Book Review: ‘Heroines’ by Kate Zambreno

‘Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent. The threat perhaps is a woman writing her own narrative, being her own author.’ (236)

This book is perhaps best defined in Kate Zambreno’s own words as an emotion-fuelled ‘memory campaign’. In it, Zambreno takes up the worthy task of rescuing the voices of forgotten literary wives of modernism, Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, as well as weaving in the lives of not-so-forgotten modernist women: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sylvia Plath. While remaining faithful to their situational and temperamental differences, the work is most alert to what they all fundamentally shared: the battle of forging a voice for themselves in world dominated by the narratives of Great Men.

Zambreno’s voice joins this ‘invisible community’ as she blends her own experience of writing the book reflexively into the text itself. Heroines is intimate, repetitive, intense; all the things that biographies usually are not, and it is driven by a powerful motive – to inspire and incite young women to do exactly what she has done (and what her rescued predecessors were prevented from doing) – to write boldly in their own voices and through their own bodies. To be their own author.

A dominating theme of the book is something that I am particularly interested in (as a graduate of both literature and psychology): the uncomfortably-close relationship between passionate women artists and diagnoses of madness:

‘The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize – too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries.’ (266).

Following Eliot and the New Critics, the personal, confessional, bodily, intimate, and domestic was rejected in art in favour of the impersonal, transcendent, ‘universal’ (read: masculine). They valued cool, hard prose and poetry. Life was supposed to be transformed into Art. But what Zambreno reminds us of is the terrible double-standard: these men did not extract the personal and the emotional from their work, they too expressed their extreme inner turmoil. But, when men are passionate they are Geniuses; a passionate woman is simply mad. We are prompted to ask, why was Flaubert allowed his excesses and violent moods while writing Madame Bovary, while any sign in a woman that her emotions were overwhelming was evidence of her unsuitability as an artist? The answer can only be that we simply are not ready to hear about women’s inner lives. We still live in a patriarchal world in which women are supposed to be givers rather than takers. We don’t care about how they are feeling themselves; their role is to nurture and support the feelings of others (i.e. men and children).

This is a feeling that has lasted very much into the 21st century – Karl Ove Knausguaard is hailed as a literary giant for the intensity of his six-book autobiographical series My Struggle, while Rachel Cusk’s slim memoir of her divorce was decried by Camilla Long as “acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains”. As philosopher Kate Manne explains in Down Girl, her brilliant analysis of the societal mechanisms that underpin the patriarchy, what we do not want to hear we readily dismiss as ‘wrong’ or ‘too much’. Instead of critiquing our reactions, we automatically dismiss the work or artist. We see everything through filters defined by the male-dominated canon that we have all grown up within, and that is not even minding the things we do not manage to see because it has been ‘mislaid’, ‘lost’ – or silenced.

Zambreno does an admirable job in recovering these voices, and when that’s not possible, uncovering the oppressive forces which succeeded in erasing them. You will finish this book enlightened on many of the significant women artists of the 20th century, and hopefully inspired to write something yourself – to write if only to counter those silencing forces that continue to press down upon women all over the world – on a blog, in a diary, online newspaper, wherever you fancy. Or, if writing isn’t your thing, you’ll have a long reading list to get through…

Another equally important take-home message of this book is the power of community, no matter how sparse or distant it may be. Zambreno wrote Heroines not just to teach us about these women, but to build for herself a community of writers like her (or not) who share her struggles. And in reading this book we are warmly invited into that community. We also learn of Zambreno’s blog (unfortunately now ‘invite only’ on Blogger), which she used during difficult times to forge connections and friendships which nourished her. She suggests that perhaps a key factor in these women’s downfall into institutionalisation was their lack of a supportive community, they were ‘isolated in their cages’. Now, with the internet, this thankfully no longer needs to be the case.

This book is a tour de force and I’ll be passing it around my friends for a long time to come.