Literary Foremothers: For the Them in Us
In 1980, I was in my first year of college, open to influence as never before or since. I spent that year getting high, playing pinball, agitating for a Women’s Center on campus, coming out as a lesbian, and crying a lot. I was very busy, but not with classes. I enjoyed my English class, though I depended on my friends to write the assigned papers for me. And I took a course called “The Role of the Intellectual in Revolution.”
I read Gramsci, and I met a lot of cool sophomores. They identified as Marxists, and they met to study and conspire, and they fancied that their phone lines were tapped. They believed that class oppression was the primary oppression, class difference the one from which all other power differences were derived. That seemed right to me. One of the Marxists was a young woman from Argentina I was intent on impressing. So when she asked if I wanted to come with her to hear a guest speaker in a class she was taking with Catharine MacKinnon, I couldn’t resist. I was, or I wanted desperately to be, what we called at that time “political.”
The guest speaker was a radical feminist I had never heard of, Andrea Dworkin. She began at the beginning; she spoke in perfect paragraphs; her arguments were profoundly persuasive; her diction was flawless; she never once consulted notes; she delivered a perfect essay; and she ended at the end, which referred back to the beginning. I had never seen such a virtuousa display of intellection and rhetoric. Dworkin was a stunning thinker and speaker. Her conviction and her analysis blew the roof off my head.
Dworkin and MacKinnon would go on to champion a kind of feminism that seemed to me deeply wrong-minded. Believing that pornography and sex work were major mechanisms of women’s oppression, they crafted theory and law based on the idea that women could not truly consent to work in those industries; they believed, essentially, in a kind of “false consciousness,” (a concept that also compromised Marxist theory in those days). They seemed to bypass altogether the “problem” of pleasure. Feminists of my stripe would counter that women had to be engaged as agents in our own lives, capable of choice – though we agreed that coercion and force were ubiquitous features of women’s oppression. But that work was still ahead of them, and us.
I then read Dworkin’s Woman Hating, which spoke to me as no other book ever had. Simply put, it explained reality. Even now, even with Dworkin and MacKinnon’s subsequent turn and the passage of decades, I still depend on her mode of decoding and the substance of her analysis to understand things that happen every day.
At the end of Woman Hating, in an Afterword called “The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle,” Dworkin relates that she had written the manuscript without the use of standard punctuation or capital letters, but that her publisher would not print the book that way:
Ive attacked the fundaments of culture, thats ok. Ive attacked male dominance, thats ok. Ive attacked every heterosexual notion of relation, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated the use of drugs, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated fucking animals, thats ok. here and now, New York City, spring 1974, among a handful of people, publisher and editor included, thats ok. lower case letters are not. it does make one wonder.
Yes, she had a sense of humor. But her work was serious, with a single aim: “This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal. It has no other purpose.” She is at pains to distinguish her book from: “cerebral wisdom, or academic horseshit, or ideas carved in granite or destined for immortality. It is part of a process and its context is change.”
to permit writers to use forms which violate convention just might permit writers to develop forms which would teach people to think differently: not to think about different things, but to think in different ways.
that work is not permitted.
there is a great deal at stake here, many writers fight this battle and most lose it. what is at stake for the writer? freedom of invention, freedom to tell the truth, in all its particulars, freedom to imagine new structures.
I am still fighting this exact same battle, New York City, spring 2014, armed with her ever-timely text. Among other prominent activists, Audre Lorde blurbed Woman Hating, when it first came out. By the time I read it six years later, Lorde had already written and presented her critical intervention into white feminist denial of racial difference, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” But I didn’t know it yet.
The next year, it got harder, not easier, to go to class. My Dean informed me that my friends and I were perceived as “alienated,” “alienating,” and “making a point of asserting your alienation.” By my “friends,” he meant the other two (and sometimes three) out gay people in our class of 1200. After I failed a Calculus class, this dean let me know that “I will not bail you out again.” Sure enough, after the next F, this one in the “Modern Spanish American Novel,” I was indeed withdrawn “for academic reasons” – by mutual agreement of myself and the college’s Executive Committee. (I had been told by my Marxist friends that the instructor of the course was an agent, so though I read the books, I didn’t go to class.)
The same month that I flunked out, I attended the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Storrs, Connecticut. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde were the keynote speakers, addressing racism in white-dominated feminist spheres. Lorde’s speech had a profound effect on me. Within a month, I moved to Boston and went to work at a lesbian-feminist press, because they had just published the ground-breaking book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. I went to work on becoming a feminist and an anti-racist in the same stroke. Next on the queue at the press was Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Designating a new genre, Lorde writes a “biomythography” of her life, revisioning the historical contexts through which she emerged as a Black lesbian feminist and a writer across genres.
I performed many functions for the publisher: I packed books in boxes and ran them to the post office; I tried and failed to balance the books; I copy-edited and proofread. To proofread, one person would read out loud from the typed manuscript every character and every punctuation mark, while another checked the typeset copy for mistakes, tracking each line with her finger.
It sounded like this, from the Epilogue of Zami:
Capital R recreating in words the women who helped give me substance period double space break indent, all itals, capital M Ma hyphen capital L Liz comma capital D De capital L Lois all one word comma capital L Louise capital B Briscoe comma capital A Aunt capital A Anni comma capital L Linda comma and capital G Genevieve semi-colon capital M Mawu capital L Lisa all one word comma thunder comma sky comma sun comma the great mother of us all semi-colon and capital A Afrekete comma her youngest daughter comma the mischievous linguist trickster comma best hyphen beloved comma whom we must all become period.
It was The Great Typography Punctuation party. I have never had such a granular engagement with a text I didn’t write myself. Lorde’s prose is permanently installed in my body – and I can’t imagine a better text than Zami to help me learn to locate myself on a socio-cultural map as a white feminist, an anti-racist, a sexual deviant, and a future writer of unconventional prose. If I understand history at all, and how it tells on people, that process began by internalizing Zami – and whether or not I understand these things, my work is driven largely by the need to keep trying.
That same year, I read Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body. In this book of 1973, Wittig posits an impossible past that reads like a future in which women are not constrained to alienate themselves in the French of the present – a language in which the feminine are subsumed in masculine articles, nouns, and pronouns, a language in which, therefore, even the unmarked Je (I) necessarily positions the grammatical subject as masculine. In order to invent a mythical world of women, Wittig has to invent a new pronoun. Writing in French, she splits the Je into j/e; in English; this is translated, inadequately, as an italicized I. In other words, the Je is one of the master’s tools Wittig cannot use to dismantle his house. So, like a mischievous linguist trickster, she dismantles the Je.
The ‘I’ [Je] who writes is alien to her own writing at every word because this ‘I’ uses a language that is alien to her; this ‘I’ [Je] experiences what is alien to her since this ‘I’ [Je] cannot be un ecrivain. J/e poses the ideological and historical question of feminine subjects.
Like Lorde and Dworkin, Wittig would not let the constraints of existing language, form, convention keep her from re-writing the oppressive old worlds and generating other ones. What are mothers? Generaters. These generaters, writers committed to a world beyond misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic structures and linguistic strictures, insisted on proliferating alternatives – and succeeded, very wildly, in imagining justice and freedom and equality – and love – that w/e have never seen. As means and ends, they brought better words, spellings, genres, mythologies, and alien worlds into being – innovative ways of writing, which are ways of thinking. And they brought me – and a whole lot of other people, generations of us – into being. W/e are writers, still feeding off of their work, still working, wildly, trying to turn the world, but don’t it turn slow. Because their revolutions are still in process, and as long as the master’s house stands, w/e are still honing the tools, teaching, and writing against convention, trying to generate alternatives, innovating, from the character, the lowercase letter, to the next world.
Alexandra Chasin is the author of Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (nonfiction), Kissed By (fiction), and Brief (fiction?). Recipient of a 2012 fiction fellowship from NYFA, she is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Lang College, The New School. Chasin is currently a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY, finishing a documentary, but also speculative, account of drug prohibition in the U.S. and of Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.