I admit I’m going to make some assumptions here. A lot of them actually. And I’m going to sound stereotypical and maybe even sexist. I want to say a few things to Mormon women who write Mormon literary fiction. In other words, I suppose, this post is about feminism (as a theoretical approach) and Mormonism.
I’m spurred to write this after reading the Irreantum slush pile, but my interest in how women are writing lit fic has deeper roots. After all, I’m a Mormon woman and a writer and a reader of LDS lit fic. Over the years, I’ve watched what is getting published and I’ve listened to reaction to it, as well as mentally catalogued my emotional reaction to it.
But lets go back to that slush pile. And as we go back there, let me admit my first assumption. Its a doozy. I’m going to assume that the stories starring a female protagonist were written by women. Now I know this won’t universally hold true, but it seems likely more true than untrue, especially for the stories I’m thinking about. Just to cover my bahunkus, though, I’ve added the “or” clause to the title of this post.
The stories starring women which I read in the slush pile (there were some stories I did not read, seeing as Angela and I split the pile) could, I think, almost universally wear the tag “feminist.” But there seemed to be two kinds. In the first, the female protagonist is trying to find her way in a world operated by men. These stories may revolve around a ward or a job setting. The second kind of feminist story centers on a relationship with a man or a family headed by a man. I’ve also seen stories where the feminism plays out as one woman is pitted against a group of Mormon women. Regardless, I see a recurrent problem. It can be summed up simply:
Been there. Done that.
Here’s my pseudo-complaint: Mormon feminist stories are outdated. The stories written about a Mormon woman who wants a job sound like the stories the wider world was publishing and reading 30, 40 (or more) years ago. Same with the feminist stories that spring from heterosexual relationships. Our community is decades behind the mainstream American community and, as a natural consequence, our feminist short fiction is as well. Now this is perfectly fine if our women writers intend to only write for our own women. Make that our own young women who haven’t been reading this same type of story for decades. I’m bored with it. Regardless, there were enough stories in this pile that didn’t seem to aspire to a Mormon-Only audience, that seemed as if the Mormoness of the protagonist could be removed and the story stand. (Perhaps the Mormon label was added for the contest?)
So I’ll make another assumption: Mormon women writers of this kind of feminist fiction are sending it out beyond our little pond and aren’t getting a lot of acceptance letters rolling in. A secondary problem (besides being outdated) may be (and I’m still guessing) that believing LDS women actually like men and don’t see men as the major oppositional force in their world. It seems to me that liking men and modern mainstream feminism aren’t as compatible as many Mormon women realize. (And there’s the sexist stereotype for you.) So its difficult for us to write truly feminist stories for the wider world. Definitely, if Mormon women writers want to write women-centered stories for the wider world, they have some strikes against them.
Look, feminism has been the bread and butter of Mormon women writers for a long time, especially those who write creative essays. And those women who feel compelled to champion better awareness of female issues among the males of our religious bend will continue to do well, again, especially in essay. But women fiction writers, in my opinion, probably need to find a new way in to Mormon social issues. I’m not advocating an abandonment of feminism. Definitely not that. I’m saying that, although the emotional challenges of the 1970’s and 1980’s may still exist for women in our present day Mormon society, our stories should not be a regurgitation of the type of stories I was reading thirty years ago in the mainstream, with or without the sex. How an individual writer achieves this will become a function of her voice.
Allow me a personal moment, the point of which is to demonstrate how I developed my “feminist voice.” When I decided to write Mormon literary fiction, I vowed never to write a story for women. I had no problem with women’s fiction, but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. I feared if I was categorized as a “women’s writer,” men wouldn’t bother reading. Mormon fiction has a small enough audience; I sure didn’t want to cut it in half. While I was thrilled to finally get my first story–which was VERY old school feminist–accepted at Dialogue, I was heartbroken to learn it would appear in a Women’s Issue of the journal. I took that as a sign I hadn’t reached my mark with that story. And I hadn’t. It was classic, 1975 literary fiction.
From then on, I’ve tried to keep in mind the male audience, continually asking, “Would a guy read this?” Up until my most recent publication (also in Dialogue), every short story and (obviously) every creative non-fiction piece has centered on a female protagonist. Just as I don’t consider myself a “women’s writer,” I don’t consider myself a “feminist writer.” For a long time the two seemed to mean the same thing to most people. Yet, everything I’ve written has a feminist edge because I have a feminist edge. I like women. I understand how women suffer and how we celebrate. I “get” women. The feminism became inherent in my work, not the raison d’etre.
I’ve got “Clothing Esther” up under Read Free. The story is about two women and their relationship, and yet the story also speaks to the Mormon experience of being an invisible housewife and unappreciated mother. Even in “Straight Home” (Dialogue, April 2010*), a story starring a male protagonist who struggles with how to make a sexually dysfunctional marriage last, I aimed to use the man’s perspective to highlight a sexual problem faced by many women who have been abused by men. So while the story is unabashedly masculist in that it takes a kindly look at male sexuality, it is also feminist. Interestingly, I wrote the initial draft of this story many years ago and wrote it in the woman’s perspective. It read like any other put-upon, anti-male story then. When I found it in a drawer and reread it many years after that first draft, it occured to me that the story would become fresh, new, unlike other stories, if I used the man’s perspective. My point is, I grew to discover my feminist voice by trying to find new ways to enter old stories.
But yada yada. That’s how I did it. I can’t tell anyone else how to find their fresh, new way into the Mormon feminist story. But I’m confident if Mormon writers (be they female or male) make a conscious decision to step away from showing our world after patterns first seen 30, 40 or more years ago, they will find themselves on a path toward a voice that will speak with freshness; they will find that voice that is theirs alone. That’s the voice we all want to hear. Writing is a difficult, internal journey, one that requires a type of faith in ourselves, in our ability to discover our deepest identity. Reach for that identity and the message will take care of itself.
* If you would like to read “Straight Home,” you can, of course, order a back copy of the April 2010 issue directly from Dialogue. But, for the time being anyway, you can also access it with a Free 7-day Trial from Highbeam Research. At least until the copyright issues are cleared up. (er) But that’s another story. Just don’t forget to cancel. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-1992404531.html