author – activist – faculty – mom
I am deeply moved by Claire Vaye Watkins’ brilliant speech-turned-essay published on Tin House, “On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man.” She begins the long essay with reflections on teaching that include being sexually harassed and utterly dismissed as a writer by the male editor of the Rumpus. But then she reveals the heart of the piece: she has spent her career up until that point “writing to impress old white men…a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.” The piece was trending online yesterday and went viral in many writers’ circles this week.
According to bestselling novelist Carolina De Robertis on the WOM-BA (Word of Mouth Bay Area – women writers’ list):
“it is rare for a male writer’s egregious misogyny to be called out so publicly, and in such a clear and thoughtful voice. It is even more rare for a female author to write with such rigorous self-reflection about how internalized sexism has shaped her writing, what she’s chosen to write and portray in work that has been published to acclaim….How our minds can be colonized at the moment of actual writing — that is a slippery yet crucial piece of how patriarchy operates in our field. Claire’s dissection of her own relationship to the male gaze, and her deepened commitment to blast that apart, is brilliant.”
I have heard numerous women respond that this confession brings unwanted revelations that hit particularly close to home. For me, however, the revelation is about how I have, apparently, been protected from such temptation to pander. And this protection appears to have the most unlikely origins.
The gift began with grandfatherlessness. By the time I was born, both my grandfathers had been dead for decades. They had both died while each of my parents was in middle school. Which meant there was lingering trauma from their deaths, but no sense that I had nearly missed having either of them as grandparents. More like that well’s been dry for years.
My parents’ marriage fell apart when I was a baby, and I grew up with a single mom. By the time I was four, I had already gained and lost many family members, and calcified my vision of family that it was me and mom against the world.
Before I even entered kindergarten, I had given up on my father, and by extension, on all men. I was utterly and completely defeated by the system of male domination that decreed me unimportant. So I decided fuck that. I went where there was food and shelter and warmth. I would be a mama’s girl.
For better or for worse, I bring this sensibility into my writing. I write for women, and I always have. I don’t write for men. If men like my writing–want to buy it, or to support my work–awesome. But I had too many early lessons that preclude me from looking to men for that type of validation or structure.
I say my parents’ marriage fell apart, but that’s not totally true. My dad was not adjusting well to being a father. He was probably scared out of his mind, but he expressed his fear by berating my mother. So she left him. And she was able to leave, because she could move in with her mom–my widowed grandmother. So my earliest memories are of living in a multi-generational family of women.
Growing up as a black girl, there has been a constant lament about my community’s fatherlessness. But at some point in my 20s, I had the following revelation: yes, I was heartbroken that my biological father left, but I was better off without him. My dad is a good person, but too caught up in the music in his own head to be present as a father. He can be volatile, moody, withdrawn. It turned out to be harm reduction: the damage of his abandonment and absence was the lesser of the two evils. In fact, the most painful episodes with my father are not about his absences, but about the broken promises that followed the times I did see him. My dad loved me, but he was unable to fully see me and honor me. This is a valuable lesson in a male dominated society. Even though men may have a disproportionate quantity of the good stuff, it’s dangerous to count on men as your source.
And as I walked out into the world as a black girl, I didn’t encounter much in the way of male generosity. My teachers were mostly women. Apart from my very caring stepfather, everyone who took any interest in me was female. As a pre-teen, I was utterly invisible to boys and men.
And then I developed a woman’s body. Suddenly, I became visible. I had been thinking and speaking and walking in the world for many years, but suddenly men could see me. Suddenly men could hear my voice, because they wanted me to speak to them. To say yes to them. Men’s previous lack of interest in me as a female human with no breasts or hips but a working brain made it clear that my mind played little or no role in putting me on their radar.
Throughout my artistic career, there have been men who cared, who were supportive, who gave me wonderful opportunities. But never men who utterly championed me and my work. That is to say, no man ever went profoundly far out of his way or made any major sacrifices to support my work. As a spoken word artist, my core audience was always women, because I was often speaking to women about womanhood. So I don’t have a little white man inside of me whom I’m trying to please with my writing.
Let me be clear: maybe it would have been different if I had ever gotten any positive reinforcement. But in my experience, the white, male literary establishment has been so consistently uninterested in me, people like me, what people like me might have to say, people like me as protagonists or even well-developed characters. Thus, it’s not personal. I truly get it, at least at an intellectual level that men’s lack of interest in my work isn’t based on anything I’m doing wrong, but based on sexism (and racism). However, if you scratch the rejection deeply enough, there’s a level of hurt and maybe even hopelessness. It stings to know that half the population sees you as invisible, doesn’t give a fuck about you, or would be glad to have you in some kind of faceless support role to make their life go well. But being hurt by that kind of snub to your humanity isn’t the same as being confused by it. I know what’s true here: it’s not me, it’s you. So in my daily life, it’s a peaceful coexistence with patriarchy: you don’t care about me, and I’ll just add that to my list of reasons that I want to take you down.
Every rare now and then, I take a risk and attempt to get some kind of support or resource from a male teacher or writer who’s well-established and sought after. On these occasions, I feel incredibly anxious and distraught. I’m back to being that kid waiting to see if her dad will keep his promise or not. And then, back in the present time when I receive the predictable rejection, I got back to business as usual. Right. Fuck you, patriarchy. I’m still gunning for your ass.
Now, my personal life is a different story. I have struggled mightily over the years to balance wanting something from a man, and not being defined by it. My biggest lessons have been in my romantic relationship with my male partner. Ten years in, I’m learning to build healthy interdependence with my spouse. I love him. But I married a sci-fi geek. He loves me, but doesn’t particularly read my work. I envy women writers whose partners–male, female or otherwise–also partner them in their writer’s lives, who have that built in beta reader as part of their relationship. But it’s fine with me not to have the same deal. For example, probably a dozen people have read my book, and all of them are women. It’s never even occurred to me to ask a man, or to see what men think. Because, ultimately, I don’t care what men think about this book. It’s Urban Women’s Fiction. It will succeed or fail based on the response of women. If legions of men leap from the woodwork to prove me wrong, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But I’ve read the VIDA count. I have Jennifer Wiener‘s post in yesterday’s Guardian. I know the stats. I’m not betting on it.
Which is probably part of the reason I was so enthralled at BinderCon. This networking and professional development conference is just for women and gender non-conforming writers. It’s such a relief. I don’t have to wade through dozens of panels and workshops led by men and constantly correct for their gender bias. I know that everything these veteran women offer is actually relevant to me. I approached speakers and hotshots with confidence that they wouldn’t think I was wasting their time. I knew I wouldn’t get brushed aside for some bright up-and-coming lad they’d heard so much about, who reminded the men of their younger selves.
“On Pandering,” is so brilliant because it reveals with utter clarity that there are two things that are needed to address sexism in the literary industry. One is a demand that women be taken seriously as writers, and that we be given an equal shot at publishing opportunities, education, mentorship, awards, critical acclaim, and compensation. The other is an acknowledgement that some of us are upset by the sexism in the system, not only because we want to be successful, but because we want the big boys to like us. Unlike Vaye Watkins, many women are unwilling to surgically de-conjoin our twin emotions: rage at sexism and our deep desire for the approval of men. Granted, we have a right to professional respect and good regard in communities, but Vaye Watkins exposes something else: the wounded little girl’s need for love masquerading as professional aspiration.
I want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with men other than sexism. The system of male domination is not about individual men. It’s an institutionalized form of oppression that subjugates women and transgender people, but also is vicious to boys. Men are lovely human beings whose brutal early conditioning steers them toward self-absorption and oppressive, entitled attitudes toward women. But some are able to be kind and generous and supportive in spite of this, including some male writers. Vaye Watkins did an excellent job of clarifying this: it’s not about the individual men who have mentored her. They did great. It’s about the man in her head. About her conditioning that she needed to please them. About her epiphany that her entire career was steeped in a desire to please them.
Vaye Watkins’ own complex and infamous father died when she was a child. I don’t know enough about her story to draw a dotted line from him or other men or their absence or presence to her revelation about writing for an older man in her head. I do, however, have Galadrielle Allman‘s brilliant and haunting memoir of her famous/infamous father Duane Allman as a model of how the early death of a father can leave a daughter looking for him all her life. Also, Vaye Watkins’ father died when she was six years old. I have a six-year-old daughter, and I can tell you that if her dad died, she’d be devastated.
So I’m not raising her as a single mom. Rather, with married parents who have significant challenges, but work through them. While lack of a dad taught me not to invest in the patriarchy, it wasn’t an ideal situation. It wasn’t lost on me that people with two parents had more resources: emotional, financial, more parent hours to invest in making a comfortable life.
My daughter’s early messages about men are already very different from the ones I got. She has her father’s love, and she can count on him. But I hope that she’ll see the community I’ve built for myself, the world of women I move in, and learn that women can rotate in a real solar system of our own that doesn’t revolve around a male sun. We are solid enough to bet on and build our lives upon.