Heroines, by Kate Zambreno. Los Angeles, California: Semiotext(e). 320 pages. $17.95, paper.
“My sisters, my mistresses, the spiders stalking the center of the web. I circle them, I weave their tales (or unweave the tales spun about them), I wrap my silken webs around them, I devour them. My black widows, sometimes they leave widowers, they hang themselves by their own threads.” Comprised of memoir and emotive prose, paired with reflections on literary history, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines forces the reader to address the dominant and often problematic role that modernist women artists are often relegated to within cultural and historical narrative. Analyzed from a more personal perspective, Zambreno utilizes the stories of these women as a way in which to navigate her own perceived roles as a woman, a wife, and a writer.
The work is built upon Zambreno’s own narrative and begins with her move to the Midwest following an offer of employment presented to her husband. She struggles with feelings of listlessness and alienation which prompt her to a vigorous examination into the lives of women writers of the past. Amidst the evocation of her own feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy as a writer, her wavering mental stability, and her fear surrounding her possible exclusive relegation to the role of a wife, she inserts narrative from the lives of her Heroines, such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, and Jean Rhys. Through exhaustive study, she affirms the personhood and subjective experiences of these women, creating a poignant continuity that she herself can be a part of, one that challenges the dominant masculine narrative surrounding art making and explores the nuances that inform her existence as a woman and a writer. The synthesis ultimately functions as a kind of impetus for the author’s work and that of other women writers, as well as asserting the relevance in larger cultural discourse.
These Heroines are artists who, Zambreno takes pains to point out, lost their autonomy to their husbands and later to history, often relegated to the stultifying roles of wife or muse to their “great” men. She strives to reexamine the lives of these women and the artistry that they cultivated of their own volition, which became largely subordinated to a male narrative. To be pushed aside and made to occupy these roles was a form of control exerted upon them by their patriarchally motivated husbands and families that refused them the validity of their subjective experiences, often vocalized through their art. Furthermore, these artistic inclinations, when they did manifest themselves, were often interpreted as a indicator of mental instability. This narrative is problematic, damaging, and reductive, often neglecting the bodily and emotional realities of these women and catering to a canon that celebrates male genius and either demonizes or fetishizes the feminine experience.
One of the major issues addressed within the work is mental illness and the particularly problematic ways that it is applied to the work and lives of female artists. Zambreno addresses the troublesome notions surrounding mental illness that inspire many artistic movements. Movements, such as Surrealism, can be characterized by their interest in madness as a particularly feminine affliction and with an emphasis on a voyeuristic romanticization of mental illness that robs the subject of any autonomy and reduces them to the status of object. This is one of the processes by which the works of many of these women were deemed less valid and creative. This process also serves to illuminate the double standard that characterizes so much of the artistic output of the modernist era, whereby men are applauded for their manic, passionate work, which is seen as an extension of the male artist genius. Meanwhile, the presence of similar attributes in a female artist are thought of as detrimental to her well-being, a possible sign of mental instability.
One of the lives Zambreno is particularly concerned with is that of the culturally contentious Zelda Fitzgerald. To Zambreno, Zelda is the epitome of her Heroine, striving for an artistic autonomy and thwarted continuously by her husband who labeled her ventures (among them: writing, ballet, and painting) as manic and, ultimately, as cause for institutionalization. Mental illness has historically been conceptualized as a particularly feminine affliction, the female mind being more delicate and prone to distress. These social conceptions had debilitating effects for women artists. Their ambitions were constrained by what was believed to be overly strenuous mental and creative activity by the men they surrounded themselves with. Their output was thus policed and prevented. Seeking autonomy and the ability to write freely for her own contentment, Zelda entered into a mediated discussion with her husband and was eventually forbidden to follow these inclinations, being told that “if she could not write ‘masterpieces,’ like her husband, then her ‘ambitions’ to write would only further ‘depress’ her” and further concluding that their shared biography was only appropriate for literary exploitation by the husband.
Afterwards, she was in and out of institutions until strapped to an bed, literally stripped of her own authority, she died in a fire. Threatened by the subjective nature of her narrative (what became the short novel Save Me the Waltz), Zelda was demonized as the hysterical and unruly wife of a great artist by a male dominated historical narrative, one that includes and is perpetuated by works such as Ernst Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and has negatively affected the works and ambitions of many. Zelda’s is such a provocative story precisely because it is an example of the narrative that Zambreno firmly resists. Instead, she examines the process by which being formulated into an object and denied the expression of ones own subjective experience was the demeaning and decisive factor that led to the frustration and eventual mental instability that plagued many of these women, Zelda included. It is in this struggle, however, that Zambreno finds motivation for her own work and the necessity for expressing the lives and experiences of these women.
To some extent, the book is composed thematically of two sections; the first of which addresses the modernist artists of the 1910s and Twenties (some of which are mentioned above), while the second section deals with what Zambreno refers to as their artistic offspring (artists such as Sylvia Plath and Mary McCarthy, who, while having more artistic autonomy and receiving a relative degree of social acceptance in their vocation, were nonetheless subject to the patriarchal paradigms of their husbands and society). In the process of researching the lives of these authors, Zambreno is making for herself a kind of community which then extends to one that she cultivates online. Discussing her own writing, particularly that of a blog, she explores the way in which a sense of camaraderie within a community of female artists is formed. This online community, through constant communication and support, serves as a venue where she and others can safely share their work. The writers are able to explore their desires and selves, coming to the realization that they are not irrational or unimportant. One gets the feeling that through this subversive act, these women are reclaiming their lives, experiences, and goals from the “Canon.” This is what leads her to the realization, which I believe to be at the crux of this work, that women need to write their own subjective experience, physical, emotional, or psychical, however messy, brutal, grotesque, or seemingly banal it may be. Whatever these experiences are, they are valid, and she concludes with “after all, we must be our own heroines.”
This work is extremely relevant, culturally and socially. It serves as a template for a discourse on the importance of validating these works. It allows a much more personal association with the texts (which adds to its poignancy), while also accounting for the specific impact of elements such as time and place on the works. Thus, we see a specific culture that can assist us in assessing the role (and some could argue, marginalization) of works by contemporary female authors. Zambreno’s work calls us, as readers, to analyze how and what we read for a more astute understanding of cultural and social paradigms, ones that often lead to the marginalization of the work and lives of women artists. The works of the modernist women writers, for Zambreno, bring attention to the discrepancies within popular narrative. They do so by giving voice to their particular experiences that then subvert the alienation often fostered by a lack of authentic female characters with relatable and tangible preoccupations. Above all, a work such as this makes one feel less alone. It makes one aware that there are narratives out there that could speak to them, they need not be trapped within a literary tradition that demonizes them or refuses to relate to them through the creation of complex characters. This work allows one the avenues to create a community of female Heroines much as Zambreno herself does and to know that ones work, whatever it may be, is valid.
Heroines is Zambreno’s way of searching for answers to her own existential issues through the scope of literature and literary personas. To search through literature for ways to conceptualize the larger world and one’s place within it is an endeavor that I can understand and in part accounts for the powerful nature of this composition. From the lives of these women, Zambreno extends her own narrative and experiences of writing, which delight in the subjective and bodily experiences that are particularly feminine and are uniquely her own.
Pacia Linde is a student at Portland State University studying Art History and Women’s Studies.