Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

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My Lifetime Between Great Hands


“I am in the world

to change the world

my lifetime

is to love to endure to suffer the music

to set its portrait

up as a sheet of the world…

and the child alive within the living woman, music of man,

and death holding my lifetime between great hands

the hands of enduring life

that suffers the gifts and madness of full life, on earth, in our time,

and through my life, through my eyes, through my arms and hands

may give the face of this music in portrait waiting for

the unknown person

held in the two hands, you.”

-Muriel Rukeyser; “Kathe Kollwitz” (pp. 1208)

The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature

While reading this excerpt of Rukeyser ‘s poem, “Kathe Kollwitz”, I couldn’t help but picture a grieving military mother, mourning the loss of her child; perhaps her only child. The thought of a woman losing her own flesh and blood is a difficult one to completely grasp unless one has personally gone through the experience. However, the way that Rukeyser writes gives those lucky enough to avoid such an experience an opportunity to see through that perspective.  When analyzing this poem, I heard the voice of a mother in a sorrowful, prayer-like state, speaking openly to herself, and then to her deceased child. The first ellipsed section sounded like a sort of promise made by the mother, to carry on after her child’s death and “change the world”, using her tragedy as motivation, to display the wrongs happening around her in the form of a “portrait” or “sheet of the world”. The second part has more of a mournful, despairing tone, in which the mother describes how she must “suffer the gifts and madness of full life on earth” without her child, awaiting the day when she will be reunited with the “unknown person held in the two hands”.

Personally, I think it is amazing how so much power can be held in two little stanzas of poetry. You can delve so far into this text and begin discussions about loss,  unconditional  maternal love, and especially about the struggles of military families. It is so saddening to picture a mother having to bury her own child and this poem gives a voice to those women who have. Oftentimes, people picture mothers of deceased children as powerless, and expect them to simply give up on their own lives to resort to a lifetime of mourning. While this may be true for some mothers, I like that Rukseyer displayed the strong side of motherhood; not only did she emphasize the pain and suffering that this mother was experiencing, she showed how the mother was channeling her pain into actions towards changing the world in the name of her child-so they would not have to die for naught. I think I was overwhelmed the most by the idea of the child living through the mother although they have passed and she now must go on living, caring the burden of her loss while using her body, mind, and soul to criticize and mend the world she lives in.

I found this video about two moms of deceased soldiers who are using their grief to make a difference:


I think the group that presented this text was correct for including the portrait “Woman with Dead Child” by Kathe Kollwitz because it is a visual representation of all the emotion that Rukeyser was trying to get across (see below). This drawing, made in 1903, was the inspiration for Rukeyser’s poem. The most striking thing about Kollwitz’s work is the non-human appearance of the mother. She is cradling her child and buring her face into his chest. Although the viewer cannot directly see the mother’s face, the parts that are visible are haunting, and monster-like. Also, the size difference between the mother and her child (ex: her leg is the same size of the child’s whole body) creates the  sense that the child, although grown, is still a child to their mother. I think this can apply to all moms; they always see their children as babies, even when they’re grown with their own children.

“Woman with Dead Child”- Kathe Kollwitz

I really enjoyed this poem, even though the subject matter was pretty heavy. I think that military families and their daily struggles are things that need to be talked about; and not only talked about, but supported. For a mother, nothing can compare to losing your child, and thousands of military mothers, fathers, and families go through exactly that every year. But even through this immense loss, there is a silver lining of sorts. Through this loss, there is a common thread that ties all human beings. We all experience love, loss, and grief. And the love of a mother for her child transcends race, ethinicity, origin, etc. I think it is through these experiences that we can become closer in a worldwide sense, and resurface the humanity that we somehow lost along the way.

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“A Temporary Matter”


(google images)

This past week, one of my RAs had a program in my residence hall about henna designs and it was a big hit! Naturally, I got covered on both hands in squiggles, loops, dots, and flowers (Who doesn’t love pretty flower tattoos that you aren’t stuck with forever?!). As I sat down to write my blog, I got frazzled because I realized that parts of my henna had already rubbed off-UGH! While looking at the remnants, I had to chuckle; the irony of the situation was just too funny! In class we just finished reading the works of Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri, and discussing fragile relationships between Indian individuals. How ironic that, like my henna tattoo, the relationships described in the stories were temporary!

In “A Wife’s Story”, Bharati Mukherjee describes an culturally unusual Indian couple consisting of a man living back in India, and a woman making a way for herself in America alone. On page 547 the unnamed woman thinks, “I’ve made it. I’m making something of my life. I’ve left home, my husband, to get a Ph.D. in special ed. I have a multiple-entry visa and a small scholarship for two years”. This advanced lifestyle puts a strain on the couples’ marriage; a strain that only gets worse as the woman repeats the phrase “The special ed. course is two years,…I can’t go back.”(553). The couple’s story is left ambiguous in the end, but Mukherjee implies that the marriage has ended with phrases such as, “Tomorrow he’ll be on his way back to Bombay. Tonight I should make up to him for my years away, the gutted trucks, the degree I’ll never use in India. I want to pretend with him that nothing has changed” (553).

Similarly, in “A Temporary Matter”, Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the relationship of an Indian couple whose relationship is slowly deteriorating after the death of their child. Through the activities of daily life, and the added factor of darkness due to a lack of electrical power, Lahiri exposes each of the individual’s thoughts about the marriage and the direction it has taken. For example, husband Shukumar thought “how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible…He thought of how long it had been since she looked into his eyes and smiled, or whispered his name on those rare occasions they still reached for each other’s bodies before sleeping”. When Shoba attempts to make conversation with him, Shukumar admits to himself, “He couldn’t think of anything, but Shoba was waiting for him to speak. She hadn’t appeared so determined in months. What was there left to say to her?”. It is through the lack of knowledge, of trust, and of comfort, that the reader sees the crumbling foundations of their marriage. Even more blatantly, Lahiri displays the lack of love with quotes such as: “He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise”.*

With both of these relationships, the reader sees the affects of marriages that are built on faulty emotional and communicational connections. An even more interesting approach to these stories is to consider the cultural aspects behind the relationships. I found this documentary by an Indian film maker that explores the idea of unhappy Indian marriages and the social trials and tribulations that individuals must go through if they choose divorce over unhappiness. 

I was also interested in the historical context of how Indian cultures view marriage, as well as divorce, and I found this cool website with fables, legal positions, and religious standpoints from a Hindu perspective. Have fun! 🙂

All in all, I really enjoyed reading these works from foreign authors. I think the multicultural perspective on universal topics such as love, marriage, and divorce is extremely eye opening in many ways; maybe we aren’t so different at the core of our beings?; or even, maybe we shouldn’t judge others’ actions and feelings before knowing the basis of their perspectives? Hmm..things to think about!

*Quotes from “A Wife’s Story” taken from The Longman’s Anthology of Women’s Literature by Mary K. DeShazer

Quotes from “A Temporary Matter” taken from link to excerpt on ANGEL site

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The Thread of Time

Having Jamaican American poet Shara McCallum as a guest speaker got me to thinking about a lot of things. These thoughts lead me to a reflective place; I wondered, how do people change as time goes on? And does time change the type of people we are? There is no certain answer for these questions, I know, but in works like that of Shara McCallum we can see the stages and changes that individuals go through. In a personal blog post McCallum says, “In retelling stories (personal, communal, and national), we are often searching for the thread between events of the past and ideas of who we are in the present and who we might become in future.” This quote developed a sort of project for me, and I chose to go back through the books of poetry that McCallum has published and find a thread like she mentioned in her blog.

image.phpMcCallum circa 1999  mccallum008shara2 McCallum-present day

(google images)

In her first collection of poems entitled “The Water Between Us”, McCallum draws from the experiences of her childhood, specifically, her relationship with her parents and feelings of displacement after leaving Jamaica. One of her poems called “Jamaica, October 18, 1972” reads:

                                                                   Jamaica, October 18, 1972


You tell me about the rickety truck:
your ride in back among goats or cows–
some animal I can’t name now–
the water coming down your legs,
my father beside you, strumming
a slow melody of darkened skies

and winter trees he only dreamed
on his guitar. The night was cool.
That detail you rely on each time
the story is told: the one story

                                                                   your memory serves us better
than my own. I doubt even that night

                                                             you considered me, as I lay inside you,
preparing to be born. So many nights
after it would be the same.

                                                                   You do not rememer anything,
you say, so clearly as that trip:
animal smells, guitar straining for sound,
the water between us becoming a river.

(referenced from link on ANGEL page)

In her third collection of poetry, McCallum revisits the idea of motherhood and parental relationships; however this time, she writes from the opposite perspective: that of a mother. An excerpt from “The Book of Mothers” reads,

“I did not hear or could not listen, I barely knew you when you called.

Now when it’s too late I want to tell you I am a mother

and think I understand something more of grief’s depths.

I am a mother like but also not like you.

My friend (may I call you this in death?) my child’s throat I lean toward to kiss.”

motherhood-2        motherhood_3

From both of these poems, the reader gets a sense of dissatisfaction from McCallum when it comes to her own mother. In “Jamaica” she implies that her mother does not consider her, and makes the point by referencing the first day the neglect began: her birth. Years later, in her poem about motherhood, McCallum makes another reference to her own mother by saying she is “like but also not like” her, and chooses to kiss her child’s throat instead of what her mother might have done in her childhood. It is this idea that represents the ‘thread’ that McCallum mentioned in her blog. The relationship that she had with her mother, whether it be dysfunctional or not, had an impact on her development and her future role as a mother. The psychology behind mother-daughter relationships and their affect on individuals is another interesting topic that I’d like to explore future. There is so much information on this topic to choose from, but I found this video by psychotherapist, Rosjke Hasseldine discussing the importance of mother-daughter relationships. (Try to ignore the unpside-down book slip up haha!).

It might be a minor detail, but I found this visible transition from child to mother through writing really interesting.I also really enjoyed getting to talk to a real, life author about their poetry in class; we should do that more often when possible!

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Because a Woman who Writes has Power.

This past class when we started discussing multicultural women writers, I found myself genuinely intrigued. All three women: Kingston, Anzaldua, and Walker were exceptionally strong individuals that shared their thoughts with the world through literary works.

Unknown-1 (Maxine Hong Kingston)

Unknown (Gloria Anzaldua)

Unknown-2 (Alice Walker)

This being said, something about Gloria Anzaldua’s writing kept pulling me back to her excerpt more so than the other two writers. I can recall sitting in the library reading “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” and feeling a kind of connection to the text. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at the time, I just knew that there was something spectacular underlying the print on the page. After our class discussion it became more clear to me that what I was feeling was humanity. Genuine, raw emotion. How long has it been since we’ve truly felt something from a work of literature? I feel as though we’ve become complacent with the emotionally detached world in which we live. When did this become acceptable? Why are truth and passion suddenly rarities?

Gloria Anzaldua recognized these flaws in society and refused to stand by and watch them happen- at least not without a fight. In her work, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”, Anzaldua addresses her own personal battles as a gay, Chicana woman writer and the oppression of multiple groups of women. She bluntly expresses her opinions on the wrongs of this world and how oppressed female writers can overcome their adversity.

One of my favorite passages in “Speaking in Tongues” is Anzaldua’s response to a quote by Naomi Littlebear; it says,

FLOWER (Naomi Littlebear)
“Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispell the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.” (319)

I find myself rereading it over and over again, each time feeling more empowered by her words. To try and cut down this quote is impossible; each line is an important piece of Anzaldua’s message. But when I try to break it apart, this is what I get: She writes because the world isn’t enough for her. It doesn’t give her what she deserves. She writes to tell the untold stories of those left in the shadows of “bigger, more important” people. She writes because it is a way to discover and hold onto herself, and, in the process, make her closer to her readers. But most importantly, she writes because she wants to write. She could care less about what her opposers think a woman writer should be. In the text she even states, “Forget the room of one’s own–write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping and waking. I write while sitting on the john.” (320) This statement in itself is broad, and brave, and blunt. Women in the welfare line can write? The day to day mother can be the next Emily Bronte? As basic as that is for our generation, it was pretty edgy to put into writing and it ignited a fire within the hearts of thousands of women around the world. It’s funny, really. Through her cussing and blunt shout-outs to wrongs in society, Anzaldua displayed an air of power and confidence and inspired a whole wave of strong, independent women.

These passages from “Speaking in Tongues” and various others exemplify the type of woman that Gloria Anzaldua was. A no-nonsense, sailor-mouthed warrior for equality for all people no matter the shape, size, gender, preference, or race; and the powerhouse behind a movement to end the oppression. Honestly, I feel bad for Anzaldua’s opposers.
A woman who writes has power….and a woman with power is feared.



Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, and Me

Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, was one of the great modernist English writers of the twentieth century. She is credited with numerous novels, short stories, and essays but is most well-known for her experimental novel,  “A Room of One’s Own.

VirginiaWoolf                                             340793

In the novel, “A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf utilized a modern, stream-of-consciousness writing style. This contemporary method of prose was shocking in the way that it represented human thought in its blatant, raw form; contrasting greatly with the traditional, detached ways of composing literature. Although Woolf’s method of writing did have an innovative edge, its newness did not distract from her innate ability to hook her readers and make them genuinely interested in what she had to say. Woolf wrote as if she was speaking directly to the reader; in fact, she was speaking to a direct audience, as “A Room of One’s Own” was originally a combination of speeches that she gave at woman-supporting Girton and Newnham Colleges, both in Cambridge, England. Ideas in her narrative flow in a natural, colloquial form, as Woolf seamlessly references past literary works, authors, and important thinkers to support her argument for the necessities of woman writers. One reference that I found particularly interesting was to an anonymously written poem entitled “The Ballad of Mary Hamilton”.  (I found a video of a contemporary vocal rendition of the ballad, happy listening!) 🙂

This ballad begins by introducing four Marys; Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Carmichael, and Mary Hamilton. It goes on to describe the account of  Mary Hamilton, a servant to the Queen of Scotland, who, through a secret relationship with the King, becomes pregnant. In an act of desperation, Mary kills her child as she cannot support the burden of caring for it. The crime is uncovered and Mary is sentenced to death.

399px-The_Four_Maries,_from_an_Edwardian_children's_history_book                                                    Pavel_Svedomskiy_001

                                         The Four Marys from H E Marshall’s ‘Scotland’s Story’, 1906                           Mary Hamilton Before Execution by Pavel Svedomskiy, 1904

Woolf alludes to the four Marys in chapter one saying, “Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please– it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river deep in thought” (pg 17). The fact that Woolf suggests that the name with which you should address her is not of any importance is particularly significant. By giving a name— usually a form of personal identification– a lack of importance, Woolf is creating a general, subjective identity with which the readers can identify. In this way, the narrative of Mary Beton/Seton/Carmichael becomes a universal narrative; one that can be applied to every woman reader, regardless of that woman’s characteristics.

Woolf continues the allusion to the four Marys throughout “A Room of One’s Own” by conversing with a Mary Seton about the poor accommodations at the women’s college luncheon in chapter one,  (pg 24-25) and reading and critiquing a novel written by a Mary Carmichael saying, “It would be better, instead of speculating what Mary Carmichael might write and should write, to see what in fact Mary Carmichael did write” (pg 60-61). But her use of Mary Beton in Chapter 6 is the most striking application of the ballad, with the character of Beton as a symbol of Woolf herself. She writes, “Here then, Mary Beton ceases to speak…she has asked you to follow her flying into the arms of a Beadle, lunching here, dining there, drawing pictures of the British Museum, taking books from the shelf, looking out of the window. While she has been doing all of these things, you have no doubt been observing her failures and foibles and deciding what effect they have had on her opinions. You have been contradicting her and making whatever additions and deductions seem good to you” (pg 67).

With this reference, Woolf is embodying the character of Mary Beton and using her to critic herself. Woolf understands the obstacles that she, and all other woman writers, are up against when they compose literature. She recognizes that as a writer, especially being a modern woman writer, readers are constantly questioning her merit while searching for ‘feminine flaws’ in her writing. The use of Mary Beton is merely a general representation of all women who are attempting to challenge the boundaries that are set before them, Woolf included. Personally, I liked that Woolf took this introspective moment in her narrative; it showed that she was not writing for the sole purpose of criticizing other writers, but for the criticism of society and its effect on women writers as a whole. By drawing the same attention to herself and her struggles as a woman writer, Woolf appears more human and more relatable to her female counterparts.


DeShazer, Mary K. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. New York: Longman, 2001. 17-67. Print.

“Virginia Woolf.” Wikipedia. N.p., 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2013

“Stream Of Consciousness.” About.com Classic Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Mary Hamilton.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 June 2013. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton 1960.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 Aug. 2009. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Across the Page.” Across the Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Weekend Music Thread – Girl Power | PlanetPOV.” PlanetPOV RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.