Heroines, All We Know

Heroines are pretty much all I think about these days, if they are not all I know. It’s all modernist women all the time here. And, when I’m not thinking about my introduction to the upcoming special issue of mfs Modern Fiction Studies (forthcoming: Summer, 2013; topic? Women’s Writing, the New Modernism, and Feminist Theory. In other words, fasten your seatbelts!), I’m teaching Woolf. So, it’s a lot a lot of thinking about, reading about, writing about, and reading modern women writers.

For all the work of a quarter century on Woolf (with more Woolf projects to come, no doubt), my passion right now is to shine that light on other women writers. I dream about a book that would profile multiple modern women writers who are not Woolf. Happily, for my reading life, there are two super exciting new books that do just that (and, happily for me, neither is a book I could have written). Community bookstore hosted Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines, in conversation with Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know, for an event last week. It really was one of the coolest book events I’ve been to in a long time. I left just aglow with the sense that, for all the other ills in the world, I could still find a pocket of brilliant women who worked hard in support of other women. That still fills me with hope.

I took to Twitter a few months ago to ask about favorite recent feminist theory and a couple people recommended Zambreno’s book, a meditation on modernist wives with a dollop of Woolf. I haven’t finished the book and I find it brilliant, exasperating, thrilling and crazy. I hope to write more about it separately, but the little fragments of what happened to Zelda Fitzgerald, bumping up against Valerie Eliot and Zambreno’s own frustrations as a “trailing spouse” in the rural Midwest (oh, we have lived that nightmare here, gentle reader) are provocative in the best way. Not since The Pink Guitar have I read a mixed genre feminist text with so much interest (and, it must be said, exasperation).

When I learned that she’d be appearing with Lisa Cohen at Community Bookstore, I jumped at the chance, secured childcare and flew (via the MTA)  to Brooklyn. Zambreno was charming and interesting, but Cohen blew my mind: she is clearly a brilliant woman and a beautiful writer for she presented some of the key feminist theoretical ideas of the moment in clear but uncompromising terms. Most notably, her remarks focused on Esther Murphy, one of the three lives of bourgeois lesbians at the heart of All We Know, and Murphy’s inability to complete a book in her lifetime. How do we understand this failure? Cohen’s work fits right in to much recent theoretical work on failure as a queer art, on failure as resistance to socially constructed (straight, white, bourgeois) ideas of happiness, but in a book that one yearns to read for pleasure, not for a theoretical workout. I was so thrilled by the intellectual energy of what Cohen was reading that I whispered to my friend that I wanted to rush up and just give her a big hug of gratitude.

So imagine my sheepish delight to learn that we had been in grad school together! The narcissism of my youth, which prevented me from knowing a brilliant peer because I was too deep in my own worries, aside, this only made that sense of the power of brilliant women all the better.

To see, in the audience of thirty, several friends. To be introduced to new people through them, to learn, from a new friend that she went to college with—and loves—my amazing yoga teacher. All of this is a big thing that is right with the world right now.

I am still reading the books. Both continue to amaze and impress. More soon, I’m sure. Both books have lots of well-deserved press. I've tried to sprinkle links throughout the post--click away!