“Out of the Shadows”: Forgotten Transatlantic Women Roundtable Discussion

Tuesday 29thMay, 1.30pm, The Kelvin Hall seminar room, free.

It’s a beautiful day in Glasgow, we hope that all our followers have had a chance to get out in the sunshine. Here at TLW HQ the weather has been getting us excited for conference season, and so today we bring you a short post about the TLW Roundtable discussion which we will be hosting at the Glasgow University College of Arts PG Conference on Tuesday the 29thMay.

Laura will be introducing our roundtable discussion by speaking about why she started the Transatlantic Literary Women series. She will also be looking at two forgotten literary women who were overshadowed by male partners or family members: Zelda Fitzgerald and Alice James, as well as Edith Wharton. Sarah will be focusing on Polish-born, Jewish-American writer, Anzia Yezierska and Nella Larsen. She will also exploring how BAME women scholars have recovered forgotten writing, and how essential it is for universities to include diverse curricula. Finally, Saskia will be covering Brazillian writer, Clarice Lispector and African American author, documentary-maker and social activist Toni Cade Bambara.

In addition to the TLW Roundtable, the conference will be hosting a range of excellent keynote speakers and workshops. On Tuesday 29th Dr. Michelle Keown, Senior Lecturer in English Literature (University of Edinburgh), will be kicking off the conference with her keynote address. Wednesday 30thwill see Glasgow University’s own Dr. Benjamin White start the day with his keynote talk ‘Animals in displacement,’ and workshops on Sign Language and Creative Writing. The conference also has a wide and diverse range of papers being presented by an array of panellists over the course of the two days.

We look forward to seeing you all at the roundtable on the 29th, and to the fascinating discussions that will ensue from exploring the achievements of these forgotten women writers.

You can register for the event here (registrations closes on the 17th May), and also head over to the Connections Conference website to see the full programme that the committee have lined up for us, it looks like a great couple of days!

Kari

 

 

 

 

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Suffragette Spotlight: Annie Kenney

Ahead of our upcoming Suffrage Centenary Celebration at the People’s Palace Museum (26th and 27th May 1-4pm), the TLW team have been posting weekly blogs about inspiring women who fought for suffrage. Today’s blog focuses on Annie Kenney.

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“As I was one of the leading actors in the first play, so I was one of the leading actors in the last.”
— Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant

Kenney was born in 1879 to a working-class family near Oldham, and Marie Roberts describes her as “the most readily identifiable representative of working-class women” in the Women’s Social and Political Union (xi). One of eleven children, Kenney went to work in a local cotton-mill when she was ten years-old. Starting out as a ‘half-timer,’ she would work in the morning before going to school in the afternoon. At thirteen years-old she switched to full-time employment in the mill, undertaking shifts as long as twelve hours. It was in this role as a weaver’s assistant that Kenney had one of her fingers torn off.

Kenney continued to work in the mill for 15 years, during which time she helped fellow workers to read, and take an interest in literature. She became involved in the trade union movement, and throughout her life was heavily influenced by Robert Blatchford, the English campaigner and journalist who launched an affordable weekly socialist newspaper called The Clarion.

In 1905, as a member of the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club, Kenney heard Christabel Pankhurst speak. This inspired her to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by the Pankhurst family in 1903. In the same year that Kenney joined the WSPU she attended a Liberal rally in Manchester with Christabel, where they repeatedly interrupted Sir Edward Grey to question whether women would be given the right to vote. The two women were removed and later imprisoned for the alleged assault of the police officers who ejected them from the rally. Kenney was imprisoned for three days, the first of thirteen prison sentences throughout her life. In 1913 she was sentenced to a lengthy 18-months which was temporarily interrupted by her release under the Cat and Mouse Act.

Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris in 1912 to avoid imprisonment, and Kenney was placed in charge of the WSPU in her absence, demonstrating the high degree of influence which she held in the organisation. When the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 it granted women over the age of 30 the right to vote if they passed certain property and education requirements. After partial suffrage had been won, Kenney dropped out of political life. She married and gave birth to her son in 1923, and published her autobiography the following year.

Many feel that Kenney’s efforts in the fight for the vote have been “undeservedly neglected,” (Roberts, xv) and this often relates to a further belief held by some that working-class efforts for women’s suffrage have also been overlooked. Krista Cowman voices this in her 2018 article for the New Statesman, stating that “When women finally got the vote, the stories of many working class suffragettes were quickly forgotten. Few of them had the time or contacts needed to publish autobiographies and most could not afford to travel to London for the meetings of the Suffragette Fellowship, a militant old girls’ association that tried to preserve their campaign’s history. As we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave votes to at least some British women in February 1918, we should remind ourselves of the sacrifices made by many ordinary and anonymous women, who risked their livelihoods and reputations alongside their more affluent companions in the fight for equality and citizenship.”

In exploring the various women to cover for the Suffragette Spotlight series, Kenney seemed a particularly fitting figure as she is an inspirational woman both within and without the context of female suffrage. For a generation of young women today, many of whom have experienced a setback in the age that they can hope to reach traditional life-milestones such as starting a career, a family, or buying property, Kenney is an example of someone who refused to let her age, class, gender, or finances, restrict her aspirations and achievements in life. She became a member of the WSPU when she was in her mid–twenties; arguably her greatest life achievement of helping win women’s suffrage was reached when she was in her late thirties, and she was in her early forties before she married and started a family. Despite having to start work at only ten years-old, she succeeded in educating herself through self-study and correspondence courses – encouraging fellow working-class women to do the same – and reached leadership status in the predominantly middle-class led organisation of the WSPU. She experienced the physical consequences of the dangerous working-conditions in Britain in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, but also helped ensure that future generations would have the opportunity to change these conditions by voting for their chosen representatives in government. Kenney exists as both a historical hero who was willing to sacrifice a great deal for a cause she believed in, but also as a rousing reminder that if a woman from her humble background could achieve so much, over a century ago, women today need not let their own goals be limited by the societal expectations which are often imposed on them.

Keep an eye on our website for more blogs like this one, or follow us on Twitter @transatlanticladies using the hashtag #TLWsuffrage. And if you want to learn more about ground-breaking suffragettes, make your own rosettes, and learn about women and the vote, join us at the People’s Palace for an afternoon of crafts, talks, and a look at Glasgow’s suffrage collections!

Kari
References and further reading

Kenney, Annie. Memories of a Militant. London, Edward Arnold & Co., 1924.

Roberts, Marie, and Tamae Mizuta. Perspectives on the History of British Feminism. Routledge/Thoemmes, London, 1994.

Cowman, Krista. “Let’s not forget the working class suffragettes” in New Statesman, 6 February 2018.

Information on Kenney can also obtained from the Working Class Movement Library.

The British Newspaper Archive gives access to articles which mention Kenney.

The Annie Kenney Project is an ongoing campaign to have a statue of Kenney erected in Oldham town square.

Picture courtesy of LSE Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite_Yourcenar-Bailleul-1982.10.04.Bernhard_De_Grendel_(11)

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

By Margarida Sao Bento Cadima (University of Glasgow)
Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.

Marguerite Yourcenar was a Belgian-born French writer who was the first woman to be elected to the Académie française in 1980. While she is not exactly a forgotten writer, she is very much overlooked as a transatlantic writer. She was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour on 8th June 1903 in Brussels to a bourgeois family of French origin. During her childhood, Yourcenar travelled through Europe with her father. She visited London, France, Switzerland and Italy. Some places would have more of an impact on her than others, such as visiting the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, which was to be the setting of her most famous novel Memoirs of Hadrien.

In 1921 she published her first poem Le Jardin des chimères under the name Yourcenar, an anagram of her family name that she would adopt as her legal name in 1947, the year she became an American citizen. Her first novel entitled Alexis was published in 1929, and its style is heavily influenced by André Gide’s prose. Traveling had a great impact on Yourcenar, in 1938 she published a collection of short stories entitled Oriental Tales.

The year World War II broke out, Yourcenar moved to the United States with her partner Grace Frick. They met in 1937 when Frick was in Paris doing research work for her thesis, which she started at Yale University and completed at the University of Kansas. Frick and Yourcenar were partners in every sense of the word, with Frick being also a literary scholar and the translator of Yourcenar’s texts to English. For the next forty years they would make the northeast of the United States their home. Yourcenar took a place teaching comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College and later they bought a house together (which they called “Petite Plaisance”) on Mount Desert Island which is in Northeast Harbor, Maine. If you are ever in the area you can visit it! There, Yourcenar passed away on 17th December 1987 and was buried beside her beloved Grace Frick, who died 8 years prior.

Despite having spent almost five decades living in the United States, Yourcenar never made it a subject of her fiction. In fact, from the shores of the New World, Yourcenar was writing about the Old World. In this light, it is interesting to think what kind of impact that transatlantic experience had on her literary production. Her best-known novel is entitled Memoirs of Hadrian and it was published in 1951 This novel was written entirely in her home in Maine. Yourcenar hesitated about who would be the protagonist of her novel: the choice came down to the Roman emperor Hadrian or the Persian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. The title makes it clear with who she went for in the end.

Memoirs of Hadrian is a historical novel recounting the life of Roman emperor Hadrian, in the form of a letter to his successor Marcus Aurelius. In this long letter, the emperor discusses his love for Antinous, life, death, and philosophy. These meditations were not only crossing time, but also crossing place. Writing from a country that was not her birthplace, Yourcenar was concerned with the question of homeland and where does one belong. Through Hadrian she writes that: “The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books.” Ultimately, Yourcenar was a universal writer, more than a European writer, who deserves to be thought of through the perspective of her transatlantic existence.

Have any Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women you want to tell us about? Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February 7pm – 8pm. Follow us on twitter @atlantlitwomen

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Hollywood novels by women

So far in our blog series on Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women we have covered a wide range of fascinating and talented writers, including Clarice Lispector, Anzia Yezierska, Lorine Niedecker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Rather than focusing on a specific figure, today I will be looking at two works within a larger genre, the Hollywood novel.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Hollywood novel genre: it began in the 1910’s, continues today, and is made up of novels written about Hollywood and the film industry. At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that the genre has predominantly male contributors, as it is a genre in which women’s contributions are frequently overlooked. Most critical studies focus on the most well-known Hollywood novels like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1941), and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941). One rare female work which is repeatedly recognised is Joan Didion’s first novel Play It as It Lays (1970). Despite the frequent focus on male writing within criticism, bibliographies of the Hollywood novel reveal a surprising amount of works by women. The two examples which I will be discussing today are Frances Marion’s Minnie Flynn (1925), and Katherine Albert’s Remember Valerie March? (1939).

At the beginning of Minnie Flynn, Minnie is a teenage factory girl living with her family in New York. When Minnie becomes romantically involved with a minor actor, she manages to get a foothold in an East Coast film studio. After a rocky start as a struggling extra, Minnie succeeds in ‘making it’ as an actress, and her career takes her to Hollywood. Success doesn’t last, however, and in a tale which is now a familiar Hollywood story, we witness both Minnie’s rise and her fall. Throughout her success, Minnie is consistently reckless with money, worshipping material possessions over all else. She is also taken advantage financially by her friends, family and romantic partners. Though it is difficult to feel sorry for a character who is often arrogant and greedy, Marion still manages to successfully evoke our sympathy in depicting how difficult it can be to distinguish genuine from artificial affection when you are in a position of power, wealth, and celebrity. In Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), Cari Beauchamp tells us that Marion intended for Minnie Flynn to be ‘a warning to the thousands of women she saw pouring into Hollywood full of optimism and without the slightest idea of what lay ahead’ (154). In addition to depicting the pitfalls of fame, Minnie Flynn acts as a valuable account of the film industry in New York and Hollywood. It also explores the practice of acting, and the relationship between an actress and director.

Frances Marion was a director and screenwriter in early Hollywood, and her own life story is as revealing about early Hollywood as her novel is. Beauchamp tells us that by 1930 Marion had been ‘the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood – male or female,’ since 1917 (9). Marion was also the winner of two Academy Awards. In 1931 she won the Writing award for The Big House (1930), and two years later the Best Story award for The Champ (1931). Details like these can hardly be lost on a modern audience, given the recent attention on gender pay-gaps in the film industry, and in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement.

The relationship between an actress and her director is a theme which is taken up again in Remember Valerie March? (1939). Katherine Albert’s novel is another rise-and-fall tale of a Hollywood actress, only this time it is narrated from the perspective of her director, Conrad Powers. Powers claims to have both started and ended the acting career of the ‘first lady of film,’ Valerie March. The novel is his own personal account of Valerie’s professional career and personal life, and often takes the form of a Hollywood exposé. Through the character of Powers, Albert explores the way in which a director manipulates the emotions and life-choices of an actress to get the desired performance from her, for the benefit of the film. At one point in the novel, Powers encourages the married Valerie to have an affair with her co-star, with the justification that this will add a more convincing dimension to the film. Albert is not alone in her portrayal of this unhealthy relationship. In the popular 2017 television series Feud: Bette and Joan, this theme is taken up. Feud is about the rivalry between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and takes place largely during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). We see the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, pitting the actresses against each other for the sake of authenticity. Hollywood fan-magazines and gossip columns latch on to the story, and fuel the fire between the two women to increase readership. Though Feud is a dramatized series, there is no doubt that these practices were in play in the industry, as many Hollywood histories depict.

Both Marion and Albert’s novels explore a number of similar themes. For example, both spark interesting questions on different forms of acting, particularly method acting, and what exactly makes a successful and convincing performance. Albert delves further, however, into topics such as the cult of celebrity in America, the role of the press in Hollywood, and work of publicity departments within film studios. It comes as no surprise then, that Albert was also a Hollywood insider. She worked as an actress, a studio publicist for MGM, and a feature and fiction writer for Photoplay, one of the first film fan magazines in America.

The ongoing current debates and discussions over male control within the film-industry have emphasised the unacceptable positions that both men and women have been forced into as a result of an extreme power imbalance. The relevance of Hollywood novels such as Minnie Flynn and Remember Valerie March can’t be underestimated in depicting how people in positions of power can abuse this power, and their employees. Considering Frances Marion and Katherine Albert’s active and varied careers in the film industry, they can also help to represent the achievements of women in that industry. In an era where women are increasingly viewed as under-appreciated in the industry (through both salary and award recognition) this recognition is much needed.

Thanks for reading!

Kari Sund

 

Notes and References

Sadly, these novels are difficult to obtain, particularly Remember Valerie March? I was, however, lucky enough to obtain a beautiful new copy of Minnie Flynn thanks to the fantastic work of The Hollywood Novel Project, run by Ben Smith. You can view the project’s Kickstarter, and the journey of how the first edition of Minnie Flynn in 90 years came into being, through the following link. We eagerly await the next Hollywood novel to be published by this project:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1133736285/frances-marions-lost-novel-minnie-flynn-a-new-edit.

Information on Albert’s role as a Hollywood insider comes from Anthony Slide’s Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazines. A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. University Press of Mississippi, 2010, pp 77-78.

Information on Frances Marion is taken from Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), a great source for anyone who wants to learn more about women’s achievements in early Hollywood.

 

 

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Lorine Niedecker

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Photo courtesy of The Operating System

Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.

This week’s Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women blog focuses on the North-American modernist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) who, towards the end of her life, established a number of vital creative connections with British-based writers and publishers.

It is worth pointing out, first of all, that although Niedecker’s poetry was little published during her lifetime, and often undervalued by her peers, it has since been the subject of extensive critical reassessment, and has been exhaustively excavated and collated, most notably by Jenny Penberthy for her authoritative Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). In this sense, Niedecker is perhaps more of a famously forgotten writer than a forgotten one, but the story of her life and work remains fascinating, as does that of her long-term struggle to find an audience for her work, and of its late but enthusiastic reception amongst poets and publishers based in Britain: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society, and Roy Fisher’s Fulcrum Press.

As Jenny Penberthy notes of Niedecker’s biography, “[h]er life by water could not have been further removed from the avant-garde poetry scene where she also made herself a home” (1). Born and brought up in Black Hawk Island, a marshy area of rural Wisconsin where she remained for most of her adult life, Niedecker described her childhood as filled with “twittering and squawking noises” (Penberthy, 2). The sensitive musicality of her work – comparable to that of two of her British friends, Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay – may channel the sound-world of her upbringing:

I rose from marsh mud,

algae, equisetum, willows,

sweet green, noisy

birds and frogs

 

(Penberthy, 170)

After dropping out of a literature course to tend to her sick mother, Niedecker married in 1928 and became a librarian, publishing a small number of poems during the late 1920s informed by the imagism of writers like H.D. (a fellow transatlantic woman writer), and early Ezra Pound. From the early 1930s onwards – the depression having cost her both her job and her marriage – she was inspired by Objectivism, beginning an intense correspondence with Louis Zukofsky from the parental home to which she had returned. In 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York and they became lovers. She fell pregnant with twins, but Zukofsky pressured her to abort. Niedecker’s long poem-sequence “For Paul”, written mainly across the 1950s, is addressed to the son whom Zukofsky went on to have with Celia Thaew, and seems shot through with a subdued grief to any reader familiar with Niedecker’s life (she died childless):

Paul

now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

I thought now maybe Paul

growing taller than cattails

around Duck Pond

between the river and the Sound

will keep this book intact,

fly back to it each summer

 

maybe Paul

 

(“For Paul”, Penberthy 137)

Niedecker’s first collection, The New Goose, had been published semi-privately in 1946. Contra her reputation during her life as a naïve, rural savant, it incorporates pithy responses to national and international politics. However, these are filtered through a modernist-folk idiom owing as much to the vernacular speech-rhythms of her local community and the anonymous proletarian poetry of the “Mother Goose” songbook as the modernist literary collage of Pound, Zukofsky and Marianne Moore; it is also acutely sensitive to local as well as global events:

The brown muskrat, noiseless

swims the white stream,

stretched out as if already

a woman’s neck-piece.

 

In Red Russia the Russians

at a mile a minute

pitch back Nazi wildmen

wearing women.

 

(Penberthy, 109)

Expanding on these forms and motifs, by the end of the 1950s “For Paul” had grown into a projected second collection, “For Paul and Other Poems”. But Niedecker struggled to find a publisher, perhaps because her most regular creative advisor Louis Zukofsky was deeply uncomfortable with some of the content, perhaps simply because of the pressures of the various day-jobs – including hospital cleaning – through which Niedecker was forced to support herself. A marked note of solitude and frustration creeps into these poems:

What horror to awake at night

And in the dimness see the light.

                             Time is white

                             Mosquitoes bite

I’ve spent my life on nothing.

 

(Penberthy, 147)

At the same time, the poet Hannah Brooks-Motl suggests that in its formal ambition, “For Paul” represents “a turning point for Niedecker”, taking her from the minute, incidental poems of The New Goose to “the open-ended sequences such as Lake Superior that mark her late period.”

At this point, Niedecker’s biography starts to intersect with those of various poet-publishers based across the Atlantic, and we sense the emergence of what Peter Middleton calls “the British Niedecker.” Her most significant contacts in this regard were the Edinburgh-based poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jonathan Williams, a native of North Carolina whose Jargon Society imprint operated, as Ross Hair states, “from two remote locations: Highlands, North Carolina and Dentdale in England’s Yorkshire Dales” (2). Both Williams and Finlay operated at the geographical and artistic fringes of what is now called the British Poetry Revival, a period during the 1950s-70s when younger British poets turned against the conservatism of the Movement poets (Philip Larkin et al) and embraced early twentieth-century literary modernism, emulating its development by their North-American contemporaries, poets of the neo-objectivist, Black Mountain College and New York schools.

This transatlantic dynamic has often been described with reference to the esoteric, high-modernist aesthetics of poets such as J.H. Prynne. But it was the vernacular, folksy aspects of Niedecker’s idiom that appealed to Finlay and Williams, both of whom thought of themselves, in certain ways, as outsiders in this new modernist poetry scene. Niedecker’s My Friend Tree (1961), illustrated with faux-naïve woodcuts, was one of the first publications of Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Finlay having been enraptured by The New Goose after receiving a copy in 1961. Though My Friend Tree was a different and far smaller publication than the one Niedecker had envisaged, she was buoyed by the attention, and embraced her status as ‘folk poet’ with a newfound confidence. She seems to pay homage to her new friend and correspondent in “Letter from Ian”:

Aye sure

a castle on the rock

in the middle of Edinburgh

 

They floodlight it—

big show up there

with pipe bands

and all

 

Down here along the road

open your door

to a posse of poets.

 

(Penberthy, 207)

Across the remainder of the 1960s, interest in Niedecker’s work finally grew. In 1965, Williams offered to publish the manuscript of “collected poems” that Niedecker had prepared, although the chaotic state of Jargon Society finances held back the publication of T&G: The Collected Poems until 1969. In the meantime, the London-based press Fulcrum, operated by the South-African poet Stuart Montgomery, and the most financially solvent and ambitious of the new British modernist poetry presses, published another collection, North Central (1968); in 1970, Montgomery would bring out an expanded collected poems, My Life by Water: Collected Poems, 1936-1968.

In 1963 Niedecker had married again, moving with her new husband to Milwaukee. Her financial security allowed her to dedicate the last seven years of her life to writing full-time, and to travelling more widely. Her work began to appear in magazines with increasing frequency, and to take on more expansive and ambitious forms. Late, extended sequences such as “Lake Superior”, “Wintergreen Ridge”, and “Paean to Place” enfold biographical detail with precisely conveyed botanical, geological, and cultural awareness of place and landscape, all with Niedecker’s distinctive, lithe musicality. It would be wrong to depict the last ten years of her life as a period of final, unmitigated success. She remained, as her poems suggest, on the outside of things during the 1960s: “I see no space-rocket/ launched here/ no mind-changing// acids eaten” (“Wintergreen Ridge”, Penberthy 255). But she did develop a network of intense creative friendships, becoming the benign matriarch of what Ross Hair calls an “avant-folk” community, linking up the rural peripheries of North America and Britain. By the time of her death – of a cerebral haemorrhage, on New Year’s Eve 1970 – Niedecker was just beginning to establish herself as one of the most original poets of the late-modernist era.

By Greg Thomas. His forthcoming book on Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland is being published by Liverpool University Press.

References

Hannah Brooks-Motl, “The Lives of Lorine Niedecker.” Poetrysociety.org, originally published 2013.

Ross Hair, Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present. Liverpool University Press, 2017.

Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, edited by Elizabeth Willis, University of Iowa Press, 2008.

Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Clarice Lispector

Lispector 1Courtesy of Wellcome Trust

Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Clarice Lispector. She was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine, as a result of her parents’ belief that pregnancy was a cure for syphilis in women. Her mother died of the disease ten years later. By this time, the family had fled anti-Semitic violence, and moved to Brazil, where Clarice studied law and became a journalist for government press, Agência Nacional. She went on to marry (and later divorce) a Brazilian diplomat, and re-crossed the Atlantic, living in Italy, the UK, and Switzerland, working in a military hospital in Naples during World War II.

In 1959 she returned to Brazil and took part in protests against the Brazilian military dictatorship that lasted twenty years. During her lifetime she wrote nine novels, multiple short stories, articles, journalism (published in Brazil and Portugal), children’s literature, as well as translating Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allen Poe into Portuguese. I’ll talk about a few of these books below, and include links to some of her short stories at the end of the blog.

Lispector 2

At the age of twenty three, Clarice Lispector had published her award-winning debut novel Near to the Wild Heart (1943). Influenced by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel follows Joanna, and opens with child-speak and memory impressions:

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack… clack-clack-clack… The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. Amidst the clock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large, pink and dead.

This passage gives a sense of Lispector’s continually evolving and experimental voice. She claimed that when composing Água Viva (1973) she literally wrote down everything that came into her head, whether it seemed profound or dull. The result is an interior monologue that replaces chronological sequence with the ‘instant-now’, reaching for the ‘beyond-thought’. Her writing can be difficult but rewarding to read, and this may be a reason that her work is often neglected. That she has been neglected is evident when Colm Tóibín describes her as ‘One of the hidden geniuses of the 20th century’.

Despite this apparent invisibility, she has received high praise from critics and other writers. Her biographer Benjamin Moser calls her ‘The most important Jewish writer since Kafka’, The New York Times Book Review says that she is ‘The premier Latin American woman writer of this century’, and writer Elizabeth Bishop confesses in a letter to Robert Lowell that, Actually, I think she is better than JL Borges’. The most Lispectorian response to her writing is that of feminist theorist Hélène Cixous who says that Clarice Lispector is ‘what Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German.’  I’ll close with Lispector’s own words about her writing. Here is the epigraph of her novel The Passion According to G. H. (1964):

To Possible Readers

This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly – even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one. To me, for example, the character G. H. gave bit by bit a difficult joy; but it is called joy.

Likewise, I find that Lispector’s writing brings me a difficult joy, but it is joy. Try her for yourself by reading ‘Report on the Thing’, a surreal report on the nature of time, advertising, and an electronic alarm clock. We also have an exploration of entangled feminist and animal ethics in ‘The Hen’ (1964), and a short story called ‘Clandestine Happiness’ (1971). For more on her life and works see this interesting article on Lispector in Vice.  I hope you, too, find joy in Lispector’s writing.

By Saskia McCracken

 

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Toni Cade Bambara

Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW

In the build up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and my favourite at the moment is Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995). She was a civil rights and feminist activist, a writer, community worker and academic, and friend of Toni Morrison, who edited her posthumous work. Although Bambara lived in New York City for most of her life, she is transatlantic in several respects: she spent a year living in Milan, Italy, studying acting and mime, and visited France in the same year, 1961. In the early 1970s, she travelled to Cuba, and across the Atlantic to Vietnam, where she engaged with women’s organisations as part of her ongoing work on politically effective movements.

Bambara Pic

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s worth discussing her life in further detail before moving on to her writings, partly because her experiences were important in shaping that writing, partly because the writing is an aspect of her activism, and partly because her life is simply fascinating. She was born Toni Cade and took the name Bambara after finding it inscribed in her great-grandmother’s sketch book. Bambara is the national language of Mali and the name of a West African ethnic group. She spent much of her childhood in New York Public Library and was inspired by Harlem Renaissance writers Gwendolyn Brooks (whose photograph hung in the library) and Langston Hughes. She studied Theatre, English and American studies, completed her masters at City College New York, and went on to become a social worker, occupational therapist, and then professor at Rutgers University. Meanwhile, she ran community-focused organisations raising black American consciousness, and took the written word to the stage as director of the Theatre of the Black Experience in the 1960s. She collaborated on several TV documentaries in the 1990s, including W. E. B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices (1996), and was the narrator for the documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), as well as writing a screenplay adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel Tar Baby (1984). She was active throughout the 1970s in civil rights and women’s movements.

Her activism is reflected in her writing and editorial choices. Her first published book was The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), followed closely by Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971). These collections showcased work by famous writers such as Audre Lourde, but also the work of undergraduates, and African American women of different ages and classes who were underrepresented in the male-dominated civil rights movement, and white-dominated women’s movements of her time. She also supported emerging writers by founding and hosting the Pamoja Writer’s Collective in her home, where she held pot luck dinners.

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Courtesy of Good Reads

Bambara published several collections of short stories including Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), and novels such as The Salt Eaters (1980), which received the American Book Award in 1981, If Blessing Comes (1987), and Raymond’s Run (1990). Her fiction is set at times in the rural south, at times in the urban north, and focuses on the lives of African American men and women (often activists) and their communities. She uses local street dialect and her themes include social change and community solidarity. Toni Morrison edited Bambara’s posthumously published novel Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999), and said of Bambara’s work: ‘Her writing is woven, aware of its music, its overlapping waves of scenic action, so clearly on its way […] like a magnet collecting details in its wake, each of which is essential to the final effect’ (The Norton Anthology of American Literature p. 2861).

The best way to get to know Bambara’s writing is to read it for yourself, so have a listen to the audiobook version of her short story ‘The Lesson’ here, and tell us what you think! Submit a short piece about your own favourite forgotten transatlantic woman writer to transatlantic.women@gmail.com before the 28th of February and we’ll post it on the blog! We look forward to hearing your thoughts, either as a blog or on Twitter using the hashtag #ForgottenTLW.

Sources include: FemBio, Britannica, The New York Times, and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, volume E, 7th Edition, Ed. Nina Baym, JeromeKlinkowitz, and Patricia B. Wallace (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).

By Saskia McCracken