Kate Zambreno has had a busy couple of years. In 2010, she published her first novel, O Fallen Angel, followed by Green Girl a year later. Her latest book, the just-published Heroines, is a personal narrative woven with the rich and often overlooked history of a group of modernist women writers she calls “a union of forgotten or erased wives.”
Zambreno carries readers through the lives of women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles, and Jean Rhys, using the lens of their experiences to dissect her own role as an emerging writer and a new wife, and challenging the negative stereotypes around women writing subjectively by doing just that. The result is a brave, enlightening, and brutally honest historical inquiry that will leave readers with an urgent desire to tell their own stories.
I recently caught up with Kate and asked a few questions about the way Heroines began, the stigmas around women writing memoir, and the challenges some women face trying to build and sustain communities.
Heroines was born from your widely read blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister. Can you describe its genesis?
My somewhat tortured love affair with modernism began when I was working in a bookshop in London, reading these amazing women writers of that period who I had never heard of previously, obscure or minor or forgotten (Jane Bowles, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Olive Moore, Anna Kavan). I began to meditate on ideas of disappearance, on the canon as a memory campaign. Then I began to read and research the biographies of muses who were not as successful as writers, but who still wanted to write (Vivien(ne) Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s first wife; Zelda Fitzgerald, June Miller) and began to think about what would keep someone from writing.
About 7 years ago, when I returned from London, I began writing a work revolving around my obsession with these wives and writers and myths of modernism. The work for a while was a novel called Mad Wife, a fictional notebook playing on “The Yellow Wallpaper” (anonymous writer-narrator, husband named John) about a woman possessed by these erased women. In some ways Heroines still is that novel. This was years before I began the blog, although the book was definitely impacted by what I was incubated on the blog as well as the experience of writing a blog, and Heroines ends with a meditation on contemporary literature, and the blog as form, tracing a genealogy from modernism.
You explore the issue of personal narrative and memoir being a stigmatized genre for women writers. How (if at all) did that negative stereotype challenge your writing?
I’ve definitely been called my share of names for writing a more explicit, emotional self on the blog—self-indulgent, narcissist, menstrual, navel-gazing. I think in some ways the theories behind Heroines [are] a way to counter this name calling, to identify how the institutions (of psychiatry, of literature) have historically disciplined women for being too full of ego, for taking up too much space.
A prominent thread in Heroines is the issue of community. While you seem incredibly connected to what you call the “invisible community of forgotten and erased wives,” you also seem alienated from many of the women you interact with throughout the narrative. I think this kind of alienation is an issue for many women. In what ways do you think women can create or improve their “visible” communities?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have the answer except to say this is something very important! Part of the movement of Heroines is from this original invisible community, the mad tea party that helped me luxuriate in my feelings of alienation as an adjunct, as a newly displaced married person, as an unpublished woman writer, to another invisible community, the mostly women writers I met in the comments sections of my blog. I do document, as well, feelings of isolation—moving to Akron, Ohio, where my partner was a rare-books librarian, and then picking up not even two years later and moving to North Carolina, describing that desire to meet female friends who I could have tea or drinks with.
But I do think that this invisible community—the female safe spaces of the Internet, when we can find these spaces—is quite valuable and important, even if we might never meet our confidantes and intimates we discourse with in comments sections or over email. The solidarity and sense of community I felt in this subsubsubculture of girls and women who identify as writers on the Internet I think bolstered my own nerve and confidence, especially to finish the book. I have found real friendships with other writers to be sometimes difficult—writers can be prickly, very self-involved and sensitive sorts, speaking of myself most of all! But to be able to talk of solitude, to talk of writing—that has been very important. Writing can be an alienating occupation, to push oneself to persist while being unsuccessful in the eyes of most, not valued within capitalism. In Heroines I look at these earlier generations of women, who were often wives or mistresses of famous men, and meditate on how they were so often isolated from each other, competitive, turned away. Like Zelda with Hadley Hemingway. Or Vivien(ne) with Virginia Woolf, even though both suffered so intensely. Sometimes I wishfully think that real friendship with other women could really have saved many of them from losing themselves.
What advice can you pass on to women who are constructing their own personal narratives?
I like the advice of Mademoiselle Reisz to Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening—feeling her shoulder blades for her wings, to be an artist one must be able to soar away from prejudice she says. (I’m rewording!) I like that. So I would say—be brave. Tell your true text. Don’t be mired in social expectations. And don’t expect to be accepted by the establishment, because you probably won’t be accepted, if you write against the culture. But also—there is a bravery in not being brave too, and documenting that, your true complicated self. I think the whole idea that a writer needs to get a thick skin is a problem. I don’t think we need to get thicker skins. I think it’s okay to be porous, to be sensitive, to be open. But we do need to write despite rejection. We need to write despite it all.
For more information on Zambreno and Heroines, visit her website, katezambreno.com