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On Gender and Voice

The following is a guest post I wrote for Shelleyrae at Book’d out who was kind enough to feature The Rest is Weight on her blog (thanks Shelleyrae!) and which I am cross-posting here with her permission. There’s a related post on the Australian Women Writers challenge here.

As a young writer, you often get advice about ‘finding your voice.’ I confess I’ve always been troubled by the idea. You mean I only get to have one? If that’s the case, I’d rather it stays lost; I’m having too much fun looking.

The truth is, there are as many voices as there are characters. I love fiction for its metamorphic power. Stories give us the ability to shape-shift, to lose ourselves in the lives and experiences of other people. Short fiction is particularly elastic in this way, since characters can appear whole without all the extra baggage of world-building. The power of fiction to inhabit other minds is one of the few things that satisfies my curiosity about the lives, particularly the inner lives, of others.

When my second novel Gone was released, I was often asked a surprising question: was it difficult to write so intimately about a man? Frank is about my age (or was at time of writing – he stays the other side of 30 while I get greyer). We both hitch-hiked to get around. I was homeless for parts of the writing process, just like Frank. He is a broken sort of fellow with a lot of questions about the interior of the country and his right to call it home. So that gave us plenty to talk about. Plus we both had heads, bodies, feet, hands, arms, legs, and so on.

The strangest thing about the question is that Frank is schizophrenic. His schizophrenia is not incidental. It’s at the core of the novel, and it becomes a metaphor for our relationship with history. Frank has at best a fragile grip on reality. Given how difficult the half-confabulated narrative actually was to pull off, Frank’s masculinity was the least of my worries. Which is usually how I answer the question.

It amazes me that it’s a gender boundary, and not a mental state boundary, that people think is so difficult to cross. Are women really so different from men that we are more strange to each other than the delusional are to the sane? This kind of binary seems itself a kind of insanity. But it also seems to be a common view.

When I decided to take on the Australian Women Writers reading challenge, I was outraged by VS Naipaul’s claim that books written by women were inferior to books written by men. I wondered, do women really write differently from men? It’s impossible to argue that we don’t. In my reading life, which is pretty eclectic, I have learned that we all write differently from each other. Women write differently from other women. Men write differently from other men. I write differently from myself most days. To be honest, Naipaul’s claim seemed bonkers, a grab at notoriety. But what makes that notoriety happen is that the idea of fixed gender difference is there, lodged in the culture. It’s compelling.

When we say women write differently from men, what we really mean is that they should. We are trying to categorise and reward certain kinds of writing, in the same way that we do with certain kinds of behaviour. This is how gender is constructed: with constant reinforcement of boundaries. This can be positive. We say to our kids, ‘you’re very kind,’ because we want them to be. We’re all always reinforcing, training each other to be gendered, and if we don’t do this consciously, we risk reverting to the habits of the culture. And it’s a culture which often marginalises the voices of women.

There are advantages to having a marginalised voice. Sometimes women have permission to do interesting work because our voices are relatively peripheral to capital-L literature. Being a regional writer, or a queer writer, or a writer of colour, can be helpful; if you’re already outside, it’s easier to transgress. While researching this post I learned that Annie Proulx finally ‘came out’ as Annie with the publication of a story in the New Yorker in 1997, twenty years after she began publishing under the pseudonym E A Proulx in hunting magazines aimed at a male audience.  That story? Brokeback Mountain. It’s entirely possible that her being a woman was what gave her the power to present readers with that beautiful, transgressive narrative about gay cowboys.

The protagonist of my first book was in her seventies. Accurately portraying her world view was a challenge; I was in my late twenties when I wrote it. The characters in The Rest is Weight are men, women, and children, straight and gay, mechanics, teachers, Russian pilots, Mexican taxi drivers, expat Americans in Beijing. This variety is not something I decided to do consciously, but a cumulative result of the curiosity about the world that drives my work.

Gender binaries construct a world in which many of us believe we can’t understand each other. That we’re from different planets. That those differences are innate, “natural,” stronger than we are.

For me, fiction is really about breaking through these boundaries. It shows us that human empathy is more powerful than gender, or sexuality, or cultural background, or hair colour, or marital status, or whatever other category of difference is used to keep us apart. Good writing can make us recognise our common humanity.

For women, finding your voice is more complicated than just looking for a personal style you’re comfortable with, or getting the right tone for a piece of writing. It is also about overcoming the pressure to be silent, or to speak in an acceptable way. Our voices are often circumscribed, their authority questioned. Writing fiction means having the courage to step outside the limitations that we place on ourselves and each other. Women have to do this in many fields, but in writing, it can mean breaking through intensely personal presumptions about self and other. You have to give yourself permission to find as many voices as you need.