Kate Zambreno’s “Heroines”

By Kate Zambreno
Semiotext[e] 2012
Reading Heroines, I kept thinking of Jane Tompkins’ essay “Me and My Shadow,” and the relief I felt upon discovering it as a disillusioned student. Tompkins, writing in the late eighties, speaks of her frustration with the ‘false split’ in her self, a split deemed necessary to separate a public, academic self from a woman self who writes in her diary, likes cappuccino, is lately mourning the death of a friend. Why two selves, she asks. Why does only one of those selves get to speak, to write? And says who, anyway?

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is a critical memoir, a work of literary criticism that refuses this false split and argues against this removal or disciplining of the self, however ‘uncomposed’ it might be.

“I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order – pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.”

And on the question of two selves, Zambreno is very clear: “The public-private dichotomy, which is to say the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it.”

Heroines follows Zambreno through the early years of her marriage as she finds herself isolated, first in London and then in university towns in Ohio and North Carolina. Often unable to find work herself, she struggles with loneliness, with feelings of erasure, with her new role as the Wife. She stays at home, attempting to write, and begins to obsessively read the works and biographies of the modernist women: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys.

“These library books are my culture here. I keep company with the women inside these pages. Women who often are also, somehow prevented from writing. These women who existed inside the bed, the room, trapped inside the house. I attempt to resuscitate their lives.”

(There is something very physical about the way Zambreno writes of her engagement with these texts. The books piled around her in bed or flung at the wall, pages turned with sticky fingers. The part of loving books that always feels so impossible to me is that longing for some other way to interact with the work, the impulse to crawl inside it or sprawl over top of it. And yet Zambreno’s reading here feels so embodied. The language is furious, obsessive; she speaks of channeling, of devouring, of being “so compelled to save a heroine in a book that it makes you want to throw a book across the room.”)

These women Zambreno is reading were considered hysterics. Too emotional, too much. They were pathologized and institutionalized; their lives were spent in the shadows of their husbands, the Great Men of Modernism. Their own work was often forgotten, their diaries lost, letters destroyed. Zambreno is haunted by the stories of their lives: Zelda’s tragic death in an asylum fire, Jane who gave up writing because there could be ‘only one great writer in the family,’ Vivien(ne) wholly, summarily dismissed.

The pathologizing of these women is linked, Zambreno argues, to the dismissal of their work: T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative looms large, dictating how we should write and also how we should live.

“[Eliot’s] theories of depersonalization form the foundation of the theoretical school called New Criticism, still the fundamental ideology governing how we read and talk about writing. One cannot portray emotions in EXCESS (in literature or in life.) This is a judgment not only of a work of literature but also of propriety, how one should behave. One must discipline one’s text, one’s self.”

The men in their lives tried to contain them, to discipline their emotions in real life, all the while appropriating this excess for use in their own work. (As I write this I keep thinking, with less irony than I think was intended, of the title of an N+1 article by Molly Fischer: “So Many Feelings.”) Flaubert recommends that his mistress Louise Colet take hot baths with chamomile to calm her but then draws on her life, her behaviour as a woman in love, for his Emma Bovary.

“They worship Dionysus but play Apollo (the rational god) in real life. They channel the cunt yet are phobic of the cunt, of the woman’s body, the real material life she lived, both in their texts as well as in the way they treated their muses.”

These dynamics are of course a little murky with exceptions: Alice Toklas entertaining the wives while Gertrude Stein held court with the men, Djuna Barnes writing the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven into her Robin, Elizabeth Hardwick’s no-nonsense condemnation of Zelda, Anaïs Nin sharing June with Henry.

“I mean, Gertrude Stein was basically a patriarch, right? The patriarch is the one who gets to name.”

(Not that Barnes or Hardwick or Nin were immune themselves to being kept outside the canon. Nin’s diaries were continually refused for publication; Hardwick lived in the shadow of Robert Lowell. Zambreno is stirred to a first act of criticism by an article in Poetry magazine that referred to Barnes as a minor writer.)

Hardwick’s dismissal of Zelda is for Zambreno emblematic of one of the lingering problems of the Second Wave:

“It seems an older generation of feminist critics have swallowed some sort of narrative punishing women who are too feminine that reflects the revulsion towards the excessive that comes right out of patriarchy. These feminist critics take it a step further and say this is not an adequate reflection of how women live their lives. This is a move of the Second Wave I distrust, that women must write, must be, empowered heroines, and if they are not, they are frivolous and should be dismissed.”

Some of the conversation around Zambreno’s own second novel Green Girl raised this very question: Is it feminist? Is it feminist to write a girl-heroine who is not yet empowered, who is aware that she is the subject of so many gazes, tripping over herself and her body and at times in utter despair at how to be herself?

“Does literature written by women need to be feminist, or does it need to be honest, to document the cultural reality? Yes, to critique it but also to explore its nuances, and perhaps even to subvert it. For sometimes we are destroyed by love. Or we don’t want to get old. These thoughts still haunt many of us.”

Zambreno had begun working through some of the ideas in Heroines in long posts on her blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, and in the second half of the book she discusses the importance of these online spaces where women are writing theory and criticism alongside or within more diaristic entries and conversations.

“We read, intensely and emotionally, like Emma Bovaries. We read like girls, often prone to passion and superlatives – passing around books like love letters in the mail. These spaces operate as safe havens to be all sorts of identities at once, to be excessive, to feel and desire deeply.”

There is no need of a false split on these blogs, no need of two voices. Zambreno has been writing about the modernists, but the fact is that these questions, these debates, still linger, doggedly. Who is the author, what is the work. Who is lauded, and who is left on the margins. What is the canon and who gets to decide. VIDA can give us statistics revealing that women are reviewed less in major publications, but what happens in the text of the reviews that actually are published seems to slip by us. Or rather, “HOW they are reviewed, or HOW they are not reviewed, and who women writers are or are not compared to in the body of their occasional reviews.”

And women are still called out for public personal narratives in ways that don’t seem so far from F. Scott Fitzgerald censoring Zelda’s Save Me The Waltz. Zambreno references the poet Jennifer Lowe, who was disciplined by the university where she is a PhD student for the personal nature of her blog. HTMLGIANT published Lowe’s essay in response to her shaming by the university, but they also published a chart by Jimmy Chen that categorized Zambreno as a “menstrual blogger.”

The girls with their LiveJournals and Tumblrs, Zambreno writes, are not so different from a Jean Rhys, brought to writing out of ‘heartbreak and intense emotion.’ And the diary, the blog, shouldn’t be dismissed. The writing in public of private things is a refusal to submit to the erasure and censorship that the modernist women struggled with, and Zambreno echoes Cixous in her call for the girls on their blogs to continue, to push on: “If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience.”

With Heroines, the larger project in Zambreno’s work becomes clearer–her Green Girl did with the novel what Heroines does with criticism and memoir. Green Girl‘s Ruth is a kind of modern-day Jean Rhys heroine; there are echoes of Lispector’s Macabéa. The lost girl as character but not tidied up or composed, and not yet empowered. Late in the novel she becomes briefly involved with a slightly older man named Teddy, who takes her to a show and buys her a new dress and jots down her thoughts, excited by her insofar as she is so much raw material. In Heroines, Zambreno writes of F. Scott Fitzgerald taking down Zelda’s words: “He snatches up her bon mots, her odd phrasings, on little scraps of papers, backs of envelopes.” The girls with their department store jobs and their Tumblrs, Vivien(ne) Eliot and Zelda: Zambreno’s aim is to give the girl back her own story, to encourage her to write it herself, in all her messy subjectivity.

Giovanni Intra said of Chris KrausI Love Dick that the novel reads “like Madame Bovary as if Emma had written it.” Zambreno wonders if maybe “Madame Bovary’s disease is not boredom. It’s being trapped as the character in someone else’s novel.” Working in the tradition of Kraus, Zambreno here is audacious and insightful, relentless in her demands that the work be recognized and that women writers be heard, on their own terms and without apology or deference to the canon or ‘the rules.’


Aimee Wall is writer from Newfoundland currently living in Montreal.

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