The Princess and the Soldier: A Girl Reading

Like everyone in possession of that most impractical English degree (or three), I have read my share of the canon. Those hurtled marble busts of white men, dead or otherwise, pates polished by reverence: I have read their books like a baited fish, trailing after beckoning green lights and yellow butterflies and muddy bottoms. I have dreamt their characters into my own consciousness: I am Werther and Holden. I have fought in a dozen wars at least. I have survived prisons and forced marches. I have been a slave, a priest, a king, a criminal. I have been both Prospero and Colonel Buendia. I have been Gregor and Nick and Vardaman and Huck and Raskolnikov and even Humbert Humbert.

It’s an old notion, but because of books, I’ve always imagined that, even if I were just some shy girl from nowhere, rapt in a tattered book, I might be anything at all. In my mind, anyway. Because it didn’t matter to me that these characters were men. Just as it didn’t matter if they lived in a different era or belonged to another class or happened to be French or Russian or British. None of this prevented my imagination from taking on and fleshing out these vantage points, and neither did sex. Whatever the particulars of my own anatomy, I had lived and sometimes died in their bodies.

I might have lived my life like that—my girl-body like an anchor at the bottom of the sea and my mind buoyed above in the airy world, tether and kite. I might have, except for what happened when I read great books by women.

 First among these was The Far Pavilions, that massive colonial romance novel that I hauled around for the second half of the fourth grade (the first half I’d weight-trained with Roots). M. M. Kaye (whom notably did not write under our shared name Mollie/Molly) was the first writer whose own life intrigued me. While I was the princess Anjuli and the soldier Ashton by turn, depending on whether it was a chapter of love or war, I was also, for the first time in my single-digit years as a literate being, imagining myself the author.

For lovers of macho male writers, try this on for size: In addition to writing books nearly equal in weight to a fourth grader, M. M. Kaye was a strong-willed woman who labored all but alone for five days delivering an out-of-wedlock child, while a tiger ate a water buffalo under her verandah. She eventually married her lover, a soldier, in the final days of World War II and the pair crisscrossed the map in the name of a diminishing empire, from Kashmir to Cyprus and Kenya and beyond. After that, he waited on her for fifteen years while she labored to write the book that was, at least in the year of my birth, the Gone with the Wind of the British Raj.

Of course, I read Gone with the Wind too. I was fourteen, a budding Scarlet O’Hara, at least in terms of my souring personality. It was Thanksgiving and my first time home from boarding school, but I could not bring myself to spend time with the family I had been missing so badly. Margaret Mitchell, I learned, had dressed as a boy and went by the name Jimmy until she was fourteen, but I wasn’t interested in being a boy.

Scoff, if you must, the low taste. Romance. Bah. (And, yes, there is much to say about my attraction to white colonialist and Confederate women, all of it apt. We are all the products of our particular bookshelves.) But realize that Holden can be as much of a struggle for high school girls to appreciate as Scarlet would be—I assume, since none I know have read it—for high school boys. The real difference is, high school girls are taught to appreciate both, while boys are permitted to indulge their adolescent gynobibliophobia until the condition becomes irreversible. Girls are taught to read phallic symbolism and Oedipal crises, but as a high school teacher I had to read the first pages of The Color Purple aloud to my class so the boys would make it past the word “pussy.”

I am generalizing, of course. But polarization isn’t what I intend. What I would like is to see the hierarchy (reason/phallus on top, sentiment/pussy/chick at the bottom) tipped sideways to make a spectrum, and maybe even stirred up a bit. I would like to see this for the sake of girls and women, yes, and also boys and men, whose imaginations have been kept out of one realm of experience just as women’s bodies have been kept out of another.

One problem is that women writers typical of high school curricula are heavy on the suicides, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and so forth, so when their work is read, it comes with an implied warning. But I met a living woman writer my sophomore year. She was Jill Ker Conway, whom I knew from her Road to Coorain (one of my first encounters with nonfiction) had grown up on a farm as I had and had worried about her thick ankles, which looked fine to me when she sat across from me, perched on an arm chair in my school’s living room looking elegant and college presidential and yet so human. Then I left New England for the South for college and met Maya Angelou, who spoke-sang from a university pulpit. The effect this had on me was something akin to an exquisite electrocution, a sensation that left the very reach of my body zinging like a violin string. Soon after this I was introduced to Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is the most under-appreciated writer of our time, said my professor, a Styron scholar whose Contemporary American Lit class required its own bookshelf to hold the assigned readings and an entire auditorium to hold the students lest they riot for seats. It was an important moment, but I didn’t hear him say that this was probably the result of gender biases because I was still fascinated by the news that Oates came from—of all places—the same dilapidated Upstate farming hollows where I’d grown up. The beautiful, troubling book in my hand had been put on paper by someone who was once not so different from me. By extension, one day maybe I could write a beautiful, troubling book that wasn’t my diary, that wasn’t me whispering to myself. Maybe, if she could do it, I could climb up that kite string.

Somewhere in this line of books—I’ve reread Out of Africa too many times to recall my first encounter—came Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen, who launched me beyond my borders. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible lying in a yak pasture in Tibet, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Clarice Lispector’s Family Ties high in the Sangre de Cristos, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea on a black sand beach, and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate in a town surrounded by volcanoes with a fifteen-year-old Quechua cook who told me after she had never read a book before. I also read many magnificent male writers in those years, Hermann Hesse, Michael Oondatje, James Baldwin, James Welch, Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, absolutely everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Wallace Stegner, and all of the one-namers: Faulkner, Updike, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Styron, Balzac, and Borges. The latter I escaped into, fully and gladly abandoning my limited self to the heights of imagination; the former I felt I embodied.

As college graduate suffering that great bafflement of a first “real world” job teaching sophomore English to the offspring of oligarchs in El Salvador, it was Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies that served me my first professional break-through. This time the book rocked me not because it resonated with my own experience, but because it walked a middle ground between my own and my students’ who until then had most definitely not tried on the personae of Communist insurgents. Because teaching is about sparking the fire in others, not stoking our own.

Nadine Gordimer, Annie Dillard, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Isabel Allende, Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel, and so many others: these are living women novelists writing for the ages. And their literary progeny are many and multiplying. There will be more still if the stockers of bookshelves—parents and teachers and reviewers and so on—remember to read like girls: to read overwhelmingly the literature of experiences unavailable to them in life, to recognize how work that reminds them of themselves resonates differently, and to appreciate both.

Male writers affected me, moved me, changed and inspired me. But male writers do not offer a way for a girl to be more than a receptacle for literature. The women writers, in contrast, did more than transport my mind away from my body. Whether I’ll ever write anything worth reading remains to be seen, but I have followed these women writers and others like them, almost without meaning to do so. I have marched, climbed, and crawled in the quest for stories. I have faced off against men with guns, against bureaucracy, against the implications of my own conflicted presence. I have met my lover in a garden full of ginger and hibiscus. I have given birth above a bullring, in the middle of a war. I have tried my best to help, and I have done, in spite of my best intentions, harm. Yes, sometimes, it’s funny to watch my adult life evolving along the same lines as my childhood novel reading: the romance maturing into realism and nonfiction. But if I hadn’t had such models as these writers, I might have stayed shy girl from nowhere living a life split between what was on the page and the girl I was. I might never have become the author of my own pages and my own life.

Don’t we owe our daughters this? And our sons, don’t we owe them the imaginary experience of being other than they are? Of being men who turn into bugs, of being criminals, of succumbing to their own courage, of being cyborgs and lionhearted kings and soldiers humping their frail boy-bodies through the sad swamps of past wars, yes, but also of giving birth or giving in to love, of being bound so tightly that madness ensues, of total vulnerability and violation, of suffering maternal love so fierce it slaughters the beloved?

Photo by Jeremy Avnet

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