Does Gender Matter?
For the AWP Panel, 2017
I spent the first part of my adulthood—my twenties and thirties—running, cycling, lifting weights, and playing basketball with a bunch of men while the other women my age were having and raising their children. At our small Catholic college in a small town in Wisconsin, I was the only woman in the English Department. At home, my husband and I split our household chores in a gender-blind sort of way, which was easy to do thanks to our shared incompetence. Neither of us could do work that was considered traditionally masculine—like building furniture or fixing appliances—or traditionally feminine—such as picking out wallpaper patterns. So we hired professionals for any job requiring power tools, and my husband babysat his nephews while my sister-in-law chose and ordered our wallpaper. My contribution to the redecorating project consisted of accompanying her to the store, handing over my credit card, scheduling the wallpaper installation, and staying home to protect the installer from my Siamese cat. I was childless by choice. I got divorced at forty and moved out east to start the second part of my adulthood. Gender hasn’t mattered a great deal in my private life, or the way I think of my physical existence. I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, women feel, think, and write more directly out of their physical bodies as women’s bodies, but as a small, plain person who’s been a lifelong athlete, I consider my body primarily an instrument for movement.
But when I sit down to write, gender suddenly becomes formative and essential. In one way or another, I’m always writing for and about my mother and her mother and all the women in our family. They were Japanese women who didn’t get to speak out for themselves in public, though, in private, they told stories and gave advice, sometimes, really fierce advice. I’ve had startling conversations, one on one, with my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother and learned enough about them, our family, and myself to write about for the rest of my life. But secrets and advice were reserved for private conversations. It was not considered polite or seemly for a woman to talk about herself even among friends. So when my mother and her sisters got together, they talked about people who were not there. Gossip, you might call this kind of talk, but even a child could understand that in describing some odd or mysterious thing their mother, cousins, or neighbors had done and speculating about their motives, these women were actually talking about their own hopes and worries. A child listening to the supposed gossip could learn everything she needed to know about character motivation, narrative perspective, the importance of the backstory, or irony and paradox. This was my introduction to the story and the essay. Although I chose not to become a mother, I will always be a daughter, granddaughter, and niece. I write for, about, and because of the women who are no longer here.
There is also the larger legacy. One of the earliest practitioners of the list essay was the tenth-century Japanese woman Sei Shonagon, whose Pillow Book is a collection of short pieces—micro-essays or flash essays, we might call them now—some of which have titles like “Hateful Things,” “Embarrassing Things,” “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster.” Even the women who didn’t write essays, officially, taught me to look at the world with an essayist’s attention to detail—for example, Jane Austen. In her novels, characters are revealed by the small, daily things they do or don’t do: Mr. Woodhouse knows something is wrong with Frank Churchill because the young man never closes windows; when Emma decides to reform, she says Jane Fairfax can use her carriage any time and means it; a rude guest at a garden party would gobble up the strawberries while intimating that she’d tasted better strawberries elsewhere. This way of noticing the small things that reveal a lot: I’m sure men can do it, too, but it’s something I’ve always associated with my mother and the other women in our family, and later, with women writers like Austen, the Brontës, Edith Wharton. And this was before I discovered the great essay writers like Virginia Woolf, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Natalia Ginzburg. So I know I am writing essays out of a long and rich tradition of women writers.
And finally, even though I was a tomboy growing up, the one time I loved being a girl was when my mother took me shopping—for my clothes but also for hers. My brother was left in our aunt’s care, not just because he was younger but also because he was a boy. Only I got to watch my mother trying on numerous outfits and listen to her discussing patterns and colors, fabrics and cuts, with the shop ladies, who loved bringing her a dress she might have overlooked, or an accessory that suddenly brought the whole outfit together. No doubt they needed and appreciated the business, but my mother was a beautiful woman who loved fashion. Debating the merits of the different dress and skirt styles—boxy or narrow—or the shaping of the coat’s shoulders and back was another way to talk about oneself—one’s desires and aspirations—without seeming narcissistic or boring, in a tone that was light, pleasant, and sharply smart. It’s the tone that I strive for in an essay. In those boutiques, I learned the importance of style and grace. You might say they were my feminine and feminist counterpart to Hemingway’s “clean well-lighted place.”
So gender matters to me in these private ways. And of course, gender matters because writing is a public act even when we are not writing about an openly public subject. For a long time in my family and in the culture I come from, a woman speaking and thinking on the page, the published page, was committing an act of rebellion. I had hoped that those days were over forever—but if they’re not, I’m not worried. We’ve had centuries of practice in making our gender matter.