You may have already heard of Kate Zambreno. She’s written three books, the most recent of which is Heroines, which was released last Monday. Published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents imprint, it is part memoir, part diary with some literary criticism and theory thrown in for good measure. The book grew from a collection of ideas explored in Zambreno’s excellent blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, which she started on the last day of December 2009. The blog was initially a platform to share and discuss her obsession with female modernists and the very first post name-checked Zambreno’s favourite ‘bad-ass woman writers’, including Elsa Morante, Jane Bowles and Clarice Lispector.
From the beginning (I’ve been reading her blog since mid-2010) I was inspired by Zambreno’s ideas, but also her candour, honesty and her willingness to admit to potential shortcomings. She admitted that she was a ‘bad reader’ and that there were things that she didn’t understand. She also stated from the outset that no one would probably be reading her work anyway. The blog became an outlet for Zambreno’s ‘rants’ about the fates of modernist wives and mistress, female artist and writers who served as male muses, who guided, influenced and collaborated on key literary texts, only to end their own lives silenced and often institutionalised.
This evolved into a personal project called Mad Wife, which inspired much of Heroines. Zambreno kept a notebook detailing her enquiries and explorations into the lives of these women, interwoven with reflection and anecdotes on her daily life. It is this ability to meld present and past that makes Zambreno so interesting to me. Whilst I read and appreciate the merits of female literature I often struggle to contextualise it within my own life, as it seems so far removed from contemporary experience.
Zambreno talks a great deal about female writers who write from life and personal experience, and the ingrained idea that this practice isn’t literary enough and is too autobiographical – criticisms that I have encountered in my own (as yet unpublished!) fiction writing. Can memoir be considered fiction? Is it historically acceptable for male novelists to write with autobiographical ‘inspiration’, but not for women – because it’s too easy? I love Zambreno for raising these questions, for drawing my attention to female writers that I’ve missed, but also for her willingness to discuss how difficult it still is to be a female writer.
Image via KateZambreno.com