My Answers to questions given to all the panelists in preparation for a session on “When Women Write”: a TIFA event held at Harbourfront – May 29, 2019
How do you think, and feel, about the label “woman writer”? Elaborate.
It depends who is doing the labelling. If the term “woman writer” is being used by men to suggest that I cannot speak for or appeal to an audience that includes dudes, that my work is limited in scope or subject matter just because of my DNA, then I reject it. The term then becomes patronizing, like “authoress” or “poetess” – a sub-category or minority group which assumes that the default term “writer” is always male.
If the term “woman writer” is being used to make connections between my writing and that of other women, then I welcome it.
What do you think it means to be “a woman writer”?
I think it means that I have to try to speak from a position that is not central to the canon and that I have to resist some of the traditions of that canon which might find their way into my writing as uninterrogated habits of vocabulary or outlook if I am not careful. I’ll give you some examples that I noticed, with some shame, when editing my last novel, The Discovery of Flight, for the press. One of the protagonists is a 12-year-old girl keeping a journal in anticipation of her Bat Mitzvah. She is constantly questioning religion. In a few places she referred to God as “he”. I went back and changed all those references to the name “God” or the pronoun “they.” Another time she used the word “mankind”. I changed that to “humanity”. It didn’t feel right, or authentic, for a contemporary kid – an outspoken feminist – defaulting to patriarchal language. But I had done so, through seven drafts of the novel, without noticing until the pressure of publication made me scrutinize every word. (My feminist press didn’t notice either, by the way.)
Another protagonist in the book is a hawk. During that final edit I noticed the hawk saying something egregious as well – she said she would be back “in an hour”. Obviously, hawks don’t think in hours! I changed that to “when the moon rises.” I think these changes are analagous – they come from unconsciously adopting the dominant point of view: that of a male human being.
What (if any) are positive aspects of being a woman writer?
I know a lot of kickass women!
What (if any) are negative ones?
Social pressure and familial expectations that l am still meant to be a domestic goddess. I am supposed to put my husband and children first. I have been chastised by all kinds of folks whenever I complained about not having time to write. My husband is a career glassblower. NO ONE ever suggested that he should put us ahead of his art.
On the other hand, I was also criticized by childless colleagues when I inadvertently quit academia by staying home with my children for too long. So there’s that too.
Did you have any woman writers as role models when you first began writing? Do you now? Do you think this is important?
The poet Denise Levertov was my teacher in university back in the early 70s and remained my mentor and friend. I doubt I would have had the confidence to persist with poetry without her example and encouragement. When I moved to Toronto at the end of that decade, I fell in with a lovely group of poets including Carolyn Smart, Bronwen Wallace, Mary di Michele, and Roo Borson; later friends included Rhea Tregebov and Martha Baillie and, most importantly, British writer Helen Dunmore. Finding like-minded peers has been hugely important for me.
How does being a woman writer intersect with other aspects of your identity (ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, etc.)?
Though I try to include other positions and identities in my work – including, for example, a hawk – I feel most comfortable speaking as a heterosexual Jewish woman. I suspect that writing fiction that is overtly Jewish has limited my audience, however. For example, when The Tale-Teller, my picaresque fantasy about life in 18th-century Quebec came out, it was reviewed in the English Canadian press as though it was worthy but boring History and therefore of limited interest to anyone who wasn’t Jewish. This was not the case for the French translation, interestingly enough. It was embraced by the Quebec press as an imaginative riff on 18th-century philosophy. I was thrilled to be read in the intellectual context I had intended.
Do you think there are any differences between how women and men write (in terms of both the writing process and the books themselves: themes, styles, etc.)?
I suspect that when Daddy is in his office writing no one interrupts him. Mommy makes sure of that! Also, when Daddy submits a book, it isn’t pigeonholed as “men’s fiction”; it is simply seen as “fiction.” Incidentally, I have noticed that the same male critics who used to call my poetry “domestic” before they had kids are now writing poems about fatherhood, and they get praised for increasing their range -whereas I was scolded for “limiting” mine by writing about the exact same subjects.
Is there anything distinctly “female” about your writing?
I only write with quills dipped in menstrual blood. Or, failing that, bright pink ink.
Do you think your career as a writer would be different if you were a man? If so, how?
I can’t prove it, but back in the day, when I could never get even one English course to teach at U of T (even though I had a PhD from there and had taught there for years, because the department claimed to be saving those courses for their grad students to teach), Al Mortitz always got courses because he had pals – men his age, serious manly men with tweed jackets and fake English accents who had gone to American universities – in the English Department. He had the gravitas they were looking for. That is, he had supreme self-confidence, a deep voice, and a beard. I had none of these things. I am not blaming Al for this, by the way. The prejudice is systemic.
On the other hand, I think my career would have been different if I’d flattered such men more, or flirted with them, or been cuter, or more helpless. Alas, I was neither a man nor a “feminine” enough woman.
Do you think being a woman writer affects any of the following?
- Your creative process / the act of writing
- Yes because of domestic expectations, obligations, lack of time, constant interruption
- The likelihood of your books getting reviewed
- Yes, obviously, see CWILA!
- The likelihood of your getting invited to write book reviews
- Perhaps – I have no idea because no one has asked me for years. Being old is nearly as bad as being a woman when it comes to such things, and I am both.
- The likelihood of your getting invited to speak on panels and at conferences
- I suspect so. For the same reasons – female and old.