Voices Still Unheard

colleenaryanne's picture

            Story telling is an important part of the human experience, and in this class we have focused very much on the stories that people tell.  Feminism is about story telling, and, as MC said long ago, “…listening, particularly to people who are often given no voice or agency, is a solid tenant of feminism.”  In order to listen, we must also tell.  Throughout our journey in Critical Feminist Studies, we have heard stories about a wide variety of folks – ladies, men, and people above, below, around and in between; queers, straights, and everything else; white people and colored people; people from this world and from other worlds; people who are rich, poor, famous, obscure, enslaved, powerful, intellectual, uneducated, able-bodied, “others,” outsiders, insiders, and every level in between.  Hundreds of stories about hundreds of different people.  The voices we hear, however, are not always the voices of the people whose story is being told.  This is something we have discussed often in class, and the curriculum is carefully constructed to give us a wide selection of voices.  Not all of these voices are the ones we’ve been wanting to hear. 

            Jeffery Eugenides’s work, Middlesex, is the story of a person who was raised as a female, who also happened to be attracted to women.  Later the character discovers that they are intersexed, and chooses to live as a male.  Eugenides, it must be pointed out, is neither female with same-sex attraction nor is he an intersexed person living as a male.  He tells this story – which is certainly worth hearing, because intersexed persons are not often given the chance to speak – but he has not lived the experience of either sides of the character in his novel.  In every other way he is perfectly qualified to write about this character – he grew up in Detroit, and he is of Greek/Irish descent.  But he writes about two characters – I am considering Cal and Callie two characters because the narrator of this novel considers them two separate parts of himself – with whom he has no similar gender experience.  His writing of the “transition” that Cal went through shows this clearly; the incredibly sudden switch from girl to boy is unreal and unbelievable, especially when one considers that Cal says on page 479 that he "...never felt out of place being a girl." Eugenides does not do justice to this story telling, in my opinion.  As Daniel Mendelsohn says in the New York Review of Books, “I suspect that… in the end, [Eugenides] hasn’t figured out what might go on inside the head of someone who’s had Callie’s experiences.” 

            Middlesex is a work of fiction, however, and that does have to be considered when speaking about voices.  Within fiction authors have complete freedom to do what they wish with the story they’re telling.  This novel isn’t representing a real person in any way, and since Eugenides completely created Cal and Callie he is able to tell the story in any way he wants. Authors writing fiction often tell stories that aren’t theirs – any kind of science fiction or fantasy clearly tells “unreal” stories on purpose, and the authors can and do play with the stories.  Within non-fantasy fiction, however, this freedom is more dangerous.  James Patterson comes to mind when I think about someone writing a fictional story about an experience they’ve never lived.  Patterson often writes his novels in first person from the perspective of a female.  I have read a few of his books, particularly the young adult series, Maximum Ride.  Patterson’s female narrators always have gender-neutral names like Max or Sam, and in every one of his books I’ve started, I have always been confused about the gender of the narrator until someone spoke about them in the third person, using female pronouns.  There is certainly nothing wrong with androgyny, but it does make me wonder about Patterson as a writer.  Why does he continue to choose to write from a perspective that he doesn’t live and doesn’t understand fully? What does it mean for the stories and their validity or perhaps usefulness?  With Eugenides’s Middlesex the issue is slightly more important – he has written a book that has been praised as a great novel exploring the mind of an intersexed person, it won the Pulitzer Prize and some scholars even believe that it should be considered a Great American Novel. Many LGBTQIA reviewers praised Eugenides’s work as well.  While Eugenides does a wonderful job of telling the story of Greek immigrants and growing up a Greek-American, he does not do the subject of intersexed persons any justice.  What does that do for the reception of this novel?

            How useful is it, however, to use this novel as a resource for exploring the voices of intersexed persons?  Fiction is a safe space for authors to tell stories that they don’t have experience with and to use their imagination to create completely original characters and situations.  Is studying fiction, in that case, a useful tool for exploring such issues?

            The issue of telling a story that isn’t yours is also relevant to the issues of male feminism, queer allies, and the formation of spaces likes women’s colleges.  Many people take issue with male feminists because they do not have any experience with being female in this world, and so many women are offended or angry with men who claim to be feminist.  With queer allies it is often the same.  This can also apply to the creation of Bryn Mawr College. In Helen Horowitz’s chapters on Bryn Mawr College (pp 105-133) in her book Alma Mater, she mentions that all the board members and the first president of Bryn Mawr were men.  When M. Carey Thomas, the second president and first dean, expressed interest in being president, she was met with skepticism.  However, when she did become president, she helped to form this newfound women’s space in a way that no board of men could have.  Despite much debate about her version of “feminism,” she is considered a feminist figure in history and created the college with a strong foundation in feminism – or the brand of feminism popular at the time, “first wave feminism,” which unfortunately only applied to middle/upper class white women.  Similarly, Wellesley only hired female professors for its students.  Bryn Mawr was a women’s space partially created by women, Smith was founded by a woman, and Wellesley was taught only by women.  It is important to hear the unheard voices themselves, it is important to have these voices creating and uniting to create their own spaces instead of having others speak and work and create for them. 

            At the beginning of the year we invited people to dine at the table with us – but in some cases, like in Middlesex and Half the Sky, instead of inviting the people whose voices we wanted to hear, we invited people who were speaking for the unheard voices.  Instead of listening to them ourselves, which is “a solid tenant of feminism,” we listened to others speaking in their place.  I would like to invite to the table those who are actually unheard and hear them for myself – I invite those who are enslaved, not those who wish to save the enslaved.  I invite the intersexed, not someone who pretends to understand them.

 

Sources:

Eugenides, Jeffrey.  Middlesex. Picador, New York: 2002. 

Horowitz, Helen. Alma Mater. Knopf, New York: 1984. 105-133.  

Mendelson, Daniel. "Mighty Hermaphrodite." The New York Review of Books. 7 Nov. 2002. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2002/nov/07/mighty-hermaphrodite/?page=1>

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Telling a story that isn't yours?

Colleen--
This webevent goes to a number of deep places, and I very much welcome the invitation to follow you there.

You begin with a claim about the centrality of storytelling to the human experience, and I am with you completely; much of my teaching has centered around that dynamic, beginning with a CSem on Storytelling as Inquiry, and continuing through cross-listed Bio/English courses on the Evolution of Stories. So: yes!

Your second important point is that "the voices we hear, however, are not always the voices of the people whose story is being told," that while "it is important to hear the unheard voices themselves," we invited to our feminist dinner table "people who were speaking for the unheard voices"; "we listened to others speaking in their place." I think that is also true.

And while I rally to your call, inviting "those who are enslaved" to speak for themselves, I want to mark also some of the problematics (and potential impossibility) of realizing that vision. There are those whose voices are lost to history; there are those whose stories will never be written--or even told--by themselves. The valorizing of "coming to voice" that is so central to Western feminism presumes already a certain level of priviledge--that speaking, for example, matters; that what we say will be heard.

The notion of "speaking for" is also a complicated one: when I tell my own story, am I also always "speaking for" a larger population, a group I represent? Can I speak of myself, of my own experience, without "speaking for" others? How to avoid over-generalizing in that way?

Your third significant claim, I think, has to do with writing stories about experiences that are not our own. You say that "Eugenides has not lived the experience of either sides of the character in his novel," that he "hasn’t figured out what might go on inside the head of someone who’s had Callie’s experiences.” You have parallel questions about James Patterson: why does he "choose to write from a perspective that he doesn’t live and doesn’t understand fully?"

I'm wondering here about your presumption that having an experience means we fully understand it (yes?). I don't think that's the case, and would say that therapy is built on the premise that someone outside of you--outside, too, of your immediate social context--might well understand better than you do yourself-- and so help you understand-- what's going on.

I would agree that fiction is likewsie a "space for authors to tell stories that they don’t have experience with and to use their imagination" to understand. I continue to believe, for some of the reasons I trace above, that "studying fiction" is "a useful tool for exploring such issues," but you are challenging that claim. And I very much appreciate the challenge.

There's a very moving (profound?) video available now on Slate, in which Jonathan Frantzen reflects on the painful effects, for others, of telling a story that isn’t yours (or, more accurately, that isn't yours alone....). I'd be very interested to hear your reactions to this piece....

and thank you again for your thinking aloud here about the complexities of hearing "voices still unheard."

 

 

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