Monday, March 19, 2007

Four Great Women Authors

Instead of my customary chat with you about a single book and author, in honor of women’s month, I want to talk about four great women writers of the past fifty years. Choosing four is both difficult and arbitrary, so instead of choosing authors whom most of you will have heard about and read, writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Louise Erdrich, I’ve decided to talk about four whom you will be less likely to have read, but who have written such important works during the past fifty years. I’ve intentionally chosen three foreign born authors and only one American; they are Nadine Gordimer, Penelope Lively, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Cade Bambara.

Nadine Gordimer certainly belongs on any list of great authors of the 20th century. Born and raised in South Africa, she was without doubt one of the most important anti-apartheid authors of her time. Indeed, although she won both the Booker and the Nobel prizes, her books were banned in South Africa for many years, and she was urged by many to leave her homeland because they feared for her life. Undaunted, she continued to live there and to write, in spite of having to send her books out of the country for publication. She has also written bravely, fearlessly, about changes in Africa since the official end of apartheid, and about the psychological tensions of whites and blacks living and working together. Gordimer has a wonderful mind, and any reader who knows philosophy will see how well she understands and uses philosophy in her novels. My view is that you can begin with any book Gordimer has written, either working back from her latest works published in the 90s, or beginning with early works such as Burger’s Daughter or her Booker prize-winning The Conservationist. She has also written several collections of short stories, and I have yet to find a book of hers that I did not thoroughly (and usually immediately) enjoy. Perhaps my favorite of all is A Sport of Nature, published in 1987; feminism is much more a theme of this novel than of others of hers I recall, and she talks bravely, insightfully, about romantic relationships between powerful, aspiring black leaders and white woman who are dedicated to the eradication of racism while they are themselves targets of suspicion both because of race and gender. In spite of the quality and quantity of her work, in my experience she is still relatively unknown among American readers.

Partly so that it won’t seem that I am concentrating only on older writers, my next choice is a very young author, Edwidge Danticat. Born in 1969 in Haiti, Danticat came to the U.S. when she was twelve years old, but her early works concentrate on her native country. I can still recall the chill I felt both during and after the reading of Krick? Krack! Although the language is beautiful and haunting, the story is about desperate lives lived in Haiti. I have not yet read Danticat’s work directed at young readers, Behind the Mountains, but her other works are almost unbearably sad, and yet told with a grace and beauty that both cuts through and magnifies the sadness. Her second work, The Farming of Bones, shows how well she listened to the stories told to her by her elders, since it is about Haitians living in the Dominican Republic in the thirties and forties. We certainly need to hear the voices of those who have experienced first hand the economic oppression visited upon them by European and American market economies. While it takes a bit of strength to listen to the voice of Danticat, it should also convince us readers how important it is to hear such voices as well as how beautifully they can write.

The third writer whom I wish to talk about today is a writer of almost unbelievable skill. It continues to surprise me how few of my students have heard of this giant. Her name is Penelope Lively, and she continues to write and publish at quite an incredible rate. Born in Cairo in 1933, like Danticat she moved from her birthplace when she was twelve, although she was born of English parents and returned to England because of the intense war actions in Egypt during World War II. She began her writing career by publishing children’s fiction, and did not publish any adult fiction until the 1970s. I did not discover her until the late 90s when I stumbled across her Booker prize winning Moon Tiger published in 1987. Once I had found her, I read up everything I could get my hands on, and not once have I been disappointed. I have used her fairly recent novel, The Photograph, in several of my classes. It was published in 2003. Lively writes about lived time, about the ways in which past and present merge into each other, with perhaps greater skill than any other writer I have read. Martin Heidegger insists that we are beings-in-time, that being in time is one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. (He calls these conditions existentialia.) Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant also recognized the incredible importance of temporality in human life, but no one, I think, describes how we live in time with the detail and acuity that Lively does. Moon Tiger begins (and ends) with a woman in her eighties who is living in a rest home, simply another old, dying woman to the staff there. But her daily lived-life has next to nothing to do with that dismal, sedentary existence. It is her past in Egypt and England that occupies all of her waking and dreaming moments. Having lived as a writer who concentrated on political history, she now questions the very meaning of history. Is there such a thing? Can it possibly be written? What has the history of wars or of great political figures to do with the lives of ordinary people, with their histories? Again, I would recommend to you anything she has written, including her skillful and labyrinthian short stories, one collection of which is called Pack of Cards. Just citing a couple other titles will suggest her preoccupation with time and memory: City of the Mind; Spiderwebb, Passing On.

And finally, let me mention one American writer who unfortunately died in 1995. She was only fifty-five when she died, but she will be remembered as one of the most important writers and activists of the seventies and eighties. Her name is Toni Cade Bambara, and I first ran across her by reading a wonderful collection of short stories entitled Gorilla My Love. I used that book in teaching philosophy in literature almost every quarter for several years after I discovered her. Most of the stories are told through the eyes of a street-smart and tough little girl who runs and talks faster than anyone else around her. Bambara writes in the language she learned as a child, and her ear for dialect is truly wonderful. One reviewer of Bambara says of her: “Ms. Bambara grabs you by the throat ... she dazzles, she charms.” Yes, she has lots to tell us, and she does it with dazzle and charm, but also with deep insight and tenderness. During a particularly bleak period for me politically, when it seemed to me that the male-dominated new-left had abandoned the fight, I happened to read Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters. In that novel, strong, black women encounter a kind of cynicism emanating from disenchanted male activists much like what I thought I saw around me, and they react immediately and forcefully. They refuse to hide or deny the sexism they experience in the African-American community, even though they are told that they must keep a united front, that sexism is a problem only among whites. And they also refuse to give up or hunker down or make suspicious deals with The Man. I came out of that reading with a new sense of strength and purpose. Aside from her writing, Bambara was a community activist and freedom fighter all through her life. Both tough and tender, both critical and understanding, she was a fine person as well as a great writer.

There are so many names I have not mentioned: Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Smiley, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, May Sarton, Iris Murdoch and a host of other great women writers. So many voices of so many bright and strong women. They have saved me from despair and pointed out directions for me, and I just plain love reading them.

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