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Entries in #theatlantic (1)

Friday
Mar082013

Writing Across Gender Lines

I've been giving a lot of thought to the project of writing from a gender perspective different from one's own lately, for fairly obvious reasons. At The Atlantic, Michele Willens has posted a nice meditation on some of the questions and potential roadblocks that arise with projects like these. 

I chose to write a male main character precisely because of these roadblocks. Had I written a female character instead, the reflexive shift into my own experience in China would have been too hard to avoid, and when I began my novel, that experience was still so close that it would have colored everything, and not in a positive way. By following a young man around, rather than a young woman, I was forced to sit at a slight distance, and it was this distance that allowed me to write fiction, rather than thinly-disguised memoir. 

As time has gone on and Will has survived more drafts than I can possibly count, other benefits to his being male have slowly emerged. For one, the experience of a white male expat in China is still quite different at times than that of a white female expat, and that allowed me to explore certain themes that would have remained at arm's length had I been writing a woman. That said, I am very aware that the majority of the supporting characters are decidedly female, and it would be dishonest of me to say that they weren't easier, in a lot of ways, than Will himself has been.

Some people have suggested to me that this might just be the main character effect, and that it's always trickier to figure that person out compared to those who are not so spotlighted. But I do think that writing a man is harder for me than writing a woman in a similar situation would be, even if it has been better for the project overall. 

That said, Sally Koslow, as quoted by Willens, may well be correct. It may be more difficult for men to effectively cross that gender line. Koslow believes that "By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex, because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." But even if we take this as truth, I have to wonder to what extent women writers are influenced by our years of reading women--as written by men. What have we internalized as somehow "necessary" or "true" about literary representations of women that may only be necessary/true because it became conventional through a long line of male authors? (Women's Studies 101, right here.) And assuming that there is at least something that's come out of that long line that's worth challenging, do women writers have a responsibility to represent ourselves in a fictional space that we create and control?