So what do we do? How can we help? We know it’s a problem to write while female. We understand the institutionalization that has happened, that leads people to define ‘good story’ so narrowly. That lets people say they aren’t discriminating, they are just choosing ‘good stories’ and those happen to be written by men, not women.
Here are some ideas:
Educators: Teach outside your comfort zone. Teach that others exist. That their voices exist. That they matter. Express your confusion and be honest with your students. Ask your students what they think of a story that is from a tradition outside your own and then do it again and again. The first time will be tough. The first time you won’t like it. But if you do it more often things become familiar, and if they become familiar you’ll like it more. You have to make other voices familiar. You have to make the truth that there are other voices, other types of writers, familiar.
The reading lists I got in school were Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men and our radical teacher had us read Canticle for Leibowitz. It wasn’t until grad school that I finally read Beloved for a class. Until a professor told me about James Tiptree, Jr. Camus, Dickens, Steinbeck, Barth, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Kesey, Vonnegut, etc. Those names had been the ones that mattered in academia. And in my grad school, outside of the one class on magical realism, women writers weren’t there either.
We can’t do this to our next generation. We cannot limit their minds so much. We cannot limit their world. There are anthologies to pour through, sites out there to help. Find them. Research them. Show your students the process and the importance of the process. Ask for help from others. Ask your students what they read. Ask others what they teach.
Learn and share that learning. Expand your world and the world of your students.
Editors: Read everything. Search out new things to read and read more. Don’t give up after one story from a group you’re not used to reading. I’ll use the metaphor of a friend the first time she ate a samosa. At the first bite she scrunched her face. I asked if it was because she didn’t like it or didn’t understand it. She thought and said didn’t understand. It was a different taste spectrum than hamburgers and. . . ham. So she took a second bite. Then a third to try and understand what those sensations were.
I have now had discussions with many editors, online and at AWP and other conferences, about the lack of representation. The conversation often starts the same, “I don’t discriminate, I just know what a good story is.” When I press how they know they talk about the same schooling I received, the admitted limit of their not knowledge and familiarity with and understanding of different stories. Sometimes there was a dawning awareness about their definition of ‘good’ and that hidden bias lurking there. Because the bias isn’t even that female stories=bad, but that female stories should involve specific things because men have been writing female for years.
You need to read everything. You need to search out things and read them. You need to search out people who aren’t you and ask them what you should read. You need to become familiar and see there is more than one story and more than one way to write it. Stop the self-imposed tunnel vision. Heck, why not with each submission you ask the writer to include their favorite story and start researching from their – an eager audience. Or their favorite story by a female writer. Or something to start the conversation and include those voices.
Oh, and my friend? On the third bite she realized the samosa was way to spicy and she spit it out. And it’s okay to hate stories written by people that aren’t your check box on an application. It’s not okay to hate them out of that implicit bias, though. Learn to know the many ways one can write a good story, so you can know the ways in which they can’t. It will help us all.
Writers: Write. Don’t be afraid. Put it on the page. Stand up and write and love yourself and understand it hurts and it’s hard and it’s defiance.
Recognize, too, that there is more than one story and read. Read everything, like I said to editors above. Read it all and experiment and try and help each other try and read and write and expand your own ‘who influenced you as a writer’ lists.
Readers: Read. Like the above read everything. Discuss. Ask questions. Ask so many questions about what you are reading and what you aren’t reading. This is the opposite of Where’s Waldo here. We aren’t asking you to find the man but to look at a bookshelf and see what isn’t there and seek that out among the pages and pages of Waldo’s. Be voracious in your searching and your reading.
Community: All of the above and support. We need to support each other. We need to open discussions and swap names and stories and ask so much of each other. We need to hold each other to this. We need to stop the tunnel vision and the anger and the fear of the unknown that walks around each day. That is in our homes and our schools and our work. Because women are hear, even if at times we aren’t seen or heard. And our ideas just might work.