Female Language | Karen Kao

female author about motherhood
Motherhood by Sheila Heti
The bookshop is small but well-stocked. It occupies a narrow windowless space like most places in this part of Amsterdam. At the far end of the shop sits Sheila Heti, waiting to talk about her latest novel, Motherhood.

We join the crowd. We are four women in a sea of female faces. Three of us are mothers; one is not. I am one of the few women in the room past the child-bearing age. Whether a woman is still sexually productive seems relevant when Motherhood is about an unnamed protagonist wrestling with the decision to have a child.

Heti and her protagonist share many of the same characteristics. Both are writers, around 40 years old, living in Toronto. Both have mothers who put their work ahead of child-rearing. Many reviewers have assumed that Motherhood is a very public accounting of Heti’s private decision.

But that wasn’t Heti’s goal. Her interest is in language and how we choose to speak about the choices we make. For example, Heti’s protagonist models her behavior on her mother’s. These women surround themselves with books, markers, and pens. Does that make them both mothers? Or, is it possible for an adult to offer to her parents the same kind of nurturing that one might give to a child, to parent as it were into the past rather than the future?

Heti wants to challenge our definition of motherhood. Her goal is no less than to create a new female language. And thus the question arises: what’s wrong with the language we already have?

Female Choices

Simone de Beauvoir
For one, Heti argues that the freedoms women enjoy today are relatively new. The right to vote, the right to work, the right to use birth control or have an abortion. Because these rights of ours are so very young, so too is the discourse on female freedoms. Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1949. Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929.

Heti dislikes terms like biological clock. It negates a woman’s body autonomy. As if a woman has no choice, no will to do anything other than obey the inexorable ticking inside. This false dichotomy needs addressing.

But hold on a second. There have been female writers since the beginning of time. Think about Sappho or the Lady Murasaki, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Their writing predates all of these female rights.

Were these women speaking in tongues?

The Male Voice

Some critics believe that men write differently from women and that this distinction is visible in their language. Norman Mailer is infamous for his description of the female language.
I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.
Francine Prose, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are women writers really inferior?” in Harper’s Magazine, June 1998 (accessed 13 Mar 2019)
Prose tried to disprove Mailer’s point by placing sample texts side by side. The texts addressed similar topics (death, adventure, sex). The challenge was to identify which was by the female writer and which one the male. It was, as you might guess, an impossible task.

The point was not an academic one. Prose was incensed by the pattern she saw in the US publishing industry which consistently favored male writers over their female counterparts. Prose cited statistics on the numbers of books reviewed in The New York Times, the stories published in The New Yorker, and the prizes handed out by the Pulitzer committee. In each category, males outperformed the females.

Twenty years later, Lorraine Berry concludes that the needle has barely budged. But this is not what shocks her. It’s meeting a man, a respected neurologist in Florida, who’s never read a book written by a woman. The Man Who Doesn’t Read Women asks Berry, can you recommend one?


My three friends and I are all writers: poets, essayists, novelists. We all worry, to one degree or another, about ever being read. For example, my friend Megin Jiménez, published an essay last year. In “The Lost Civilization of Women“, she recalls the isolation she felt as a young writer, when female writers were separate from the real writers. Jiménez was taught to write to fit in with the men, to impress the men in the room, in the canon, at the publishers.

Now she sees increasing numbers of female writers no longer categorized by gender. Women join the ranks of critics, editors, and publishers. Joan Didion is the aspiration, not Norman Mailer. There are new voices and old voices, too, as writers like Lucia Berlin, Kathleen Collins, Clarice Lispector, and Eve Babitz resurrect.

As pleasing as this development may be, you have to wonder why.
It’s tempting, and dangerous, to believe that the cream rises to the top — that great writing will eventually find readers. If anything, these rediscoveries argue the opposite point: Without champions and concerted support, even the most breathtakingly original writer will sail into oblivion, her legacy erased or distorted.
It’s not enough to give thanks that these writers have been restored to us; we need to ask why they vanished in the first place.
Parul Sehgal, “What Is a Book Critic’s Responsibility When a Work Is Rediscovered?” in The New York Times, 25 Jan 2019 (accessed 24 Mar 2019)

Role Models

Female author on writing
Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry.
Image source: Wikimedia

Sehgal has a theory. For the generation of Susan Sontag or Flannery O’Connor, the only role model to follow was Virginia Woolf. The choices she made (childlessness, suicide) were the only ones available to an aspiring female writer.

Luckily for all of us writers, that frame of reference has blown apart. Shirley Jackson finds symbiosis in the combination of care-taking and creativity. Susan Sontag connects her writing to her queerness. Kathleen Collins plays with the expectations laid on a writer of color to always and only write about race.

Motherhood juxtaposes the choice of writing against the choice of bearing a child. Heti’s greatest sin, in the eyes of her American critics, is to say you can’t have it all. You cannot place both writing and your child as your number one priority. Motherhood is, in that sense, a throwback to Virginia Woolf and her paucity of options.
Having crossed that bridge of would-be motherhood and arrived peacefully on the other side, Heti now looks forward to menopause. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir as describing menopause as a return to the freedom and power you once had as a girl. My post-menopausal ears prick up. 

I want to read this blessed passage but try as I might, I cannot source that quote. Instead, I find a hilarious article by UK journalist Suzanne Moore on the taboo topic of menopause. The day she realized that the curse had been lifted, Moore decided
I want a medal, a paper hat, a prize; some kind of public recognition or a rite of passage at least, involving fire-eating, chanting and mescalin. Instead I find that no one wants me even to talk about it. “It” being the menopause. “My womb is a tomb” doesn’t seem to work well as a conversation starter.
Suzanne Moore, “There Won’t Be Blood” in New Statesman, 17 Aug 2015 (accessed 24 Mar 2019)

Being Female

Female rising from sea
My postcard from Provincetown: Carmen Cicero,
Provincetown Princess (1984)
Graham Modern Gallery, New York NY

Moore leaves no stone unturned in describing the horrors of perimenopause, the gates of hell through which a female must pass in order to rest in the green pastures of post-menopause. She rails against the idea that losing one’s ability to procreate will make her less of a woman. Instead, Moore believes that we should see menopause as a transition, a moment in which a woman might become more of herself.
Moore revels in a return to the delightful cockiness of adolescence. She discovers how powerful it can be to no longer care what others think. She sees menopause as a place from which creativity could spring.

Creation is always to imagine something living beyond yourself out there in the world. This urge surely is not reducible to femaleness or reproduction. So this time of loss may be a time of gain if you allow it.

I like the way this lady talks.

Note: this post was originally published on my blog Shanghai Noir


Peter Leyland said…
A good piece Karen which made me think I read far more women novelists
now than I used to. My WEA classes are mainly women my age and we read writers like Carol Shields, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor and Toni Morrison amongst others. I always research the biography which shows the challenges they often faced. I read Suzanne Moore’s articles in The Guardian here and often save them. Thanks.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Karen, great read.

There are so many gems in your post I need time to digest them. :)

I know of Heti's work as the founder of Trampoline Hall. The lectures take place not far from my home and have always been a popular attraction.

Where women are gaining more traction in the publishing world, there are still those who struggle to break through. If they are also female, it's an added hurdle for authors who are black, people of colour, or indigenous. Hopefully the times are changing. In the US and Canada, the current unrest is opening the doors for a wider audience for them -- finally.

Subscribed to your blog in case I miss a post here.

Hope you're well,
Griselda Heppel said…
I've never understood this 'I don't read books by women' thing. As if the first thing that draws you to a book is not the title, the cover, the blurb, flicking through the pages but oh goodness, I'd better just check the writer's gender. Norman Mailer was a first class prat. And who reads him anymore anyway? Snort.
Thanks for this excellent post. I hope that neurologist has now seen the light. What a miserable childhood the poor man must have had with no Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper, P L Travers, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson, Eve Ibbotson, J K Rowling, Nina Bawden. Just reams and reams of Biggles. Ye gods.
I found this post really interesting - particularly as these days I mostly read books by women. I think sometimes the subject-matter and focus is different as well as the language. For instance in a couple of murder mysteries by men that I read recently there was an awful lot of talk about cars, which almost seems too stereotypical to be true! And then there a book about a pandemic that I was asked to beta-read, and within a couple of pages all the deaths were pushed to one side, including the death of the narrator's wife, and the narrator got on with working out a survival plan and serving cups of tea from his caravan.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Little Detective on the Prairie

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee