Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

WITMonth Day 25 | Stats (part 3) | What we need to do now

By now, I hope you've read the women in translation publishing stats for 2017 and for 2013-2017. I hope you've seen a few of the responses I got from publishers regarding their low translation rates of women writers. I hope you've thought a lot about where we are as an English-language literary environment, that the great improvement of the past few years (in which the women in translation movement has grown and hopefully also become prominent) has not yet appeared in publishing itself. Nor has it entirely appeared in literary journals, either, with most review outlets and journals still largely reviewing with a bias towards men writers in translation.

The fact is that many readers still also struggle to read more books by women in translation, whether simply because there aren't all that many books to choose from in the first place (true for translations at large as well, but there are still more than twice as many books by men writers for each book by a woman in translation) or because those few books that do get released don't necessarily get the same attention in the media as comparable men writers do. The situation is improving somewhat in terms of media (Words Without Borders and LARB are good examples of journals that achieve a pretty good level of parity), but there's no denying that the overall trend is somewhat stalled for publishing and it doesn't seem like it'll get better by itself. Most of the publishers with the worst translation rates of women writers don't seem to have made any particular effort in improving their statistics (though of course I did not contact everyone...), nor do a few of them seem particularly bothered by the situation.

So here's what we need to do now:

Hold publishers accountable.

Part of the reason I decided to email publishers to ask for their statements on the women in translation problem was to find out, quite simply, whether they had thought about the issue at all and whether it concerned them. What we learned from the three responses that I got back is that some publishers do care and are making active efforts to improve the situation. I particularly appreciated the frank response from NYRB, who pointed to precisely the need to seek out forgotten or waylaid books by women writers, specifically in spite of the difficulty. This should be true, I feel, for all publishers of "niche" or otherwise marginalized types of books.

But alongside those publishers that do care, we found out that there are publishers for whom there does not exist a "women in translation" problem (and not because they publish books by men and women to equal degree). It's not for nothing that neither Archipelago Books or Dalkey Archive responded to my emails; these were not my first attempts to contact either publishing house about the matter. It's possible that my emails simply never reached their targets or that they've been set aside during the August slump, but... it's time to hold publishers accountable. This means all publishers that fail to meet a basic standard, no matter how defensive they get or how wonderful we find them in general.

There's no easy way to do this, unfortunately. The fact is that even the most egregiously imbalanced publishers of literature in translation still publish phenomenal books by WIT that deserve praise and attention (not to mention those excellent books by men in translation as well). Archipelago, after all, is responsible for bringing to light one of my favorite books of the past few years (Cockroaches). Europa for its part (as they mention in their response) have played a huge role in mainstreaming literature in translation (and women in translation specifically) with authors such as Elena Ferrante and Muriel Barbery. Dalkey has done tremendous work in bringing more international literature to the front stage in the first place, with certain series including books by women from around the world. The same can also be said of academic publishers and just about any of the other publishers of literature in translation. There is no doubt that when publishers that rarely publish women writers get around to doing so, the results are worthwhile.

It's just that it isn't enough. And moreover, simply letting those good books erase the fact that these publishers have embarrassingly large gender gaps in their catalogs benefits absolutely no one, nor should publishers be let off the hook just because of it. Let's be clear about something: There is no lack of literature by women writers from around the world. There is no lack of books by women writers from almost every language on Earth. There are imbalances, yes, but why should those imbalances make their way into translations when most publishers are selecting at most a handful of books to translate from around the world every single year? Perhaps it is time for publishers to prioritize books by women writers. Perhaps it is time for publishers to look at their yearly lists and make sure that yes, parity is being reached. Perhaps it is, finally, time for quotas, despite however much I may have resisted them in the past.

In a sentence: Most publishers of literature in translation need to be publishing more women writers. That's it. That is all they need to be doing.

But the most important thing that readers can - and should - do is make their position very clear. It's time for us to stop tip-toeing around publishers that don't translate women writers, whether they are major publishers of literature in translation (Dalkey, Archipelago, Pushkin, Gallic Books), big-name publishers that occasionally publish translations (Knopf, HarperCollins, FSG), or academic publishers (Yale University Press, Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press). It is time for us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that low translation rates year after year after year don't magically add up to balance when you look over time. (And with regards to academic publishers, it is worth remembering that the stats are actually a lot worse than they seem from my stats posts, since those do not take into account retranslations of classics or nonfiction titles, both of which are categories overwhelmingly dominated by men.)

WITMonth has been extraordinary for a lot of reasons (in my mind, but I suppose I'm rather biased!), but I think one of the things that it really does brilliantly is give people the exposure they need to a lot of books by women writers in translation. While, yes, some readers sequester their women in translation to August alone and rarely read WIT beyond that, most end up with so many new additions to the TBR that they inevitably shift more of their reading towards parity. Even if it hasn't been enough to cause a significant market shift, there are literally hundreds of new readers around the world who are aware of the fact that fewer women writers than men are translated into English (not to mention other languages!) and have been exposed to new and brilliant books by those existing WIT as a result of WITMonth and the women in translation movement at large.

And readers have power. The more we purchase books by women writers in translation - during WITMonth or throughout the year - and the more we discuss these books in equal measure with books by men writers, the more publishers will see that readers really do care. The more publishers are also explicitly contacted and challenged for their imbalances, the more (I hope) they will begin to fix the situation.

Readers also have a role to play.

It's not just that we can influence publishers (though that's huge). We as readers (and reviewers and bloggers and vloggers and feminists) need to begin challenging ourselves. Ask yourself: How many of the books I read per year are in translation or international? Of the literature in translation that I read, how many of those books are by women writers? In the same way that diversity movements have (rightly) pushed for a broader range of books reflecting the world's diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, religion, and more, we also need to recognize that true diversity means reading books from all over the world, in all languages, and by all genders. We will inevitably have biases in our reading and it is highly likely that most readers will still have Anglo-preferences (especially considering how few YA/genre books actually get translated versus how many are read...), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to move towards something better.

So, dear readers, I ask that we also pledge to read more balanced ourselves. WITMonth is wonderful as an opportunity to put the spotlight on women writers in translation, but it should not be the only time we read WIT. Nor should we allow ourselves to simply follow existing publishing biases without doing our own work in selecting books with parity in mind. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that since embarking on the women in translation project, I have read significantly more WIT than MIT. Yet my Goodreads Translations shelf is only just reaching parity, simply because so much of my youth focused on men writers. Don't forget that parity still does not equal equality!)

We have a long way to go before we reach parity. A much longer (likely impossible) path continues from there to true equality. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I do mean all of us - readers, translators, and publishers alike. Each of us can and must do our part. Whether it is ensuring our individual parity or publicly demanding more from those around us (particularly those in gatekeeping positions), the time has come. We must - each of us - contact our favorite publishers, whether to praise them for their efforts and improvements or to point out their flaws and demand better. We must make our positions clear. Address our own biases. Change our own behavior, if need be.

As I said in my previous post: No more.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

WIT, the feminist movement, and awareness

In the four years I've worked on the women in translation project, I'll admit that my goals, aspirations, and thoughts have evolved somewhat. In 2014, the day before the inaugural WITMonth began, I posted an essay about women in literature in general. The fight, as I saw it then, was about convincing readers of translated literature that women writers were worthy of the same space and recognition as men.

Four years later, I can tentatively state that I believe that the message has gotten across. The literature in translation community is quite small, and though many editors and publishers still haven't made any significant strides to correct their sexist approaches and biases, enough have. And more importantly, readers have clearly embraced the movement to promote more women writers in translation, with WITMonth growing from year to year. While the ratios have yet to change in any significant way, there is a clear effort on the part of many newer, younger publishers to produce only balanced catalogs. I am confident that we will begin to see the statistical progress in the next few years.

And so the goalposts have moved, just a bit. If four years ago I hoped that someone - anyone! - would just become aware of the problem, I have recently realized that this problem is actually far deeper than just the literature in translation community. In places where I would expect some awareness or acknowledgement of the lack of women writers in translation, of the marginalization that women creating works (or writing feminist criticism) in languages other than English face on a larger scale, I find a tremendous, very obvious gap.

My gut has been telling me for several years that the problem of women in translation belongs, in large part, to the global lack of literature in translation available in the English-speaking world. Most countries in the world import a lot of literature (much of it from English, though this is a different matter worth discussing another time), with translations subsequently normalized. English is perhaps not unique in its assumption of lingual-cultural dominance, but it certainly ends up getting away with it on a far greater scale than most other languages. The reasons for this are vast and complicated and I will not get into them at this time. However, one thing remains certain: most native English speakers, across the board, struggle to engage with art that is not originally in English, whether it is music, film, television, or books.

It's only in recent years that I've discovered that this almost willful ignorance extends to circles I naively imagined to be more aware. Intellectuals and academics aren't more prone to reading literature in translation; on the contrary, I have found many to often use that (often irrelevant) line about how "something gets lost in translation". Among feminists - even self-identified intersectional feminists - the awareness gap seems even wider.

More problematic still is the fact that many of these so-called intersectional feminists (and can feminism really be intersectional without being international...?) will even maintain that Anglo-American cultural norms are default. I have (on multiple occasions) had to argue with "intersectional" feminists that applying USian cultural norms on another culture is not only inaccurate, it may at times be entirely contrary. Not every conversation will sound the same way in a different culture. Not every feminist act will apply to every culture. And many acts that Anglo-American feminists might scoff at as "not really feminist" may actually be remarkably radical and/or outright rebellious for another culture.

Of course this ignorance applies to literature as well. As much as certain feminists do make a point to read literature in translation, you'd be hard-pressed to find most prominent feminist critics discussing and giving weight to exactly the women who most need a space in which to be heard. When I asked feminist-identifying folk on Twitter whether they read literature in translation, a surprisingly high number of respondents said they wish they read more women in translation, but felt as though they were never exposed to those books or struggled to find them in libraries/bookstores. Several noted that with so much literary hype surrounding new Anglo releases, it was hard to make time for women in translation, who are rarely hyped to the same degree (with the rare exception, as with men in translation).

It ends up being frustrating on two fronts. The first is the feeling that I have to fight for intersectionality to include internationalism, even though this is a fundamental tenant of the concept. With literature playing such an important role in terms of introducing readers to new concepts, the oversight here feels particularly egregious. I shouldn't have to explain to readers who fight for "diversity in YA" that USian kids also need to be introduced to kids from other countries, whose culture is different from theirs (and written to match that culture, and not an Anglo-American readership). I shouldn't have to explain to feminist critics that queer feminist theory is markedly different in languages that have inherently gendered words. This should be obvious.

The second front is the sense that would-be readers - those who aren't averse to anything in translation because "something gets lost in translation" - are missing out on so many opportunities to read brilliant women who are translated because these books are never promoted to remotely the same degree as lesser books in English. (For the record, I have found this to be true also in Hebrew, where translations from English almost always win out over translations from any other language. Hype is inevitable.) Most books by women in translation are published either by smaller presses or AmazonCrossing (which, due to a lot of reasons, doesn't always end up with the best translations or do a lot of self-promotion, even if some of their books are excellent; on the other hand, they also publish a lot of genre lit, so that's something!). These books are, for various reasons, not getting into the hands of readers. They are getting lost, and readers are losing.

There's a lot that we can do to improve the situation. For me, it comes back to that original WITMonth goal: raise awareness. But it is no longer my goal to raise awareness within a closed community of those who already read literature in translation in a targeted, directed way. I now want to reach all readers and raise awareness of individual books, getting them into the hands of as many prospective readers as possible (see: #WITreviews). I now want to raise awareness among intersectional feminists, to see them embrace internationalism in the way that anti-racism has become a core tenant of the movement. I now want to raise awareness among feminist critics and academics, particularly in light of how many fascinating-seeming feminist theory papers I have stumbled across in my searches that have never been translated into English.

None of this is easy. It wasn't easy getting WITMonth off the ground, either. But I firmly believe that in a few years from now, I will be able to look back and say that I have achieved my perhaps-too-ambitious goals. Certainly, I will be able to look back with a sense of pride that I have tried.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?



*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?