I worried that my writing would be pigeonholed when I began writing in my twenties. After years of writing and seeing my work either ignored or pigeonholed, I realized constant worry about how I was perceived would drive me crazy. I realized that I could only be who I am: Black and a woman and a writer, and that I could only do one thing: strive to write the best damn story I can. The rest is out of my control.
The New York Times recently asked Jennifer Szalai and Mohsin Hamid why there isn’t a Great American Novel written by a woman? Both writers concluded that there is no such thing as the Great American Novel. “But if the idea of the Great American Novel is blinding us to exquisite fiction written by women, then perhaps its harm is exceeding its usefulness,” Hamid wrote. We think that’s a bit of a cop out. But a few women showed up on our list of the Greatest American Novels.
I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel. In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.
Rather than thinking about diversity as this vague yet complicated notion, I like the idea of looking for urgent, unheard stories. This fall, many such stories abound from writers of color.
As much as I’d like to believe that I am simply a writer, and no matter how hard I may fight against the addition of other labels, I know that the culture we live in doesn’t currently allow that. As a woman and a minority, anything I write is automatically going to be associated with those labels because in our culture there is that tendency to label, to put into groups, to differentiate—these are ethnic stories, these are women writers—because somehow it’s hard for us to even consider the possibility that we could relate to the situations in these stories, that we could ever identify with the characters in them.
“Rachel Kushner is in her mid-30s, which means she has not yet reached full stride as a writer. Yet her first two novels have taken her a long way toward huge. How did she do it? How did she go so far, so fast? Turns out it was easy as one, two, three.”
Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huge by Bill Morris
But Rukeyser wrote enough to leave her artistic legacy mixed. While there is certainly no native opposition between poetry and politics, Rukeyser’s passion for radical social causes left a good part of her poetry feeling stilted and forced. Especially as the Cold War unfolded, Rukeyser’s worker-centered social protest cast a shadow over her career. She was monitored by the federal government until the 1970s. But her ecstatic love for the fundamental good in human beings, and her faith in the making of a better world, breathes through her work. Her humor gives it buoyancy. “O for God’s sake,” she wrote in a poem called “Islands,” “they are connected underneath…”
I had the feeling that my children thought that I stood frozen inside the house while they were at school, only to be reanimated when they burst back through the door at the end of the day. Sure they knew I was a writer, but what did that actually mean to them?
"It is the persistent, damning mischaracterisation of Zelda as ‘insane’ that most needs undoing. The trouble lies in the diagnosis she was given in 1930: ‘schizophrenia’. While today we know it to mean severe mental illness requiring delicate and often lifelong treatment with medications, therapies, and sometimes institutionalisation, in Zelda’s time it was a catch-all label for a range of emotional difficulties."
I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own.