Feminism, fiction, and false assumptions

Books speaks to Lola Fabian-Hurst, President of Durham’s Feminist Book Club

Could you tell us a little bit about the Durham Feminist Book Club and what it aims to do?

Sure. The Feminist Book Club is a relatively new club, starting last year. As a club, it aims to get people together talking about how feminism is presented in the arts. Specifically, we don’t just discuss “feminist” texts, but also looking at diverse mediums from a new perspective; spoken word, visual texts (for example, spoken word videos), and film. It’s important to stress that this club is not just for bookworms, for example, the next meeting is on handmaids tale, but if you don’t feel like reading the text you can watch the new TV series by Channel 4. We meet once every three to four weeks, therefore it is not a huge commitment, and at each meeting, there is always so many great recommendations of other authors to read if you are interested. Members don’t have to be English Students, and even if discussion begins with a book, it almost always relates back to a wider issue in society. There is no judgement between the members; when I created it, I was worried that I may not have had the best articulated or the most well-informed argument, but ultimately I have an opinion which is useful for the group discussion!

Are there any books that have especially shaped your feminist perspective and your views on what feminism means?

I think its slightly dangerous just to discuss books you class as feminist, I would prefer to read books and try to find aspects of feminism in them and therefore get a new perspective, rather than just reading so-called “feminist” texts such as those by Woolf and Austen. A book that has particularly resonated with me is the recently published The Power by Naomi Alderman, which is set in a dystopian future (similar in some ways to Divergent or The Hunger Games) where women have an electric shock power where they can bring down the patriarchy. It’s a brilliant read which flips our perceptions, in the same way Malorie Blackman’s novels flips the issue of racism.

Is there a particular character whose personal feminism and character has resonated with you?

Definitely. In The Power, there are 4 main women, and the character Jodie is particularly striking; she lives in a family full of boys and comes from a troubled background with her family getting involved in criminal business. She ends up gets wrapped up in it and takes on a masculine demeanour, learning how to use weaponry etc. However, she also manages to keep this tender side (which I believe is wholly intentional from writer), meaning she never forfeits emotion. There is a lot of violence in the book, which at times can make it difficult to read, and yet despite the associations between masculinity and violence, Jodie takes on a masculine role, committing abhorrent things. I won’t spoil the story for you, but at the end, she reveals a romantic side, which you aren’t expecting either. I believe this reveals the complexity of human beings, and shows that people aren’t afraid to be different.

What are some issues that you believe the literary industry faces when it comes to feminism?

A lot of it comes back to how are texts branded, or portrayed even from the front cover of the book as overtly “feminist”. Ideally, a feminist book is just a book which can be picked up by anyone, with men and women reading it equally. I believe there is a stigma when books are advertised as a feminist read, especially for boys. I have given The Power to male friends, and they have enjoyed it, but I think they wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t recommended it to them. We need to get away from the idea of “feminist” texts and incorporate other texts written on these issues, including those from the male perspective. We are definitely lacking this at the moment, but there has been some movement in the right direction, namely the #HeforShe campaign, which although being controversial got the debate flowing. Ultimately, societal issues can become fictionalised in the text; it is a case of not just exploring everyday sexism, but getting to the heart of core issues, such as how it is to live as a black woman as opposed to a white woman, for example.

Why do you think poetry is thought of as a more feminine pursuit, given how historically the form has generally been dominated by men?

I guess the for me the obvious answer is purely the expression of emotion. There’s a bit of a stigma about men expressing themselves in that way and showing hidden private, internal things and women are expected to show and express that more. I don’t necessarily think of poetry as a female or male thing anyway, it’s one of those areas in the arts where there is a lot of developing poetry across both genders. People are getting into new versions of poetry, like spoken word poetry, where men and women both pursue that. I do think people assume that poetry is more feminine, but I wouldn’t be so quick to label it as one or the other.

Is it unfair to read texts with a proto-feminist critique given that the authors at the time were not aware of the feminist movement?

I think the point is really valid because you have to look at things in their cultural context and not being too fast to condemn authors by today’s standards (it’s so easy to be critical in a retrospective view, for example towards Milton, and yet for his time was quite radical: he believed marriage was about equality and a spiritual connection between couples as opposed to woman being a man’s possession). Clearly, the debate has come a lot further from that, but you can’t expect progression to come that fast; the feminist movement has been a long, gradual struggle coming from people being angry and protesting for change. Having these texts to read means we can see how far we’ve come from them, and makes us want to progress even more, and figure out whether the issues writers are focusing on are prevalent now, or might not even be prevalent in a 100 years. For example, people see the over-romanticizing of women and Juliet’s characterization as a fair maiden, and they continue to question why she is presented like that.

Is feminist critique the most useful way of analysing literature? Are there other methods of literary criticism that can prove more useful?

I see what you mean. The issue comes from trying to segment different critical readings into feminist, post-colonial and political readings or different types of texts. It helps with a close reading of a text, but ultimately you can’t really escape gender in literature because humans make up stories and gender is such a huge, bound-up thing in our society. You can’t get away from it. What does make it difficult is when people try to search for meaning that isn’t there or is not intended, and then they fabricate it. Perhaps the best method is to put the importance on having feminist readings, and then looking at the arts within a wider context of society and using intersectionality to explore issues of race, homophobia etc.… you can’t have pure feminist readings anyway, so you have to look at it from different viewpoints. So yes and no!

Does the gender of an author affect the way you read a book?

Yeah, I mean there’s an idealism where people could write freely and there would be no judgement, but people write partially from experience. If it’s a fictional book, for example, The Power, the author of has written it because she has noticed specific things in society as a woman. Maybe writing in a most authentic, truthful way can only come from that personal experience. Ultimately, it’s not about offering the same perspective over and over again but showing it from a different, new perspective; just because it is from a male perspective doesn’t mean it cannot be accepted – it just a different judgement from a different perspective. Ideally, it would be good if women could publish under their name. Having gender neutral initials can take away the importance of gender in authorship. It also depends on the kind of text; with an autobiographical text, for example, the gender of the author is extremely important where its written from a woman’s perspective since it enriches the story. So I guess there’s arguments for both sides.

You speak about Romeo and Juliet, with Juliet portrayed as a fair maiden, Do you believe this is as a result of a “top down” imposition of patriarchy by a group of men trying to organise society in a certain way, or a “bottom up” system, where people come to those conclusions individually without external influence?

They could both stem from the same sort of assumption and idealism of women being submissive; I think it comes from everywhere because it’s become so perpetuated in our culture now. It’s assumed from every level, but that’s not to say that things haven’t changed. When you look at the assumption of a delicate female character, that is challenged massively now; people aren’t interested as much in that, and they want characters to be fresh rather than outdated tropes. I think there’s still a place for the delicate female character, but you have to look at where that image has come from. Sometimes it’s too easy to speak about the patriarchy perpetuating these stereotypes, because I think women also perpetuate that themselves into these representations. It’s when these ideas are assumed that it becomes a problem. It’s an issue when women are seen as unattractive when they have a certain view or speak about things in a more active way. Caricatures in literature are established because it reflected the nature of society at the time. There is a lot more fluidity nowadays, and thus these assumptions need to be updated for modern society.

How do we get more men engaged in the Feminist Book Club?

I wish as many boys would turn up to the book club as possible! It is difficult to know how to attract boys to the group. I think it comes back to the assumption and stigma of word “feminism”; ultimately, it goes back to what do people value; treated as someone who can speak freely and express different views and understand people have different views also; not everyone agrees. I would love it if a guy could come along and say this is my experience, it may be exactly the same or completely different, the point is that we would not assume this position. At the moment we try to assume these male perspectives but it obviously cannot do justice to their own experiences.

Photograph: Lola Fabian-Hurst

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