Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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The Strength of the Visual

It is clear, that some of the most powerful forms of documentation are those of writers who witness a situation first hand. Wars, famine and oppression can be illustrated using words in a way that is so powerful that the reader can often tell what the people were going through and how they felt throughout these historical milestones. Without much of this documentation, the truth of history may have been lost or even skewed incredibly.

muriel-rukeyser

Poet Muriel Rukeyser does exactly this with her poem about famous documentary artist Kathe Kollwitz. With this poem, she shows what it would be like for a person, like Kollwitz, who lived between war and suffering.

“Held between was my lifetime among wars, the big hands of the world of death my lifetime listens to yours. The faces of the sufferers in the street, in daliness, their lives showing through their bodies.” (1208)

Attempting to document what was happening in the world that she was writing in while accrediting the work of female artist Kathe Kollwitz. There is an important function to work like this, because it has a much stronger message to the reader, just as Kollwitz’s work had on her viewers. Documenting this pain and agony not only raises awareness, but also has a larger impact on the viewers by giving the more of a visual.

not_detected_235978Kathe Kollwitz, The Survivors, 1923

In this piece by Kollwitz, she uses the same ideas that Rukeyser does in her poem and creates a raw visual of the suffering of the people post WWI Germany. The innocents of the children has been taken away and they have seen so much death and agony. This is shown by making their eyes black and lifeless. An image like this can be quite shocking and definitely has an impact on the people of the world at this time.

This approach has been loved by many writers and artists and has impacted the world and politics immensely. Artists like Dorothea Lange and writers like Adrienne Rich had great contributions to the world with their work, by exposing the hardships of the world that have been so easily covered up or ignored.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lct_SSqwHY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou08HU3LM60

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQPS3KI5-yM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRQapdNY-F4

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Something to Burn

In Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, she writes a section called “Something to Burn.”  Part of the section goes like this, starting at line 5-12,

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches, or what will you choose?

Sometimes it’s lunatics, shut them away.

It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

Find something to burn.

Also, here is a man singing it on stage.

I like that they had a man singing this song especially because people try to find anything to blame their problems on.  Specifically, in today’s society many people are breaking out of the societal expectations that were normal hundreds of years ago.  Now, not only women, but men are to blame also; something could be “wrong” with them, and if there isn’t an obvious reason, they will find something, anything! “Fine something to burn.” Below is a news report on Vinegar Tom, stating that Vinegar Tom is a play about witches with no witches in it.

The fact that Churchill wrote a play with no witches in the story, causes the audience to think about what the play is really about.  “Something to Burn” is especially significant in the play because the people at the time needed someone to blame for troubles in their lives, or if they saw some people acting differently, something must be wrong, so they chose witches to blame, or rather women.  These women were considered witches because they went against societal expectations; Alice was not married and slept with a man, and Susan wanted a remedy to abort her unborn child.  “It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews” shows that individuals need to blame someone, even if that someone didn’t do anything wrong.

Churchill’s play examines how outspoken women were seen as troublemakers, and therefore must be witches.  Churchill once said, “Women are traditionally expected not to initiate action, and plays are action, in a way that words are not” (1237).  Through this play Churchill’s true action conveys a story of how women were viewed when they went against the norm of society.  Churchill did not only speak about what her feminists beliefs were, but she wrote about them and incorporated them into her plays, where the audience would be able to actually see the acts take place.  Women were aloud to speak back in the day, but to have an audience witness an event like Vinegar Tom take place, it was even more powerful Churchill because it showed that these accusers were wrong.

Susan’s role is especially significant to me because the audience knows that she is not a witch, but by the end of the play Susan is admitting to herself that she is in fact a witch.  This character is what I believe ties the whole play together.  Susan out of everyone should know that she is not a witch.  Her and most everybody else is caught up in hearsay and believes so strongly in what other people are saying and accusing each other of.  The fact that Churchill chooses the women that are outspoken to be convicted of witchcraft, also can show that women, not men, were to act appropriately in society or else.

“We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away,” can show that society doesn’t want to admit that their is something wrong with themselves.  Everyone is going to have a flaw, if society just accepts the facts that there are going to be troubles, then they may be able to live a happier life.


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Recitatif and the Unknown Races

ab-Toni-Morrison

In the story Recitatif, by Toni Morrison we are introduced right away to two young girls. The only thing we know about them is that they are or different races and are placed in a shelter. The interesting thing that Morrison does is she never tells us what race each child is. Throughout the story it is the readers decision to choose who they think is which race. Their job is to notice parts in the novel that would set the races apart. As the reader your tendency is to lean toward stereotypical aspects that would define the girls’ races.  For example we are given a chance to be stereotypical right in the beginning of the story:

“We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t  read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher” (pg. 1244).

This right away tends to make readers think Roberta is African American. This was because the story was written in 1983. During this time period many slaves could not read or write.  This is the first assumption the reader would make but throughout the novel Morrison challenges us.

The next section where Morrison plays on the race role is when Twyla and Roberta meet at the Howard Johnson’s. (click for a quick old commercial of one of these restaurants!!) Twyla was working there and Roberta stopped in.

“”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her.

“Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. “Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?”

Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling.

“Hendrix. Jimmy Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest—Oh, wow. Forget it” (pg. 1229).

Many would assume Roberta was African American here as well, but others would could assume she was Caucasian.  A lot of Caucasians were huge fans of Jimmy Hendrix. It is another way of Morrison trying to get the reader to question the races.

Morrison deliberately left the races out. She wanted to show that people make assumptions based on people no matter what you tell them.  Morrison wrote many other stories about these situations. Morrison is very passionate about who she is and what she has done to get to where she is in life. Below is an interview with her. She is a powerful woman!


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recitatif in Recitatif

Toni Morrison’s writing style aims to involve the reader emotionally. She says, “my writing expects, demands, participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about telling a story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some color, some sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it” (1225).

morrison-bday

I think it’s interesting that Morrison refers to her writing as her “language.” A word I’s use to describe her work is “genuine.” Morrison writes the way she speaks. It is no wonder the reader can be so emotionally connected to her stories. The language is relatable.

Along those lines, Morrison uses the style of recitatif, which is also the title of the story. This style relates to that of recitatif in opera, in which a character sings in a thoughtful, speech-like manner preceding the aria. An aria is closer to what we know of as a song.

“It really wasn’t bad, St. Bonny’s. The big girls on the second floor pushed us around now and then. But that was all. They wore lipstick and eyebrow pencil and wobbled their knees while they watched TV. Fifteen, sixteen, even some of them were. They were put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean. God, did they look mean. The staff tried to keep them separate from the younger children, but sometimes they caught us watching them in the orchard where they played radios and danced with each other. They’d light out after us and pull our hair and twist our arms. We were scared of them, Roberta and me, but neither of us wanted the other one to know it “ (1226).

As can be seen in this passage, the writing is quite fragmented. Sentences stop and start in places one would not expect upon reading a grammatically correct piece of literature. It does, however, make sense as it is speech-like in nature.

We are provided with new information upon each new sentence. This is certainly a technique that produces emotional involvement on behalf of the reader. It is gripping in a way that constantly draws us in and makes us want to know what is next. The short sentences also provide way to reel in our focus, rather than be lost in a long jumble of words.

Morrison mentions that the reader supplies color and sound. In this way, the reader can truly make a story his or her own, with his or her own thoughts and opinions. Morrison does not specify the racial backgrounds of Twyla and Roberta, but still makes it a central topic to the story. Upon making conclusions about race, in response to some of the stereotypes in the story, one can even learn quite a bit about his or her own thinking process.

ABC News special on the psychology of stereotypes:

Morisson aims to engage the reader’s emotions, yet the tone of her writing is so “unemotional” with blunt, short, matter-of-fact phrasing. Her language is anything but flowery. She does not tell the reader how to feel but forces the reader to feel something. I think that is big part of what art does.

I would say that this style, is very “take it or leave it”, which in itself is extremely powerful.


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“Standing Female Nude” by Carol Ann Duffy

Unknown-2 carol-ann-duffy-portrait

Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most important contributors to contemporary British poetry. Duffy is known for granting voices to a wide range of women with varying tones. Oftentimes, her poems take on the form of a monologue and cover themes such as the representation of reality, the construction of self, gender issues, contemporary culture, varying forms of alienation, oppression and social inequality. While she is primarily known for her unique poetry, Duffy has also written numerous plays that have premiered in London. “Standing Female Nude” is conveyed from the perspective of an unfulfilled female nude model. “Standing Female Nude” was the title poem of Duffy’s first collection in 1985, which won the Scottish Arts Council Award.

In the first stanza, the model introduces herself as an objectified woman. The model narrates,”Belly nippe arse in the window light, he drains the colour from me” illuminating the artist’s transformation of her image to someone truly unrecognizable, which further emphasizes her objectification. The narrator continues, “I shall be represented analytically and hung in great museums” (334). In this line, Duffy blatantly highlights the model’s objectification to the reader. The model’s figure has been altered to please society. This idea can be supported by the final line of the poem, “It does not look like me” (335). According to the model, the artist procures some aspects of her figure; however, manipulates the parts he does not like to formulate a work of art. The model ascends into further detail of her objectification when she narrates, “He possesses me on canvas as he dips the brush repeatedly into the paint” (334-335). The speaker does not have any power or control over how she will be portrayed. Through his painting, the model believes that the artist took ownership of her body. The model continues, “When it’s finished he shows me proudly, lights a cigarette” (335). Although the artist and the model are both benefitting form each other to an extent, the artist carries himself in a manner that suggests his superiority to her. The model also states, “These artists take themselves too seriously,” further emphasizing his feelings of superiority over her (335). The model recognizes and detests the artist’s arrogance, concluding the monologue with “I say Twelve francs and get my shawl. It does not look like me” (335). The artist molded the model’s figure into an piece of art that would be aesthetically pleasing to his audience. However, at the conclusion of the session, the model feels out of control and objectified by a man that believes himself superior to her. The model states, “They call it Art,” utilizing irony to emphasize her disgust with the artist’s objectification of her identity (334). Throughout the monologue, the model questions the true meaning of art.

Throughout her poem, Duffy incorporates Marxist philosophies to further enhance the class struggle in France during this time. The insight behind Marxism was philosopher and communist Karl Marx. According to Peter Hayes, “In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presented a polarized view of classes under capitalism…the bourgeoisie owned the means of production, the proletariat did not; the bourgeoisie were employers, the proletariat were their employees. Not only were the bourgeoisie and proletariat diametrically opposed to each other, but other classes were subsumed within this clash of opposites” (100). The model begins by stating, “Six hours like this for a few francs” implying that she feels underpaid for her circumstances and does not enjoy her work (334). The model refers to herself as a “river whore,” implying that she has sold her body in multiple ways (334). Furthermore, states that both the artist and herself are using each other to an extent. The artist uses the model to build a reputation for himself by stating, “Both poor, we make our living how we can” (335). The artist and the model are in a sense collaborating to create a work of art for the Bourgeoisie. The narrator further perpetuates this idea with, “He is concerned with volume, space. I with the next meal,” further insinuating her low socioeconomic status and the necessity of her work for survival. (334) When the Artist states, “You’re getting thin, Madame, this is not good” (334). he emphasizes her low social status. Although the narrator does not enjoy her line of work, she must sell herself in order to survive. As stated above, both the artist and model are benefitting from each other’s work; however, the artist recognizes that he has more potential of success than the model. The artist hopes to climb the social latter and acquire a higher socioeconomic status in society.

At the conclusion of the third and beginning of the fourth stanza, Duffy wrote, “His name is Georges. They tell me he’s a genius” (334). In Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland’s book ‘Choosing Tough Words’: The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, “Deryn Rees-Jones suggests that the culprit here is the french artist Georges Braque. Her interpretation can be supported with reference to the last stanza: when the model asks why he paints, the artist replies ‘Because I have to. There’s no choice’, which chimes with Braque’s statement that ‘I did not decide to become a painter, any more than I decided to breathe” (14). Although many critics have attempted to discover which Braque painting Duffy refers to, the most common assumption would be his Cubist painting “Large Nude” (1908). Because the Braque utilized a Cubist style to create his modernist painting, the conclusion of Duffy’s poem can be considered from a different angle. When the model states, “It does not look like me,” the model may have felt critical of her own body. Furthermore, the style the artist utilized to capture her figure would easily make her body appear unrecognizable. Today, the painting remains in a private collection.

Large nude.08

I found a collection of discussion questions to help you further solidify your understanding of Duffy’s poem:

http://www.morelearning.net/KS5/CarolAnnDuffy/Standing%20Female%20Nude%201.pdf

I also included a video from a 2013 Dove campaign pertaining to body image and how women view themselves as opposed to how others view them:

http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-wellbeing/the-body-image-video-every-woman-should-watch-20130417-2hz3v.html

Works Cited:

Duffy, Carol Ann. Standing Female Nude. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Mary K. DeShazer. 1st Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2001. 16-72. Print.

Hayes, Peter. “Marx’s Analysis of the French Class Structure.”Theory and Society 22.1 (1993): 99-123. Print.

Michelis, Angelica, and Antony Rowland. The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: ‘Choosing Tough Words’., 2003. Print.


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Where There is Witch, There is a Way

In early modern European history, the population was consumed with panic over witches being among them. This led to the witch hunt. The witch hunt was a mass hysteria that occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. People who were involved with “witchcraft” were accused of worshiping the devil. During this time period people were often looking towards something or someone to place for the happenings that they did not understand.

400px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

In Caryl Churchill’s play, Vinegar Tom she mimics an English village during the 17th century. The play labels witches as outspoken women as showing another example of people during this time needing someone to blame. The play uses a contradictory tone that mirrors other events in history that deal with oppression.

caryl-churchill-1

Throughout Churchill’s play, Churchill uses songs or poems to develop a further analysis of the play while taking the audience out of the context of the story. Churchill did not give music notes to rhythms or any types of instruction when it came to these songs. Churchill instead only gave the lyrics. There is something special that was done here. Churchill is allowing each group who puts on the play, to have their own interpretation of how to sing, or stage directions that they choose feels right.

vinegar_tom

Here is one interpretation of “Something to Burn” done by Quinnipiac University Theater for Community.

“What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

About sickness and hunger and dying.

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

Nothing but cursing and crying.

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches or what will you choose?

Sometimes its lunatics, shut them away.

It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.” (p. 1252).

This song shows the most significance to contradictory ways of people blaming others. The line even connects to Antisemitism as well as anti-feminists   Churchill take a role new approach to showing the injustice throughout history, well still making connections to what may even be occurring in the world today with women. Churchill started a movement for women that landed her a spot among the great by challenging everything around her. Using Vinegar Tom, Churchill is able to discuss sexual politics as well as oppression of women while still connecting to historical events.


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I Put A Spell On You, Vinegar Tom

Salem-witch-trials-440x265

Salem witch trails were probably the most confusing time and the most uneducated. People were going back and forth accusing each other for being witches. Even some animals got accused of being witches. It caught on like wild fire for people to blame people to be witches if that person bothered them.All people had to do was point fingers and say a lie how they changed water into blood or something like this. In Churchill’s play, Vinegar Tom she made it a point to show how easily woman were accused of being witches but she also brought up different points to focus on the social changes that was going on during the time she was writing this which was in 1976.

 Something To Burn      

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

about sickness and hunger and dying.

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

nothing but cursing and crying.

   Find something to burn.

   Let it go up in smoke.

   Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches, or what will you choose?

Sometimes it’s lunatics, shut the away.

It’s black and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

    Find something to burn

     Let it go up in smoke.

     Burn your trouble away.

The song pretty much describes how anyone would just play everyone to burn something. They would not care who it was, they would just burn it. If something went wrong. When someone’s crops would die, they would assume that a curse was put on them. If someone got sick, a witch must have hexed them. People weren’t not educated enough to know that sickness and losing crops were just part of life. They thought if they burned something that problems would all go away. But they kept coming back so people kept thinking that a witch just cursed the whole town. It was almost heart breaking that girls and even men would plead that they weren’t twitches but people accused them.

salem-witches

Also one of the other songs that stood out was Evil Woman.

Evil women.

Is that what you want?

Is That what you want to see?

In your movie dream

Do they scream and scream?

That song stood out because it’s saying that the world wants to see evil woman and nothing else. They do not want to see the good woman, they want to watch a woman go up in flames, not caring if she was innocent or not. It’s rather sad to think about. I think especially for the part, on your movie screen is that they are not focusing that these woman were real. The shock factor that they were actually killing innocent people was no where to be found. It was like they were living life like a movie so it took away reality.

A song that I felt was appropriate for this play was the song I Put A Spell On You.