreno’s shifting positions, the more this book sits with me, the harder time I have separating the arguments she actually makes from the ways that they are made.
It’s also interesting to me how conversation about this book, and our conversation in particular, has centered on the way that literature is written about and discussed, and has engaged very little with the particular era of literature that Zambreno writes about. That probably has to do with our particular interests and knowledge bases, but it also speaks to how well she pulls her characters into the contemporary. It’s a history that lives in the present moment.
But I wonder, how much have either of you read of the writers that she talks about? Jean Rhys? Djuna Barnes? Zelda Fitzgerald? Can we bring this conversation into some of the specifics of this literature at all?
And how much is it about the literature and how much is it about the people? There’s no separation here of biography and work produced, maybe that’s something else we can discuss.
The author is not dead!