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A review of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

My first post reviews a book which does not deal with motherhood… yet explains why we should all start blogging.

The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves. I urge you to write your own selves, your true and complicated selves. My scribbling sisters. We are amateurs. We are dilettantes. We are all those terms they use to dismiss the girl writing. We need, perhaps, to reclaim those terms, as well as these categories of “minor” or “outsider” or “illegitimate”

Kate Zambreno, Heroines
Watch Kate Zambreno read from her essay

Kate Zambreno (1977) is the author of several novels and essays, including Green Girl (2014), a novel inspired by Jean Rhys and her female characters adrift in urban darkness, weighed down by their dependence on men and alcohol. In her essay called “Garish, Glorious Spectacles”, Roxane Gay praised Zambreno’s novel as a “searing” look at “the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women”. Jean Rhys was already a central figure in Zambreno’s previously published essay Heroines (2012), an essay-cum-memoir in which she tries to make sense of her own relation to writing as an artist and a wife by looking at the fates of  several Modernist female writers, whose artistic voices were too often suppressed by a patriarchal society, but also by their own artist husbands. In Zambreno’s collection of women’s voices, Jean Rhys, with Anais Nin maybe, is the only writer who really ever manages to rise above the silencing of women’s experience; she is “the patron saint of girls, then women like me, who have always been so mute, cast aside, their subjectivity surrendered in the big novels, world.” 

Zambreno’s essay is part of a new trend of autobiographical essays which blend self-life writing and academic study – like Roxane Gay in Bad Feminist, Zambreno uses first-hand material to ground her discourse about gender and patriarchy in her personal experience. In some essays, the foregrounding of first-person subjectivity feels contrived and even relatively useless, as one can suspect the editor’s pressure on the author to “make it more personal”. There is nothing gimmicky in Gay’s or even Zambreno’s use of autobiographical material; it rather stems from an organic necessity to make themselves heard individually as part of a reflection on the silencing of female voices. Heroines follows two companion paths that sometimes cross and overtake each other: it starts as Zambreno’s look into her frustration and anger at her condition of being a wife and a writer, and moves to the lives of artists’ wives whose artistic expression was repressed by their husbands. It then circles back to the author’s experience, particularly of writer’s block, and the two threads combine into a literary manifesto of sorts: women should just write, whatever they need to write, however they need to write.

Defending the wives of the Modernists

The Heroines project began in 2009, when Zambreno started a blog called “Frances Farmer Is My Sister” (now defunct), in which she tried to save from oblivion such characters as Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles and Zelda Fitzgerald, whose talent as artists was buried under the success garnered by their famous husbands, T.S. Eliot, Paul Bowles and Francis Scott Fitzgerald. They belong, so to speak, to the category of the “wives of the canon”, who were forbidden access to self-expression, systematically silenced and pathologised. Zambreno’s blog also served as a vent for her own frustration as a professor’s wife and a author afflicted by writer’s block. The anger over the fates of the Modernist wives blended with her own impression of being stuck in a rut, and she began to identify with those forgotten figures, fellow “toxic girls”, like she likes to call herself, who unlike her, were punished for exceeding boundaries, sexual and artistic.

While a lot has been written about the codependent and self-destructive relationship between Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband, little do we know about Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot’s role in TS Eliot’s budding literary career and the inspiration her outgoing, eccentric personality provided for his poetry. Although she remained for ever in the shadow of her husband’s literary fame, Zelda still managed to publish one autobiographical novel before she was engulfed by the fire which ravaged the psychiatric hospital she had been committed to. Vivienne Eliot was not so lucky and her writings have totally slipped into oblivion. Both were used up and dismissed by their famous husbands, admired as free spirits and later set aside as hysterics. Literary history only remembers them as appendixes to their husbands’ careers.

Zambreno’s main point is that their experience was savaged by their writer-husbands, who channelled their emotions and energy in their own writings, stealing their lives and their voices to incorporate them in their award-winning poems and novels. We learn at some point that Francis Scott Fitzgerald did everything he could to prevent Zelda from writing about her experience of psychiatric institutionalisation: he considered the material his and his only. Similarly, because Eliot’s second wife Valerie claimed the copyright to Vivienne’s writings, they have been kept away from the public eye, and are condemned to remain as merely private testimonies. There is a sad irony in that everything that made these women muse-like figures to writers like Fitzgerald and Eliot, was precisely their downfall: their excessive personalities, their taste for freedom, their desire to push back boundaries:

These masters wrote the emotional, the hysterical, they were also overwrought, but then they punished and disciplined their muse’s emotions in real life. (93)

Zambreno makes it her mission to save those women’s lives from oblivion – they are the true heroines in her pantheon: 

Can I examine any of these brilliant girls as heroines of a sort? Were they heroines? They were ultimately silenced and contained, institutionalized in asylums, where they experienced dehumanizing, degrading treatment. They suffered terribly (bodily, psychically). Also institutionalized in literary works that stole their identity. (170)

These histories of forgotten women are not only historical anecdotes, they are testimonies to the pervasive influence of patriarchy over the formation of the literary canon. The influence of Virginia Woolf, who would not today be considered an “ally” as she was complicit in the marginalisation of some female writers, including Vivienne Eliot, can be felt hovering over the text, which circles in and out of A Room of One’s Own. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic is also definitely an influence. Who gets to decide what is deserving of literary attention? The great writers who got rid of their wives when they became burdensome are now the guardians of the canon: for Zambreno, the way they treated their wive’s bodies and minds still resonates through the whole history of literature.

“Anais Nin would have blogged”

Zambreno is perfectly aware that society has changed and that female writers today, in western societies at least, no longer have to suffer in the shadows of their husbands, unless they choose to. Yet as a woman and a writer, something in her feels stifled, unresolved. She needs to write, but she also needs to earn a living. Her writing does not earn her much money – does that mean she is not a real writer? Francis Scott Fitzgerald is probably to writer who sealed the alliance between capitalism and authorship – with him being a real writer became synonymous making money and signing four or five-figure contracts.

At that point in the essay’s development, Zambreno goes back to the personal mode – she remembers how at 21 she was struggling with her desire to become a writer – like Janet Frame, her artist’s dreams were shattered by the material necessity of making a living and as a result, she had a breakdown, which gave way to a psychiatric diagnosis, not of schizophrenia, but of bipolar disorder. Unbeknownst to her, she was joining the legions of women whose desire to write had been pathologised and repressed. Instead of becoming a writer, she became a “toxic girl”, and embraced a life of excess in which she made herself her own character. For Zambreno, the personal is political – her experience of self-alienation was the direct result of the enduring suspicion of mental illness cast over female writers. She could not have written about the fate of the Modernists’ wives without weaving some of her own experience into what would otherwise have been a cold, unsympathetic study. Vienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald are more then objects of studies, they are role models and fellow sufferers.

Eventually she entered literature and self-expression through a smaller entryway – that of blogging. The informal, and relatively obscure form of the self-published blog posts in “Frances Farmer Is My Sister” allowed her to experiment with the blend of personal and academic which she then went on to develop as her own personal style in Heroines. Over the comment section, she was able to engage with a community of like-minded readers who contributed their own experiences. Blogging provided her with an artistic space and an outlet for her emotions outside of the constraints of academic publishing and general publishing, which are both still under the creative control of patriarchal values. By embracing this more minor, marginal form of self-expression, she was able to find her voice.

There’s such a masochism to publishing—we are begging to be loved, to be seen, to be recognized, to be heard. Some of us take rejections of our writing as rejections of our selves. And perhaps we are setting ourselves up, we as women are bred to look for self-identification from the outside world. We are supposed to aim for that sticker of approval. Yet now some of us externalize our rejections by blogging about them, about how it makes us feel, the viscera and volitility of our emotions. (260)

Zambreno’s blog was then her own form of writing back to the male canon, which, just as its main representatives dismissed their crazy wives, dismisses first-hand material and personal testimonies by women as self-indulgent and narcissistic, all in the name of the transcendental nature of Art. 

The charge against women writers so often is narcissism. This unconscious bias against women who are full of themselves bleeds into reactions against their literature. That it’s somehow cheating to draw from one’s OWN life, even if it’s with startling insight into the human condition, or more forbidden still, the complex and ambivalent feminine condition. This charge is almost never leveled at male writers.

This double standard is best illustrated by the way the Fitzgeralds have gone down in literary history: when Zelda writes about her own life in Save me this Waltz, her work is merely described as an “autobiographical novel”, but although her husbands makes use of the same elements, his are considered pure works of art, as if only men had access to transcendence and women were condemned to just sharing. Zambreno shows that autobiography as a genre has often been considered as a minor genre [3], but she believes that the autobiographical as a mode of writing is not incompatible with objectivity, especially in academic writing, and especially when it comes to literary studies:

I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order—pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature. (312)

Anais Nin and Jean Rhys are two writers who refused to keep their selves out of their writing. Relentless diarists, they made their lives the main material for their writing and made self-writing into new and radical art forms. For Zambreno they are literary role models and the masters of their own canon – they wrote themselves in diaries and notebooks and letters – today, she believes, the would probably have their own blogs, or their Twitter feed. Modern technology and social networks are often despised by artists and academics and dismissed as trivial, but Zambreno remembers how they gave her a space and an identity as a writer.

It seems quite fitting to start this “Reviews” section with a book encouraging female writers to take to the web in order to spread their ideas. Hopefull this review will be the first of many


By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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