Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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Recitatif

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Born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American Novelist; she is also an editor and professor. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford are credited for instilling in her a love of reading, music and folklore. Her novels involve vivid dialogue and richly detailed black characters. She was not fully aware of racial divisions until she was in her teens. She once told a reporter from The New York Times “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child in the class who could read.” One article states, “What I am determined to do is to take what is articulated as an elusive race-free paradise and domesticate it. I am determined to concretize a literary discourse that (outside of science fiction) resonates exclusively in the register of permanently unrealizable dream. It is a discourse that (unwittingly) allows racism an intellectual weight to which it has absolutely no claim.Unlike the successful advancement of argument, narration requires the active complicity of a reader willing to step outside established boundaries of the racial imaginary. And, unlike visual media, narrative has not pictures to ease the difficulty of that step.”

Toni Morrison has become the name around which the debates of considerable significance to American literature, culture and ideology have amassed — these include debates about multicultural curricula; about the relation of slavery to freedom; about the possibility of creating literature that is both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaged. One novel she wrote, Recitatif, deals with the major racial issues prevalent in the lives of two young eight year old girls who live in the 60s until they reach their mid 40s. As mentioned, the novel, including two young girls, one young one black opens with them at an orphanage and then takes place at four separate meetings later on in life. Morrison, when using dialogue between the two, never implicates which child is black and which is white…that stays a mystery, although at some points one could take a guess which one is which however that idea formulated could change with the next meeting. Morrison invites readers to participate in a soaring affirmation: Life can be understood, she says, and it is beautiful, even glorious. In each of her novels, the individual finds knowledge, meaning, and faith in a clearly duplicitous world. Such affirmation rests on Morrison’s racialized and feminist self. She wants to strip away all the racist assumptions, not in order to study race but to look deeply at what remains, to see it in a new way that is fresh and clear. “In writing novels,” Morrison noted, “the adventure for me has been exploration of seemingly impenetrable, race-inflected, race-clotted topics”

As stated in the youtube video above, Morrison uses a particular device to make people question their assumptions and their stereotypes surrounding the fact that she does not indulge which character is black and which is white. She leaves it up to the reader to question that but in turn makes the reader question the fact that they are stereotyping that character in the novel based on preconceived notions of their idea of race. Some examples of racial stereotypes in the novel are:

  • Twyla doesn’t at first know what to think of Roberta, but Twyla remembers and agrees
    with something her mother has told her, that people who are of Roberta’s race “never
    washed their hair and they smelled funny.” (p.682)
  • Twyla: “I saw [my mother] right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated
    even more because didn’t she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with
    the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face
    was pretty—like always—and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking
    for her mother. . . . But I couldn’t stay mad at [my mother] while she was smiling and
    hugging me and smelling of Lady Esther dusting powder. . . . and I was feeling proud
    because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.” (p.684-685)
  • Twyla to Roberta – “Look at them,” I said. “Just look. Who do they think they are? Swarming all over the place like they own it. And they think they can decide where my child goes to school. Look at them, Roberta. They’re Bozos.” (p.1234).

Aside from these examples, there are many other examples from the text where racial stereotypes are placed.

 


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Homage to my Hips

lucille-clifton

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York to Samuel Louis and Thelma Moore Sayles. The exciting thing about Clifton is that she attended Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955 and is now an alumni. She once said “I am a Black women and I write from that experience, I do not feel inhibited or bound by what I am.” She has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and is the recipient of many other honors, including a 1999 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. As said in the Anthology many of the poems that the book focuses on are ones written about her great-great-grandmother, who was sold into slavery from her home in West Africa in 1830. The Anthology also states that the poems pay homage to the “mother-daughter” connection.

In “Homage to My Hips” Clifton is creating a sense of symbolism with her hips.

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Homage to My Hips
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
This poem expresses how the hips, or the person this poem was intended to speak about does not like to be restrained or controlled by others. “they don’t like to be held back/these hips have never been enslaved”. I think Lucille wrote this poem in terms of her own hips. While writing this poem she may have thought about her great-great grandmother’s enslavement when she was kidnapped and wrote this poem expressing that she has escaped that challenge and does not expect to relive the life her relative had to. This poem talks about the hips being strong and independent. “they go where they want to go/ they do what they want to do”(line 9).  She is able to catch the symbolism and also the reality of the human body. In the poem she speaks of her own body and accepts herself as she was made and turns it into a positive. She portrays the body as a vehicle of pleasure. Yet she lets it be known that her body is her own and it is hers only. Since hips are associated with childbearing and are a very feminine feature, one can also gather that they are being used as a symbol for women. So, the ideas Clifton is bringing to light can be applied to all women, not just herself specifically, or women who are larger in size.  She repeats the word “hip(s)” throughout the poem, showing she is not ashamed of them, and showing the importance of them. “These hips are big hips/they need space to/ move around in./they don’t fit into little petty places”(lines 1-4)—This is one of the more pertinent ideas in the poem.

Clifton, Lucille. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed. Mary K. DeShazer. New York: Addison Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2001. 818. Print.

“Homage to My Hips.” Poetry Foundation. PoetryFoundation.org. 2013. Web.  26 April 2013.

 


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For My Lover, Returning to His Wife

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Much of Anne Sexton’s work is autobiographical and concentrates on her inner deeper feelings. Most of which was anguish. Eventually, Sexton’s poems about her psychiatric struggles were gathered in To Bedlam and Part Way Back which recounts, as James Dickey wrote, the experiences “of madness and near-madness, of the pathetic, well-meaning, necessarily tentative and perilous attempts at cure, and of the patient’s slow coming back into the human associations and responsibilities which the old, previous self still demands.” The type of poetry she wrote is call confessional poetry and is often controversial. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, for example, said of Live or Die that “many of Mrs. Sexton’s new poems are arresting, but such naked psyche-baring makes demands which cannot always be met. Confession may be good for the soul, but absolution is not the poet’s job, nor the reader’s either.” A Punch critic added, “When her artistic control falters the recital of grief and misery becomes embarrassing, the repetitive material starts to grow tedious, the poetic gives way to the clinical and the confessional.” Many reviewers raised at least two questions. First, should her poetry be classified as confessional? Second, does her work consistently demonstrate the artistic control which many critics feel is an essential quality of good poetry? (Anne Sexton).

One of her poems, as published in the Anthology For My Lover Returning to His Wife is told from the point of view on a mistress.

This poem is about the anguish and realization that she will never match up to his wife. Throughout the entre poem, the other women is constantly comparing herself to his wife:

Let’s face it, I have been momentary.

A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.

My hair rising like smoke from the car window.

Littleneck clams out of season.

She is more than that. She is your have to have,

has grown you your practical your typical growth.

This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.

She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy (Sexton, 534).

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Anne Sexton, in this poem, is showing the different roles between the mistress and the wife. The wife is the person to whom the husband goes home…the woman who takes care of him, who bore his children and cares for them, who ultimately holds his heart. The mistress is simply a fleeting luxury…someone who will not be there forever. In this poem, she removes herself from the equation and gives the husband permission to solely care for his wife.

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“I am a watercolor. I wash off” doesn’t refer to a lack of self-confidence, it refers to the temporary nature of being a mistress.

“She is a solid” refers to his wife being the sole occupant of his heart. She will be there forever. She is solid. She will always remain.

 

References:

“Anne Sexton.” Poetry Foundation. PoetryFoundation.org. 2013. Web. 12 April 2013

Sexton, Anne. “For My Lover Returning to His Wife.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed. Mary K. DeShazer. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishing Inc. (2001). 534-535. Print.

 


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Chloe liked Oliva

In the fifth chapter of A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf imagines a story written by Mary Carmichael in which the main character Chloe is in love with another women, Olivia. As she is reading the passage, she abruptly stops because she realizes that no men are in fact a part of this story. She states “We are all women. you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these — “Chloe like Olivia…” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.” (56) This very passage eludes to a change that could be happening within society and the very topics written within books. Woolf says that in “the privacy of our own society” women like women. She means that, in society that is hidden from everyone else, women in fact may have feelings for other women…but we may not be aware of it because it has been kept in their private thoughts or conversations. “And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe like Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.” (56) This was something that had never happened before and was shocking to read because in the 1920s the topic of gay & lesbian was viewed as obscene. This strikes her odd because in the past women have only been seen and represented as friends. She compares Cleopatra to Octavia and how their feelings toward another was pure jealousy. She states that it would have been interesting if the relationship between women were complicated instead of simple as it had been in the past.

If Woolf was alive today would she believe the sheer amount of novels that feature gay and lesbian couples? Would she believe that college campuses even offer courses on such a topic? Below are three books that have been written on Gay & Lesbian studies and also the contemporary issue as a whole.

In contemporary times many authors have written about such topics in their books. One author that is remembered for her controversial novel is Nancy Garden. The story behind the novel Annie on My Mind follows Liza, a high school student who falls in love with Annie, another classmate of hers. The entire novel details their ordeals as a lesbian couple and what they endured from the reactions of their parents and classmates. As stated above, the relationship between women was portrayed as one that was quite simple and wasn’t at all complicated. Novels like this one broke through the mold of opposite sex couples and truly touched ground on a controversial issue that many people kept private. This was something that in Virginia Woolf’s time, and even years before this book came out, was not highly regarded and didn’t have a place in regular conversation.

Below is the cover of Nancy Garden’s book “Annie On My Mind” 

Annie On My Mind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While searching for similar books like these, I came across a website that features many others books with the same premise. While on that website, the author included 17 of the thousands of possible book options an individual could read.

Such a small amount of books were available on the topic of woman in Woolf’s time, so why would there be even one on the topic of a lesbian couple? This shows in the times since Woolf wrote her novels, many things have changed. She writes “For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.”(57)  Today, in 2012, many authors have been in “that vast chamber” and have lit the way for many other authors to follow in their footsteps, writing about many issues that those who have come before them never dare to write about.