Recently I was invited to give a reading at Colgate University, where I wrote my first novel, Y
, while on a one-year teaching fellowship. A handful of my former students accompanied me to lunch the next day, and at some point we fell into a discussion about why the protagonist of my novel, Shannon, was an asexual, androgynous character. One of my students said she hadn't encountered a character like Shannon in literature before; another asked if I could recommend other novels that featured female protagonists who were either androgynous or more masculine than feminine. I said that she would likely find many protagonists like this in LGBT literature — or, at least, it was a place to start. I then suggested Middlesex
and its Canadian counterpart, Annabel
. She thought a minute. Okay, she said, but she didn't want the protagonist to be androgynous and/or masculine because of her sexuality or genitalia; rather, she wanted to see someone like herself: a heterosexual, though by no means traditionally feminine, woman. A woman who wasn't defined by being a woman.
I had just finished reading Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge, so the first thing I did was start laughing. I could list so many works in which the female protagonists are defined/confined by their gender roles that I wouldn't even know where to start — my favorite Alice Munro stories, all of Jane Austen, Madame Bovary, etc., etc. I love literature about this sort of thing; it's like picking a scab or rubbing salt into a wound. The fact that the only suggestions I could give my student were books about hermaphrodites was troubling. One of my male students rightly suggested Woolf's Orlando, and another Anne of Green Gables, and we all thought fondly of Jo from Little Women, but we were searching for contemporary realism. (As I write this, I've just added The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers to my to-read list.) Just what were we searching for anyway? The word tomboy sprung to mind, but we wanted to read about women. After all, there are plenty of books about boyish girls.
Indeed, all I could think of was Marilynne's Robinson's Housekeeping. "Ruth's aunt Sylvie is a kind of female hobo," I said. (I found Housekeeping exhilarating when I read it as a girl. I saw so much of myself in Sylvie — minus the mental illness — that it was spooky. Who knew other women wanted to ride the rails and sleep outside and never settle down? Who knew other women were as restless as men?)
The students and I thought and thought. I slurped my kale soup and ate my turkey sandwich and tried in vain not to get the flour from the freshly baked bun on my face and clothing (it is terrifying to do something like eat in front of students). We decided that in literature, contemporary or otherwise, we mostly met women on the brink of disaster: unhappy women, failed women, blank and passionless women, sick women, dying women, oversexed women, undersexed women. Men seek while women keep; we send out our heroes with packed lunches and starched shirts; we hold the fort.
Where is the tale of the woman who is as restless as a man? Where is the tale of the woman who is as successful, as daring, as brave, as independent, and just as fierce? These women were all around me — they were my students; they were my friends; they were my mentors and colleagues — but I couldn't think of any examples in books. Had we forgotten to write about ourselves?
The year I taught at Colgate, I lived out of town in a two-room cottage hidden in the woods. Invisible from the road, the cottage was accessible via a winding path at the end of a long driveway — or, in the middle of winter, hardly accessible at all. I learned how to chop wood that year, how to build a roaring fire, how to dig my car out of a ditch, and, when that failed, how to pull it out with the neighbor's tractor. One morning it was so cold that after digging out my car, I climbed inside to find the driver's side door wouldn't close. I taught at 8:30 a.m. and it was already a quarter to, a long icy drive ahead of me. I grasped the wheel with one hand and gripped the gaping door with the other. I drove the whole way to the university like that, the door flapping in the wind. I felt like the butt of someone's silly Upstate New York winter joke. But I loved it. I loved that whole year.
Since I was a girl, I've wanted to live in the woods like Emily Carr, surrounded by animals (some my own, some wild). Since I was a girl, I've wanted to live in an Airstream trailer or in my car (I used to refuse to own anything that wouldn't fit in my Honda) so that I could take off at any time, to any place. As I get older, my priorities have shifted some, and I now live in a rented house with a fiancé and a dog, with the bright possibility of a child on the horizon. I like that this duality exists in me, as I assume it exists within many women — I've never felt particularly female or male; I'm happy with a buzz cut or hair down to my waist, in a suit or in a dress. I would prefer the absolute freedom that comes with being male, yes, but I get by with a penknife in my pocket and a baseball bat under the bed.
People ask me why I wrote Y. Was I abandoned at birth? Do I have a lazy eye? Was I raised in foster care? Am I psychic? Was I homeless? And, autobiography aside, what was my agenda?
That old adage of writing comes to mind: write the book you need to read. But I wanted to write a book that someone else might need to read. There's nothing more sacred to me — more important to me — than a book. Maybe I feel we don't connect personally with films the way we do with books, the way I hold a book to my heart when it moves me or grasp it like I might never let it go. I admit, I like to hug books. I'm not sure a movie ever meant that much to me; I know it's different for other people. I don't believe a movie has ever changed me or saved me, but there's easily 20 books on my bookshelf that pulled me out of something or pushed me in another direction or showed me something I needed to see.
I wrote Y to give someone else that experience — the experience of seeing herself in a book. I wanted to write about an "unlikely" woman, similar to those I had encountered in Marilynne's Robinson's Housekeeping, Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, and Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here. In short, I am not Shannon, but I know she's out there.