Posts in Category: Women in and about literature

Grimsrudian writings

Beate Grimsrud reading from "En dåre fri"

A friend and I went to yesterday’s International Author’s Stage to experience Beate Grimsrud, the Norwegian, now Swedish-based, author of works like “En dåre fri” (roughly translated to ‘A fool free’) and “At smyge forbi en økse” (again roughly ‘To edge past an axe’).
As far as the Scandinavian literary scene is concerned Grimsrud has been very much talked about – she is one of the, lately many, author’s who have been highlighted for their use of autobiographical material to a level of extremely concreteness.
She has been awarded several prizes for her authorship and recently she was nominated by Norway AND Sweden for the Nordic Council Literature Prize of 2011. Something she noted at the event yesterday was not the advantage some would claim. But, nonetheless, impressive. And in Sweden her style has even become a term in its own: Grimsrudsk (Grimsrudian) – narrative with detours, sudden associations to other subjects etc.
She started by reciting from “At smyge forbi en økse”, which, I’ll admit, was muy impressivo. Either she has done this a lot or her works sit so embedded in her she can just pick pieces to recount in front of an audience.
Even though Anette Dina Sørensen (the interviewer) did most of the talking (she whipped up quite an analysis of Grimsrud’s authorship, kudos, both relating to queer theory, psychiatry, and autobiographical matter) what Grimsrud had to say was very much to the point.
Her project is to open up or break down the barriers and categories we are so quick to set up and upholding – leaving us constrained versions of humanity. Men, women, mentally fit or sick, child, adult.
When she read from “En dåre fri” people in the audience were nodding, laughing, sighing and acknowledging the narrative vivaciously – the experience was fascinating. When she read from her works the atmosphere in the room was like the audience became part of a single entity whose shared reciprocity enlivened the story Grimsrud told. Much in the spirit of what she argued about books: that they don’t really exist before they have an audience/readership.
She told Sørensen how writing for her was like a sprinter at a marathon – she poured all into a book, writing with fervor and when she thought she had given all she could she realized that she had 40 km left to run! OK, she said it much better, with the calm air of a writer, or maybe you should have been there to hear it.
Then they talked about the character of Eli, how Grimsrud used the ambiguous name so it would relate to men and women, and Eli’s schizophrenia that resulted in hearing voices, 4 male voices to be specific.

One little tidbit: did you know that “En dåre fri” in Norwegian is not the same as its Swedish counterpart? And that the Danish translator has meshed these two into the Danish translation? This is fascinating to me.
I have yet to read one of Grimsrud’s works, but I have a feeling that won’t take long – my fingers are already itching to use non-existing moneys on “En dåre fri”. We’ll see how long the struggle will be.

Have you read anything of Grimsrud? I would love to hear what you think about her books, authorship, themes.

Ding Ling: writer, woman, revolutionary

Ding Ling

Behind those sorrowful and attentive eyes lies a story fit for the history books. Let me introduce you to Ding Ling (1904-1986); Chinese writer, woman and revolutionary. She is the author of one of my favorite short stories, ‘Mrs. Sophia’s Diary’, written in a Westernized, cosmopolitan Beijing and published in 1927. Unfortunately, I believe, as a result of the hectic societal changes in China, during the former half of the 20th century, her writings got eclipsed by her personal life. When she was in her 20’s she flung herself passionately into her stories, exploring the female mind and mentality through different female protagonists in urban settings.

The 20th century in China was ushered in with two major political changes that are of importance for the attention Chinese female authors gained both concerning their role as authors and womanhood in general. The first one was the abolition of the traditional civil service examination in 1905, that ended a long tradition of educating male scholars for employment in the state. The education of women, ushered in by Western girl’s schools, was rapidly taken in by the intelligentsia. The second was the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, ending 2000 years of imperial rule, and establishing the Republic of China. The presence of Western powers was very much a reality in China and this both nurtured cultural affinity and strong revolts. Movements, such as the Culture Movements and the May Fourth Movement, saw great advantage in the upheaval of traditional values and looked interestedly to the question of equality between the sexes. It was also an age in which the individual was scrutinized and portrayed in countless short stories, essays, articles and novels. All of which, as I must lay emphasis on, mainly took place in urban settings.

Miss Sophia's Diary

‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ is a story about a young, tubercular woman who has left her family in order to move to Beijing, struggling to figure out who she is, but ultimately ends up in disillusionment. She is a perfect example of what some have called the ‘New Woman‘ or ‘Modern Girl’ in Chinese culture. With Sophia, Ding Ling explores the realm of moral virtue bestowed upon women, and challenges the notion that moral virtue arises from the female body’s natural disposition to be chaste. Written in a 1st person diary form, it gives a very realistic insight into the modern struggle and crisis of identity from a female point of view. With her Western-ringing name and in urban settings she is a woman of the modern world. But instead of writing about a strong female character that takes on the world head-on and achieves her goals, Ding Ling chooses rather to describe the inner workings of a woman isolated from the world, both of her own accord, but also because of the lack of understanding she feels her surroundings have for her. She is strong in her own way, but so many things complicate her life. Ding Ling portrays Sophia as an erotic being, but one who is unfamiliar with her own sexuality and torn between what she wants and what she is supposed to do. She exemplifies the fear of being stigmatized by a society that does not allow for women to be overtly sexual without being labeled as femmes fatales:

I know very well that in this society I’m forbidden to take what I need to gratify my desires and frustrations, even when it clearly wouldn’t hurt anybody. I did the only thing I could do. I lowered my head patiently and quickly read the name printed on the card, “Ling Jishi, Singapore…

Like Ding Ling, Sophia uses writing in hopes of reaching clarity and to take stock of her position in life. She feels at ease nowhere, with no one, and her interactions with other people leave her frustrated and alone. With these emotional levels, Sophia goes from high to low with every diary entry, and thoughts of death and suicide are reoccurring. The isolation and following depressive reaction shares obvious affinities with Western literature such as Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ and Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, struggles between society and individual that leaves the protagonist ambivalent and confused. Unlike the male’s experience with identity, Sophia is not only up against society’s expectations and the desire to change this, but she and others also question the very core of her being – her femaleness, and what that entails. Most of the rhetoric leading up to the 1920’s had been on female emancipation, claiming equal rights, education and a healthy nation, gaining freedom through financial autonomy, all set in ideological terms. However, Ding Ling takes it one step closer, to the intimate corners of femininity, where she bares Sophia as a sexual being in her own right. For many in the urban community, singlehood symbolized independency, showing social resistance towards marriage, but in more conservative circles it was a regular threat to the essence of Chinese society. In some instances, same sex relationships were feared as a potential outcome with this lifestyle. Same sex love is also insinuated in ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, with reference to the relationship between her and Yunjie predating the diary. Sophia moves on the border between familial sisters (jie) and sexual interest in her relations to other women – one character, Jianru, reminds her so much of Yunjie that she ‘started chasing her (…) writing at least eight long letters [but] she didn’t pay the slightest attention.’ But society’s moral virtue catches up with her and constantly makes her aware of her own personal deficiencies and how unwritten social codes still act as limitations on her behavior. However, she is still more concerned with how to respond to and understand the hazy term of love, both as is manifests itself as lust, passion an metaphysical love. The narration of Sophia, on her own terms, in her own words, places the reader as a voyeur, peeping in on a woman’s innermost secret thoughts. And in doing so, the reader is in the advantageous role of gaining insight into her struggles with identity and modernity.

As China’s political situation became more polarized, and the cooperation between Kuomintang and the Communist Party ended in a bloody showdown in the late 1920’s, Ding Ling was smack down in the middle of revolution, joining the Communist Party and participating actively. She was both a chief editor to a magazine and in the 30’s she joining the Communist Party in Yan’an where she teached, studied the life of the worker and peasants and wrote. The problem was only, her writings did not please others within the Party. Mao Tse-tungs ‘Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art’ in 1942 made it quite clear what role literature had in the greater scheme of party politics, namely subservient to the proletarian glorious struggle, under strict scrutiny by the body of officials that held posts within the organization. And Ding Ling had, unfortunately for her career as an influential writer in Communist China, written some rather critical essays and stories that questioned the use of the communist ideology by some at the expense of others. Among these were ‘When I was in Xia Village’ and ‘Thoughts on March 8’ – an essay about the inconsistencies in sexual politics in the CP. All hell broke loose and during a ‘Rectification Campaign’ she was heavily criticized which in return led to a public self-critique, confessing the errors of her ways, saying that she ‘merely pointed out some of the darkness and forgot to affirm the bright future.’ However, stories such as ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, which was by now considered a classic example of the petty bourgeoisie, subverting the ideology of peasant-worker revolution, was a black spot on Ding Ling. It was quite clear that there was no longer a place for an individualistic, creative attention to the female experience.

Darling River by Stridsberg

I have just spent the day with Stridsberg’s newest addition to Swedish contemporary literature, Darling River.

Me, engulfed in Darling River

Make no mistake, this is no fuddy duddy, school girl crush, chic-lit reading, as the Danish cover might have you believe (and this is not a critique of the cover at all, I love it for the very reason it plays with childishness and pink, blurry tones). This is hard core abandonment, wrapped in sexual frustration, topped with a language that crashes into the reader’s imagination, leaving it sore and a little less happy. Yet again (as with Drömfakulteten) Stridsberg’s language and composition is thorough and crisp. The novels’ subtitle is ‘Variations of Dolores’, and is both an homage to Nabokov’s Lolita (Stridsberg’s point of inspiration) and a variety of females in different acts of life – mother, child, animal, used, abused, terminated, dead. She has divided the novel into five main sections: Destiny, Time, The Mirror, The Sickness, The Loneliness, and within these, different variations of Dolores try to survive and search for some remote sign of intimacy.
Dolores (or Lo) and her father spend their nights driving around in his Jaguar, him looking for prostitutes, her going off with full grown men down by Darling River, both of them trying to fill the void Dolores’ mother left when she packed her white suitcases and left a stranger, a house where she can find nothing, and her child. He feeds Lo sweets, cigarettes and alcohol and waits in the distance for her to complete her ‘business’ with men she calls brothers, whom she feels empathy towards because they try to buy absolution with undersized dresses and tears. She lives of the affection they give her in return for her body, and when her body changes, their visits lessen until one day there is no one left but her father. This child, that never was a child and never could grow out of being a child, is left sick, overeating on sweets, and lacking the one thing she has craved more than anything.
The novel is brutal to say the least, and it is not just from the obvious fact that we are dealing with a child who is being abused, who lives a distorted child’s life, and has lost all contact with reality, but also because reality itself seems to be a misplaced term. The language performs in a way to conjure up an image of distortion. My schematized reading has been put to a test as these characters fade in and out of each other. I have to be honest, some of the times it doesn’t seem to matter if I am reading about one Dolores or another, it is the language, the pictures it invokes, that touches me. Nature and woman is bleeding, everything is pus and sickly, and it translates onto the pages and punches you in the face.
It is worth your while.

Lucie by Amalie Skram

Woe is me, the pain and degradation in 19th century women’s literature! The anger, frustration and solitude!!
I just spent the last couple of days reading a book by Amalie Skram called ‘Lucie’. Recalling some of the passages still sends shivers down my spine. It is a story of society, marriage and the bonds that are being put on both sexes (but in all honestly, it’s mostly women who bear the heavier judgmental shackles).

Lucie by Amalie Skram

Lucie is what you may call a fallen woman, one who has let herself be romanced into a relationship before marriage that results in a child who dies at an early age. In the beginning of the novel she manages so fortunately to marry up in society to a Mr. Theodor Gerner, attorney. And while optimists would have liked this to be a happy-go-lucky situation for our girl here, she soon finds out that marrying Gerner is not all sunshine and cream cakes, far from it. Instead of putting her past behind them, Gerner ends up being a jealous husband who sees it as his role as a man and husband to educate, save and punish Lucie like an ill-behaved child who has had her hand too many a time in the man-jar.

If only she would not stand up to him, answering rudely like this morning. Resentment flushed his face red. This had to be dealt with in all strictness, uprooted; she had to learn, once and for all, that this was not proper behavior. Was this the kind of gratitude she owed him? No, she had to apologize, he would not tolerate being berated by her. He would make her aware of what she had done. Of course, he would forgive her, but first she had to be punished resoundingly.

And the worst part is that Lucie initially bows to his dictatorship and jealous behavior, because she really is in love and feels grateful. As time goes by though, she is more and more disappointed and grows depressed, because no matter how she carries herself at dinner parties or other social gatherings, she can expect a scolding from her loving husband. And Theodor is torn between loving his wife and being angry at her ill mannered temperament. The relationship grows sick, and the novel really is breathtakingly good at exploring the psychological terror of a mismatched relationship:

… and the palpitations she got when she heard him coming home, or when she just sat there waiting for him. In the end she had thought that she saw ghosts in the corners and black shadows everywhere, creeping around her. And when he sat there silently it was like his silence whooshed in her ears and filled her with fear. Oh, the kind that made her want to kill herself out of sheer fear. And it was not until she went to him, crawling on her knees, begging and crying like a madman, that he pardoned her. It was always like that. Not until then did her pardon her. Oh how he had broken her – he was strong, the fellow, and he would not budge. Not even if his life depended on it would he budge. Now he had gotten what he wanted; she was on tenterhooks all the time and was so afraid of him that she would shiver all over simply if he looked at her. He had succeeded in civilizing her, and he probably thought it was all well and done with, because now he was merciful and gentle with her. If only he knew how angry and bitter she was with him. Every once in a while she thought that she desired to kill him just to get back at him. She wished to God she had never known or seen him.

Both Theodor and Lucie are victims of societal norms that destroy both of them. She hopes for a leg up in society, to be respectable, liked, loved and feel secure. He hopes for love, properness and the chance to reform a ‘lost’ soul. Whatever their reasons for marrying are, the novel makes a model of a critique in Scandinavia in the 1880’s that has become known as ‘sædelighedsfejden’ – a battle of morality against the contemporary society that held women in a prudish role, repressing their desires to express/live their sexuality and granting a free-pass for men to do and go as they pleased, in and out of wedlock. It is a strife within a society built up on double standards. Many others like Amalie Skram voiced their critique in letters, novels, plays and art, amongst which probably the most  famous is Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, who set up the play ‘Et dukkehjem’ in 1879 in Copenhagen.
Lucie is an important piece of literature in the sense that the voice of a societal outcast is being portrayed, taken out in to public and given a voice. Even though her situation is dramatic and tragic to the core and pessimism is dripping off the pages, it also offers some insight and a chance to say, ‘this must be changed, the outrageous situation is not viable in our society’. And hopefully, this will continue to stir people’s minds, make them think and, most importantly, act.

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The Bastard of Istanbul

These last couple of days I have had an adventurous craving for food I don’t know how to pronounce, and basically don’t know what is. It is due to my latest gobble of world literature that this passion has taken a hold of me so strong I am inclined to postpone this semesters’ uni start and go to Istanbul and sit in a café, sipping strong coffee and eating little treats while watching the loud, bustling city roam by.

The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak‘s ‘Bastard of Istanbul’ has had that effect on me. It is a story of two families, one Turkish and one Armenian, who become intertwined by fate and a little human exploratory curiousness. For the novel Safak almost ended up in jail for insulting Turkishness, by raising criticism, and dealing with the painful past of pre-modern Turkish state, that of the Armenian Genocide.
The story is pushed forward by a female Weltschmerz. All the men die young in Turkish family, so they play a minuscule role in this matriarchal narrative. But the women none the less become a miniature of the diversity and complexity that forms the young Turkish modern state. There is so much anger bundled up and exploding on the pages and it is mystified by a touch of myth and tales. There is the question of Diaspora in the Armenian Americans – a young woman who is so aware of how her whole identity is tied up with the horrible events that is being inherited down generation by generation, but at the same time it is so foreign to the younger generation who have never had a real life experience with the country where the Armenians faced so much adversity. And then there is the Turkish modern female, who wishes no past at all, and in effect (as she is the bastard of the title) can deny having a past, at least on her father’s side. These two women, Armanoush the Armenian and Asya the Turk, meet in Istanbul and together they start on a healing journey. In itself it is enough to initially activate your gag reflex, but aside from the prophetic mission to mend the gap between Armenian and Turkish affairs there is a lot of positive things to be said about the novel. First of all, there is obviously (a writer facing jailtime is always a good indication) some things that need to be said and dealt with. And not just between the Armenians and the Turks, but the East and West too. The sense of deprived ancestry can both work for you to keep peddling forward, but it can also hinder your (e)motions. And second, the tonality in the novel is very aesthetically beautiful – there are sections that are a bit too blatantly cut out into bits for the reader to follow, which could be a weak spot of the author who feels the need to get a specific point across – and I love that the story in the novel can be interlaced with something so homely and sustainable as food. It is like a spin off of Isabel Allende’s ‘Aphrodite’ where food becomes the link in her narrative and acts as (surprise, surprise) an aphrodisiac. What I am clumsily trying to get at here is that food connects people, and it does too in this novel. When Armanoush meets Asya’s family she instantly recognizes the foods that are served because she knows them from her Armenian grandmother, and this acts as a connection between them and a safe starting-point for Armanoush to introduce her past and self to Asya’s family.
As a little titbit there is a recipe in the book, and there is a reason all the chapters are titled after something edible. And underneath this seemingly innocent layer lies so much more that can awaken an adventurous spirit.

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