In my last post, I commented on a story in the Atlantic by Monica Byrne. Her article is a call for more diversity in publishing. She writes about her own experience as a girl reading adventure stories and growing up wanting to write about male characters like them. She wonders why there are so few female road narratives:
Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college, it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident.
As Vanessa Veselka wrote in The American Reader, there is a profound relative lack of female road narratives in the Western literary tradition. This absence hurt her in much more concrete ways. When recounting her years as a teenage hitchhiker, Veselka writes, “my survival depended on other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me…[but] there was no cultural narrative for [us] beyond rape and death.” Male hitchhikers had Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and dozens of others. Veselka had bodies in dumpsters on the six o’clock news.
Of course there are, and there can be, female adventurers. But as I read this I wondered something else. Does our notion of what makes a dramatic story itself exclude certain groups of people? Put another way, women are right to question their exclusion from certain narratives, but shouldn’t we also be asking whether certain narratives are excluded? Is the problem not that women fail to act as heroes but that we do not have a story structure designed for their particular form of heroism?
In Encounter Milan Kundera observed that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”
Parenting has, probably since the beginning of time, been a central driving force in the lives of so many women. How is it possible that something so essential to human existence could be thought to be entirely without drama? We take it as given that the hero leaves the home. The home itself is not a setting for great adventures. Is this really true or is this belief the result of years of story telling by and for men? Women, like men, can leave the domestic setting and go off on adventures– but do people have to leave the domestic setting in order to have tales that are exciting, heroic and engaging?
If you read Homer you will find that his descriptions of color are a bit strange. As Guy Deutscher explained in Through the Language Glass: “…he may often talk about light and brightness, but seldom does he venture beyond gray scale into the splendor of the prism. In those instances when colors are mentioned, they are often vague and highly inconsistent: his sea is wine-colored, and when not wine-colored, it is violet, just like his sheep. His honey is green and his southern sky is anything but blue… For if Homer’s ‘violet’ or ‘wine-looking’ are to be understood as describing not particular hues but only particular shades of darkness, then designations such as ‘violet sheep’ or ‘wine-looking sea’ no longer seem so strange. Likewise, Homer’s ‘green honey’ becomes far more appetizing if we assume that what caught his eye was a particular kind of lightness rather than a particular prismatic color.”
It was only with the development of pigments and dyes that people started to conceptualize color as separate from objects.
“We don’t see the need to talk about the taste of a peach in abstraction from the particular object, namely a peach… When they talk about color in abstraction from an object, they rely on vague opposites ‘white/light’ and ‘black/dark.’ We find nothing strange in using ‘sweet’ for a wide range of different tastes, and we are happy to say ‘sweet a bit like a mango,’ or ‘sweet like a banana,’ or ‘sweet like a watermelon.’ They find nothing strange in using ‘black’ for a wide range of colors and are happy to say ‘black like a leaf’ or ‘black like the sea beyond the reef area.'”
So Homer was able to weave a narrative of a great human adventure but there were also things he did not have a vocabulary to describe– the color blue, for example, and the lives of the women who stayed behind.
We have since come up with words like teal and puce and aquamarine. Maybe we need a pioneer to create the language of the heroic maternal adventure as well.