Women We Read This Week

A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.

Olivia Laing’s “A Flowered Planet” in Aeon

I’ve been loving this publication ever since it started, and Laing’s most recent contribution is a perfect reason as to why. Most of these essays, and Laing’s in particular, are meditations that sometimes go deep into biological, psychological, philosophical or metaphysical arenas. Laing’s piece does this by bringing us to the molecular level and into the surprisingly complex and foreign world of flowers. This essay immerses us in the science and history of herbalism via a look at Shakespeare and later at an account of Neanderthal skeletons found with specific pollen fossils in a cave in the Zagros Mountains of Iraq. Laing writes:

What strikes me about both these stories is that they encapsulate the belief that plants have meaning, that they possess a significance that is both due to and transcendent of their physical attributes. This widespread and culturally pervasive phenomenon has many manifestations. It is evident, for example, in floriography, the language of flowers, which codifies plants according to human qualities, and which Shakespeare was utilising when he made Ophelia hand out her eloquent bouquets. In this nearly extinct dialect, which lives on in scholarly supposition and facsimile Victorian gift books, fennel means flattery and columbine faithlessness, while violets stand for innocence: a code Shakespeare’s audiences would certainly have grasped.

Laing strikes just the right balance between the science and wonder of plants: “Herbs offered the promise of increased vitality, connection or rootedness by association, a sympathetic magic,” and it’s the eventual loss of rootedness through overly complex science that pulled Laing away from her study of plant medicine. “I began to feel that I didn’t understand what I thought I had long since grasped: how the body works, in both sickness and in health. This revelation of what I can only describe as a terrifying complexity gave me a kind of vertigo. Gradually, I began to realise that my interest in humans and plants was not about trying to effect change, but trying simply to observe.” I can personally relate to Laing’s falling out of love with science, and I admire the eloquence with which she can still immerse the reader deep into the plant world, evoking wonder and the firm belief that “No matter what meanings we ascribe to them, plants maintain their mystery.”

Vanessa Veselka’s “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters” in The American Reader

What can I say about this essay? It’s essentially a different manifestation of our Vela manifesto. Veselka uses her own experience as a teenage hitch-hiker as a lens through which to examine the lack of female experience represented in travel writing, what she calls “road narratives.” She explores the ways in which this silence mixes with alienation and cultural ostracization; the implications of that; and how that is damaging, connecting it to issues beyond female travel writing: “lacking a variety of narratives is unsafe for anybody on the margins.” She talks about the violence our culture expects a woman traveler to encounter, and the way women are often blamed for the violence when it does occur (see our blog post: http://velamag.com/blog/solo-female-travel-isnt-the-problem/) or worse, the silence that consumes them, in a very 2666 way. Veselka depicts what it feels like to be on the margins of society. And she manages to connect all these issues into a strong argument:

I am not suggesting that women wrap themselves in male quest narratives and go penniless out onto the highway. But I am suggesting that women on the road deserve to be painted with a more complex palette, and that there is a profound difference between how we as onlookers respond to someone we perceive as motivated by a sense of adventure, versus someone we fear may have been shunned. Furthermore, we might want to consider that hidden inside the tale of Huck Finn poling down the river, like a stream within in a stream, is the story of female exile.

So basically, hats off and we here at Vela totally agree.

One thing that did strike me as curious was that Veselka didn’t mention any of the female travel narratives that do exist. While reading the essay, I kept wanting to interrupt, “But have you read Wild?” Books like Four Corners, West With The Night and pretty much anything by Jan Morris also came to mind. And while the slimness of the cannon of female travel narratives certainly proves the point Veselka is making, I couldn’t help but wonder at the seeming lack of engagement with that cannon. To not even mention Wild, a number one NYT bestseller just last year, seemed strange to me, and I felt that an exploration of that text’s very recent success would have made for a more compelling and complex argument (ie: Is there only room for one book like this every decade? What about that text made it successful *now*?…)

I was also intrigued by the separation of “road narratives” from the larger genre of “travel writing.” By pointing to Huck Finn, Siddhartha and On The Road, Veselka seems to be defining “road narratives” as transformative physical and personal quests that involve some element of danger or adventure. This isn’t so far from what most people consider “travel writing” to be. So why not claim the term? Travel writing gets a bad wrap; it includes everything from outsider classics like the ones Veselka cites to shlocky I-learned-the-tango-in-Argentina texts. But by making a distinction between “road narratives” and “travel writing,” Veselka seems to be placing a higher valuation on the former, which seems in direct opposition to her point. If male travel narratives shouldn’t be valued above female travel narratives, than adventurous outsider travel narratives shouldn’t be valued above other types of travel narratives.

Regardless of the small points, we’re thrilled to see this conversation opening up more, and garnering the attention and discussion it deserves.

Laurie Penny’s “The View From Somewhere” in Jacobin

This concise, focused essay examines the fallacy of objective journalism. “Every reporter changes the story,” Penny succinctly tell us. Penny details incidents in which she felt her age and gender affected her interactions with interviewees:

I’m only telling you this to make it clear that there’s no such thing as a “view from nowhere” — that weird mainstream media orthodoxy that holds that the perfect journalist, the ideal journalist, can only discover truth by adopting a posture of invisibility, that the perfect journalist should be little more than a human recorder himself — always himself, because this perfect reporter is invariably imagined as male, usually as a middle-class white dude from an English-speaking country. Those are the only people whose race and class and gender and nationality ever get to be “invisible,” whose views get to be from “nowhere,” because they are everywhere.

The point of this piece isn’t just that the privileged (white, male, educated, American) voice is the one that is considered invisible. Penny is really writing about the fallacy of all objectivity: “It doesn’t matter if the report you write doesn’t use a single first-person pronoun, if your face doesn’t appear in the video: you’re there, whether you like it or not, and the most dangerous thing any journalist, “citizen” or otherwise, can do is buy into the myth of their own objectivity.” Her argument reminded me of one of the best tips I ever got about writing, from a sociology text by Gunnar Mydral: that unless we make our biases explicit, they become implicit in our work. — Lauren

Interview with Lauren Groff, “American Utopia,” in Guernica

I really enjoyed “American Utopia,” an interview of Lauren Groff up on Guernica this week. In it the novelist talks about her writing process (longhand!), book promotion (mortifying!), and gender in the literary world:

…if you’re a writer who happens to be a woman, you’ll get a book cover that depicts a woman with no head, or a woman turning away, or a pair of high heels. You have to fight to not get stuck with these covers. In the U.S. women are chick-lit writers unless they prove otherwise, and that’s frustrating. I want to be identified as a writer, not a Southern writer, not a woman writer, not a woman from this or that place, but unfortunately it doesn’t always happen. Arcadia has a male character at its center. I didn’t write a book with a male character to get more attention, but a female writer does definitely get more attention if she writes about male characters. It’s true. It’s considered somehow more literary, in the same way that it’s more literary to write about supposedly male subjects, such as war. You’re considered more seriously by the literary establishment.



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