I’ve always felt self-conscious about the number of women speakers and narrators in my writing. Thinking about the film Persona and the predominance (or just plain dominance) of women in many Bergman films has made me think about it again. I did a quick survey of my books and came up with these statistics on what percent of my books is in a woman’s voice:
- Door to Door (poems): 20%
- Dragging the Lake (poems): 35%
- The Garnet Hall (poems): 40-50% (depending on how you figure it)
- Bridge (fiction): 100%
I think I detect a trend!
What is going on here? There seem to be two questions: Why do I do it, and is it justified? One simple answer to the first is that I grew up surrounded by women. My parents were divorced when I was a baby and I was raised by my mother, her only child, and my grandmother and aunt were also strong presences. I often felt my mother played the role of the father in my life, and my aunt and grandmother were my mothers. All of them could have been characters in Tennessee Williams.
That answer doesn’t seem to be enough, although it probably does explain why I feel fairly comfortable imagining women’s voices, maybe more than men’s. The other answer is that it seems to work for me. Several years ago I was writing a poem (“Ensenada Wedding”) about my parents, and it wasn’t working until I switched my point of view and started writing in the voice of my mother, and for some reason the sentimentality of the earlier version in my own voice seemed to go away.
Obviously this raises a passel of troubling questions! Am I using women? Am I promoting stereotypes? Perhaps speaking in the voice of another, male or female but especially female, frees me to say things I wouldn’t say in my own voice: to be more passionate or irrational or just plain extreme. Maybe that’s playing into stereotypes, but what if it also frees me to be more daring and imaginative and just plain honest? The issue, I think, is whether the characters are believable or their voices ring false—whether they seem like unique individuals rather than types.
I’m not at all sure I’ve resolved this issue or ever will, and it does trouble me. Several women have read Bridge, and so far no one has said the narrator’s voice seems false or exploitive, but then I don’t think I’ve ever asked for feedback specifically on that issue. (Now’s your chance!) Actually one person did say she thought one sentence rang false, and I deleted it. (I don’t know if it rang false, but it wasn’t a great line anyway.) Possibly some readers find my “appropriation” of a woman’s voice cringe-worthy but haven’t said anything. (My definition of “cringe-worthy” is a workshop I was in years ago where a man read a poem he’d written in the voice of a woman talking graphically about her sex life, and then turned to the woman next to him in the workshop and asked, apparently sincerely, if that’s what sex was like for her.)
One thing that’s safe to say is that I do not write in women’s voices because I like the “challenge” of writing in the voice of someone different from me. The fact is that if I wrote in the voice of a straight white male auto mechanic or hedge fund broker, it probably would be far more challenging for me to imagine their point of view than the point of view of a woman who in other ways (class, race, etc.) is similar to me.
To set out deliberately to write in the voice of an “other” seems wrong from the start, inherently condescending. I suspect you should write in the voice of another only if you can honestly see them as simply another human being, not an Other. But it’s all right if you can’t make that leap beyond seeing them as an Other. Some leaps are just too far. Reese Witherspoon is great but probably shouldn’t play King Lear. Cate Blanchett, however, might be incredible in the role!