Heroines: Critical Memoirs. Hers, Theirs and My Own

Though in its original incarnation this was an intended book review, it certainly isn’t one now. It’s more like fan mail, or homage, or an open letter, or a guided self-discovery. Heroines by Kate Zambreno is a rare work of nonfiction that combines feminist critique and historical expose with personal memoir, or as she calls it, “critical memoir.” This is kind of what her work has evoked in me, as a response. The book has elements of an ardent student’s notebook turned diary, drawing parallels between these discarded women and herself. It’s an interrogation of the American literary canon. The singing of praises for Great American Writers turns to spitting anger. It’s what we don’t know, or conveniently ignored, about how one becomes “great” — who decides, who is sacrificed, and what information is left out. The wives. She asks of the scene WHO ELSE WAS THERE.

“I use the term ‘madness’ here to describe these women’s alienation, because I see their breakdowns as a philosophical experience that is about the confinement, or even death, of the self. This gesture of confinement, of exclusion, occurs when we speak of and name the figures of literary modernism: Us versus Them. The mentally ill ones versus the geniuses. But who gets to decide?”

Beyond challenging history, Kate Zambreno also gives us a refreshingly honest glimpse at her own struggles as a writer and “difficult woman.” It’s an exploration of a woman’s mental health, how that’s been used against her, and how we haven’t escaped these trappings in our own post-post-modern lives. The categorization of a woman’s work as mentally ill, while a man suffering the same afflictions is considered a genius. How we view ourselves in this same lens: our own writing is just narcissism and crazy talk. I struggle to take my words and stories seriously, even writing this I’ve been riddled with self-doubt. Reading about Kate’s own battle with self-esteem and mental health issues made me feel less alone: it was encouraging. At first I simply related to the way we both seem to idolize our favorite authors like rockstars, and ended up feeling exactly that way about Kate. I’m deeply inspired by her voice and integrity.

“I am struck how these modernist men, with their finished, worked-over texts didn’t really know these women they write of so ecstatically…These women, although they are portrayed as cruel, sadistic, were often masochists in their relationships, they were the ones who lost their heads, by their mad love, the sparks of their relationship catalyzing his writing and often destroying her. Colette Peignot’s letters show an emotional bind, and absolute devastation at Bataille’s infidelities. She was the sacrificial victim on whom he meditated. Colette Peignot becomes the elliptical ghost of Bataille’s. Guilty, his emotional, agonizing document of intense grief and personal crisis, a meditation on the extremity and excesses of mystic as well as erotic experience. She is obviously everywhere, ghosting the text, these meditations began at the year-anniversary of her death. Yet in the original manuscript he scratches out her name, and in the final version she is omitted, a sacrifice for transcendence. In this mythical alchemy of Art she is forgotten. A heroine sacrificed on the plot of literature.”

My best friend tried mailing a copy of Heroines to me for my birthday and it got lost in a Chicago snowstorm. It was a month before I went to Paris, to “write a novel.” I wonder how things would have turned out if I had been able to bring it along with me. The only way she described it, which is the only way she could have described it, was “it’s everything we talk about.” She was mostly referring to our screenplay, but after I started reading it for myself I realized that it literally is everything I care about. Kate references almost every author I love, as well as the histories of women that I obsess over. The ongoing and seemingly unstoppable history of defaming women, silencing them through false diagnosis or violence. Preventing them from writing their own stories in order to protect their more famous husbands. The women who played the muses to these Great American Authors could have been greats themselves, and the misogyny that has infiltrated this institution is still a pervasive demon that prevents women from gaining recognition for their work, or simply intimidates or discourages them from working at all. Women who have been made into characters, their voices stolen and their histories rewritten by the men who control them, even after they’ve died. It is discouraging, to only see yourself as a character or a muse. To always take the artistic endeavors of others more seriously, and to feel that your only role in life is to be a foil. To believe that someone else will characterize you better than you can yourself. If it comes from a woman, it’s narcissistic, depressed. If it comes from a man, it’s genius writing. He can make her palatable. I shudder to think of how the men in my past would have written me. A sex crazed lunatic with no grip on reality. I’d rather say it myself.

“In literature when these women act out it is first seen as an embodiment of a philosophy (sometimes monstrous and possessed), but later, once he grows bored with her, as is the case with Breton and Nadja, the violence he originally fetishized is now interpreted as the ordinary bizarre behavior of a madwoman he had confused for a muse.”

Greatness is a male term. Not because women aren’t great, but because in the history of art and literature we primarily know male greats. Sentiments from the seminal and satirical 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin splattered on every page. My copy, bought second hand off Amazon, came used with another woman’s magnificent marginalia. On a page, scribbled in pencil, “how about this mother fucking darkness?” Maybe we need our own term: grand, grandiose, glorious?

“The notion of the Great American Novel seems to be almost exclusively male. It seemed for a while The New York Times was under the impression that David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished The Pale King was the only recently published novel – it was constantly covered and reviewed, an endless documentation. A canonization – with that book he was raised to the literary heavens. In reviews David Foster Wallace was compared to Melville and other Great Men just like that boy I knew was compared to David Foster Wallace. Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in the big literary sections, but not about HOW they are reviewed, or HOW they are not reviewed, and who women writers are or are not compared to in the body of their occasional reviews. We are considered outside the conversation of Great Books, a male-dominated tradition. Not only the self-mythologizing of a Fitzgerald or Miller, singing the Song of Himself for pages upon pages, but an endless mythology from the outside as well, from the Harold Blooms and Professor X’s and James Woods and men at the head of the major book sections who see in these novels a mirror of their own experience.”

It’s not that I don’t like male authors, I just prefer the words and voices of women. I don’t know how to feel for, and relate to most male penned works — unless he’s writing about sex. Kate and I have a love for Jean Genet in common. Genet was an outsider, though. His mere existence was an act of rebellion. Kate and I have a lot in common, as fangirls and as writers, especially working in the digital age. We both got started by expressing ourselves on LiveJournal, a sanctuary I could not have survived adolescence without, and a tool that helped me to find my voice and practice my craft at a very young age. A place where I could write, taking myself seriously, without admitting to anyone other than my close friends that I cared about what I wrote. My friends and I would read each other’s LJs, which in retrospect was so empowering, and so special, like writing letters in secret. My best friend and I (the one who told me about this book) have been writing to one another for 20 years starting with LiveJournal, and now we write together, and we take it seriously. It wasn’t always something we could talk openly about, or feel confident about. There was an inherent sense of shame connected to talking about ourselves, our emotions, and how guarded we had to be against the prying eyes of adults in our lives. In the digital age a girl writing honestly about depression on the internet is enough to get her locked up. Not much has changed throughout history. It just looks different.

Both Kate and I try to follow in the footsteps of the women we admire, literally and figuratively. Visiting homes, asylums, cafes, dance halls. Trying to crack a mystery, or absorb some spirit. Through the process of reading Heroines, I felt like I was walking backwards to the points of intersection I might have had with Kate. When she talks about writing, reading, chain smoking in a coffee shop in Wicker Park I wonder if it’s the same one (now closed) that I used to frequent, doing the same, just so much younger — both of us lost. Kate in the Flaxman Library, describing the librarian, too familiar. My silly thesis I wrote at 23 about Rape Fantasies and Madness on those shelves, I would die of embarrassment if she read just a page. When she writes about waiting tables at the Hollywood Grill, I see myself at 21 with my boyfriend at the time, 2am, eating shitty food and talking about transgressive art. The Hollywood Grill on Ashland Avenue, a street that stretched to Pilsen and the home of one of my great loves up to Ravenswood — my last home, where I lived alone. A street where I saw a woman being sexually assaulted outside of her home by a family member, a blood curdling scream as her top was ripped off and I saw her bare breasts as I stood by trying to convince the 911 operator that it was urgent.

There’s a common trail between Kate and I, and I wonder how often we saw the same things. Or if we felt the same way. Something Kate gives me in her work that none of my favorite authors can: true relatability. We both live, thrive and struggle in the digital age. Something Anais Nin could never understand.  But then again, Kate is also a scholar’s wife. I almost resent her. We are differently imprisoned, but so free at the same time.

All my life I’ve oscillated between the desire and confidence to “be a writer” and the crippling self-doubt and self-demoralization that I am not a writer. It always comes down to the same insecurity: I don’t have any ideas, all I do is write about myself and it’s gross. I always thought my life was too privileged and uninteresting to inspire a worthwhile piece of fiction, but I realize now that writing isn’t an experience olympics, it’s about perspective. I was always under the impression that all good art comes from suffering, or hardship. It’s a self-bullying aspect of being both a woman and a creative — feelings of invalidity, that someone else is better, that it’s best to not talk, not try, not to get attention. They’re just diaries. Emotions are embarrassing. Then I remember reading what Albert Camus said about one of my favorite novels, The Story of O, that it was impossible for a woman to have written it. It made me angry, it made me want to write. Defiance is stronger than self-loathing.

“Yet no one actually told me you could write about being a fucked-up girl. No one had given me permission, or told me that the young female experience was valid to write about in literature. This was not experience we are told we can use – our breakdowns, our love affairs. Too personal. Too emotional. Too ‘feminine tosh.'”

My Heroine is Marguerite Duras. She’s probably my favorite author. During the highest of highs in one of my “I am a writer” phases I blindly booked a flight to Paris for one month. This was about 2 years ago. I figured the details would work themselves out. My plan was to write a novel, or start one there at least. I thought, if I go and spend time at the same places as Marguerite Duras and Anais Nin, maybe I too will find that certain something. The solitude, to be a foreigner, a stranger. Julia Kristeva. Pauline Reage. Colette. Helene Cixous. I wanted to escape from the problems in my life that I imagined were preventing me from writing: drinking, drugs, spending my time in the hospitality industry, socializing with stupid misogynists (an important distinction from intelligent misogynists who I tend to be quite fond of, artistically), group mentality, going out to fancy restaurants all the time. Listening to other people talk about how they “used to” write, make music, paint…read. Taking anyone else’s successes and artistic endeavors more seriously than my own. The indulgence of Midwestern depression. Kate knows. She was there.

But then again, I will probably want to write about all if it. As it reveals itself to me over time. How many of us live this life in America? Artists who turn to mixing cocktails and waiting tables to support themselves and their craft. It’s our generation’s starving artist romance. That and sex work, which is a thing I have in common with some great female writers of the past. Though whoring or marrying were a woman’s only choices then.

“The surreal certainty that I was a character, not a writer. That I would never be a writer.”

Well, I went to Paris for one month, and I didn’t write a single thing. I didn’t party either. I really just spent a lot of time thinking. When I came back I didn’t know what to say to anyone about it, I didn’t know what happened, because it really was a philosophical experience. The output didn’t show, but I did draw a lot. I felt like my breakthrough was that I am a visual artist and distinctly NOT a writer at all. It’s these polarities, feeling compelled to BE or NOT TO BE. You can’t be one if you are the other. Or on my insecure days: I can’t be anything more than a weird girl who can write and draw. I think maybe Heroines is a self help book in disguise. Somehow my plan worked. The things I discovered about myself while I was in Paris were the things I intended to find. It had less to do with Paris as a place, and more to do with the circumstances surrounding the visit.

“Her crisis by contrast is not seen by him as spiritual, as she is not a great man or one with potential, her crisis is personal, petty.”

I’m forced to think and recollect now, though it’s painful to rehash such times as they were followed with heartbreak. I started writing this review and ended up writing about myself. Talking about Paris, being the last time I seriously considered writing fiction was inevitable, but agitated further by recent tragedies. The mass shootings that occurred on Rue de Charonne is where my friend and I stayed in a friend of a friend’s old family apartment, a family from Foucault’s school of thought….an apartment that became shelter and sanctuary for other authors, for those in need of solitude. The woman before us whose dissertation focused on women in the Middle East had long black hair, we know because we found them everywhere. It always felt like she was in the apartment still. In the morning we would listen to Kate Bush and enjoy black coffee, sliced apples with cheese and cured meats, a fried egg  — often inevitably with a long black hair in the mix. It should have been gross, but it was oddly comforting, and encouraging.

I didn’t realize at the time, when hearing about the terrorist attacks on Friday night that our beloved street and establishments were targeted. I guess in my mind the exact location didn’t matter, just that it happened, and it was horrifying. I found out a week later from that friend of a friend, who wrote a very touching sentiment on Facebook about the apartment, and the neighborhood. More steps backwards, retracing prior events, imagining myself back on that street, on our way out the door to go on our next adventure. Or planting ourselves at one of the bars to read, draw, reminisce, plot. Weaving dreams in a place shattered by tragedy, and reclaimed with love and strength. A resilience I never doubted.

Although I seldom talk about things that happened in that Paris apartment, I think about them often. The trip started out as an attempt to kickstart my novel, and also to retrace the steps of Marguerite Duras. We tried going to her favorite cafe, which is now a very high end bistro with a painful view of fashion retailers. We walked around, I knew where her apartment was from reading Practicalities over and over again. On Rue de Benoit. I brought with me this Barbie doll that an old friend and I turned into a punk chick. She looked like me. I also gave her the same chelsea-hawk that I had, dyed pink with leftover Manic Panic in Bubble Gum. I gave her black eyeliner with a sharpie and some tattoos. She became sort of a voodoo doll and I kept her with me. She came with me when I moved from Phoenix to Chicago, to Brooklyn, back to Chicago. She came with me to Paris because that’s where I wanted my soul to land, or to fly, or whatever. We found the general place where Duras may have lived, and on that same block was a gallery for women artists. There was a meeting at the time, all these women sitting in a circle discussing something. We stood outside the glass wall of a window, I held up my dolly and waved her at them, a few of them waved back. I left her on the doorstep of that gallery. With that spell I left the spirit of my 20s, my broken, cracked soul. I didn’t know that 2 years into the future I would become the type of woman I wanted to be, and the NEED to write would return. My novel is still waiting, and I am now solitary, calm, controlled. The sacrifices I made to be here, to be back in Brooklyn, healing my broken heart. I never thought that New York was a place of healing, but I was given a path and chose the road of least resistance.

“Why was my training as a toxic girl not considered the life experience with which to write my own coming-of-age story? There’s this idea in our culture and in our literature that it’s bad to write our excessive selves. To be excessive. The objective correlative.”

It’s harder now than it was before to write or talk about that experience, because the woman I spent this month with was my soul mate, or felt like it anyways. Someone I knew her in a past life: my sister, my mom, my baby. It was romance without sexuality. Maybe the way twins feel. I don’t know how else to describe her. When I felt her love slipping away the lights began to dim until I was completely submerged in darkness. I tried to save it, but I didn’t want to lose myself. I couldn’t sacrifice myself for other women anymore. At that point, there was no more poetry. My magick felt like a trick. I turned cold again.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I didn’t die. I was able to grow stronger and fuller in the place I was saving for someone else. I was able to write again, my independence and sense of self reinstated. In the wake of her departure I wrote more than I had in years. I stopped giving myself to other women, to my coven, which I dismantled one by one over the course of a year. Cutting off my limbs. I realized that it wasn’t nurturing anymore, it was self sacrificial. I spent my entire life giving myself to other women, holding tightly to these relationships because without them I was alone in the world. Emotional, asexual, lesbianism. I realized though that I was more alone the more I gave, the more I exhausted myself socially and emotionally for connections that could easily fade, because there was no marriage or family ties to hold them. I know now there will be more women, but there are women who were always there, are still here and will always be with me. No sacrificial ceremony required.

When I think back on that month, I try to connect with and feel all the beautiful moments. When I was 20 I had an abortion. I had to have it by myself, I was in an abusive relationship for two years at that point and my boyfriend preferred drugs and fucking other girls to taking care of, or showing any compassion towards me. It’s a story I’m sick of writing, telling, feeling so I’ll keep it brief. I took the pill which resulted in 9 days of waiting, bleeding, then the final plop of an embryonic sack into the toilet of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Miller Street in Downtown Scottsdale where I worked, in my oversized maroon shirt, name tag and visor with my teased black hair sticking out the top of it. I felt so deeply ashamed as I flushed him down the toilet, I felt sick. That experience, alone, surrounded by various other domestic and sexual traumas never calmed itself within me. It became a furious ball of hate and sadness that ate away at my insides. It turned me cold, killed my kindness — something re-awoken by this woman, who took me from beast to puppy. She pulled warmth from me for the first time in 6 years. She taught me empathy.

“It is like you have two selves. And you have no memory of the other self. You can be withholding, cold. You can be nurturing, supportive. I have two selves too. The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.”

At the Rue de Charonne apartment my friend was having an abortion, in the same way except hers came out within 24 hours, and during that time I held her, I soothed her, I made her a heating pad with a water bottle. I cooked for her and played the songs she liked. I told her I loved her and made sure she knew she wasn’t alone. I still struggled with my coldness and my inability to express emotions — but I fought it, I cracked it open and I got warmth out of me because I HAD TO. For her. I would have done more, I would have done anything for her. When it came out, she fished it out of the toilet and wrapped it in fabric. We buried her in a garden of pansies on the Champs-Élysées, in view of the Greek Goddesses and the mermaid fountains. Elysian Fields. The paradise land for the dead heroes of Greek mythology. Leda. Heroines.

I don’t know if these experiences made me a better writer, again, I don’t think it’s about suffering — it’s about learning empathy. I still don’t know if this is my story to tell, but it’s an experience that made me a more empathetic person, and helped me to realize that not all stories need sad endings to be good stories. Writing about happiness is totally valid. I always felt like as a woman I should be expected to write something sad, dribbling, self pitying — things that make me feel guilty. I felt like rehashing the story of my own abortion was so immodest and narcissistic, but it’s a thing that happened, and it’s informed certain aspects of my identity. If I hadn’t written about it a thousand times I wouldn’t have gotten over it, and I wouldn’t have been humbled by the experiences of others. I wouldn’t have been able to listen, because I would be too busy with the noise in my own head. It’s these experiences that will help me to write believable characters, and to write works that dignify women, rather than objectifying them. It’s taking a hard look at myself and recognizing that my feelings are valid, but I should be humble too. Heroines is both humbling and dignifying. I came out of it feeling like it’s now my duty to fulfill my dreams of being a writer, even if I fail, I can’t let my self-doubt and self-pitying stop me. It’s not for me to decide whether my work is good or bad, but I have to try. I have to appreciate all the obstacles that I do not have, as a truly liberated woman.

Sometimes I have to say out loud and hear my own voice, “All I want to do every day is write.” And that needs to be good enough. Thank you, Kate Zambreno, for writing a truly wonderful book that not only dignifies women of the past but also serves as encouragement for women of the present, like me. You are one of my heroines.

“An author loves his or her character if he or she has ever, really, cried for her, not what she represents, but for her, for her sad, lost life, this LOST GENERATION of brilliant girls, all the sad young girls. I who am bellowing for my heroines.”

Me being a Famous French Author on Rue de Charonne
Me being a Famous French Author on Rue de Charonne