Thursday, February 18, 2010

 

Feminism, Blogging and Fort Greene



Monday, I returned to life as a writer by reading a little passage from my book at Fort Greene's wonderful and enviable bookstore, Greenlight. The conversation was facilitated by The Undomestic Goddess herself, Amanda Recupido, and organized by one Ron Hogan. I walked into the store and the proprietor introduced herself to me--turns out we already "knew" each other over Twitter, only, I had always thought of her as BookNerdNYC. If you haven't figured it out already, I only know Amanda and Ron because of the internet in the first place.

Lovely writer/blogger Lori Adelman did a write up for the New York Times local blog which you can read here (I've swiped a photo that Lori took). A snippet:

Ms. Mockett, who was born in California to a Japanese mother and an American father, transported the mostly Brooklyn-based crowd into her literary world of Greek gods and geishas. Her debut novel isn’t easy to label, as the author herself conceded in a recent blog post, but can loosely be described as a multi-generational story of Asian women that doubles as a fairy tale, complete with “girl power and ghosts.”

Reading under the glare of the bookstore’s signature green foyer light fixture, Ms. Mockett introduced her audience to spirited characters like 11-year-old Satomi, who navigates her 1950s Japanese mountain town with the help of her best friend Tomoko, who says things like “In the long run, I suspect that being talented is going to matter more than being pretty.”


Amanda, as expected, was super smart and came with a set of pointed and intelligent questions. What did I think of the fact that reviewers complained that the men in the novel were not redeemed at the end, while the women were? (I pointed out that the Asian guys were all pretty nice. It was the Caucasian men who took a beating). How did I reconcile the fact that Francois celebrated his daughter's talents, even as he denigrated other women? (Lots of men-hell, people-are compartmentalized this way. Remember: Zeus' favorite child was Athena, a girl). And did I think I had written a feminist novel?

I've been wrestling with this concept ever since my novel was published. It's pretty hard to avoid that fact that the early adopters of my book have been self-identified feminists and that the book strikes a chord with them. Others-including an editor who became upset with my main character-become angry with the way the women in my book behave, and with one choice in particular. That "choice"--sorry to be vague but I'm trying not to avoid spoilers-is something that Amanda told me was "very feminist."

Actually, it was Amanda who raised the whole "feminist" issue with me in the first place. She asked me if I was a feminist and I explained that in general I don't like labels. My parents, for example, had an inter-racial marriage long before it was trendy to do so, but their partnership wasn't a political act. They just fell in love. And while, yes, other people might attach a political meaning to what they did, they themselves didn't feel that way. They seemed oblivious to politics and were more concerned with art-which is probably one reason why I've blundered along the same way.

Since I've never thought of myself as a feminist, it is difficult for me to speak up and say that I intentionally wrote a feminist text. I wasn't trying to. I was trying to write the kind of book that I might enjoy reading and to illustrate some things in the world that I see that I thought other people might not. At the same time, I can't avoid the fact that feminists keep responding to my words.

Since Amanda's interview, I've been thinking more and more about issues of gender inequality and feminism. And I have noticed a kind of inherent inequality in my chosen profession. At one point, I was so pissed off about this inequality, I wrote this. Further, I do on occasion read a book that I think is overlooked and which, if written by a man, I suspect would be better recognized. It would be considered the product of a great and wise mind. It wouldn't be dismissed as "cult" and "odd" and "small." Those are marketing terms.

Once I get to this point, my mind does bad things. I develop a crappy attitude. I start to think uncharitable thoughts. I think: Don't assume that because a man has written a "hard book" it must be smart. Maybe it's just bullshit. But don't assume that because a woman has written a book, it's silly or chick lit or light. Don't get angry at a female writer when she "fails" to soothe you in the way you wanted her to. That is your problem.

When I step back and look at my book, and consider the reception it has had from feminists, I think I can see what people are responding to. The women in my book are driven. They suffer at the hands of men, but do not languish in their beautiful surroundings or escape to the freedom of America-which is often what happens in novels set in the East and populated with beautiful but suffering female characters. (Why do we accept this from novels? I think it makes us feel good about ourselves). The women, in other words, take no prisoners. Is that always pretty? Well, of course not. To take no prisoners is to take no prisoners. It's ugly if you are a man, and it's ugly if you are a woman.

Setting aside the question of whether my book succeeds or fails or is any good-why be harder on a female character for behaving this way, than a male character?

Comments:
This post really strikes a cord with me - the whole 'soothing' that some works do (don't ask me to name them, they slip the mind so easily) is at times so infuriating. The pat ending, the harmonising sentiment, the lesson learned. Gah. They usually all come at the end in a big snowdrift.

Your book - which I found out about through your great essay in AGNI online - seemed to me to be intriguing because of its refusal to flop into the snowy pile. I particularly liked how the buddist priest was given the space in the text to have his own life, and a wife, without closing comments made upon him.

Feminism I suppose is about freedom from the burden of expectation, and in that way, I would venture to say you were a feminist writer.

I'm sorry I didn't know about the reading or I would definitely have dragged some folk along for a listen.
 
Helen-Thanks much for stopping by, and for letting me know you found me through the Crematorium essay! I am starting to accept the feminist elements in my work and thinking, though I wasn't really conscious of them before. You are kind to notice the reading-I'm sure there will be another something at some point. Thanks for taking the time to read my work and to write your thoughts here!
 
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